REVIEW: IRON MAN (1994)

CAST (VOICES)

Robert Hays (Airplane)
James Avery (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air)
Ed Gilbert (Transformers)
Robert Ito (Batman: TAS)
Dorian Harewood (Sparkle)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST STARS

Sarah Douglas (Superman 1 & 2)
Matt Frewer (Taken)
Neal McDonough (Arrow)
Ron Perlman (Hellboy)
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Batman: TAS)
David Warner (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II)
Lisa Zane (Monkeybone)

Although only lasting two seasons, Iron Man was the subject of a major overhaul between seasons when its production studio was changed. The result was a massively changed premise, tone, and general approach, which left the disparate seasons scarcely recognizable as being two halves of the same series.

The first season of Iron Man featured little more than a Masters of the Universe-style battle of “good against evil”, as billionaire industrialist Tony Stark battled the evil forces of the world-conquering Mandarin as the armored superhero, Iron Man. In his evil endeavors to steal Stark’s technology and Iron Man’s armor, the Mandarin led a group of villains consisting of Dreadknight, Blizzard, Blacklash, Grey Gargoyle (when it comes to fighting Iron Man and his team, he has a tendency to accidentally turn his fellow villains to stone), Hypnotia (Dreadknight and Blacklash were rivals for the affections of Hypnotia), Whirlwind, Living Laser, MODOK, Fin Fang Foom and Justin Hammer. To combat these villains, Iron Man had the help of his own team (based on Force Works, a then-current comic book team which has since faded into obscurity), including Century, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye (replacing U.S. Agent from the comics) and Spider Woman.

The season consisted mostly of single-episode open-and-shut-case adventures, with two two-part stories late towards the end. Unlike many other Marvel animated series, despite featuring over-the-top titles that paid homage to the early Stan Lee written Marvel comics of the 1960s (for example, “The Grim Reaper Wears a Teflon Coat”, and “Rejoice, I am Ultimo, Thy Deliverer”), almost none of the episodes were adaptations of comic book stories, consisting instead of original stories penned by Ron Friedman, occasionally collaborated on by Stan Lee himself. The closest the season came to adapting a comic book tale was in the two-part “The Origin of Iron Man”, which recounted a (modified and modernized) version of the character’s comic book origin  just before the season concluded.

This late-run recounting of the title character’s origin is symptomatic of what is generally thought of as the season’s greatest weakness – despite (or perhaps because of) having such a large cast of characters, very few of the show’s heroes and villains were actually developed in any way, leaving viewers unaware of their personal stories and powers. The show is generally held to have been at its best when filling in these origin blanks (MODOK in “Enemy Without, Enemy Within,” Iron Man and the Mandarin in their self-titled “The Origin of…” episodes), but these were rare occasions, with virtually every other plot simply consisting of the Mandarin attempting to steal Stark’s newest invention and being bested, often through very strange and illogical means (with the nadir perhaps being Iron Man somehow using the energy of a small tape-player to restore his armor to full power in “Silence My Companion, Death My Destination”).

A small sub-plot in the first season revolves around Mandarin secretly spying on Force Works. It culminates in “The Wedding of Iron Man” when Stark realizes they have been spied on by reviewing events from previous episodes (and explaining how Mandarin’s forces always knew where they would be), realising that Mandarin has acquired enough information to potentially deduce the true identity of Iron Man. The entire episode’s plot is dedicated to resolving the problem, culminating in Iron Man and his team setting up an elaborate deception where Mandarin sees Iron Man and Tony Stark in the same place with the intention being to convince him that the two men are not the same person (The ‘Tony’ in the situation was an android).

In 1995, Marvel switched The Marvel Action Hour to a new animation studio (as previously mentioned, the animation in Season 1 was provided by the Rainbow Animation Group, while the animation in Season 2 was provided by Koko Enterprises), and with it came new writers (Ron Friedman was replaced by Tom Tataranowicz for Season 2) and new music for each sequence, coupled with a new direction for the series. The first season’s subtle keyboard theme music for Iron Man (composed by progressive rock artist Keith Emerson) was replaced by an intense electric guitar theme featuring the repeated refrain of “I am Iron Man!”, while showing Tony Stark beating red-hot iron plates into shape with a blacksmith’s hammer (possibly to mimic the Black Sabbath song “Iron Man”). Tony Stark’s longer hair style in the second season was based upon the artist Mark Bright’s depiction of Stark from the late 1980s, which is where most of the episodes from Season 2 were based upon.

