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An iron-clad hero lands with a thud

A poignant performance by Robert Downey Jr. can't quite save 'Iron Man.'

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You know the superhero genre has come of age when Marvel Comics goes to Afghanistan. In "Iron Man," the first film fully financed by the mammoth entertainment company, the titular hero, played by Robert Downey Jr., gets to mix it up with bad guys who, although they are not identified as such, could easily be Taliban. (If only he had made it to Iraq.)

Before he becomes Iron Man – that is, before he comes to resemble the Michelin Man in red- and gold-plated armor – our hero is the none-too-heroic Tony Stark, supergenius inventor, jillion­aire scamp, and CEO of America's biggest weapons dealership. (The character was patterned on Howard Hughes when he made his comic-book debut in 1963.)

Early in the film Tony visits Afghanistan to show off his latest attack missiles and is kidnapped by enemy rebels wanting him to build them their very own weapon. Instead, he constructs an armored suit complete with grenade and rocket launchers and makes his escape back to America and the Malibu aerie that doubles as his crash pad and high-tech laboratory.

Tony replaces his shrapnel-injured ticker with a glowing thingamajig of his own invention, and the change of heart is both literal and metaphorical. Seeing up close the havoc wreaked by his armaments, he renounces war profiteering, much to the chagrin of his business partner, Jeff Bridges's Obadiah Stane. (I love these comic-book names!) An incipient good guy, Tony devotes all his time to perfecting his armored outfit, complete with boot jets that allow him to soar.

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