Marvel Animation (2009), Genius Entertainment (May 4, 2010), 4 discs, 572 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 ratio, Dolby Digital 5.1, Not Rated, Retail: $29.93


Teenage inventor genius Tony Stark uses an invincible suit of armor to foil the plans of an industrial megalomaniac, a would-be king of the world, and a mad scientist or two.

The Sweatbox Review:

Today’s popularity of comic book characters in mass media has proven to be a double-edged sword. We (or at least the majority of us) loved Spider-Man and The Dark Knight, but we have also had to endure less-than-sparkly adaptations of some of our other beloved heroes. We are still waiting for someone to due a truly kick-butt Fantastic Four movie or cartoon, and most of us wish that Hollywood had never heard of The Punisher. Personally, I wish that Bryan Singer had never fallen in love with Superman, which only begat an unbelievably wrongheaded film in Superman Returns. And, even when Hollywood gets it right, such as with the nearly universally praised film Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Junior in a role he was born to play… we got stuck with a cartoon spin-off that decided to re-imagine the concept in ways that made fans cringe.

Although the movie had made us love the arrogant, womanizing Tony Stark of the comics, the cartoon show instead decided to make Tony a teenage boy. Iron Man – Armored Adventures gave us a Tony whose father had been killed in a suspicious plane crash, thereby giving him a whole new motivation. Rather than making up for his career as an arms merchant, now Tony wants revenge for his Dad’s death, with the prime suspect being the man who took over Stark International— Obadiah Stane. Stane has turned SI from a visionary tech company into a leading player in the military arms game. In the comics, Iron Man famously became known for battling an alcohol addiction, but in Armored Adventures he’s relegated to figuring out how to skip class in order to battle the baddie of the week.

Well, that was okay for Spider-Man, but it’s jarring to see the teen hero trope applied to Iron Man. Obviously, this was done to make Iron Man more relatable for the teens and tweens the show is aimed at, but my first reaction was that there are enough teen hero shows out there already without messing with an established, supposedly adult hero. And that’s why it troubles me so much that I actually ended up liking the show. Once you can let go of the (still somewhat justified) fanboy disgruntled-ness, there’s a lot here to enjoy.

As mentioned, the season-long arc begins with the death of Howard Stark in an airplane “accident.” Teenaged son Tony manages to survive, only to find out that his father’s executive has taken over the company and steered it into a new direction. In the real world, this would only lead to suspicion and frustration, but in this story our young Tony is a genius kid inventor, who has made a flying metal suit filled with great weapons and gadgets. He begins to spy on Obadiah Stane, but initially ends up saving him when he stops a mysterious figure called The Mandarin from destroying SI’s tower. The viewer sees that The Mandarin has a mysterious “Makluan ring,” similar to the one that Tony’s father had, which is now in the possession of Stane.

Meanwhile, Tony has begun living with his best friend James Rhodes, and begins to attend public school for the first time. His social network at school includes Pepper Potts, daughter of an FBI agent, and Happy Hogan, a dim-witted jock. Soon, another new student starts at the school, named Gene Khan, who is secretly the new Mandarin, having dispatched the old one, who was his stepfather. Gene knows that Tony is special, Pepper exudes curiosity and chattiness in ample quantities, and the rest of the student body fails to notice that Tony takes an awful lot of bathroom breaks. The viewer, of course, gets to view Tony getting further mixed up with Stane, as well as The Maggia (a crime cartel) and Mr. Fix, a sort of supervillain weapons maker. An assortment of foes springs up, mostly tech-based, including Whiplash, Blizzard, The Crimson Dynamo, and The Living Laser.

The series keeps its overall arc going too, with an explanation of the Makluan rings in Ancient History 101, the introduction of Stane’s daughter (who has her own secrets), and introductions of such classic comics concepts and characters as A.I.M., M.O.D.O.K., S.H.I.E.L.D. (yes, lots of acronyms!), Project Pegasus, Count Nefaria, and Ultimo. As the series enters the second half of its first, 26-episode season, other Marvel characters also appear, such as The Black Panther in Panther’s Prey, and The incredible Hulk in Uncontrollable. The season ends with a two-parter named for the comic book that Iron Man first appeared in, Tales Of Suspense, and features the conclusion of the saga of the Makluan rings… for now.

