Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky dumps a bucket of water on this movie just to watch it rust.
A lone warrior. A suit of armor. Our only hope.
Ok, I'll admit it. As I popped this disc into my player, I couldn't help myself. "Tony Stark makes you feel, he's the coolest something something with a heart of steel!" I sang this under my breath. Yep, that's him. "Fightin' and fightin' with repulsor rays!" I used to read all those guys when I was a kid: Iron Man, Fantastic Four, the X-Men. By college I had moved on to "graphic novels" and manga, but when I was a kid, Marvel comics were it. I knew the cartoon shows, the comic books, the whole thing.
So yeah, I knew all about Iron Man. Alcoholic industrialist Tony Stark built a suit of armor while a prisoner in Vietnam. I grew up during that war, so a timely reference like this—an acknowledgment of real politics—was particularly memorable. Not that I recall Iron Man being much of a Cold Warrior. Unlike Captain America, who had a political nemesis (although I could never tell whether the Red Skull was supposed to be a Nazi or a Commie), I don't remember Iron Man being notably political. I do remember that I found him to be a vulnerable and weak person: while his armor gave him super strength, it also protected (here was the standard hero vulnerability) a fragile heart. Later, Stark's tendency to hit the bottle made him an even darker figure.
Anyway, I don't know how much of that really matters these days. Many of the popular superheroes of that era have been through so many reboots and continuity revisions that it's a wonder they're recognizable at all. So let's pretend for a moment that The Invincible Iron Man, the latest in Marvel's new line of direct-to-DVD animated movies, is its own creature.
Tony Stark runs a socially responsible American corporation that is trying to safely excavate ancient ruins in China using "liquid steel." But uncovering the "Mandarin's Temple" does not sit well with some people, and Stark's local supervisor, James Rhodes, is kidnapped by zealots. Stark too is kidnapped (during which he receives a serious heart injury) and forced to build a suit of armor in order to fulfill a prophecy. It turns out that the zealots are the good guys, trying to stop Stark and company from accidentally resurrecting the evil Mandarin.
Meanwhile, the Mandarin's Temple cracks open, releasing four evil elemental spirits. A couple of nonsensical plot devices (a frame-up for arms smuggling?) means Stark and Rhodes must go on the run, steal one of Stark's exosuits (wait—he already has a room full of these armor suits? What was the point of the first act climax then?), and go into battle against the Elementals. Oh, and a dragon.
The first act takes a very long time to get going, considering that this movie only runs 83 minutes. The leisurely pace is almost welcomed at first, as it gives the impression that we might have a more character-driven story. Tony Stark is a character with great potential: part geek inventor, part shallow playboy, part emotionally-crippled alcoholic. (That last part doesn't actually make it into the movie.) But we actually get little of Stark in this story. He feels like a secondary character in his own movie, running hard to get through the plot. The hero is forced to be reactive rather than proactive: he is herded through the creation of his own superhero persona, the acting out of a prophecy that gets shoved in his face. He already has a secret lair and room full of Iron Man suits, as if they were always waiting for his conversion to superhero. We get one scene where Stark confronts his father, but it seems more of a "guns are bad" message than a real moment of character development. He doesn't seem especially heroic through any of this. Nor does the idea of being a puppet in this story seem to bother him very much, which results in little psychological depth for his character. Since he has a suit for every occasion, the battles themselves aren't much of a problem. Once the armor is on, it's smack smack smack, pound pound pound. Fightin' and fightin' with repulsor rays.
Not that you'd really care. The villains have no personality whatsoever. No dialogue, no distinguishing features (other than some vaguely differentiated "elemental" powers), not even names. And why exactly are they such a big threat to peace and freedom again? Oh, because they are eeeeeeevil.
This version of Iron Man is evidently based on Marvel's "Ultimates" line, a recent effort to retool the characters for a more contemporary audience. I cannot say how closely this adheres to that continuity, but as I noted earlier, I don't think that really matters here.
The art design and animation frame rate are really no better than the average television cartoon. (The directors also handled recent TV cartoons for Spider-Man and the X-Men, and their work here does not rise much above that level.) Characters are brightly colored and lack any subtle shading—in either design or personality. The uninspired artwork is almost as weak as the script. Vehicles, the Iron Man suits, the Elementals—this is all done with CG, which is deliberately rendered in a flat style in order to blend with the cel animation. The CG moves faster (clearly this was where all the money in the budget went), allowing for lively battle scenes.
Lionsgate and Marvel are clearly hoping to push this version of Iron Man as much as they can before Jon Favreau's upcoming live action version renders it moot, so the DVD offers up a bunch of extras to give the impression of greater value. A deleted opening sequence gives more exposition about the Mandarin. It might have helped give the plot more urgency, since we would have know why this guy is supposed to be scary, but it also would have delayed getting to Stark and his armor. Speaking of the armor, we also get galleries devoted to the art design and the armor suits. The latter is a nice historical overview of the changes in Iron Man's design from the Tales of Suspense days to the suit worn by a teen Stark from an alternate timeline. (Don't think too hard about that last one.) I was hoping that "The Origins of Iron Man" would actually focus on the character's history, but most of it is a behind-the-scenes look at the development of this movie, with sound bites from the creative team, who talk about how the first draft was rejected (it was apparently to much like a "comic book"). The best part is where they try to justify the "Hall of Armor," and how they feel it doesn't render the film's first act pointless—all apparently to please Avi Arad. Finally, a promo featurette on an upcoming Doctor Strange DVD movie offers a well-paced and promising opening scene.
There are some nice touches. Stark's first suit of armor has the chunkiness of the original 60s costume. The third act does generate some suspense as Stark battles overwhelming forces on his way to stop the inevitable entrance of the Mandarin. If we had a stronger second act—something leaner and less sprawling—to link the beginning and ending of this movie, it might hold together more coherently. And of course a more interesting villain would have been nice. And better art design. Hmm, given all these obstacles, I don't know if even Iron Man could win this battle.
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• The Origin of Iron Man
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