Dir. Jon Favreau
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★

I admit, I bring too much reality to movies like this. Like how I couldn’t help but wonder how Iron Man stayed in the air when he flew. Hand and foot rockets always pointed straight behind him, he’s all thrust and no lift. Or how the computers all seem a little too futuristic to be credible in the present day, even for a billionaire who built his first circuit board at age four. Or how it strains credulity that a weapons developer would ever make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. I know, I know. Lighten up, you’re thinking. But I’m a stickler.

Iron Man is a good superhero movie, though not as good as its hype. It’s not at the level of Spider-Man 2 or the earliest Superman films. But it’s a great deal better than clunkers like Spider-Man 3 and Superman Returns. It’s on par with films in the middle of the pack, like the second X-Men film and Batman Begins — the latter of which also failed to measure up to its reviews. It’s a good film, but not one that stirs my inner geek.

What doesn’t work: (1) The villains, who are rather flat. Up-front, we are treated to a brand of Middle Eastern terrorists so familiar in film and television these days as to become disheartening. I come to think of the actors in these scenes more than their characters. Specifically, I thought of Sayed Badreya, who in 2003 starred in a satirical short film about the typecasting of Arab actors as terrorists. His character in this film? Yes, a terrorist. I think he must have had higher hopes for his career than this.

The other villain I won’t reveal, because his identity involves important plot details. But I found him underdeveloped — the kind of baddie who is evil for its own sake, without a clear guiding motivation or personality. A perfunctory explanation is given, but it doesn’t explain what he hopes to accomplish with a destructive public brawl on the freeway during the climax.

(2) An excess of earnestness occasionally and unintentionally underlines the silliness inherent in a superhero story. A character is introduced early on who exists just to die tragically. A scene dramatizes the siege of a village, where we watch a woman and her children separated from their father; they’re props of innocent suffering and exist only to look sad and be rescued.

(3) Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). No, she’s not a bad character. I simply question the wisdom of comic book writers who name their strongest female character “Pepper Potts.” With that name, your career options are stripper, teenage detective in a young-adult book series, or plucky lawyer in a David E. Kelley series.

What does work: Iron Man himself, Tony Stark. As played by Robert Downey Jr. — impetuous, snarky, and unapologetic — Stark is a refreshing kind of hero, without any of the tortured do-gooder-ness or woe-is-me brooding of previous comic book protagonists (no offense to Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne). He brings the film alive from the first scene, cracking wise with American soldiers in Afghanistan. How entertaining to watch a man with enough conscience to do the right thing but not so much that loses his sense of whimsy. He’s kind of a jerk, but where is it written that all good guys have to be nice guys? Watching him, all cocksure swagger and impertinence, we realize that, indeed, with great power comes great responsibility, but great power can also be really, really cool.

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