'Iron Man': A Movie Marvel

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Talk to the hand.

He soars through the night sky, disrupts military aviation, wages holy war against those twin bastions of evil, terrorists and corporate bigwigs. He's Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), zillionaire industrialist, and he arrives accompanied by the POW!, BANG! and KA-BOOM! suitable for a movie based on a comic book, but with lots more intelligence than the genre usually demands. It's Iron Man to the rescue, yanking movies and the worldwide box office out of its months-long doldrums and into the stratosphere.

Starting tonight with saturation screenings, Iron Man kicks off the blockbuster movie season right on time — seven weeks before the summer solstice. But the Hollywood moguls can't afford to wait for June 21. Summer is the season designed to remind the still-vast film audience why they pay to see movies. And for the past few years, summer means now. In 2007, three of the four top-grossing films (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) all came out in May. (The fourth, Transformers, was released in the flop-proof July 4 week.)

This year on consecutive May weekends, the plexes should be clogged with customers to see Iron Man — the first movie financed by the comics-based Marvel Enterprises — followed by the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer and the latest installments in the Narnia and Indiana Jones franchises. Super-heroes, fast cars and a lion who might be Jesus: star power supreme, just when the industry needs it.

So say goodbye to the less exalted characters of the cinema's winter and early spring: the Asian-American dopers and slacker documentarians, the weepie men and baby mamas, the caveman hunters and Boleyn sisters, the chronically unmarried or uncomfortably pregnant or serial-killer imperiled women — you'll hardly be seeing any women at all in star roles. Even Judd Apatow and his goofball satyrs are taking a break. (The reigning producer of R-rated comedy has two movies opening toward the shank of the summer.) Fallible, ordinarily engaging, human-size, earthbound characters just don't measure up when the weather turns warmer. We need another hero, and lots of 'em, the bigger, stronger and cartoonier the better.

At the beginning of Iron Man — directed by Jon Favreau from a script by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway — Tony Stark is nearly a cartoon villain, though he's drawn in the bold, confident strokes worthy of a '60s Marvel Comic cover by Jack Kirby. He has a Mephistophelean goatee and a glint in his eyes that suggests this former boy wonder is a genius at wasting his genius. He's a devoted practitioner of pride, lust and avarice, to name the fanciest of your deadly sins. This is a man who has got it all: wealth, power, glamour, notoriety and more women than he can shake his stick at. At the very moment he's supposed to be receiving an award at a Las Vegas convention, he's actually at the craps tables surrounded by his favorite pets, big money and fast women — both endlessly duplicable, both instantly disposable. It's all booty to him.

Tony is an arms dealer, an occupation that has fascinated playwrights for ages (George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman, Arthur Miller in All My Sons) and accounts for some of the evil-genius rep of Halliburton's gift to governance, Dick Cheney. In his first appearance in the March 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense, as written by Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, and illustrated by Kirby and Don Heck, Stark was inspired by Howard Hughes in his Spruce Goose phase: titan of industry, crackerjack engineer-inventor, indefatigable wooer of Hollywood actresses. (Later in the decade he'd be transformed into a cool Cold Warrior, fighting the Commies in Vietnam.) In the movie he's more a Richard Branson figure: suave, sexy, driven, a master of self-promotion and record-breaking stunts. What else could a rich man need?

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