Iron Man: The Complete 1994 Animated Series (DVD)

That M.O.D.O.K. is one sexy mama.

“It’s time to iron things out.”—Iron Man (said with deadly seriousness)

It’s May 2010 as of this writing, and the hype for Iron Man 2 is inescapable. This makes it a swell time for the powers that be to revisit the 1990s Iron Man animated series on DVD. (And if you’re reading this review years this in the future, hello from the dated past!)

The series originally aired as one half of The Marvel Action Hour, paired with a Fantastic Four cartoon. This set contains only the Iron Man half, obviously. Will it provide additional Shellhead thrills for everyone who has enjoyed the movies, or should it have stayed in the past?

Billionaire Tony Stark has made the world a better place through technological advances and through protection from his armored bodyguard, Iron Man. What the world doesn’t know is that Tony and Iron Man are the same person. Tony dons the high tech armor to battle evil, with the help of the superpowered Force Works: War Machine, Spiderwoman, Hawkeye, Century (a Thor-like guy), and the Scarlet Witch. Elsewhere, the sinister Mandarin, armed with ten magic rings, plans to conquer the world, with the help of his partners, the giant brained M.O.D.O.K. and rival billionaire Justin Hammer. To contend with Force Works, Mandarin has his own band of cronies: Whirlwind, Blacklash, Dreadknight, Grey Gargoyle, Hypnotia, and Blizzard.

Although the package is labeled “The 1994 Animated Series,” this three-disc set contains both the first and second seasons, which ran 1994-96. The date is significant, because, although it aired in 1994, it feels more like 1984. Many fans have compared the first season to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which predates this series by a little over a decade, and yet that comparison is valid. Iron Man is He-Man, the good-natured, always-does-the-right-thing good guy, and the Mandarin is Skeletor, the jerk villain who berates M.O.D.O.K. and comes up with ridiculous excuses for evil plans. (Trivia time part one: “M.O.D.O.K.” originally stood for “Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing.”)

There’s almost no character development in the first season. There’s almost no character, period. Typical episode: The Mandarin comes up with some hairbrained scheme to destroy Iron Man. Iron Man flies off by himself to stop Mandarin. Something goes wrong and the rest of Force Works joins the action. Iron Man gets back on his feet, saves the day, as the Mandarin flees in defeat. That’s pretty much it. In the first episode, we’re dropped right into the middle of things, with no context of who these characters are, what their struggle is about, what their powers are, and so on. Sure, there’s a lot of fighting and explosions, but without that context, any viewers will just ask, “Why should I care about any of this?” Some might argue that the show is meant for children, so it can get away with a lack of character development. I disagree. Even a simplistic story is still a story, and must adhere the basics of story structure, including plot and character.

Again making note of this cartoon’s age, the horribly dated style and quality of animation in Iron Man just screams early ’80s. Characters are stiff, with few facial expressions. Colors are sometimes mismatched and continuity errors are glaring (look for Tony’s magical disappearing/reappearing white lab coat). There are plenty of “WTF” moments in the first season as well. An animated President Bill Clinton shows up, and he and Tony are on a first-name basis. At another point, the Mandarian laser-blasts Blizzard because Blizzard accidentally killed the Mandarian’s prized begonias. Really? One of the greatest supernatural forces threatening life on Earth has time to fuss over pretty flowers? While I’m asking questions, how, in another episode, does making a little girl late for her piano lessons fit into the Mandarin’s world domination plan?

Someone behind the scenes must have had the same criticisms I have, because the second season is a completely different show. Between seasons, the writers and animation studio were both replaced, and the result is a reinvented Iron Man. Tony’s new mullet is laughable, but his personality is much improved. The writers gave him flaws, and therefore they’ve added a jolt of real drama into the show. The second season premiere takes the season one formula and drops a plot grenade on it. The Mandarin’s rings are lost, spread out all over the world. Then Force Works disbands, as the heroes are disappointed with Tony not letting them in on important information. War Machine, who is Tony’s best pal James Rhodes, sticks with Tony despite his misgivings. Spiderwoman stays as well, as she’s fallen for Tony. (Trivia time part two: This Spiderwoman is not the classic Jessica Drew one, but the Julia Carpenter one, also known as the “Secret Wars Spiderwoman”).

In the first season, there were a lot of scenes where Iron Man would order Force Works to stay behind at headquarters during a crisis, usually saying something like “It’s OK, I’ve got this one.” In the second season, they took this element and turned it from lazy writing into a character trait. Tony keeps shutting out the people close to him, insistent on doing everything himself. Suddenly, the iron armor is a metaphor. When he wears it, he’s indestructible and can win battles. Without it, he’s an ordinary human, vulnerable and exposed. Emotionally, Tony also wears “armor” by closing himself off from those who care about him. Eventually, though, as his various stresses become too much for him to handle, Tony has to learn how to open up to Julia, Rhodes and the others. This is what he needs, far more than jet boots and repulsor rays, to defeat his enemies and save the world.

Despite the drama, Iron Man remains a superhero adventure toon at heart, and the second season delivers. With the Mandarin depowered and demoted to a subplot until the big finale, the writers spend the season exploring the Marvel universe, bringing in all kinds of characters and stories from the comics. The Hulk guests in one episode, as does one of his enemies, the Leader. Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up from time to time in a tenuous working relationship with Iron Man. It’s fun to spot some of the more obscure comics characters who show up; such as Madame Masque, Firebrand, Sunturion, and the always-useful Stilt Man. The series’ most famous episodes are the multi-part “Armor Wars” saga, based on the comic tales of the same name. Here, Tony becomes obsessed with recovering unauthorized Stark tech, so obsessed that he ends up battling both the bad guys and his fellow high-tech heroes, including War Machine. The “two best friends become enemies and now have to fight” thing is a staple of the superhero genre, and it’s certainly the highlight of this series. (Trivia time part three: S.H.I.E.L.D. originally stood for “Strategic Headquarters, International Espionage and Law Enforcement Division.”)

Some notable actors provided voices for the series. Robert Hays of Airplane! gave Iron Man an honest earnestness, and prolific voice actor Jim Cummings not only gave M.O.D.O.K. his manic energy, but he portrayed numerous other characters as well, including Bill Clinton. Anime actress Jennifer Hale took the part of Spiderwoman during the second season, and made her the emotional heart of the show. Tom Kane (The Powerpuff Girls) provides some comic relief as Iron Man’s computer, H.O.M.E.R. (I actually don’t know what this one stands for.) This group of actors is better than the writing, and should be applauded for doing as good a job as they did with the material.

All 26 episodes are here, but their DVD presentation is pretty rough. The colors are bright—some might argue too bright—but flat and dull at other times. The primitive CGI that shows up for about 30 seconds per episode looks poor, grainy and blurry. The sound is adequate, but not as booming or as immersive as it could be. There are no extras, which is a real disappointment. When the series originally aired, each episode had a live-action introduction by famed Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee. Why on Earth isn’t that footage on these DVDs?

I can’t get past the fact that this was made in 1994. At the time, Bruce Timm reinvented TV animation with Batman: The Animated Series. The competition responded with a popular and action-packed Spider-Man cartoon. Comedy toons such as The Tick, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain cleverly combined adult and kid audiences. In this context, the Iron Man animated series is subpar. It does get better in its second half, and it’s fun to see so many Marvel characters in one show, but, honestly, there are better cartoons out there for your money.

The Verdict

Iron guilty.

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