Iron Man – Armored Adventures has an interesting production history, with Marvel Animation and French animation company Method Animation being listed as co-producers along with India-based multinational powerhouse DQ Entertainment, public television network France 2, and Luxanimation (Luxembourg). Isle Of Man Film and Genius Entertainment are also partners. This series debuted at Comic-Con in 2008, was previewed on Canadian television later that fall, and then finally premiered officially in the US and Canada in April 2009. Its unique look helped to distract people from its divergence from the comic books, with a sleek CGI process that attempted to keep a nearly hand-drawn simplicity while still utilizing the advantages of computer-aided animation. (It is very similar in concept to the MTV Spider-Man show of a few years back, but the animation here is better-realized, particularly the backgrounds.)

Naturally, Iron Man is well suited to CGI animation, as CGI always works best when applied to mechanical devices. The action is impressive, as are the special effects. Less impressive are some of the awkward, stiff gait patterns, and other less-fluid body movements. Facial animation is also a bit lacking, but much better than I would have expected, really. You can see that the animators were really trying, but the pace and budgets of TV production do frequently win out. Overall, though, it’s a really slick-looking show, just with the modern disadvantages of “limited animation,” i.e. too many points of articulation, too little time.

So, if can you overlook the de-aging of Tony Stark, you will find the best cartoon version of Iron Man yet. An interesting story, big action, decent humor, and shiny CGI go a long ways towards forgiving the comic book continuity issues. If you can’t forgive these, however, then the series will be totally lost on you. Personally, I wish that adapters would quick monkeying around with basic fundamentals of established properties… but given that they gave us a teenage Tony Stark, this is about as good a show as one could hope for.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Extras on this release are disappointingly skimpy. Disc 1 offers four separate Suit Profiles, which are really just Nicktoons commercials. There is also a Rooney Music Video (2:17) of the theme song, and Trailers for Iron Man – Armored Adventures, Wolverine And The X-Men, Super Hero Squad, and

Disc 2 has more trailers for all three of the aforementioned Marvel shows. Discs 3 and 4 begin with a trailer for Super Hero Squad Online. Disc 3 also offers Galleries for Storyboards and a handful of Original Sketches, while Disc 4 has more Original Sketches focusing here on Villains and Vehicles.

Case Study:

A book-style digipack opens up with two pairs of overlapping discs. Each of the four discs has full-color disc art. The slipcase has a different front cover, but the same back cover. The slipcase has no embossing or foil, but it looks plenty sharp.

Ink And Paint:

With so many straight lines and so much fast action in this cartoon, this DVD could have been a real mess. Fortunately, it comes off quite well. This is likely a digital-to-digital transfer, so the cleanliness of the “print” is not an issue; but as one might expect, there is some shimmer seen, but not as much as I’d feared.

The bad news is that the original 16:9 image that the series was animated for has been panned and scanned, shaving off information on either side of the screen. A Best Buy exclusive Blu-ray that contained the first few episodes of the show had the full widescreen image, and it is a real shame that such was not included on this DVD set. With the mass proliferation of widescreen TVs these days, this is truly unforgivable, and it makes the video score lose a few points.

Scratch Tracks:

The full 5.1 Dolby Digital track was a pleasant surprise, though, bursting with energy and a full sound design that utilizes all corners of the home theater while helping to create a convincing world for our hero to inhabit. Throw some decent bass into the mix with the aggressive but appropriate sound effects, and you have a television show that sounds better than some theatrical releases.

Final Cut:

This is a real good news/bad news release. The storylines are the best we’ve seen yet for Iron Man in animation, but this isn’t really Iron Man— it’s just Iron Boy. So, instead of a show abut a sophisticated adult becoming a superhero, we get a cross between Jonny Quest and Spider-Man. It’s kooky, but it does somehow work if you give it a chance. However, just when I want to defend the show, despite my own misgivings about its premise, I have to concede that the video here is in the wrong aspect ratio— even if it does look okay with the 4:3 framing, to be honest; but 16:9 would really open up the action, I’m sure. Then we get more good news, with a terrific series of sound mixes that makes the series sound truly impressive. On the other (other) hand, the extras are pretty weak, focusing on trailers and sketches, with no commentaries or “making of” featurettes.

What to do, what to do… You’ll have to decide for yourself, based on your own feelings about “Iron Boy,” aspect ratios, and how much you want bonus material. I’m glad to have this DVD set, just because the series is so well done, but it could have been so much better yet.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?