Who better to smash movie theaters out of the spring doldrums than a metal-clad superhero with a giant bank account?

"Iron Man" kicked off the ever-longer summer movie season this week and immediately erased memories of several long, painful weeks of lackluster releases.

One of Marvel Comics' second-string heroes -- very interesting but not as popular as the Spider-Men of the world -- "Iron Man" was a big-budget gamble that will pay huge dividends, thanks to a crisp, funny story and some stellar performances, particularly from Robert Downey Jr.

Probably no one has ever pictured Hollywood bad boy Downey Jr. as a comic book superhero, but as Tony Stark, an irresponsible billionaire playboy who invents cool weapons for a living, he seems a natural.

Early in the film, the smug genius Stark is captured by some Middle Eastern bad guys who try to force him to make them some things that go boom. Instead, Stark builds himself a flying metal suit that allows him to escape.

Time in captivity has changed him, however; instead of encouraging the spread of death and destruction, he wants to right wrongs and defeat evil. That's great news for us normal people but not so good for stockholders and bad guys.

"Iron Man" boasts an impressive cast of former Oscar nominees, and everyone seems to fit comfortably in their parts. Downey breathes life into the flawed but well-meaning metallic title character, generating plenty of laughs throughout -- but only when the script calls for it.

Jeff Bridges looks a little old but is excellent, as always, as Stark's business partner, Obadiah Stane. Gwyneth Paltrow, who wasn't very good in her previous attempt at hero sidekick/love interest (Polly Perkins in "Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow"), is quite a bit more comfortable as Stark's pretty Girl Friday, Pepper Potts. Terrence Howard milks what he can out of a mostly thankless role as the liaison between Stark and the military.

Though saddled with the always difficult explaining-the-origins task, "Iron Man" remains lively and has enough action to satisfy most viewers. The special effects are also good, not cheesy -- Iron Man is NOT "The Rocketeer."

"Iron Man" may not be quite as good as the first two "Spider-Man" movies or "Batman Begins," but it can unashamedly be mentioned in the same conversation with the best superhero movies made.

Rental Recommendation: Robert Downey Jr. stars in the unconventional, darkly funny "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Grade: A-.

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