Lionsgate/Marvel Studios/MLG Productions 3 (Direct to DVD), Lionsgate Home Entertainment (January 23, 2007), single disc, 83 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $19.98
Marvel’s armored avenger is born in a story that contrasts high technology and legends from ancient China.
The Sweatbox Review:
Marvel Comics has been rather aggressively exploiting their intellectual properties over the past few years, and who could blame them. Their live action films have been blockbusters more often than not, gaining the Marvel characters more fans in the cinema than they currently have in the comic-reading community. With there being so much crossover between comic book fans and animation fans, and with the ever-increasing popularity of direct-to-video titles, made-for-DVD animated movies starring Marvel characters seemed like it had great potential. The Ultimate Avengers titles apparently were nice successes, leaving a ready audience for Avengers member The Invincible Iron Man.
Iron Man made his comics debut in 1963, in Tales Of Suspense #39. Marvel chieftain Stan Lee came up with the concept, and handed off scripting duties to Larry Lieber, while Don Heck illustrated the origin story. Lee had envisioned a Howard Hughes type named Tony Stark— a millionaire inventor, whose genius was matched by his appeal to the ladies. On a trip to South Vietnam to monitor implementation of weapons he had designed, Stark was injured and had shrapnel lodge itself near his heart. While under capture, Stark and a Vietnamese physicist designed and built a suit of armor that would keep Stark’s heart beating, while also transforming him into an invincible Iron Man. (The medical and scientific validity of the story is more than a little suspect, but that was comics in 1963.) Iron Man would go on to gain a varied rogue’s gallery, join the Avengers, battle alcoholism, and change his armor almost as often as most people change their underwear.
The new movie from Marvel and Lionsgate naturally needed to update the story to palatable to modern audiences. (Trust me, keeping the story exactly the same as the 1960s comics would have been embarrassing.) The story also had to be fleshed out considerably, considering that the origin from Tales Of Suspense ran only thirteen pages. Those who wish for these productions to be slavish adaptations will be disappointed, as the producers have crafted their own version of Iron Man that is obviously fashioned after the Marvel character, but still stands as a unique interpretation. Personally, I understand this choice. The production team had the task of making an exciting introductory story that would appeal to a young, modern audience. Sure, this could have been done with a more faithful comics adaptation, but then which version of Iron Man do you do? The character has evolved so much over the years, that everyone would have their own ideas about how to do the character anyways, based on one’s own comic-reading experience— whether that happened to be the contemporary comics, or something from 1977. So, coming up with something fresh seems like the best way to go.
Greg Johnson’s screenplay opens with a scene taking place in China, where a ruins excavation is encountering production delays due to the interference of a gang known as the Jade Dragons. The American supervising the effort to raise the buried city to ground level is Jim Rhodes of Stark Industries. Just as Rhodes is having to deal with the destructive activities of the Jade Dragons, his boss Tony Stark is being ousted from the family company by the board of directors that includes his own father. Tony has been accused of malfeasance, as he has not accounted for many millions of dollars he has spent on a special project. Distracted by his own problems, he continues to put off his friend Rhodey, who has been pleading for assistance, until Rhodes is kidnapped in China.
Tony travels to China to search for his friend, but is found first by Rhodes’ captors and is critically injured. Soon, both men are together in the custody of the Jade Dragons. At least they both get a full history lesson, as they find out why the Dragons are so against Stark Industry’s raising of the ancient city. The information comes courtesy of an older Chinese man, as well as Li Mei, a young woman who works with the Dragons and provides a very small dose of romance. It seems that the newly raised city includes the temple of The Mandarin, cruellest of all of China’s ancient rulers. It has been prophesied that The Mandarin, who is said to have horrible supernatural powers, will return one day. His resurrection will be aided with the help of four elemental demons, and raising his city seems to be a sure way of kick-starting the prophecy.
In this version of the tale it is Rhodey who helps to construct the Iron Man armor as the two are in captivity. This allows them to escape, but their troubles are only beginning, as they are confronted by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents upon their return to the States. Fortunately, Tony has the assistance of Rhodey, his aide Pepper Potts, and a special secret hidden at his office. Iron Man will be making new appearances, in various forms of armor, in order to confront the elementals. Whether underwater, in the air, or in an especially exciting underground sequence amidst boiling lava, Iron Man works to stop the elementals from bringing back The Mandarin. Even these efforts may not be enough, however, as old secrets are revealed and an ancient menace rises from the ruins.
