Iron Mania

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Comic book fans can rest easy. Not only is Marvel Studios’ Iron Man an exciting and well-made action film in its own right, but it is also one of the best comic book adaptations of all time.

Iron Man may be a household name amongst comic book readers, but he has never received quite the mainstream attention that characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man or the Hulk have garnered over the past few decades. Because this story of a billionaire industrialist turned one-man army is a foreign one for most audiences, Iron Man presented a unique challenge for director Jon Favreau and his team. They had to not only introduce this character to millions of people but to make him believable outside of the context of a comic book.

The film starts off with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) en route from a weapons demonstration in a military convoy, which is targeted by a group of terrorists calling themselves the Ten Rings. The group’s leader forces Stark to build a weapon for him while in captivity, but the ever-resourceful Stark has other plans. With the help of a fellow captive, he constructs a near-indestructible suit—equipped with arm-mounted flamethrowers—which allows him to fight his way out of the terrorist compound. Thus, Iron Man is born. Stark soon perfects the suit and is drawn to heroism once he realizes that his Stark Industries weaponry is falling into the wrong hands, becoming the armor-clad avenger we all know and love. Of course, the character’s origin has been updated and altered a tad since his 1963 first appearance in the pages of Marvel Comics’ Tales of Suspense, but once you see Stark emerge from captivity in his Mark 1 Iron Man suit you’ll know instantly that this film got it 100 percent right.

What most people will most likely be talking about after seeing Iron Man is Downey Jr.’s performance. While Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in the Spider-Man films represents the person we actually are and can relate to, Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is who we aspire to be. He’s rich, quick-witted, beds the world’s hottest women and has a cliff-side Malibu mansion full of sports cars and high-tech gadgets. The fact that he has an armored suit with flight capabilities further sweetens the deal. Downey Jr. is immensely entertaining to watch, giving the character an effortless charm while at the same time showcasing his drive and his brilliance. He is joined by a an all-star supporting cast, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s leggy assistant Virginia "Pepper" Potts to Terrence Howard as Stark’s friend and military ally Jim Rhodes to a bald Jeff Bridges as the ambitious Obadiah Stane. None of these actors give off the impression that they’re slumming it in a popcorn flick for a paycheck, giving the source material the respect it deserves.

This is Favreau’s first crack at an action film, and he succeeds at just about every level. Iron Man, balances character moments and action fairly well, although there is a slight loss of momentum in the second act as the film builds to an inevitable super-villain showdown. With that minor gripe out of the way, Favreau has built the groundwork for what could and should be a very successful movie franchise. The action sequences are exciting, with plenty of cheer-inducing “wow” moments, and the special effects courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic aren’t plagued by the over-done artificiality that one usually expects from a Hollywood film of this scale.

While the film hardly requires viewers to be familiar with the character or with comics at all, Favreau has thrown in several nods to longtime fans, including some hilarious references to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Rhodes’ admiration for Stark’s hardware. Does Rhodes take on the role of War Machine? In his words, “next time, baby.” Speaking of next time, one would be well-advised to stick around until after the credits roll. Let the Internet speculation begin.

Iron Man stands alongside Superman: The Movie, X2: X-Men United, Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins as one of the best super-hero stories ever put to film. It’s also one of the best action movies in years, comic book adaptation or not.

A note to the blockbusters of summer ’08: The bar has officially been raised.

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