Given their general status as popcorn flicks heavier on the decadent calories than on the nutritional value, I'm always pleasantly surprised by how much care Hollywood studios take when it comes to casting their superheroes in franchise flicks. After all, audiences line up to see these movies for the spandexed heroes and their thrilling exploits, not for the pedigree of the actors involved -- otherwise, we'd have had to endure such box office draws as Adam Sandler as Superman, Will Ferrell as Spider-Man and Mike Myers as Wolverine. Instead, we've been lucky enough to have been privy to (for starters) Christopher Reeve as Superman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (George Clooney as Batman, not so much).
With Iron Man, Paramount Pictures settled on an actor who turned out to be both unexpected and just right. Robert Downey Jr. is hardly an unknown, yet any baggage he brings to the role -- namely, his past travails as a hard partier -- only serves to enhance the character, not diminish him. Downey's excellent in the film, and it owes much of its success to him.
Centering on the Marvel Comics character created back in 1963, Iron Man smoothly updates the action from the Vietnam War era to the Iraq War era without missing a beat. Swaggering, self-centered inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) has attained both fame and fortune by providing the U.S. military with its most reliable weapons of mass destruction. While in Afghanistan to show off his latest invention, Stark is captured and seriously injured by a group of insurgents who drag him off to their mountainside lair. There, a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) creates an electromagnetic device that prevents life-threatening shrapnel from reaching Stark's heart. Realizing that this is only a temporary fix, the two set about working from Stark's designs on how to build a special suit of armor. Once complete, Stark is able to don the protective gear and blast his way to freedom.
Back home, Stark re-evaluates his life and realizes that instead of continuing to build instruments of death, he wants to dedicate himself to fighting for peace (this is an even more liberal-minded superhero film than Batman Begins). This decision perplexes his faithful right-hand woman Pepper Potts (a game Gwyneth Paltrow), his best friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard, asked to coast until the next film) and his business partner Obadiah Stane (an imaginatively cast Jeff Bridges). Nevertheless, Stark won't be swayed, and to accomplish his goal, he sets about building a sleeker, more efficient and infinitely cooler outfit.
Stark's difficulties while creating his new duds provide the film with many of its most amusing moments, as do the interludes between Stark and Pepper (Downey and Paltrow work well together). Indeed, the expository material is so engaging that the climactic battle between Iron Man and a villain known as Iron Monger comes as a letdown: After adding such a personal touch to the proceedings -- even in earlier scenes involving CGI work -- director Jon Favreau turns in a chaotic action climax that could have been lifted from any soulless Jerry Bruckheimer endeavor.
Still, even this last-inning strike can't tarnish Iron Man's appeal. Just as Stark needs a device to keep his heart pumping, Iron Man requires Downey's presence to keep the heart of this franchise alive.
WHEN F. SCOTT Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives," he couldn't possibly have predicted the career of Patrick Dempsey. Those of us reviewing films back in the late '80s/early '90s remember him as a talentless 20-something who regularly turned up in bombs like Run and Loverboy. He largely disappeared for a decade or so, popping up in minor TV projects and straight-to-DVD titles before rising Lazarus-like from the dead with a career-redefining turn on Grey's Anatomy.
It must be said that middle age agrees with the 42-year-old Dempsey. As witnessed in last year's Enchanted and now Made of Honor, Dempsey has settled into being a competent (if rather passive) romantic lead on the big screen. And for his first starring role since his rebirth (since Enchanted was all about Amy Adams), he's picked a project that will only further his standing as the country's resident "McDreamy."
Unfortunately, those of us hoping for entertainment value beyond mere eye candy will be sorely left hanging with Made of Honor, the sort of romantic comedy that Hollywood spits out of the formula factory on a tight schedule. The second underachieving rom-com of the year to headline a Grey's Anatomy player (the first was Katherine Heigl's 27 Dresses; see this issue's View From The Couch DVD column for a review), this cribs from the vastly superior My Best Friend's Wedding in its portrayal of two longtime pals -- one male (Dempsey's womanizing Tom), one female (Michelle Monaghan's brainy Hannah) -- who have always been afraid that intimacy would ruin their perfect camaraderie. But once Hannah goes to Scotland for six weeks, Tom realizes that she's been the right one all along; unfortunately, when she returns stateside, it's with a fiancé (Kevin McKidd) in tow.