This was not exactly faithful to the source material, but I found it a very interesting take. It is clear that the creative people involved found the juxtaposition of Chinese folklore and modern technology an intriguing blend, and the result is a suitably involving tale. The key points in the Iron Man mythos are present, even if details have been tweaked. The Mandarin undoubtedly gets the largest revamp, from poseur to real deal, but for those who disagree with this change I suggest considering it to be an all-new character. The script does include a fair bit of character development, as Tony is forced to go from self-involved technocrat to selfless hero; part of this evolution is the changing nature of his friendship with Jim Rhodes. The tragedy of Tony’s condition doesn’t really get sold in this version, making him less “Marvel-ous” and to me a little watered-down. I did have some issues with the ending, which left the outcome of the final battle largely out of Iron Man’s hands, which therefore weakens the film. A secondary ending in the corporate boardroom didn’t ring true either, thereby finally tipping the movie over into the realm of mediocrity despite having many nice scenes particularly in the first two acts.
The animation by Starburst Entertainment is made to look better than it is by heavy use of shading, as well as some nicely detailed backgrounds. In truth, the animation is often rather stiff, and the non-CGI character models are largely lacklustre. While the 3-D CGI elements (principally Iron Man and the elementals) do look good from a design perspective, mixing them in with the drawn stuff provides too clear a point of differentiation. The integration of 2-D and 3-D sometimes comes off well, but just as often the CGI characters stand out as being too separate from the hand-drawn ones. The shading is about right, but the movement is too obviously computerized at times. A little more polish and they would have made it work, but as it is, it falls short of being as smooth a combination as we have seen in other projects. On a directing note (the directors were Patrick Archibald and Jay Oliva), I found the action moved too quickly between the various locales. The issue of scene transitions was a problem also in Ultimate Avengers 2; the reality of the situation is seriously compromised when your characters seem to almost teleport from one country to the next.
Altogether, the movie essentially met my modest expectations, but even then I found it a tad disappointing due mostly to the final act. I enjoyed a lot of the movie, with its grand battles and an intriguing premise, buts weaknesses did drag it down. Parents should be aware that there are a couple of shocking deaths, so this may not be found suitable for younger viewers.
Is This Thing Loaded?
Though far from being packed, I found this choice of bonus material to be quite satisfying and appropriate for the DVD. Naturally, we start off with some Previews including those for Amazing Screw-On Head, Ultimate Avengers 2, and Happily N’ever After. The animated menus that follow give the DVD some class, and nicely follow a mechanical theme.
An Alternate Opening (3:10) offers an explicit explanation of the background behind The Mandarin and his pending return. While all this material basically would get covered later in the course of the movie, thereby rendering this opening superfluous, I did enjoy the succinct recap here. The animation here is like highly polished animatics, with more image manipulation than actual animation, but it does seem fully realized in this form; so, it is hard to say whether this was a completed sequence or not.
The Origin Of Iron Man (11:57) is a nifty little featurette that has interviews with the creative team behind the movie, as well as a few comic book people like writer/artist Bob Layton, and Marvel EIC Joe Quesada. Some comic book history is covered, though naturally most of the airtime is taken up by discussion on decisions made in the creation of the movie. Topics include use of CGI elements and alterations made to the origin story. The Hall Of Iron Man Armor is a text and artwork-based feature that looks at fifteen of Iron Man’s most memorable suits from the comics. This is followed by a slideshow of Iron Man Concept Art (2:58).
Moving back to promotional material, A Look At Doctor Strange (7:02) offers some brief interview material and then the first scene from Marvel and Liongate’s next animated movie. A Trailer Gallery brings back Happily N’ever After and adds trailers for the Ultimate Alliance video game and The Last Unicorn 25th Anniversary DVD.
Standard keepcase, with embossed identical slip sleeve. Joe Quesada did stunning artwork for the front and back cover, as well as the DVD itself.
Ink And Paint:
The image on the DVD does not disappoint, being naturally pristine. Compression work is also optimal, with no significant faults noted. Of particular interest is the big lava battle, but the whole movie looks great from a technical standpoint.
This thing actually has some decent bass, with pretty good sound design, though I was not quite as impressed as I was with the bombastic Avengers films. Still, it certainly is stronger audio than on television DVDs. With plenty of battles, explosions, and gunfire, there is lots of opportunity for the sound to shine. A Spanish 5.1 track is also available, but there are no subtitles.
The bottom line here concerns how you feel about these direct-to-DVD movies in general. Anyone who enjoyed the Avengers movies is likely to appreciate this title, which I found to lie between the two Avengers efforts in terms of enjoyability. A little more polish in terms of the CGI integration as well as the writing in the third act would have made for a stronger movie, but in the end I probably got what I expected. It is an interesting take on Iron Man’s origin tale that is no less valid than the various stories— in and out of continuity— that have been offered in the comics. The film avoids falling into the trap of getting campy, keeping the story relatively serious, more like a good adventure film than a superhero cartoon. The DC animated properties of the past 15 years are in a separate class, but I liked this movie much more than the 1990s Iron Man TV show (though I admit I watched little of it). With a decent set of extras, and very good picture and sound, there is no reason for a superhero fan to not at least give it a rental; and at a low price, a purchase is certainly not out of the question.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?