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Directed by Jon Favreau

Written by Mark Fergus,

Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum

and Matt Holloway

Starring Robert Downey Jr.,

Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard

Classification: PG


Cynical, hip, politically opportunistic and loaded with kick-ass comic action, Iron Man brings together the wry talents of director Jon Favreau ( Swingers, Elf) and the intelligent bad-boy charm of star Robert Downey Jr. for the first blast of summer-movie heat.

The product of four writers, including the team that wrote Children of Men (Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), the movie has a sardonic wit and self-referential humour that easily suggests the title Irony Man, though even that pun is built in. "Ironic isn't it, Tony?" says the villain in the final showdown, questioning Tony's determination to end wars with a newer, better weapon.

If you're looking for the story of a sinner brought back to righteousness, who better to cast than Robert Downey Jr.? We first meet Tony Stark (Downey, in a devilish goatee) as he is bouncing through the Afghan desert swilling Scotch and chatting up the woman soldier driving his Humvee, which he calls a "Funvee." Then, thanks to enemies using Stark Industries' own fine arms, Tony's previously charmed life hits a rough patch. Tony awakens to find he's captured by a rogue gang posing as insurgents.

He's only alive thanks to a home-made pacemaker attached to a car battery. At death's door, he's ordered to replicate his new, awesomely scary cluster bomb.

Instead, along with a fellow prisoner, he contrives a rocket-powered suit of armour, and blasts his way to freedom.

When he gets back to Stark corporate headquarters and his Malibu mansion, which is roughly the size of a major city's convention centre, Tony starts to reconsider his life. Disgusted to realize his products are killing U.S. soldiers and helping vicious warlords subjugate innocent civilians, he decides to change his business.

At a spontaneous press conference, he tells a startled press corps that he has "realized I have more to offer the world than making things that blow up."

Logically, that's where a comic-book superhero movie should end. Fortunately, Iron Man really does have more to offer, including an extensive interlude where Tony becomes Klutz Man. There's a lot of funny slapstick as Tony works on building a better high-tech version of his metal suit, turning himself into a sort of one-man tank and fighter jet, with a really good cellphone. Tony slams around his garage, testing his thrusters and earning bruises, finally culminating in his first flight, straight up to the stratosphere over Los Angeles.

During that long stretch, Tony upsets his corporate overseers by sounding like a flaked-out hippie do-gooder. Especially concerned is his father's long-time partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, bald and warmly menacing). On the other hand, his super-efficient, admiring assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), is hugely relieved to see him back, though she tries to rein in her feelings. Paltrow bites into her second-banana role, bringing a hint of teasing archness to this flirty throwback of a Girl Friday character. She's also onboard for Tony's figurative and literal change of heart, thrusting her hand into his icky chest cavity to make some electronic adjustments.

Soon, with his new sensitivity and his rocket blasters, Iron Man returns to Afghanistan to aid the oppressed, evaporating a group of thugs holding local villagers hostage. The scene is shamelessly presented as a sort of ultimate occupation fantasy: Iron Man's built-in computer instantly distinguishes between civilians and villains, blasting the latter into remnants with the push of a button.

The bench strength of the cast is solid right down to the minor characters. Hovering in the background is Tony's Air Force officer friend, Rhodey (Terrence Howard). He's torn between duty and friendship as he watches a couple of his fighter pilots mistakenly engage Iron Man in a spectacular dog fight. Back at home, skulking about like a persistent life-insurance salesman, is comic television veteran Clark Gregg ( The New Adventures of Old Christine) as a representative of a deeply secret and actually effective government agency. Both characters, presumably, will have more to do in further incarnations of the franchise, before Iron Man rusts out.

Superhero establishing movies are often similar to each other. The films show, in ritualistic familiarity, the character's moment of self-recognition, the sequence of him finding new skills which emerge with a potential romance. Then there's the public unveiling and eventual showdown. At the same time, the first films, or the back-to-origins episodes, are usually the best films in a franchise series. With Iron Man, the best special effect isn't computer-generated. Downey's richly human and witty performance - as a reformed rake who relies on his intelligence - feels both personal and genuinely fresh.

Not everything about Iron Man is quite as magnetic. By the time the movie reaches its heavy-metal climax, the action feels numbingly similar to the battling-robot sequences from last year's Michael Bay movie, Transformers. Otherwise, Iron Man is as solidly made, and as jauntily insincere, as you could want from a comic-book movie.