The new story lines spanned multiple episodes and were no longer “open and shut” cases. They formed a linking narrative, featuring themes of duplicity, consequence, and phobias. Also, the stories were no longer centered on the Mandarin, whose rings had been scattered and whose power had been depleted. While the Mandarin did appear in these episodes, his appearances were reduced to cameos in the cliffhangers at the end of the story, as he tried to retrieve each ring.

Another change was that Force Works was mostly written out of the series, parting ways with Stark after he deceives them in order to work in secret with the Mandarin when Fin Fang Foom and his fellow Dragons were plotting to eliminate Earth. When Stark’s counter plan against Justin Hammer, which includes faking his death without the knowledge of his teammates, leads to a disbanding of Force Works, Julia Carpenter and James Rhodes are the only ones who continue to work with Stark. This split would be revisited with Stark’s ensuing conflicts with Hawkeye over the course of several episodes.

Also, War Machine develops a phobia of being trapped inside his armor (also based on a then-current comic storyline), but this is resolved before the final episode. While Rhodes was active as War Machine in Season 1, he remained out of armor for the majority of Season 2 due to reliving a tragic drowning experience while being trapped underwater in the War Machine armor in the Season 2 episode “Fire And Rain”. Rhodes eventually overcomes his fear and dons the War Machine armor once again in the episode “Distant Boundaries”.

Prior to finding his last two rings, the Mandarin claims his eighth ring from MODOK in the episode “Empowered”. “Empowered” was the clip show of the season, the purpose being that the Mandarin wanted to learn of Iron Man’s recent activities. In the finale,[9][10] the Mandarin, having regained all of his rings, unleashes a mist using the Heart of Darkness to render everything technological useless. Iron Man reunites with Force Works in order to stop him. The Mandarin unmasks Iron Man before their final showdown ends in his death. More specifically, Iron Man manages to reflect the power of Mandarin’s rings, destroying them, and ultimately leaving the Mandarin with amnesia and helpless before a band of desert bandits who likely killed him, or at least cut off his hand/fingers for the rings. After Mandarin was killed, MODOK and the rest of Mandarin’s henchmen were sent to jail. After disappointing ratings, the series was canceled.

After twenty six episodes, Iron Man the animated series remains a very mixed bag. Blame for this shows disappointing quality can be attributed to constrictions placed upon the writers to feature as many Iron Man suits as possible in each episode as free publicity for the toys. On the bright side, it got better, allowing the audience at least 13 episodes of decent animated entertainment.

Advertisements

REVIEW: THE MIGHTY THOR (1966)

CAST (VOICES)

Bernard Cowan (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea)
Peg Dixon (Strange Paradise)
Chris Wiggins (Babar)
Len Carlson (Cypher)

With the big screen adaptations of Thor proving to be both a critical and commercial success, Clear Vision  re-released the 1966 animated series of The Mighty Thor on DVD. The series was a part of a nightly run of programming for Marvel animated series, with five key Marvel characters having their own night to showcase their adventures. Of course, Thor was aired on Thursdays.

Thirteen episodes are collected on two discs and cover a range of Thor’s greatest enemies, although Loki does dominate proceedings throughout, particularly on disc one, where the format appears to be Thor minds his own business on Earth trying to woo Jane Foster, whilst under the guise of Dr. Donald Blake. Of course, Loki can’t leave our hero be and decides to come up with various schemes to put Thor in danger or discredit him. Of course, Thor, often on the brink of defeat, manages to defeat Loki, and with the help of Odin, banishes him to imprisonment he won’t be able to escape. Well, until the next episode at least.

Given that the first disc is rather formulaic, it hardly makes for compelling viewing and much of the enjoyment is gleamed from the fantastic art work. Disc two is where the series really hits its stride, mainly as it breaks from the formula and introduces an array of antagonists for Thor to face off against. Loki still makes appearances, and Odin’s displeasure at Thor’s relationship with a mortal is still evident in every episode, but having the focus on other antagonists is a refreshing change.

The final episode will, no doubt, be the one of most interesting to the majority of the target audience, as it brings together the members of The Avengers as they face off against the Lava Men. The episode itself features a muddled plot and resolves itself a little too quickly for you to really register what’s happened, but seeing all of the characters work together against an antagonist that isn’t Loki is a nice change.

Most of the voice work is great, particularly Thor, Odin and the other inhabitants of Asgard. However, Loki is a weak link.

