Movie Review: ‘Iron Man’ strikes up real heavy metal |

Movie Review: ‘Iron Man’ strikes up real heavy metal

Dan Thomas, Lake Tahoe Action
In this photo released by Marvel Entertainment, Iron Man is shown in his Mark III armor in a scene from "Iron Man." The film is the first movie Marvel financed itself and has culminated a five-year plan to break from its strategy of licensing its top comic book heroes to other studios. (AP Photo/ Marvel Entertainment, Zade Rosenthal)

It’s a great kickoff to blockbuster season and it’s as good as you’ve heard ” but it’s not that far above the high-water mark for comic-book adaptations.

“Iron Man” might seem to perpetuate, rather than relieve, our cinematic superhero saturation: Yes, it’s an origin story with a big special effects budget, secret identities and a pedigree from one of the two towers of comic-book publishing, and in all likelihood the beginning of a new franchise that someone like Brett Ratner well might get a hold of before it’s all over.

It would seem that we barely need Iron Man ” there’s been no shortage of unitarded fighters for truth and justice.

This decade alone, Marvel has spawned a Spider-Man renaissance, three (and counting) X-Men movies, a lackluster Fantastic Four, Ang Lee’s reviled take on the Incredible Hulk, and I’m certain that I’m forgetting a few.

DC’s representation has included rebooting Superman (after moviegoers generally reached a consensus that “Superman III” never happened), “Batman Begins,” Halle Berry’s “Catwoman,” and “Daredevil,” which spawned an unlikely but not-unwatchable sequel, “Elektra.” And many visually groundbreaking and critically acclaimed movies (“300,” “Sin City”) trace their roots back to comics and their higher-brow cousins, graphic novels.

(And at least one superhero movie deserves special mention here: What was so impressive about “The Incredibles” is that, aside from its subtle nods to the Fantastic Four, Brad Bird and Pixar created an entire comic book mythology without any actual comic books ” just leftovers and scrap-iron. Come to think of it, that reminds me of this movie I just saw about this one inventor, but I digress … )

It’s not dreary, but you might hope more unforgettable characters and plot lines would emerge from an unlimited palette of special abilities and CGI setpieces. Rather, the first installments are usually a wash because they spend so much time on the superhero’s origin, and the freshness is sometimes gone even by the sequel.

There are memorable exceptions ” and usually not because of the special effects. The cold restart of the Batman franchise (necessary, after Joel Silver’s batshit notion to put nipples on the Batsuit) benefited from Christopher Nolan’s two-fisted direction and heavyweights like Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Liam Neeson in the starring roles ” as well as a well-kept plot twist at the end.

Maybe the second installment ” the last movie Heath Ledger made before his death in January ” will represent that franchise’s high-water mark, as No. 2 did in the “Spider-Man” cycle.

“Spider-Man 2” did benefit from bigger, better set pieces than its predecessor and the verve of a script doctor with his own experience making up a superhero franchise from scratch (Michael Chabon), even while retaining all the loopy charm of a Sam Raimi movie. The excellence of part two gave me high hopes for the third act about this time last year, but I sense that the resulting mess means the end for Spidey.

(Check out a funny send-up of just what went wrong with “Spider-Man 3″ ” the archive is worth the cumbersome URL, even better than the 30-Second Bunnies.)

It’s into this world that director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. birth Iron Man. The deck’s not exactly stacked for them to succeed, but the franchise does have a few advantages.

As other movie reviewers have pointed out, Tony Stark has two things going for him that aren’t true of some other comic-book superheroes at the multiplex (except, notably, Christian Bale’s Batman): He’s not a kid, and he’s not played by Ben Affleck.

Another plus is that, apart from fans of Black Sabbath and Ghostface Killer, the cultural consciousness never really has embraced Iron Man in the way it has Superman, Batman or even Spider Man, which means there’s less work for moviegoers to do to make their vision of “Iron Man” dovetail with Favreau’s.

“Iron Man” literally hot-wires the origin story, jump-starting Iron Man’s origin in the middle of the war on terror. (I have to use the word “ironic” here despite the potential for a dreadful pun, because Tony Stark originally used his metal suit to fight the communists; this time, it’s fighters in Afghanistan, who famously kicked out the commies with Charlie Wilson’s aid a couple of decades ago.)

That little heist provides some context that makes the rest of the action a little more believable and a lot more palatable. Iron Man’s goals are a little more active, more concrete and deeper than a lot of superheroes: He’s not just waiting for a supervillain to commit evil, he’s trying to get rid of the weapons his company manufactured ” and I guess later on, trying to stay sober.

As in the new Batman franchise, the star isn’t on his own up there. Downey, Jeff Bridges and Terrance Howard are all Oscar nominees, and Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow (with red hair, maybe pulling a page out of the “Spider-Man” playbook) drives a nail into the heart of the helpless-female trope.

Howard is uncharacteristically low-key, but all indications are that his character turns into a superhero later on.

Airman Jim Rhodes’ alter ego is War Machine, which sounds an awful lot like another Sabbath allusion. And Ghostface himself ” aka Tony Starks in Wu-Gambino parlance ” has a cameo as a tycoon from Dubai.

Downey draws from Howard Hughes to play Iron Man’s eventual alter ego, Tony Stark, painting a similarly conflicted chick magnate with issues. The actor ” clearly having fun ” has said he’d be willing reprise his fellow recovering addict, Stark, in a dozen sequels.

I can actually visualize Brett Ratner salivating.

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