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clunky but effective

Tony Stark's office

meet the bad guys

iron man strikes back

November 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

The Invincible Iron Man
voice cast: Mark Worde, Roger Salisbury, and Gwendoline Yeo

director: Frank Paur

80 minutes (12) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Patrick Hudson
Energised by five years of live-action box office success, animated movies could be the future of superheroes. DC has been doing a good job producing cartoons for TV that are easily as good as their comics output and, while Marvel's efforts have always been a bit of a mixed bag, recent DVD-only features based on the Avengers have done well enough to spawn further forays into the format.

Iron Man is an interesting choice: while he is an important figure in the Marvel universe, his character recognition doesn't approach that of Spider-Man, Hulk or Captain America, and the name is also linked by many to the Black Sabbath song rather than the Marvel character. The song, of course, is also used on the trailer for the upcoming live-action film that's likely to stimulate demand for more Iron Man material, so this may be a canny move in Marvel's game of establishing multi-media franchises based around its intellectual property.

In this version of the story, Tony Stark is the inventive genius behind a company run by his father and an unscrupulous board of directors. The suits demand that the company maximises profits by trading in arms, but Tony has his own ideas of the direction the company should take, including raising an ancient buried Chinese city with his revolutionary liquid steel. As well as being opposed by the board, it provokes violent opposition from a mysterious gang of terrorists, the Jade Dragons, who fear the prophesied return of the Mandarin, an ancient ruler and sorcerer of great power. When Stark's chief engineer and best friend, Jim 'Rhodey' Rhodes is kidnapped, Stark leaps out of the hot tub he is sharing with a supermodel (in the obligatory 'he's a playboy!' scene) and high-tails it to China. However, it's a trap and Tony is captured by the Jade Dragons where he is forced to work on a way to destroy the city. Instead, however, he builds a rather neat steampunk-ish variation on the old grey armour and gets to his iron manly work.

Unlike Spider-Man or the Hulk, Iron Man's original comics origin (presented in Tales Of Suspense #39 in 1962) is a bit harder to unpick from the assumptions of its era. Tony is in Vietnam on some vague pretext, and while out on patrol with some GIs (dressed in an incongruous trench coat and trilby) he falls into a booby trap and is put to work making weapons by the villain of the piece - "a red guerrilla tyrant" - as above.

Aside from the Vietnam setting and the 'red tyrant guerrilla' villain, Stark is, essentially, an unrepentant arms merchant. He is portrayed as a rat pack-era swinger, all dinner suits, dames and cocktails, patriotic but essentially amoral and carefree. The arrogant playboy in Tales Of Suspense is not at all like the passionate peacenik in The Invincible Iron Man and this weakens the moral transformation - from less than zero to hero, as it were - implied by the comics. Another vital aspect of Tony's transformation fudged by the movie is Iron Man's physical dependence on his armour. A shard of shrapnel from the booby trap threatens to pierce his heart if it goes untreated, and he must devise some kind of artificial pump to keep him alive. In the comic, the torso of his armour becomes an iron lung and if he doesn't recharge his power regularly he will die. It's a quintessentially Marvel device, the terrible price paid for heroism!

For Iron Man, though, his heart injury is also a metaphor for the moral danger that Stark's playboy lifestyle represents; the armour shields him from harm but also makes him remote from humanity - most issues feature a scene of Tony leaving a party early or cutting out on a date to recharge, thinking something along the lines of 'Poor Jeanne, she probably thinks I'm avoiding her, but my heart would stop beating if I didn't receive regular power boosts.'

In the cartoon (and the live action movie, as far as I can tell) this has been replaced with a blue flashing implant that doesn't do much. To be fair, Tony's illness hasn't really been a feature of the comic for a while - its storyline hard to keep up for 45 years, particularly if you're supposed to be the greatest inventor on Earth - but its absence here dampens the dynamic relationship between Tony's physical transformation and moral epiphany. Things are further confused with the revelation on Tony and Rhodey's return to America that Tony's been working on Iron Man armour for some time and already has an entire wardrobe of iron-wear stashed away in an antechamber to his office. In a way he already was Iron Man before his origin began.

The producers obviously want to use the army of suits for their big set piece action scenes, but they also want to tell the same transformational, hero's journey that the huge majority of superheroes movies focus on. The X-Men franchise had new team members joining in each film, allowing them re-tell it again and again, while the Spider-Man movies treat the hero's journey as a never ending one, with his villains providing a mirror image of the mythic journey, showing what happens when the temptations of power and hatred prove too much.

If anyone understands how to tell stories about superheroes other than origin stories, it's got to be Marvel, but even they fall back on this old standard. Iron Man appeared in an episode of this year's Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes without any introduction, yet they make us wait here. There is no Iron Man action at all for the first half an hour of this 80-minute movie, and that's a long time to wait to see the main character in action, especially when the dialogue is kind of stodgy and the voice performances a bit stiff, and it leaves less than an hour for armour-porn.

Despite this fumble, the main story is okay. The communist thug Mandarin of the original comics is turned into the ghostly spirit of an ancient sorcerer, and it's a bit of a drift from the James Bond-ish adventures of the early Iron man, or even from the head of SHIELD in the current comics, but it works well on its own merits. The four elemental henchmen look like weirdly powered robots or golems, blurring the lines between the clean-line science aesthetic of Iron Man and the mystical kung fu movie storyline. (I was under the impression, though, that the ancient Chinese used a different set of elements as the earthly essences - fire, water, metal, wood and earth - and I was a little surprised that the Mandarin used the four classical elements instead of the five Chinese.)

The big action set pieces come in various environments - a lava pit is an inspired choice, the terracotta army is nicely realised and the grey armour's imposing size is enhanced by cramped corridors of the terrorists base - and while they feel a little bit like computer game settings, they are imaginatively used and provide plenty of opportunity to super-heroic action. The cel animation is a bit flat, but the CGI Iron Man armour and opponents look great, although there are a few occasions when the two don't quite mesh that reminded me of Ray Harryhausen monsters animated against a filmed backdrop. Like those films, this features excellent action scenes interspersed with a little too much uninteresting drama. Sitting through that will reward the interested viewer but may defeat the more casual superhero fan.

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