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The much-anticipated movie based on the Marvel comic superhero "Iron Man" opens today. Robert Downey Jr. stars, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Watching "Iron Man," it occurred to me that every age gets not the superhero it deserves, but the superhero who'll ease its anxieties, picking up on bad vibes and transforming them into something that lets us sleep better. In the '30s, Superman was a Midwest farmboy who came to Metropolis with the power to clean up crime and continually rescue a nervy woman reporter. This, in the first decade of mass Heartland-to-city migration and headstrong female role models.

After the surge of urban crime in the '70s, Batman went from a camp figure to a brutal urban vigilante. Now the Marvel comic "Iron Man" is reborn on-screen as a rousing liberal fantasy, in which America redeems itself for its alleged history of war profiteering. The hero, Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., is a billionaire playboy, an inventor and an arms manufacturer. Here, he's confronted by Leslie Bibb as a Vanity Fair reporter.

(Soundbite of "Iron Man")

Ms. LESLIE BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) Mr. Stark, Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair magazine. Can I ask you a couple of questions?

Mr. JON FAVREAU: (As Hogan) She's cute.

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY Jr.: (As Tony Stark) She's all right?

Hi.

Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) Hi.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Yeah.

Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) It's OK?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) OK, go.

Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) You've been called the Da Vinci of our time. What do you say to that?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Absolutely ridiculous. I don't paint.

Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) And what do you say to your other nickname, "the merchant of death"?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) That's not bad. Let me guess. Berkeley?

Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) Brown, actually.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Well, "Ms. Brown," it's an imperfect world, but it's the only one we've got. I guarantee you, the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.

Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) You rehearse that much?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Every night in front of a mirror before bedtime.

Ms. BIBB: (As Christine Everhart) I can see that.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) I'd like to show you firsthand.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: The next shot is Stark in the sack with her. But things don't go smoothly after that. Stark gets to Afghanistan to demonstrate an ingenious guided missile, then his convoy is blown up by an IED. You'd think you were watching an up-to-the-minute Mideast military thriller, and a depressing one. Kidnapped, Stark wakes up in a cave, where a kindly Afghan civilian, played by Shaun Toub, has implanted a magnet in his chest to keep shrapnel from drifting to his heart. The insurgents who took him command Stark to make a missile like the one he just sold to the Americans. But crafty Stark takes their materials and builds a different sort of weapon.

The Iron Man superhero he becomes has little in the way of expression, but his eye slots and the circular magnet in his chest have an unearthly glow, and his coloring is warm: gold trimmed with red, like a sunset. The director, Jon Favreau, often cuts to Downey's head inside the helmet, somewhat buffering the fact that the Iron Man is computer-generated. His first liftoff and crash owe a lot to Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant," although Favreau would probably say it's an homage.

After he escapes, Stark is reborn in another way. Out of his suit, he shocks the press--and his number two, Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges with a little beard and bald dome, making his bid for William Hurt's hold on the ex-leading man hambone character actor market.

(Soundbite of "Iron Man")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) Tony, we're a weapons manufacturer. Tony...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Oby, I just, I don't want a body count to be our only legacy.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) That's--that's what we do. We're iron mongers. We make weapons.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) That's it. It's my name on the side of the building.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) And what we do keeps the world from falling into chaos.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Not based on what I saw. We're not doing a good enough job. We're can to do better. We're going to do something else.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Obadiah Stane) Like what? You want us to make baby bottles?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: It isn't long before "Iron Man" jets back to rescue innocent Afghan men, women and kids from marauding warlords, using his might and money and American ingenuity to undo his damage.

This is a very shapely piece of myth-making, crisply made and well cast. Downey demonstrates his character's do-gooder conversion by looking as if he's been yanked out of a hedonistic dream; his self-love dries up. But he's still a hoot as he tests out his powers--painfully--and amazes his friends and foes. His loyal assistant, Pepper Potts, isn't much of a part, but Gwyneth Paltrow looks flabbergastingly pretty, and zings barbs with aplomb.

I had a great time at "Iron Man," but I wonder about the complacency it encourages, the idea that one extraordinary capitalist can undercut the military industrial complex. I know it's a popcorn movie, but at a time when America is viewed around the world as arrogant, will the picture be seen as another in that long line of Hollywood superhero movies aimed at making Americans feel better about themselves? Will it be taken as proof we're living in a comic book, or an impregnable golden shell?

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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