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"The Invincible Iron Man": Hero of Iron, Movie of Tin

My favorite superheroes have always relied on advanced technology or physical skills rather than magic superpowers; maybe it’s just because I love elaborate weaponry. And no one does that like Iron Man. Recent comic developments notwithstanding, old shellhead has often been stuck in supporting roles over his long career, so I was thrilled that Marvel gave him his own DTV film: The Invincible Iron Man. I would have been more thrilled if they had given him his own high-tech tale instead of a magic-filled Doctor Strange castoff.

ImageThe Invincible Iron Man does improve in some ways on Marvel and Lionsgate’s first two animated DTVs, Ultimate Avengers and its sequel. A smaller cast and more generous 80-minute running time allow for slightly more focused character development, and the script contains a couple of interesting twists. It’s also less afraid of realistic violence and shows a few people bloodily shot to death.

In other areas, though, the film treads water. The generic plot cribs from those old G.I. Joe miniseries in which our heroes raced Cobra to various exotic locations to collect precious objects. More questionable still is Marvel’s decision to again pit one of their heroes against a faceless, unengaging enemy instead of one of the many colorful classic super villains that fans would kill to see on screen.

Our story begins in rural China, where, against the violent opposition of the Jade Dragon guerillas, Stark Enterprises is excavating an ancient city. Though the Dragons kidnap the company’s maverick executive, Tony Stark (Marc Worden), and his right-hand man, Jim Rhodes (Rodney Saulsberry), they are unable to stop the work, which to their horror unleashes four mystical beings called the Elementals. These stone creatures quickly begin a worldwide quest for the five magic rings that together will resurrect fearsomely powerful warlord the Mandarin and allow him to resume his reign of terror. Feeling responsible and more than a little smitten with the Dragons’ kind and beautiful Li Mei (Gwendoline Yeo), Tony dons the combat body armor he designed and as Iron Man sets out to stop the Elementals. And he must do so as a fugitive from the law, for S.H.I.E.L.D. has put out an APB on him for charges of illegal arms dealing in China.

“I can feel my heart pounding baby, and it’s not just these new Duracells.”

Looking not unlike Errol Flynn, Tony starts off as a cocky playboy, but when duty calls he becomes very earnest. As the hero, Marc Worden is a little bland, but more disappointing is the counterproductive tinkering with Iron Man’s origin. At first the film appears to give us a faithful recreation of the comic version: racing against the clock Tony builds a crude suit to support his damaged heart and enable him to escape his captors. Later however we learn that he’s an old pro who’s already built a dozen far more advanced suits, which completely deflates the earlier scene. But Tony’s estrangement from his father and boss Howard is a nice touch, though it’s one that the film could have further developed.

Saulsberry, Yeo and the rest of the cast are fairly good, but the mute, expressionless Elementals couldn’t be more boring. Even master of taunts Spider-Man would be hard-pressed to get a rise out of them. The Mandarin does get in a few quick words, but he is equally devoid of personality. With such bland opponents, the fights don’t mean much, though a tense battle inside an active volcano has some nice moments. I was left to imagine how cool these encounters might have been had Tony faced a worthy enemy like the Crimson Dynamo.

Meanwhile, it’s odd that while the level of violence in these PG-13 Marvel DTVs is slowly creeping upward the level of sensuality remains locked at G. Two women appear nude in Iron Man, but the shots are designed to completely protect their modesty via improbably placed steam and mud. Why the double-standard, Marvel?

“Where’s your oilcan jokes now, punk?!”

The art design is pretty solid all around, creating an interesting mix of the present day and the 1940s. Most of the Iron Man suits we see in Tony’s lab are grossly over-designed though, like some wannabe Gundam style mecha. The film is well animated, but I prefer the look of the Avengers films. This production has the best-looking CGI so far, although too much of it: it’s used not only on vehicles but on Iron Man and his enemies. Our mechanical hero comes off all right, but the Elementals look like a bunch of Soul Calibur competitors stiffly floating through on their way to the next cut scene.

The solid set of extras on the disc kicks off with an alternate opening sequence in the style of Chinese woodblock prints that gives some valuable background on the Mandarin curiously missing from the finished film. However the sequence contains spoilers for several key plot points, so it’s no surprise it was cut.

Next is a comprehensive discussion by the likes of screenwriter Greg Johnson, producer Frank Paur, and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada of the choices that went into making the film. Unfortunately they are too easily excited by the film’s tired machine vs. mysticism dynamic, which is as old as the hills. Johnson dares to talk about what a great villain the Mandarin is, despite giving him almost no screen time (!).

The best feature may be the vintage artwork gallery showcasing 15 of Tony’s armors with detailed descriptions. It would have been neat to include a few additional images of the suits in action. I still have to take the classic design as my favorite, but a similar suit worn in the middle of the film is quite cool too.

A second gallery contains character models, storyboard excerpts, and a few neat paintings. I’d love to see the complete storyboard, and especially the alternate armor designs.

“Cripes, what died in here?”

As a final treat, the DVD gives us the first six minutes of the upcoming Doctor Strange DTV. I have little interest in the character, but paid rapt attention to the intro, in which an unseen force kills workmen in a sewer. The spooky atmosphere is quickly dispelled, though, when a giant iguana is revealed as the killer and a team of magical ninjas arrives to chase it through the city. The good doctor himself appears only briefly.

The Invincible Iron Man is unfortunately not the movie Tony Stark groupies have been waiting for, but it’s worth a look if you enjoyed the Ultimate Avengers films. Hopefully, Jon Favreau’s upcoming live action version will pick up the slack. If the villain has two lines Favreau will already be a big step ahead. Now about that steam issue…

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