by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t opens with the great AC/DC screecher "Back in Black," and it closes with Ozzie and Black Sabbath belting out "Iron Man." So it's no surprise that this latest entry from Marvel comicdom rocks for two hours. That's not to say there aren't mood changes galore. The first half -- once you get past a horrifying rocket attack on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan -- is light and fun. The second half turns more serious. But the film never lets you forget its comic book roots. Anything can happen, and a hell of a lot of fantastic things do.

Our hero (some would call him an anti-hero) is Tony Stark, head honcho of weapons company Tony Stark Enterprises. Ironically (sorry, couldn't resist), he's in the midst of that rocket attack -- a victim of his own company's products. He's captured by a vicious pack of Afghans and gravely injured from the blast, but he survives with -- as in the 1960s comic book -- shrapnel stuck in his body, inching toward his heart, stopped only by a doughnut-sized magnet attached to him and powered by a car battery.

Would you believe all of this storytelling is accomplished in the first few minutes of the film? Wait'll you see what happens once the flashbacks start.

Stark, recognized as a "visionary, genius and American patriot," also happens to be a warmonger who honestly believes that weapons bring peace. As played by Robert Downey Jr., he's smart and full of himself but somehow likeable. He's also ridiculously wealthy, lives in the kind of house you see only in the movies, and relishes (and takes advantage of) the fact that beautiful women can't stay away from him. If Downey weren't already a star, his performance here would make him one.

But he's far from alone here. Besides being a special-effects extravaganza, and introducing visual ideas that'll make you say, "Wow!", Iron Man features a terrific cast of familiar faces, doing all kinds of things that just aren't expected.

Gwyneth Paltrow must have been watching Annie Hall a few too many times before taking on Pepper Potts, assistant extraordinaire to Tony Stark. When she's not doing the right-hand-gal thing or walking around in a very slinky dress or making hopeless dreamy eyes at her boss, she does everything but blurt out "la-de-da." But that's not a complaint; that's a compliment. On the other end of the character spectrum is Jeff Bridges -- his head shaved, his beard grown in full -- as Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane. Bridges is a guy who should play villains more often, because in this performance he easily and believably shifts from being all palsy-walsy with Stark to becoming quietly menacing, then furiously frightening.

Of the major roles, only Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & amp; Flow) isn't given enough to do, and his initially promising characterization of Col. Rhodes might as well be relegated to the background. Of other actors, don't blink or you'll miss the great Stan Lee at a party, being addressed as "Hef"; and blink all you want, but the lengthy cameo by the obnoxious Jim Cramer (TV's Mad Money) seems to go on forever.

The plot eventually turns toward Stark saving himself by tinkering in his garage till he comes up with the metal suit that will not only keep the shrapnel from his heart but also -- why not? -- arm him with built-in guns and flame throwers as well as giving him the ability to fly ... really fast ... and be able to fight the bad guys while ducking from sophisticated jet fighters. (It's OK -- just keep thinking "comic book.")

The film is also well stocked with gizmos, left and right. They're large, they're small, they're colorful, and both the cameras and viewers love them. When things calm down briefly for a bit of philosophy about war versus peace or the true owners of intellectual property, that only means that bigger bangs are on the way.

Of course, this wouldn't be a Marvel creation without a little love interest, and there's some wonderful stuff brewing but never quite getting off the ground between the Downey and Paltrow characters, who can't seem to figure out whether to call each other Tony and Pepper or Mr. Stark and Miss Potts. That's also part of the film's bountiful comedy, but the best parts of that area involve some perfectly timed sight gags revolving around design mistakes on the Iron Man suit and Downey's droll line delivery.

While giving nothing important away, I can say that Iron Man gets my vote for one of the best-ever blatant set-ups for a sequel.

Palouse Cult Film Revival: Little Shop of Horrors @ The Kenworthy

Wed., Feb. 8, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
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