This is a high-tech, well-polished, cult-following kind of Marvel Comic-based series that is going to succeed mightily at the box office. It can hardly miss. But would you still enjoy it even if you aren’t into comic-book action heroes? Yes. Because it’s sufficiently complex in between the CGI-enhanced action sequences.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark, the engineer/business executive who can assume the alter ego of “Iron Man” because he’s smart enough to have developed the technology himself for the flying suit that makes him practically invulnerable.
Now, after a couple of highly publicized triumphs over evil warlords, everybody knows who Tony Stark is. He’s no longer incognito. And he deals with his celebrity status unevenly. Sometimes he’s imperious to people. Sometimes he uses the press/paparazzi to send his own messages. Most of the time he hides out in his private laboratory, working on improving the technology of his flying suit. The good news is that he’s now able to get it to break up into pieces, travel over some distance, and reattach itself to him. Clever. And maybe useful. The bad news is that all this time spent in the lab has begun to be a drag on the relationship with his lovely girlfriend, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Besides all that, Iron Man is reminded that he’s still quite human on the inside, because he’s developed a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifests itself as anxiety attacks, because of his extreme struggle with the last villain (and we’re glad to know that even superheroes are vulnerable on the inside). So Tony Stark is kind of an emotional mess right now, but there’s nothing like a clear and present enemy to spring him back into action.
Actually, this particular enemy, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), is someone whom Tony Stark snubbed several years before, and the vengeful Killian has never forgotten it. Killian has developed a powerful, fiery method of rapid tissue regeneration, which endows him with both superhuman strength and near invulnerability, but with a zombie-soul side effect (kind of like steroids on steroids). However, he’s too smart to just make threats in person; he hires an actor (played memorably by Ben Kingsley) to play the part of The Mandarin, who takes credit for random violence and flaunts his superiority on the mass media seized by Killian’s genius assistant, Maya (Rebecca Hall), who also, it turns out, has been rejected by Tony Stark, so she joins the personal vendetta team. And the plot even extends to a palace revolt at the White House, in the promise of limb replacement for the vice president’s daughter. (Yes, it’s a little creepy, post-Boston Marathon bombing, to see the poignant angle on instantly replacing missing limbs. But who knew?)
Remember the dynamic in the old James Bond movies (and books), about our hero, though captured, charming the enemy’s girlfriend, and thus getting a leg up on the opposition, as it were? Well, this movie borrows that gambit in spades, as both hero and enemy focus on the other’s girlfriend, but neither is exactly a helpless showgirl. Both are forces to be reckoned with in their own right. Very 21st century.
But the real endearing aspect of this movie is the complex character of Tony Stark, and how Downey plays it: wisecracking, yes, self-absorbed, certainly, but when he makes mistakes, he apologizes sincerely for them. When things don’t go according to plan (which is often), he improvises, and adjusts, and adapts. And he never gives up. Downey’s acting skill lends an air of tongue-in-cheek self-parody that not only makes the action hero cheesiness bearable, but even downright fun.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.