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Redemption. When Tony goes to an Afghanistan-like war zone to unveil a new weapon, his jeep is blown up, his team of escorts killed, and as he passes out he sees that the missile that did the damage came from Stark Industries. Severely wounded and kept alive with a car battery wired to his heart he comes to in the cave of Taliban-like insurgents, whose head-shaved leader (Faran Tahir) would very much appreciate it if Tony could confect a home-made bomb for him. Instead, with the help of a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub), Tony constructs a heavily armed metal suit, blasts his way out of the cave and resolves to change his nickname from Merchant of Death to semi-pacific Iron Man. "I have more to offer the world," he says, "than making things blow up."
If Tony's conversion isn't quite as history-altering as Saul's on the road to Tarsus, it'll do fine here. Where he used to think he could make himself great, now he wants to make himself useful. He resolves to study war no more, to do penance for the sins that made him rich. In a way, Tony is a throwback to the tycoons of yore, Rockefeller and Carnegie, who made fortunes by exploiting their workers, then tried to atone through vast philanthropies. (As if building universities and concert halls was a nobler form of payback than contributing to the widows' and orphans' fund of their late employees.)
Tony is as smart, wily and manic as ever, but now he's a man with a mission: to dismantle his own company. Which doesn't thrill his longtime, avuncular, head-shaved partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). No matter: Tony has never taken "Don't" for an answer. Like a geek in a Silicon Valley garage, a knight smithing his own armor, Tony retreats to his workroom to build himself a new casing. And he won't make Dr. Frankenstein's mistake of using shoddy materials. This will be no stitched-together, run-amok creature. It can't be Tony's ruin; it must literally save his lifesaver. When he's done, out steps Iron Man: a monster with heart.
We're not saying that Iron Man (actually, as Tony says, "Gold-Titanium Alloy Man") is some gigantic Gandhi. Nonviolent resistance is a sanctified political strategy, but as the key to Act Three of a comic-book movie, it kinda sucks. For Stark, his cool new gadget is both a fun toy (he can fly inside it, attracting the attention of military planes) and a weapon (for the climactic face-off with Iron Monger, a larger version of Iron Man). These are the episodes, executed with plenty of technical panache, which will keep young eyes stuck on the screen this weekend. Kids will see themselves in that kewl flight suit, and image that they are manipulating the Man and Monger automatons, sweller and more humanoid than any Transformer.
But the real treat is for grownups, who get a beguiling character study behind and above the special effects. Favreau who directed the best Will Ferrell comedy (Elf) and an agreeably mature fantasy (Zathura: A Space Adventure), and before that wrote and starred in Swingers, maybe the sharpest buddy comedy of the '90s knows that, when making a big movie, you do not leave your I.Q. at the soundstage door; you bend your gifts in different directions. He lends Iron Man the unobtrusive speed and precision of classic comedy. An actor before he was a director, he's not content to let his stars play stereotypes, or even archetypes. Bridges and Toub, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's gal Friday (the most attractive she's been in years), aren't slumming in the least. They're rising to the material, and elevating it.
Downey's the best. In movies he's usually been the skeptical observer in a supporting role (perhaps because his drug history has made producers reluctant to cast him in the lead). He's Irony Man, standing off to the side, undercutting the hero's big dreams or rash motives with a sardonic critique delivered at lightning speed no mumbling or pauses for him.) He sometimes seems to be in his own movie, one that's smarter and faster than the one he's been signed for. But having been entrusted to carry Iron Man, Downey sets the pace, establishes the tone and this big movie whirls along to keep up with him. Which it does; it fits Downey as smartly as his Iron Man jumpsuit.
Readers of movie reviews often think that critics hate the big Hollywood stuff and cherish only the little films about Romanian abortions or Iranian kids. But some of us, this one anyway, knows that there's an American style best displayed in the big, smart, kid-friendly epic that few other cinemas even aspire to, and none can touch. When it works, as it does here, it rekindles even a cynic's movie love. So cheers to Downey, Favreau and the Iron Man production company. They don't call it Marvel for nothing.