Iron Man is a popular fella these days. With Iron Man 2 hitting the big screen on May 7, 2010 it's only natural that we'd see a resurgence in the prior efforts to bring the Iron Man hero to life from the pages of Marvel Comics. So when I heard that Iron Man: The Complete 1994 Animated Television Series was coming to DVD, I had to check it out. Though I'd seen a few episodes here and there on Jetix or Disney XD, I knew I had missed many of the episodes and wanted to see the series from beginning to end.
Let me start by providing a bit of history about Iron Man. He's been around for a while as the veritable Tin Man of comic books. Tony Stark, heir to the Stark Industries (or Stark Enterprises in the animated series) fortune, follows a similar path to Bruce Wayne from DC Comics. However, where Wayne plays the role of a playboy and uses his dour, more serious Batman persona to fight crime. Stark is actually a playboy. Well, at least until he gets kidnapped and has to build a special device to keep himself alive after a serious wound to his heart. The Iron Man armor is originally built to help Stark escape his captors, but it evolves into much more as he tries to redeem himself by saving others. Stan Lee, his creator, has been quoted as saying that Stark was based on Howard Hughes – a brilliant inventor, womanizer, and a bit of an adrenaline junkie who eventually goes a bit crazy.
The character has been around since the early 1960s and changed over time to reflect current technology and more modern villains. Recently we've seen Iron Man on the big screen in 2008's Iron Man movie, which earned nearly $600 million worldwide, the sequel which is hitting theaters this month, and a new animated series in 2009 – Iron Man: Armored Adventures. Obviously Stark and Iron Man are back in the mainstream media in a big way.
Back in 1994, the series Iron Man hit television for a couple of seasons. Created by the same producers (Marvel Entertainment and Saban Entertainment) who brought us the X-Men animated series from 1992-1997, Iron Man never really gained the following of its mutant counterparts.
The first season tended towards single episode storylines and definitive good vs. evil plots. And, though it seems strange to say, the characters were very cartoonish and almost slapstick at times. Iron Man/Tony Stark worked alongside his friends James Rhodes/War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Spider Woman as they fought battles against the forces of the Mandarin – Dreadknight, Blizzard, Blacklash, Grey Gargolye, Hypnotia, Whirlwind, Living Laser, MODOK, Fin Fang Foom, and Justin Hammer. Though all of the characters but Hypnotia are from the comic books, these were very simplified stories with a clear beginning, middle, and an end. When compared with the X-Men series, the plots pale in comparison.
Add to that the horrible attempts to work in early computer-generated graphics as Tony dons the armor and you start to understand why the series just never really came together.
Contrast the first season with the second season however and it's like night and day. Minus the early CGI and with a slightly different animation and story style, the series worked a bit better. By focusing on more complex storylines such as Jim Rhodes facing his fear of drowning and dying in the War Machine armor and bringing less one-dimensional foils into play such as Madame Masque, Arthur Dearborn, The Leader, and so on, the show gained much more depth.
It was also very interesting to see characters such as The Leader, a gamma ray-affected villain, was worked into the Iron Man story. The Leader of course wants to rid the world of his nemesis, Dr. Bruce Banner, and his alter ego the Hulk. But as with many series, we end up being overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters thrown into a single episode. Mandarin steals the spotlight as the main Iron Man villain, but we're far too quickly introduced to Hulk and his story before the 26-minute show wraps up.
Though the animators and writers did their best to use a huge number of recurring Iron Man characters from the source material, the first season seemed to simplify things too much and the second season, though an improvement, seemed to miss its mark as well. Now that I've seen all the episodes of the series, I understand why it didn't have the power or fan support of its sister series X-Men.
The computer generated graphics weren't the only animation errors either, especially in the first season. Many strange inconsistencies would appear, such as characters blurring if things didn't quite line up or where a character might wear something in one scene, but when cutting to a different view they might be wearing something very different.
The voice cast for the series was an interesting mix of actors – from Robert Hays (Airplane!) as Tony Stark/Iron Man and both James Avery (Philip Banks on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) Dorian Harewood as Jim Rhodes/War Machine to Jim Cummings (who seems to have done voice acting for every cartoon since the mid-'80s) and Jennifer Hale (who's been doing voice acting in games and cartoons since the early '90s). Much of the voice work was great, but there were some places where actors would have to voice characters other than their own if actors weren't available to do pick-ups after the fact.
If you're an Iron Man fan and like '90s-era cartoon styles, the 3-DVD set for Iron Man: The Complete 1994 Animated Television Series is probably a worthwhile investment for your collection. But if you're hoping for more Jon Favreau/Robert Downey Jr. magic, you might want to skip it and check out the X-Men animated series collections instead.