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"Iron Man: Armored Adventures" Survives the Move to High-School

I can't see a thing in this helmetWith super-powers derived from his high-tech exoskeleton, Marvel Comics’ Iron Man is one of the ultimate wish-fulfillment superheroes. It might require Tony Stark’s technical brilliance and multi-billion dollar war chest to build the suit of armor, but if you accept that the armor exists, anybody who puts it on can be Iron Man. It almost doesn’t matter who’s inside the suit, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Iron Man is one of the only major superheroes from Marvel or DC where fans accepted the replacement of the original alter ego with a totally different character for an extended period of time. Perhaps this inherent durability explains why the basic Iron Man concept translates as successfully as it does in Iron Man: Armored Adventures, the newest animated incarnation of the character that transforms Tony Stark from a cool (and very adult) exec with heart of steel to a high-school teenager. The show has definite flaws, but the two-part premiere “Iron Forged in Fire” still manages to be more successful than not.

Sixteen-year old boy genius Tony Stark is living a fantasy life, skipping school to do R&D for his father Howard Stark and his company, Stark International. However, this life and his beloved father are both violently taken away from him in a plane crash, probably instigated by Obadiah Stane, the elder Stark’s second-in-command who was frustrated in his efforts to weaponize SI’s technology one too many times. Tony’s life is saved by his latest invention: an armored exo-suit that keeps his heart beating while granting him super-strength, flight, and an array of high-tech weaponry. Tony’s new life is split between high-tech and high school, digging into Stane’s secrets at SI and keeping his tech from being turned into weapons, while navigating life among kids his own age with the help of his best friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes and new gal-pal “Pepper” Potts. In the background, a mysterious supervillain calling himself the Mandarin seeks magical rings of power discovered by Howard Stark, and aims to destroy Iron Man, who may be the only obstacle to his dreams of conquest.

Iron Man: Armored Adventures was produced by many of the same people who did Skyland, and both shows share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. The best parts of Armored Adventures are easily the scenes when Tony suits up and blasts off into the stratosphere. These sequences pack a kinetic, adrenaline-laced punch, with their thrilling sense of speed and well-staged battles pitting armor against a runaway train, giant killer robots, or the evil Mandarin himself. These action sequences are also goosed by Tony’s need to periodically recharge his armor to keep his heart beating. It’s a durable storytelling engine revived from the earliest Iron Man comics standing ready to escalate the danger and make Tony’s life more interesting at a moment’s notice.

Any chance you can bring in those flight attendants from your private jet for show-and-tell, Tony?Unfortunately, the CGI animation technology of Armored Adventures doesn’t seem to have advanced much from the Skyland days, with the show’s human cast incapable of emoting much better than a ventriloquist’s dummy. The character designs make for pretty good stills, but they just don’t work very well or very believably once they start moving. Movements are stiff and unrealistic, characters’ walking cycles seem oddly disconnected from the ground, and all of the characters’ faces seem like they’re carved out of very hard plastic. It’s a major feat of animated acting for these characters to raise an eyebrow, and none of them seem able to stray beyond an extremely limited set of facial expressions. This may be why Iron Man and the Mandarin are the best animated characters of the whole show, since they have no moving facial features and naturally stiff, encumbered body language. Fortunately, the voice acting on the show is far better than the flat, uninspired performances of Skyland, which may be why this show’s premiere seems so much more promising.

Balancing teenage life and a career as a superhero has always been more Spider-Man’s gig than Iron Man’s, and Iron Man: Armored Adventures falls well short of the high-water mark set by The Spectacular Spider-Man. However, Iron Man: Armored Adventures doesn’t fare too badly in moving Tony Stark into high school. Several plot twists feel less organic and more like obligatory elements lifted straight from the teenage superhero playbook, but the premiere translates Iron Man to his new setting with surprisingly few bumps along the way. It manages to establish its characters and situations fairly quickly, setting up a stable foundation for the rest of the season, and the previously announced guest appearances of characters like Nick Fury and the Hulk ought to keep things interesting. About the only serious misstep the show makes is with Pepper Potts, who may have been intended to be like the winning Gwen Stacy from The Spectacular Spider-Man, but ends up feeling more like Silver Age Lois Lane with her nosy, know-it-all attitude, her obvious crush on Iron Man, and Tony and Rhodey’s persistent need to keep her out of the Iron Man clubhouse.

Boom boom boom boom, I'm gonna shoot you right downIntroducing the Mandarin early also introduces a more complex triangle dynamic, where each major character is opposed by two others with completely different motivations. The prospect of opponents acting at cross-purposes or strange-bedfellows alliances of convenience could definitely make for some interesting plot twists. However, I feel obligated to point out that an Asian megalomaniac calling himself “The Mandarin” is something like a white supervillain calling himself “The Honky.” It’s not as insulting as it might have been at one time, but it just isn’t the kind of nom de guerre that a villain would pick for himself unless it was intended ironically. The Mandarin has many powers, but irony doesn’t really seem to be one of them. This isn’t purely a fault of Iron Man: Armored Adventures, of course — this particular element has been perpetuated as part of Iron Man since Stan Lee first created the character, but it grows more grating that nobody seems to have noticed or done anything about this for over 40 years.

Many long-time fans of the character expressed dismay, if not outright disgust, at the idea of turning Tony Stark into a teenager, and it is unlikely that even the most appealing aspects of Iron Man: Armored Adventures will sway them. It also seems a bit odd to make such a dramatic change to the character when the live-action Iron Man movie, and especially Robert Downey Jr.’s pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, is still so fresh in people’s minds. However, the show turns out to be a lot of fun, and the new setting might also be why the show feels more appropriate for the younger-teen audience of the Nicktoons network than Wolverine and the X-Men, which feels as though its darker urges are constantly straining against what they’re allowed to do on TV. It’s definitely a good deal better than the Invincible Iron Man DTV that hit a few years ago. Iron Man: Armored Adventures is fine, solid fun that ought to spark the same sorts of super-powered flights of fancy in today’s kids that the original 1960’s Iron Man cartoon triggered in this kid.

Iron Man: Armored Adventures debuts on Nicktoons Network on Friday, April 24, 2009, at 7:00 PM (Eastern).

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