The world at the moment does not suffer from a shortage of superheroes. And yet in some ways the glut of anti-evil crusaders with cool costumes and troubled souls takes the pressure off of “Iron Man,” which clanks into theaters today ahead of Hellboy, Batman and the Incredible Hulk. This summer those guys are all in sequels or redos, so Iron Man (a Marvel property not to be confused with the Man of Steel, who belongs to DC and who’s taking a break this year) has the advantage of novelty in addition to a seasonal head start.
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And “Iron Man,” directed by Jon Favreau (“Elf,” “Zathura”), has the advantage of being an unusually good superhero picture. Or at least — since it certainly has its problems — a superhero movie that’s good in unusual ways. The film benefits from a script (credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) that generally chooses clever dialogue over manufactured catchphrases and lumbering exposition, and also from a crackerjack cast that accepts the filmmakers’ invitation to do some real acting rather than just flex and glower and shriek for a paycheck.
There’s some of that too, of course. The hero must flex and furrow his brow; the bad guy must glower and scheme; the girl must shriek and fret. There should also be a skeptical but supportive friend. Those are the rules of the genre, as unbreakable as the pseudoscientific principles that explain everything (An arc reactor! Of course!) and the Law of the Bald Villain. In “Iron Man” it all plays out more or less as expected, from the trial-and-error building of the costume to the climactic showdown, with lots of flying, chasing and noisemaking in between. (I note that there is one sharp, subversive surprise right at the very end.)
What is less expected is that Mr. Favreau, somewhat in the manner of those sly studio-era craftsmen who kept their artistry close to the vest so the bosses wouldn’t confiscate it, wears the genre paradigm as a light cloak rather than a suit of iron. Instead of the tedious, moralizing, pop-Freudian origin story we often get in the first installments of comic-book-franchise movies — childhood trauma; identity crisis; longing for justice versus thirst for revenge; wake me up when the explosions start — “Iron Man” plunges us immediately into a world that crackles with character and incident.
It is not quite the real world, but it’s a bit closer than Gotham or Metropolis. We catch up with Tony Stark in dusty Afghanistan, where he is enjoying a Scotch on the rocks in the back of an armored American military vehicle. Tony is a media celebrity, a former M.I.T. whiz kid and the scion of a family whose company makes and sells high-tech weaponry. He’s also a bon vivant and an incorrigible playboy. On paper the character is completely preposterous, but since Tony is played by Robert Downey Jr., he’s almost immediately as authentic and familiar — as much fun, as much trouble — as your ex-boyfriend or your old college roommate. Yeah, that guy.
Tony’s skeptical friend (see above) is Rhodey, an Air Force officer played with good-humored sidekick weariness by Terrence Howard. The girl is one Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, also in evident good humor), Tony’s smitten, ultracompetent assistant. His partner and sort-of mentor in Stark Enterprises is Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges with wit and exuberance and — spoiler alert! — a shaved head.
These are all first-rate actors, and Mr. Downey’s antic energy and emotional unpredictability bring out their agility and resourcefulness. Within the big, crowded movements of this pop symphony is a series of brilliant duets that sometimes seem to have the swing and spontaneity of jazz improvisation: Mr. Downey and Ms. Paltrow on the dance floor; Mr. Downey and Mr. Howard drinking sake on an airplane; Mr. Downey and Shaun Toub working on blueprints in a cave; Mr. Downey and Mr. Bridges sparring over a box of pizza.
Those moments are what you are likely to remember. The plot is serviceable, which is to say that it’s placed at the service of the actors (and the special-effects artists), who deftly toss it around and sometimes forget it’s there. One important twist seems glaringly arbitrary and unmotivated, but this lapse may represent an act of carefree sabotage rather than carelessness. You know this ostensibly shocking revelation is coming, and the writers know you know it’s coming, so why worry too much about whether it makes sense? Similarly, the patina of geopolitical relevance is worn thin and eventually discarded, and Tony’s crisis of conscience when he discovers what his weapons are being used for is more of a narrative convenience than a real moral theme.
All of which is to say that “Iron Man,” in spite of the heavy encumbrances Tony must wear when he turns into the title character, is distinguished by light touches and grace notes. The hardware is impressive, don’t get me wrong, but at these prices it had better be. If you’re throwing around a hundred million dollars and you have Batman and the Hulk on your tail, you had better be sure that the arc reactors are in good working order and that the gold-titanium alloy suit gleams like new and flies like a bird.
And everything works pretty well. But even dazzling, computer-aided visual effects, these days, are not so special. And who doesn’t have superpowers? Actually, Iron Man doesn’t; his heroism is all handicraft, elbow grease and applied intelligence. Those things account for the best parts of “Iron Man” as well.
“Iron Man” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has a lot of action violence, none of it especially graphic or gruesome. Also, Iron Man has sex, and not with the suit on. But not completely naked either.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Jon Favreau; written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway based on the character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Dan Lebental; music by Ramin Djawadi; production designer, J. Michael Riva; visual effects by John Nelson; produced by Avi Arad and Kevin Feige; released by Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes.