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As one might expect of a movie starring Robert Downey Jr, Iron Man, Jon Favreau's clever but not too clever adaptation of a Marvel-ous adventure, there is a strong suggestion of depths that can't be begin to be sounded until the film has been seen at least a second time. The hints are posed by moments that are not only simple but too simple. In his scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow especially, one often feels shafts of cooler, deeper implication. This is partly because Ms Paltrow is clearly providing the too simple. The best way to describe Pepper Potts, the hero's demure Girl Friday, is to insist that this is a role that the actress's mother, Blythe Danner, would have turned down flat. Thanks to the feminism of Ms Danner's generation of actresses, it is now possible for the descendant of generations of Lithuanian Talmudic scholars to play an altogether unironic ingenue. Gwyneth Paltrow's fires may be neatly banked, but the heat that they throw off is both thrilling and unbearable. Her version of "cute" has been run through the arcing reactor at the heart of Stark Enterprises.
For once, however, Mr Downey's recently-habitual screwup is curbed early in the film, and replaced by a wisecracker who is also earnest and passionate. At the beginning of Iron Man, Tony Stark is a clear alter-ego of Mr Downey: supremely gifted but heartbreakingly disengaged. He is the sort of jackass who, rumpled by a long night of carnal self-indulgence, would sip iced bourbon in the back seat of an armored military vehicle while soldiers tried to do their job. Mr Favreau's screenplay (credited to no fewer than eight writers) puts a stop to this bad behavior within the first minute or two. Tony Stark becomes a man with a mission; and if he's both cool and geeky about following his star, he's also unabashed about pursuing the Good. I hope that the fallout of Iron Man's popularity will yield a heightened appreciation of disciplined intelligence, ardently applied. If Mr Downey was put on this earth for any purpose, it was surely to embody the allure of the very fast, very well-stocked, mind.
And Pepper Potts, who might be just as handy with a slide rule as another one of Ms Paltrow's characters, Proof's Catherine, clearly and convincingly adores him.
With his head shaved and his expressive mouth buried by a beard, Jeff Bridges is all twinkling, heartless eyes, the bearish embrace of his false camaraderie scarier by far than the outsized action figure that he becomes at the climax. Another movie might have explored the character of this corrupt corporate accessory, but Mr Favreau doesn't seem to have a taste for evil; he's better at fashioning bad guys from Afghan warlords, who are simply doing what they think they've got to do. Mr Bridges, however, can be counted on to know how to render Obadiah Stanes as sleekly bad as any comic-book villain. We hate his character, but we're grateful to the actor for staying out of the film's way. Much more affecting is the performance of Shaun Toub, as a fellow prisoner whose effect on the wastrel Tony Stark is nothing less than catalytic. The one dud role, that of Tony's top-brass military pal, "Rhodey" Rhodes, falls into the expert care of Terrence Howard, who knows how to say "gee, whiz!" with his eyes alone. Understatement is a crucial foil for dueling cyborgs.
Iron Man is a very pretty toy of a movie, with the signal virtue of a decent aftertaste. Just how interesting a toy it is remains to be seen. (May 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press