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By Brad Cook | September 29, 2008

Robert Downey, Jr. may have seemed like an unorthodox choice for the title role, but he inhabits it naturally, as if he’s been waiting his whole career to play Tony Stark. He’s arrogant, but not too arrogant. Cocky, but not too cocky. A womanizer, but not too much of one. Even Tony’s well-known boozing, which came from the comic book series, is held in check. As a result, we enjoy going along for the ride, as if Tony is winking at us and saying “C’mon, it’s all in good fun.”

This setup makes it much easier for us to feel sympathy for him when his world is turned upside-down. We understand why he’s willing to risk his life to help others. And when he’s betrayed, we feel his pain. It may not be Mamet, but it’s still a nice piece of characterization, the kind that doesn’t always come through in comic book movies, after we’re done being assaulted by the eye-popping visual effects and chest-caving sound.

In fact, I think director Jon Favreau and the screenwriters may have erred in not pushing the action more. After hoping for a climax in the Afghanistan desert between Iron Man and an army of iron men, I was a little disappointed by a finale that felt underwhelming. I was also left scratching my head over some logical gaps in the bad guys’ scheming, especially once the betrayal was revealed. Some people will say “Ah, just turn off your brain and enjoy a fun popcorn film,” but I will just as quickly point to movies like “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as examples of what I’d call thinking man’s popcorn films. “Iron Man” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it comes damn close, and I look forward to the sequel. I’m glad Favreau is aboard that train.

Disc one doesn’t include a commentary track, but it does feature 24 minutes of deleted and extended scenes that were wisely cut from the film, along with an Easter egg highlighting Stan Lee’s required cameo. One sequence cut from the climax includes a nice allusion to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” fresco, but as the old saying goes, sometimes you must kill your darlings. The ending works better without it.

Over on disc two, we have an excellent array of materials, highlighted by the nearly two-hour making-of documentary “I Am Iron Man” and the nearly one-hour historical piece “The Invincible Iron Man.” Because cameras followed the director, cast, and crew from day one, the documentary can open with pre-production and end with Favreau fretting over the fact that he has no idea if the film will bomb or be a hit; he admits he’s too close to it to handicap the intense box office competition we witnessed this past summer. I’m sure he feels pretty good right now, especially since a sequel is in the works.

“The Invincible Iron Man” also starts at the beginning, with Stan Lee discussing the character’s origins and other folks talking about its evolution over the years. I haven’t followed comics for several years now, but I’m not surprised that Warren Ellis has crafted an intriguing revision of the character, based on technology’s future possibilities.

While special effects are covered a bit in “I Am Iron Man,” “Wired: The Visual Effects of ‘Iron Man'” spends nearly 30 minutes discussing them more thoroughly. We also have Downey, Jr.’s six-minute screen test, four minutes of rehearsal with Jeff Bridges and Downey, Jr., and the very funny “Wildly Popular ‘Iron Man’ Trailer to be Adapted into Full-Length Film” “news” item from Onion News Network. Galleries of concept art, technology illustrations, behind-the-scenes photos, and movie posters round out the platter.

Between this film and the first two entries in the X-Men, Spider-Man, and new Batman series, I’m beginning to wonder why comic book movies in the past devolved into such suckiness, aside from “Superman” (“Superman II” was a mixed bag) and Tim Burton’s “Batman,” kinda (Michael Keaton never quite worked for me, and Batman’s ability to deflect bullets was lame). I guess it’s because so many creative types who were kids in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s are finally in positions of power where they can say “No, this is how you do it.”

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