Robert Downey Jr. plays a superhero with swagger in "Iron Man," a blockbuster with brains. It's a slickly engineered special-effects extravaganza with a saucy sense of humor.
The diabolical goatee gives it away. Tony Stark, the tycoon inside Iron Man's shiny shell, isn't a simplistic comic book hero fighting for lofty ideals. He's deeply flawed -- a drinker, a womanizer, a clotheshorse, a gambler driven by greed and a lust for high living. In fact, he's essentially heartless, depending on a nuclear pacemaker to keep his blood circulating. He's a 21st-century Oskar Schindler, a munitions maker who reinvents himself as a champion for good.
"Iron Man" is as complex as its conflicted protagonist. It's a slickly engineered special-effects extravaganza with a saucy sense of humor, a well-acted adult take on juvenile escapism. The first movie self-financed by Marvel Studios, it combines the thrills of a summer popcorn spectacular with the craftsmanship of a prestige picture.
Stark is played by Robert Downey Jr., who comes across as tough, wiry and smart. We meet him as a well-manicured hand holding a crystal tumbler of Scotch in an armored personnel carrier rumbling over dangerous territory in Afghanistan.
A celebrity tycoon in the mold of Donald Trump (but much smarter), he brings a sense of style and showmanship to marketing weapons of mass destruction. He is no fan of deterrence, a shock-and-awe kind of guy. "I don't like the weapon you don't have to fire," he tells a military audience. "I like the weapon you have to fire only once. That's how dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far."
Stark's also a high-value target for bad guys, who capture him in a hell-raising rocket attack, take him prisoner and force him to build them a super weapon from a cache of captured munitions. Sweating over forges and circuit boards like a high-tech Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, destruction and craftsmanship, Stark fashions a super-powered suit of armor, decimates the terrorist camp and flies to safety.
Well, halfway to safety. The prototype crash-lands in the desert, setting up an exhilarating running gag in which every new version of the rocket suit triggers bumpy forced landings.
Marvel superheroes tend to travel the same roads in different costumes. They are transformed by some extraordinary accident, have some trouble adjusting to their new powers and face a nemesis in the form of a domineering father figure.
Jeff Bridges gives that type an affable twist as the wonderfully named Obadiah Stane, a Stark Industries board member who takes a dim view of the CEO's decision to retool the company toward peaceful green projects following his face-to-face encounter with the realities of combat. Bridges makes Stane the kind of charmer who throws a friendly arm around your shoulders while plotting the best way to break your neck.
Superheroes also need adoring girlfriends, and "Iron Man" has a keeper in the form of Virginia Potts, Stark's secretary and slowly thawing love interest, played with self-assured humor by Gwyneth Paltrow. The film is stocked with excellent actors who make stock characters into memorable individuals.
The final showdown, with the fast, agile Iron Man battling a bigger, stronger version, demolishes much of Southern California. The film's ka-boom quotient is quite high, although not on a par with the epic destruction of "Transformers." Yet few viewers will complain of feeling shortchanged. This is one summer blockbuster that succeeds on brains, not bombast.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186