Review: A man of metal and mettle

Robert Downey Jr. tends to invest his characters with an air of self-satisfied irony, often serving as a de facto narrator whose glib commentary has the effect of distancing him from the action around him. He’s a bemused observer, above it all and in love with the sound of his own voice.

In “Iron Man,” director Jon Favreau’s superlative, breathlessly paced adaptation of the Stan Lee comic, Downey’s narcissistic musings seem perfectly suited to Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy who presides over the world’s foremost weapons manufacturer. He is defiantly cavalier, casually irresponsible and brilliant to boot.

He hardly seems introspective enough to suffer a crisis of conscience, but after witnessing the devastation his high-tech artillery has wrought on the impoverished villages of Afghanistan, he opts out of the arms race, after a fashion.Rather than supply Middle Eastern warlords with weapons of mass destruction, Stark reinvents himself as a superhero, endowed not with otherworldly powers but with limitless ingenuity and resources.

Shielded by a sleek suit of titanium armor equipped with all the standard accoutrements — propulsive jets and missile launchers, all powered by an artificial heart — he returns to Afghanistan to clean up the mess his corporate empire helped create, then turns his attention to his rogue business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, minus his trademark mane).

If Stark seems more accessible than your average superhero (he’s neither a genetic anomaly, like Spider-Man, nor an emotionally scarred vigilante, like Batman), his backstabbing colleague Stane is a classic villain, all bluster and brimstone in his bid to facilitate a new era of global military proliferation.

Conceived in 1963 as a dynamic new warrior in the fight against communism — Stark was modeled on the eccentric mogul Howard Hughes — Iron Man has been ushered gracefully into the present as America’s last best hope in the war on terror. It is a risky proposition, thrusting Lee’s unlikely hero into the thick of a polarizing conflict, but it works.

As one of the finest comic-book adaptations ever, “Iron Man” is smart and sophisticated, but firmly rooted in the kind of goofy mythology that has always informed the backstories of Marvel’s most popular creations, from Spidey to The Hulk. In other words, it’s serious fun.

While Iron Man has never ranked among the most iconic of American superheroes, Downey’s brilliantly nuanced performance as a hedonist in the grip of a midlife crisis might change that. Even as he disappears inside his shiny armor, flexing his metallic muscles against a wondrous (and wholly unobtrusive) background of CGI, his presence elevates “Iron Man” into the realm of unforgettable fantasy.

Credits

Iron Man (4 stars)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb

Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway

Directed by Jon Favreau

Rated PG-13

Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Harlan Kelly, head of the SFPUC and husband to City Administrator Naomi Kelly (right), faces federal charges for allegedly trading inside information on a city contract in return for a paid family vacation. (Courtesy photo)
Harlan Kelly, head of SFPUC, charged with fraud in widening Nuru scandal

Kelly accused of engaging in corrupt partnership with permit expediter

Jeff Tumlin, director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said the agency’s fiscal situation is “far worse” than the worse case scenarios projected back in April. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA prepares for massive potential layoffs as budget crisis continues to build

More than 1,200 full-time jobs on the line as agency struggles to close deficit

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is weighing further restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise. (Genaro Molina/Pool/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Newsom considering new shelter-in-place order as COVID-19 cases rise

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday warned that he may need to reinstate… Continue reading

Nicole Canedo looks at her City-issued Medical Reimbursement Account page on her computer outside her Berkeley apartment on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. Canedo has worked numerous retail jobs in The City and the MRA has helped her with health costs. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Millions left sitting in medical reimbursement accounts by city workers

Health officials looking at how to improve access, outreach as untapped funds reach $409M

Andrew Faulk wrote "My Epidemic." (Courtesy photo)
Doctor’s memoir a fitting remembrance for World AIDS Day

‘My Epidemic’ tells personal stories of men who died

Most Read