Iron Man: Superhero Powered by Super-Shame

“Peace,” says Tony Stark, the weapons manufacturer hero of Iron Man, “means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” Could it be that we're in for a superhero action movie that blasts away at the senses with cynically funny escapism and an unapologetic celebration of American swagger? “Ensuring freedom and protecting American interests” are Tony’s stated goals, especially if he can make a lot of money in the process, and what’s more American than that?

So it’s a letdown when the movie spends the second half being very apologetic indeed. You come to Iron Man to see a bullet-proof one-man flying tank, not hear a Ralph Nader lecture on how American industry is responsible for all the wars in the world. Does even Ralph Nader attend a superhero movie hoping to swallow a guilt trip along with his Jujubes?

The movie is minutes old when Tony, in Afghanistan to introduce a powerful new weapon called Jericho meant to clean every Osama lover out of his cave in one giant burst of violence, is captured by Taliban-like insurgents, given a heap of his own weapons that they’ve been using against Americans, and ordered to make them their very own Jericho. They throw in a bit of waterboarding to help persuade him.

But Tony (played by Robert Downey Jr.), an engineering genius who combines elements of Bill Gates, Howard Hughes, and Bruce Wayne, instead assembles, right there in his cave, some bulletproof flamethrowing attack armor. Time to get medieval on these guys, in one ka-booming action set piece that helps make the first hour brilliant, right up there with the best movies of the genre.

But as it turns out, this will be the last entirely guilt-free attack the Iron Man stages. When Tony returns to his spaceship-style bachelor pad in Malibu and his manufacturing plant nearby, he announces to his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (a charmingly deglamorized Gwyneth Paltrow, in freckles and red hair), his military liaison (an Air Force colonel played by Terrence Howard), his second-in-command at the company (a bald, beardy Jeff Bridges), and the world that he’s getting out of the weapons industry. He realizes his products can’t be kept out of evil hands.

Downey, who plays the role exactly as he has played his life, with witty candor and no sense of moderation, is a superb choice for the title role of a guy ruled by his compulsions and seemingly enjoying every lapse. Paltrow matches him step for step (how many other comic book movies can boast that each of its top four roles is played by an Oscar nominee or winner?). Tony and Pepper trade snarky one-liners that tease out a delightful underlying flirtation that seems hard-earned, if a little strange to both. These are two adults who understand each other, not dumbstruck teens.

Iron Man at its best is made of some heavy mettle. The scenes in which Tony hammers away at an anvil in his cave in Afghanistan stir some primordial Norseman juices. And as superhero material, Tony has a lot more to recommend him than Peter Parker. He’s a wisecracking old hand instead of a damp-eyed daydreamer, he’s an expert on both manufacturing bombshells and dating them, and he’s introduced with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” on the soundtrack. He’s a man, not a boy like that mewling, sticky-palmed milk-drinker Spider-Man.

The second half doesn’t exactly ruin the movie — it’s consistent fun, with terrific special effects and never a moment wasted by the writer-actor-director Jon Favreau, who also helmed Elf and with this film joins the ranks of the most sought-after blockbuster directors. But as Iron Man turns inward, using his rocket suit and automatic-firing arms not to crush America’s rather hard-to-miss (except by Hollywood) foreign enemies but to essentially go on a cleanup mission to right the wrongs he has committed in the past, the storyline starts to strain at its own contradictions. The climactic battle, for instance, is not only visually uninspired (two giant machines go at it in a near-reenactment of the vapid kiddie movie Transformers) but it reduces Iron Man. He is forced to meekly ask for help instead of finding a way to triumph, and even then things are resolved disappointingly, with the push of a button.

We don’t want a fantasy movie to be a cliché, but we don’t want it to stray too far from the familiar either, and anyway Iron Man merely substitutes one cliché for another: must we be tricked into sitting through another America-as-root-of-all-evil message? Must this superhero be powered by super-shame?

Iron Man

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges

3 stars/ 4

126 minutes/Rated PG-13

Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com.