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More than special effects making ‘Iron Man’ a hit

“Iron Man,” is an exciting, well-crafted addition to the superhero genre. (The film took in nearly $200 million in its first two weeks.) As directed by Jon Favreau, the film includes the obligatory origin story and several well-choreographed action sequences. But at its heart, it’s a conversion story. A selfish man is transformed into a hero.

Robert Downey, Jr., stars as millionaire Tony Stark, the military industrialist destined to become Iron Man. When the film begins, he is leading an empty, frivolous life. Riding in a Humvee through the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, he has an alcoholic drink in his hand, ice cubes clinking against the sides of the glass. In short order, we see several demonstrations of his irresponsibility, including drinking, gambling and womanizing.

Stark is, as one character describes him, “a man who has everything … and nothing.”

His closest relationship is with his personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). The only other important figures in his life are his friend, Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard); his late father’s business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges); and Jarvis, the artificially intelligent computer who runs his house and assists in his research.

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But this changes after Stark is taken captive by terrorists. He is given an ultimatum: Build them a missile or die. Instead, he escapes by constructing a bullet-proof suit of metal armor that is equipped with a small arsenal and capable of flight.

The Tony Stark that returns to the United States is a changed man.

For one thing, attached to his heart is a miniaturized version of the power source that runs the Stark Industries factory; without its electromagnetic energy, jagged pieces of shrapnel from the Humvee attack will work their way into his heart and kill him.

But there is also a more dramatic change: Stark, who once made an ironic toast “to peace” after a weapons demonstration, becomes uncomfortable with the source of his wealth and the direction of his company. After explaining that Stark Industries has more to offer humanity than “things that blow up,” Stark declares, “I don’t want a body count to be our only legacy.”

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Like Lamont Cranston in the underrated superhero film “The Shadow” (1994), Stark’s superheroics are the result of an awakened conscience and an attempt to atone for his past. In the process, he becomes the bane of terrorists. (The original comic books, set during the Vietnam War, have been updated to reflect contemporary realities and, in the film, Stark even brags that one of his company’s weapons is so lethal that the “bad guys won’t even want to come out of their caves.”)

Much of the remainder of the film takes place in Stark’s private laboratory as he modifies and perfects the designs for his Iron Man suit. His trial-and-error efforts with the suit’s flight stabilizer provide moments of levity and, when Stark takes his first test flight in his modified suit, we share in his exhilaration just as we shared in Peter Parker’s when he scaled his first wall and mastered his web-slinging ability in “Spider-Man” (2002).

“Iron Man” also features several exciting action sequences, including our hero’s run-in with two F-22 Raptors and a climactic battle between Iron Man and the film’s villain. (Don’t leave during the credits or you’ll miss a short scene that furthers the plot.)

Because Iron Man is an unusually adult-oriented superhero, his film debut is of questionable appropriateness for the action-figure-collecting youngsters it is likely to attract. Early in the film, a series of double entendres lead to a one-night stand with an attractive female reporter; the couple is seen rolling out of bed during a round of boisterous love-making.

But for most comic fans, the entertaining “Iron Man” will likely be an excellent beginning to what will undoubtedly be remembered as “the summer of the superhero,” a summer movie season that also promises the return of the Hulk and Batman in the coming months.