If you enjoyed Marvel’s initial ventures into direct-to-DVD animation with “The Ultimate Avengers” and its sequel, then the company’s third offering, “The Invincible Iron Man”, will probably go straight into your DVD collection. And why not? It’s everything you could possibly want from your comic book movie, animated or otherwise, filled with healthy doses of superhero heroics, world-saving battles, and even a plot twist or two just for kicks. As with its previous two films, Marvel continues to aim its animated line towards a more adult audience, which means you won’t feel pressure to call the kids over to watch the movie with you in an attempt to justify your purchase of a — gulp — “cartoon” movie.
“The Invincible Iron Man” tells the origins of ol Shellhead well before his recruitment into the Avengers, or even before he ever thought about doing anything superheroic with his high-tech inventions. The Tony Stark we are introduced to (voiced by Marc Worden) is a billionaire playboy industrialist who just happens to also be a brilliant scientist. In his never ending quest to make more billions for his company, Stark Enterprises, Tony Stark runs afoul of a Chinese rebel group while excavating an old underground city that once belonged to the notorious figure known as the Mandarin. Legend has it that the Mandarin is destined to return from the grave and bring evil and destruction to the world. I guess he doesn’t have TV in the beyond, or else he would know we’re already halfway there.
Determined to stop the Mandarin’s second coming is a rebel group known as the Jade Dragons, who are none to happy when Stark’s company succeeds in raising the Mandarin’s city for the Chinese Government. (Stark has already secured nice juicy contracts with the Chinese Government in return for assisting in the raising of the city.) While Stark is back in the good ol USA contending with a hostile takeover of his company, his partner and best friend Rhodey (Rodney Saulsberry) is busy getting abducted by the Jade Dragons, led in part by the beautiful Li Mei (voiced by Gwendoline Yeo), who despite her pedigree, isn’t really into all the killing that her group has to do in order to save the day. Of course, being the beautiful Asian woman in a Western movie that she is, Li Mei has a secret that, once revealed, may prove the death of our superhero.
Rhodey’s capture brings Stark back to China, where in short order he is wounded, captured as well, and ends up creating the bulky and grey version of the Iron Man armor in order to escape his captors. If all that wasn’t bad enough, back in America, Stark Enterprises has been taken from him, and to make matters worst, he has been framed for smuggling arms to the Jade Dragons, and SHIELD is now after him for treason. And let us not forget, Stark still has to stop the Mandarin’s four mythical Elemental warriors, who seek magical rings to revive their dead leader. But how exactly will a man of science, with his fancy armor of war, defeat a man of magic? Maybe Doctor Strange is available — that is, if he isn’t too busy getting ready for his own animated movie.
If the above sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because they are. As one of Shellhead’s first forays into feature film, “The Invincible Iron Man” is a decent, if not great, comic book movie. The character of Tony Stark has a lot of the touches that made him popular in the comics, and the film boasts a number of impressive superpowered battles. Also, the sound work is amazing, with great sound effects accompanying Iron Man’s every movement, take-off, and energy blasts. If you always wondered what it sounded like, and must have felt like inside the armor when Iron Man moved around or fought in the comics, “The Invincible Iron Man” provides the answers.
But of course the film is not perfect. Although it’s probably a little silly to complain that the “Iron Man” rarely makes sense (it is, after all, only an animated movie), nevertheless there are a couple of really annoying points of (non) logic in the script that just begs to be addressed. For one, Stark is framed for supplying weapons (high-tech ones, we presume, since that’s what Stark Enterprise is known for) to the Jade Dragons, but we never see members of the Dragons carry anything beyond World War II-era weaponry. The most “high-tech” thing these guys have is a bazooka. Despite this, SHIELD accuses Stark of treason and tries to arrest him, and spends the rest of the film trying to do just that.
Later, Stark reveals a secret lair built, literally, under his office in the main Stark Towers building. This lair is gigantic, and houses all of Stark’s Iron Man armors (the grey one, it appears, was not the first). For a while there, Stark works under the noses of the SHIELD agents guarding the Tower, outfitting himself with different armor and flying off to do battle with the Elementals. But shouldn’t something as large as the lair show up in the schematics somewhere? Or wouldn’t someone have noticed a giant, cavernous underground room being built into a large skyscraper that houses 1,000s of employees? I guess not.
Then again, this is a comic book movie, and an animated one at that, so why am I bothering with plot logic? The real point of interest is in the animation, and how it stacks up with today’s offerings. The animation work on “The Invincible Iron Man”, while quite good in most areas, is somewhat stilted when it comes to the Elementals, who are never really given a chance to appear even remotely alive. Iron Man himself is fantastically rendered, in particular the grey “prototype” Iron Man armor that initially shows up in the Jade Dragons’ secret base, and is realized in all its heavy, bulky glory.
Unfortunately we are immediately informed that the grey armor wasn’t the first, and that Stark had been building Iron Man armors for years now, thus shattering the comic book origins of Stark in one fell swoop. Even stranger, this animated Iron Man is supposed to follow the “Ultimate” version of the character (since it exists in the Ultimate Avengers universe and all), but it actually takes most of its cue from the regular Marvel Iron Man. All of this reminds me of the unnecessary tinkering of the Fantastic Four’s origins in the feature-length movie. Sometimes it’s just not necessary to screw with something like a superhero’s origins for absolutely no reason, which is what has happened here. Is the animated Iron Man the Ultimate version or the regular version? Make up your minds already, guys.
Nevertheless, comic book fans should feel justifiably excited about the products Marvel’s animated line is putting out. The line is showing improvement with each successful offering, in both storytelling and animation, and the upcoming Doctor Strange movie should continue that trend. The realization of the Iron Man armor, rendered with CGI and traditional cell animation, is probably the most difficult technical challenge of the three films so far. Another plus is the obvious direction by the filmmakers toward more adult fare, with “Iron Man” piling up quite the impressive bodycount, including one close-up murder, and even hints of nudity. This is not your kid’s cartoon, and long-time comic book readers who have grown up along with their comic book tastes will love that.
Frank Paur (director) / Steve Ditko, Stan Lee (comic book and characters), Greg Johnson (screenplay)
CAST: Marc Worden …. Tony Stark/Iron Man (voice)
Gwendoline Yeo …. Li Mei (voice)
Fred Tatasciore …. The Mandarin (voice)
Rodney Saulsberry …. Rhodey (voice)
Elisa Gabrielli …. Pepper Potts (voice)
John McCook …. Howard Stark (voice)