he 2008 summer season is off to a rousing start with “Iron Man.” The latest Marvel Comic super hero to hit the big screen is a top-notch action film that sets the bar high for the rest of the summer blockbuster hopefuls.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark, a wealthy playboy who supplies the U.S. government with advance weapon systems.

During a demonstration in the Middle East, Stark is abducted by terrorists who want the inventor to reproduce his newest missile.

Instead, Stark builds a suit of armor and manages to escape with a new outlook on the world. Once he returns to America, he sets out to build an even better suit and use it to protect the world from the terrorists like the ones who abducted him.

Downey has always been a talented actor, but his checkered past involving alcohol and drug abuse has clouded his resume somewhat. But this is Downey at the top of his game, delivering a performance full of humor and self awareness.

The cast also includes Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow - who gives her best performance in years as Stark’s quick-witted assistant, Pepper Potts.

While the cast alone is enough to make even mediocre material seem manageable, “Iron Man” has a script that matches the talent level - full of zip and spark that is reminiscent of other successful super hero films like “Spider-Man” and “Batman.”

But this is a film that is actually a notch above those two movies, making it one of the best films in the genre in recent memory.

Even before “Iron Man” made $100 million during its opening weekend, the wheels were in motion for a sequel. That’s good, because “Iron Man” leaves open some intriguing possibilities. Here’s hoping this is the beginning of a long, successful franchise.

DVD dandy of the week

This week’s dandy is “I’m Not There” (B), the Bob Dylan bio picture that takes the genre in a different direction and features quality performances from Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger.

Director Todd Haynes takes the approach of an abstract artist to tackling Dylan’s life, with six actors playing the pop singer at different stages in his life.

Those include Bale, during Dylan’s early days as a folk singer; Ledger, who plays Dylan during the decline of his first marriage; and Blanchett, who plays Dylan at the peek of his stardom.

Most of the time the interchanging of actors and characters designed to be one person works, but at times, the abstract nature of the film wears thin. Richard Gere’s mountain man Dylan is pretty weak and Haynes seems so determined to squeeze as many personas into a two-hour frame as possible that he sometimes leaves characters just as the audience is starting to get emotionally involved with them.

Despite its shortcomings, “I’m Not There” is worth seeing for the amazing work from Bale and a painful turn by Ledger (even more painful in light of his recent death).

But the main reason to see the film is Blanchett, who gave one of the best performances of the year - and perhaps her career - as Dylan. Sure, using a woman to play a man can be seen as gimmicky, but Blanchett is so good she overcomes that barrier - making you wish she was given even more screen time or even better, a movie of her own.

“I’m Not There” is rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity and is now available on DVD.

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