Good blockbusters excel at resolving paradoxes. They can bring high and low together or mix the tragic and farcical. They can make reactionary God-Bless-America sentiments palatable to even dewy progressives. They sell burgers and transcendent fantasies. They can change shape-using cinematic ideas to become like best-selling novels, amusement park rides or, lately, comic books. And Iron Man does a very fine job of nearly all the above tricks. A broad-stroked story of a boy genius mogul who turns himself into a self-righteous superhero will titillate high-tech fantasies, while still managing to fault merchants of war for profit-it both waves the flag and burns it a little. Beautifully shot in a mythic Los Angeles and a too-familiar Middle Eastern mountain terrorist’s turf, the film also incorporates some surprisingly Bogart and Bacall moments between a supercool superhero and his utterly faithful wisecracking Gal Friday. Of course, we know this means love.
In fact, the best part of the film is the repartee between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Pott (Gwyneth Paltrow), a burn-up-the-screen affair notable for its absolute lack of body contact, written by the guys who gave us the exquisite Children of Men script. But a lot of credit goes to Downey, who is somehow fluidly suited to his every role by way of his subtle eyes and a face both rubbery and stolid. Here his dark force collides with Paltrow’s strawberry blond and is neatly underscored by unusually snappy bits of dialogue. “Are those tears of joy?” he asks her returning from an ordeal. “I just hate job hunting,” she replies. And inside all the comic book superhero hyperbole, their restraint works like magic.
In those ways, Iron Man feels like a movie. For those obsessed with weapons and gadgetry, it’ll seem like a comic book. For those counting the grosses and Burger King logos, it’ll represent Hollywood up to its old tricks. And that’s the best part of a successful blockbuster, like America itself: E pluribus unum, and so far profitable to boot.