area theaters, starts Friday
Nothing if not a product of his moment, Tony Stark, the billionaire weapons designer-cum-rocket-powered superhero better known as Iron Man, first appeared in March 1963, just in time to fight the encroaching Red menace in Southeast Asia. In the 2008 film version of Iron Man, Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself at odds with Afghan insurgents called the Ten Rings who, in a wonderful Taliban-era irony, come armed with a black-market supply of Stark's own war machines. Directed by Jon Favreau, who honed his chops making the richly imaginative, resolutely lo-fi kids movies Elf and Zathura, the larger-scale Iron Man maintains Favreau's fondness for the handmade over the prefab, for erector sets over computer role-playing games. It's an exemplary comic-book fantasia, in which what digital effects there are enhance rather than supplant the movie's physical dimension. Fronting a superb cast, Downey is a marvel to watch, his body a shimmying human Jell-O mold as he tries to get the hang of his newly jet-propelled hands and feet. He's like a kid without training wheels for the first time, but also like a man newly resolved to make something meaningful out of his life. More than once in Iron Man, you get the feeling the actor may have seen, in Tony Stark, a serio-comic surrogate for his own very public rehabilitation.