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‘Iron Man’ is a slick and shiny delight

Robert Downey, Jr. brings the zing that helps this comic-book movie overcome the slow bits

If you’re one of those literalists who has a hard time dealing with exploding planets, radioactive spiders or mutant genetics in your superhero movies, “Iron Man” may be right up your alley. While the big-screen debut of the armor-plated Marvel Comics hero may feature technology that’s way ahead of reality, a very human heart beats within this souped-up action machine.

Playboy arms merchant Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has to ask himself some tough questions about his lifestyle after he’s captured in Afghanistan just minutes after demonstrating a new missile system to Army brass. Forced by his captors to create a weapon for them, Tony instead builds a suit of armor that will allow him to deflect bullets, throw flames and fly himself to safety.

He’s greeted upon his return to the States by his loyal assistant “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military pal Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), but Tony’s announcement to the press that Stark Enterprises will no longer create weapons — he’d seen many of his armaments in the custody of his kidnappers — sends ripples through Wall Street and confounds longtime company man Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

Honoring a pledge he made to the man who helped him escape, Tony decides to stop being frivolous and to make his life about something, so he streamlines and improves his armor technology until he becomes the high-flying Iron Man. And just in time, too, as Tony discovers that Stane has been selling Stark weapons to both sides of the Afghani conflict, an act that merely scratches the surface of Stane’s malice.

While director Jon Favreau is best known for writing and starring in “Swingers” and directing “Elf,” he proves himself to be a great action director as well. The vertiginous flight sequences and “biff, bam, pow” fight scenes will thrill comic-book fans and popcorn-munchers alike, and Favreau also knows when to insert physical and/or verbal humor at just the right moments. (Those steeped in the character’s lore will find lots of inside jokes and references to enjoy as well, from the appearance of a certain government agency to musical references to the theme song of the 1966 “Iron Man” cartoon show.)

Downey is a marvel, perfectly balancing both the role’s glib humor and its soul-searching, and his steamily platonic banter with Paltrow makes you wish she had taken a stab at the Renee Zellweger role in “Leatherheads.” (Bridges’ Iago-esque Stane makes for a perfect antagonist, with the actor’s egg-shaped bald giving him a wonderfully villainous mien.)

If only the non-action sequences were as consistently spot-on as the gearhead stuff, “Iron Man” would be a superhero classic. But Favreau occasionally fails to bring his usual wit to the proceedings, leading to expository and plot-driven scenes where you can actually feel the air draining out of the movie. A filmmaker on his game can make the dialogue portions of a movie like this just as entertaining as the money shots, but there are moments in “Iron Man” where you find yourself waiting for Downey to put the red-and-gold suit back on.

“Iron Man” is a satisfying and exhilarating entertainment — it’s only because it flies so high and so successfully that you notice its occasional fits and starts. But the minor bugs in the system shouldn’t dissuade you from taking the ride.