The series is more like a motion comic than a full animated series, but is still a rather charming piece of work that will surely be of great interest to those who have strong feelings of nostalgia for the series. There are times where mouths move during dialogue-heavy sections and motion is hinted at, but mostly it’s a collection of frames, and once you get used to it, it’s barely noticeable.

REVIEW: THE AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES

MAIN CAST (VOICES)

Brian Bloom (Vampirella)
Chris Cox (All Star Superman)
Jennifer Hale (The Rick)
Peter Jessop (Jla Adventures)
Phil LaMarr (Free Enterprise)
Eric Loomis (Shin Chan)
James C. Mathis III (Undercover Brother)
Colleen Villard (Duel Masters)
Fred Tatasciore (Hulk Vs)
Rick D. Wasserman (Planet Hulk)
Wally Wingert (American Dad)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST COICES

Gabriel Mann (Cherry Falls)
Drake Bell (The Reef 2)
Bumper Robinson (Sabrina: The Teenage Witch)
Steven Blum (Wolverine and Teh X-men)
Alex Desert (The Flash 90s)
Vanessa Marshall (Duck Dodgers)
Kari Wuhrer (Eight Legged Freaks)
Elizabeth Daily (Valley Girl)
Troy Baker (Lego Batman)
Nolan North (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
Crispin Freeman (Hellsing)
Scott Menville (Teen Titans)
Grey DeLisle (Danny Phantom)
Cam Clarke (He-Man)
Lance Reddick (Lost)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Kevin Michael Richardson (The Cleveland Show)
Nika Futterman (Hey Arnold!)
Lance Henriksen (The Terminator)
Jonathan Adams (Bones)
Jeffrey Combs (Gotham)
Graham McTavish (The Hobbit)
Dawn Olivieri (The Vampire Diaries)
Clancy Brown (Highlander)
Dwight Schultz (The A-Team)
Keith Szarabajka (The Dark Knight)
Lacey Chabert (Mean Girls)

Both Marvel and DC have to an astonishing degree started to pick up these last few years, with several well-appreciated shows that I really enjoy: Young Justice, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Iron Man: Armored Adventures, Green Lantern TAS, and now this; The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

It’s very rare indeed for a superhero cartoon of this magnitude to be  great from start-to-finish, but that’s what Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is, right from Episode 1 `Iron Man is Born’ to the finale `Avengers Assemble!’. There are literally no dud episodes whatsoever! The whole series is infused with tremendous intrigue, exceptional plotting and some of the tightest continuity I’ve ever seen in a TV series. The number of sub-plots and story-arcs that are juggled here is staggering, but the creative team handled it all with such precision. The coherency, intricacies and pacing is nothing short of exemplary overall. This isn’t just essential for kids; adult Marvel fans will get bags of satisfaction from watching this cartoon!

So what exactly can folk expect? Well, as I said, the choicest pieces of Marvel history (be it in comics or on film) have been successfully adapted and utilized here. From how the Avengers banded together to life-changing events like the Civil War threat and the Skrulls’ Secret Invasion (adapted beautifully here!). Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man/Yellowjacket, the Wasp and Black Panther are all superbly established before `Assembling’ for the first time, members come-and-go, characters undergo changes, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel and the Vision join the ranks, and all-manner of superb guests join the party, such as Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four and even those Guardians of the Galaxy!

And on the villains-front, you can be subjected to a cracking-bunch of dastardly rogues, such as Loki, the Red Skull, Hydra, A.I.M., Baron Zemo, the Enchantress, the Masters of Evil, Kang the Conqueror, Doctor Doom and (of course!) chief arch-nemesis Ultron. And it’s not all just for window-dressing. The depictions of all these characters (hero, villain and otherwise) and their worlds is just pure gold. It’s perhaps the most faithful animated portrayal of the Marvel Universe.
Really, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes could (and should) have gone on for more seasons. Instead, Marvel pulled the plug in favor of the replacement show Avengers Assemble. Thus in the last batch episodes, you DO get the feel that the writers were trying to wrap things up and give the show a grand swansong to make way for the next-cartoon-in-line. Admittedly, there are a few loose ends left over, but the series is mostly wrapped-up in winning style with a very acceptable conclusion. And in an age where too many shows are cancelled prematurely/end on a sour note, it makes that final moment of `Avengers Assemble!’ all the more of a triumph, just like the entire series itself.