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Photograph by Zade Rosenthal
UPPER AND DOWNEY: Gwyneth Paltrow plays perky Pepper Potts to Robert Downey Jr.'s 'Iron Man.'

The Right Stuff

Robert Downey Jr. takes off in 'Iron Man'

By Richard von Busack

THERE MUST have been some children out there who could think of nothing but Ol' Shellhead. But he was (let's face it) basically just one member of the Avengers. Good-looking, yes, and interestingly flawed by alcoholism and a bad ticker. Certainly your point man when faced with the similarly armor-clad Dr. Victor Von Doom. Eventually, even the slow kids caught a Commando Cody serial on late-night TV and figured out where the deadline-wracked duo of Stan Lee and Don Heck got the idea. An unlikely subject for a film, then, but Jon Favreau's smashing adventure Iron Man contrasts the tender flesh with the crunchy shell. The hero's scarlet and gold armor (designed by Stan Winston) is gorgeous, like a wrathful Art Deco statue come to life.

As Errol Flynn did, Downey's Tony Stark sometimes reflects scroungy misdeeds offscreen; the black-dyed beard and mustache recall past-their-prime swashbucklers. Crawling on the floor, half-dead, trying to retrieve his machine-made heart, he evokes the Downey of the mug shots. When discovered in mid–costume change, he explains suavely, "Let's face it, this isn't the worse thing you've caught me doing." In midflight, Favreau gives us a tight close-up of the computer lights flickering on Stark's face, like Bowman the astronaut in 2001. The idea conveyed is of great speed and exhilaration renewing a man jaded by everything.

Co-written by Art Marcum, the son of a UC–Santa Cruz political science professor, Iron Man doesn't celebrate the arms trade. Stark, a happy, slick and amoral billionaire munitions maker, is literally hoist by his own petard. He gets a shocked glimpse at the Stark Enterprises logo on one of his bombs before it goes off. He is carried away by Afghan insurgents and saved by a jerry-built prosthetic, powered by a car battery. His surgeon is a doctor (Shaun Toub) enslaved by the guerrillas. In captivity, Stark heals and hammers together a suit of armor. Thus begins his career as a supersonic "raketemensch" (vide Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow) on a mission to destroy the weapons he once made. (Since it's Downey, there's a little mensch to a lot of rocket.)

The film suffers from a paucity of villains. Jeff Bridges plays a bald-headed, bushy-bearded warmonger named Obadiah Stane, meant to suggest to the aforementioned slower kids that this man might not be on the up and up. As Stark's life-saving secretary, "Pepper" Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow settles right into her comfort zone as an actress. She looks good, too—sleek and smart, with her hair dyed to a gentle but persuasive red. Stark and Pepper have a unique bonding scene: she is asked to do some mechanical tuning, putting her hands inside the coffee-cup-wide pipe protruding from Stark's chest. ("It's like the game of Operation," Stark says.) When he asks her to trash his obsolete heart, Pepper blurts, "Don't you want to keep it?" This moment of off-hand feminine compassion comes across as more piercing than most of Paltrow's efforts at serious tragedy. As for the man himself, he is a nonchalant, streamlined superhero ("OK, I can fly"). The suaveness lasts right to the last moment, where in four words Stark eliminates the most predicable parts of the superhero lore and comes out in favor of honesty. Downey, like this film, has the right stuff.

Movie Times IRON MAN (PG-13; 126 min.), directed by Jon Favreau, written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, photographed by Matthew Libatique and starring Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow, plays valleywide.

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