"Iron Man": If You Love the Movies, You'll Moderately Enjoy the Cartoon Series
Although Iron Man’s popularity has gotten a boost from the recent movies starring Robert Downey Jr., he has always been one of the big guns in the Marvel Comics stable. Rather than drape himself in brightly colored spandex, Iron Man dons high tech armor equipped with an array of different powers, making him one of the cooler superheroes. Even in his secret identity as Tony Stark he is smooth. In 1994 he got his own cartoon series, which ran in syndication for two seasons as part of the Marvel Action Hour alongside a Fantastic Four series. The latter cartoon was released on DVD in 2005 to coincide with their first movie, and now, with Iron Man 2 hitting theaters, the Iron Man series has come out in a three-disc set.
It is about 15 years old, so some things about the series hold up and some don’t. The first season, at least, was filled with all the unimpressive elements that characterize run of the mill Saturday morning cartoons: a bunch of brightly colored heroes and villains with little to no depth or back story, fighting each other for 13 episodes. The coloring is inconsistent, the jokes and dialogue are corny, and the backgrounds and settings are ridiculously cartoony. It showcases a computer-generated armor-up sequence that, though impressive for the time, only serves to horribly date the series, as do a couple of appearances by Bill Clinton and the use of Walkmen.
Despite these flaws, the first season can be fun to watch at times. The two-part origin episode gives Tony some depth, and the various suits of armor he uses are cool to see. During the course of the season he teams up with War Machine, Spider-Woman, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Century (collectively known as Force Works, based on the short-lived comic book team at the time who were pretty much the West Coast Avengers). They fight the Mandarin, whose forces include Blacklash (identified as Whiplash on the back of the DVD set, so as to ride on Iron Man 2‘s coattails just a little harder), MODOK, Dreadknight, Whirlwind, Hypnotia, Grey Gargoyle, Blizzard, and others. Although Stark Enterprises may be in trouble in one too many episodes, this at least gives Tony interesting financial problems to fight in addition to the super villains.
Unfortunately, there are just as many drawbacks to the stories. A cartoon about a man in a powered suit of armor is cool, but when you add alien dragons and characters who use magic of vaguely defined potential, it just becomes too much. There’s a lot of magic for a show that deals in technology. A lot of the plots are repetitive, and the Mandarin and Justin Hammer basically try to bring down Stark Enterprises over and over.
But if you can get through season one, season two is a real treat. It’s quite obvious that there were many changes to the creative team as well as to the cast (with the exception of star Robert Hayes), which were for the better. It feels like the show finally came to its senses and cut back on a lot of the excess. In the season two premiere, Iron Man proves himself a poor leader and Force Works disbands, leaving only Julia Carpenter and James Rhodes. Julia is rarely in her Spider-Woman costume, and a near-drowning incident puts Rhodey in a seasonal arc that makes him hesitant about being War Machine. Although Hawkeye makes a couple appearances, Century and the Scarlet Witch keep their random bits of magic out of the bulk of the season. This makes Iron Man more of a solo act, which is for the better.
The Mandarin and his goons are also gone. He loses his rings in the season two premiere and, at the very end of almost every following episode, there’s a short clip of him gaining them back one by one. This culminates in the two-part series finale, where Force Works returns to battle the Mandarin once again.
Season two also adds new faces, including Tony Stark’s holographic computer, HOMER, and SHIELD agents Nick Fury and Dum Dum Dugan. The bulk of the season is spent pitting Iron Man against new foes, including Firebrand, the Controller, and there’s even an appearance by the Hulk. A few of the new characters, such as Madam Masque and Dark Aegis, refer to previous encounters with our hero, somewhat overwriting what happened in season one and giving Iron Man a more compelling history as a superhero. Season one’s finale, “The Wedding of Iron Man,” is a silly episode in and of itself, but it is the springboard to the Tony Stark/Julia Carpenter relationship in season two. There are constant references to when they almost got married, and they struggle to keep their relationship professional despite their deep feelings for each other. The highlight of the season is the two-part “Armor Wars” episode, which not only makes better use of Justin Hammer than anything in the first season but also brings in armored hero and villain guest stars, and brings Tony Stark to the breaking point.
Season two also improves aesthetically. Characters are re-designed and a darker color palette is used. Tony Stark’s lab looks a lot less generic and has a certain brooding-genius mood to it. I can’t say I approve of Tony’s mullet, which raises the question of how, exactly, all that hair fits under his helmet, but overall, the fight scenes and action sequences just look and feel better. The opening and end credits get a rock metal-sounding theme song. Although much of the season is improved, some episodes are better than others, and the clip show “Empowered” is mostly a waste.
The DVD itself offers the bare minimum. It’s only three discs and has the season two theme song playing over the menus. The artwork isn’t that impressive, and there are no special features. Sadly, the brief live-action introductions done by Stan Lee back when the series originally aired are absent. The cover of the box isn’t bad, but the back is a bit lackluster.
This is by no means a perfect superhero cartoon, and even the vastly improved season two had its faults. However, Iron Man is a character who had endured for over thirty years by the time this cartoon debuted, and many of the traits that make him one of Marvel’s most popular superheroes can be seen in this series. Tony Stark is a flawed protagonist who uses his brilliant mind and quick wit to get him out of any trouble. Iron Man: The Complete 1990’s Series should be part of any Iron Man, or superhero, fan’s collection.