It’s Robert Downey Jr. who puts on the suit, but it’s Gwyneth Paltrow who makes “Iron Man” fly. As Pepper Potts, she is so dewy, so big-screen gorgeous, so smart, so clever … and yet vulnerable, she makes Downey’s job that much easier. All he really has to do, like everyone watching this surprisingly enjoyable first Really Big Hit of the Summer, is fall in love with her.
Not that Downey isn’t up to the other challenges of his role, like saving the world and such. The superhero in “Iron Man,” apparently originally inspired by Howard Hughes, is a brilliant inventor-entrepreneur in a jet-propelled suit of armor.
In the hands of a less gifted actor, it would just be a case of clothes make the man. But Downey makes him fascinating … and a whole lot of fun.
While not an obvious first choice to play the latest action hero in the Marvel Comics cosmos, the actor’s well-publicized personal battles with his own demons actually suit him well to play a superhero whose greatest nemesis is himself.
Add his blasé humor to the role of Tony Stark, whose personal military-industrial complex has made a fortune in the high-tech weapons industry, and you have the blueprint for the most interesting action hero since someone thought of making one out of an archaeologist named Indiana Jones.
With Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard along in the supporting ranks, an Oscar nomination (actually Gwyneth won hers) seems the minimum requirement for being cast by director Jon Favreau.
The casting seems like a variation on the old pick-up line: what’s a nice actor like you doing in a movie like this? Only it works in reverse here. For all the high-tech toys and special effects on the “Iron Man” storyboard, this is the rare case where the superhero isn’t so much jet-propelled as character-driven.
Likewise for the rest of the characters. Defying the conventional wisdom of turning the screenplay into a series of setups for clever one-liners — although it’s got plenty of those, too — it instead gives its great cast the opportunity to bring their comic-strip caricatures to life.
Beginning with Downey’s stratospheric star turn, none of them wastes the opportunity.
“Iron Man” has made more than $100 million, plus another $100 million worldwide, since opening last weekend. But this is little more than a footnote to the realization that we’ve come full circle as far as superheroes are concerned.
In 2006’s otherwise forgettable “Hollywoodland,” Ben Affleck played ’50s actor George Reeves, chagrined at the prospect of portraying a character based on the comic book hero Superman in the then still new medium of television.
With aspirations, if not the talent, to become a serious actor, Reeves was embarrassed by the rubber muscles and silly suit. He justified prostituting his career by rationalizing that one would ever see him in the role.
How could he know that “faster than a speeding bullet … able to leap tall buildings at a single bound … it’s a bird, it’s a plane!” would become the poetry of the new generation growing up in the bluish glow of the screen, sitting like a new member of the family there in the living room?
Reeves died the victim of what may or may not have been a suicide — “Hollywoodland” leaves the matter open to speculation. But after the tragic fate that befell Christopher Reeve, it’s surprising that we haven’t seen “The Curse of Superman’s Cape” on a movie screen yet. Surely someone in Hollywood must be working on it.
When it came time to cast the younger Reeve and bring “Superman” to the big screen, the job fell to veteran filmmaker and part-time Mauian Richard Donner. In those days, when special effects were done with wires rather than computers, the challenge was to make the audience believe he could fly, Donner once told me. Let us not forget, that for that memorable scene, he was carrying Lois Lane in his arms.
Spider-Man took this theme one step further, saying the superpowers are all right, but they can’t do much to overcome the longing of a teenage nerd for the girl of his dreams.
And now “Iron Man” makes it a theme for grown-ups. As Tony Stark begins to sense the errors of his life in the business of blowing up the world, he also realizes that all his worldly goods and high-powered toys can’t hold a candle to Gwyneth’s smile.
That’s just part of the fun in this superhero romp for grownups, where you can’t wait for the special effects to end so that the wonderful actors can get back to work.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org