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Movie Review: The Invincible Iron Man

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This is the third film in the Marvel Animated Features line to be released by Lionsgate Films, following in the wake of Ultimate Avengers and Ultimate Avengers 2. Never having had a big time live action incarnation — or even a particularly notable animated one — Iron Man lacks the immediate name recognition of Spider-man, X-Men, or some of the other leaders of the Marvel Comics pantheon. I'm sure all that will change once the big budget Iron Man film starring Robert Downey, Jr. hits screens in summer 2008, but for the moment, this direct-to-DVD animated feature is old Shell Head's chance to shine (with the aid of a little Turtle Wax).

Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark has been channeling a lot of his company's funds into a pet project in China. He hopes to literally raise a long buried city, though a group of Chinese terrorists, fearing the return of an ancient emperor known as The Mandarin, attack the excavation. Stark's friend and overseer of the project, James Rhodes, is taken hostage, and Stark is injured during a rescue attempt. With Rhodes' help, Stark builds a high tech suit of armor with advanced weaponry, and the two manage to escape.

Upon returning to the U.S., Rhodes learns that the armor he and Stark built together was only a crude version of a project Stark has been working on for some time. In a secret area of Stark Industries there are dozens of similar suits, each designed for a specific purpose. This is fortunate, as the raising of the Chinese city has awakened four superhumanly strong creatures, each mastering one of four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. They travel to the four corners of the earth in search of the five rings that will raise The Mandarin from the dead. Stark realizes that this is his fault, and perhaps the only one who can stop these creatures is Iron Man.

The back story receives a much needed revamping. In the comics, Iron Man's origins were in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and his amazing armor was built with those miracles of modern technology known as transistors. You didn't see it much, but I bet the suit had an 8-track player too. According to an interview on the disk, the idea was to use a mystical adversary to counter Stark's advanced technology. While a sound theory, the elemental villains do little to grab my imagination, and the fact that their faces never change expression doesn't help either. The Mandarin is an imposing enough character, but he's saved for the film's climax.

The film does a good job of incorporating terrorist leader Wong Chu and The Mandarin, two characters from the comics, but I think a high tech villain along the lines of The Crimson Dynamo or The Titanium Man would have been a better match for Iron Man. Characterization is often flat, particularly with Wong Chu, whose emot-o-meter is stuck on jerk-face. This can be attributed, in a large part, to the unremarkable voice talent, though I did like that Marc Worden reprised his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Ultimate Avengers features.

In the plus column, the action scenes work very well. The elementals may not make for interesting characters, but in a mindlessly fun super hero brawl they get the job done. Iron Man's battle with The Mandarin's servants in a live volcano is a real standout, and the climactic showdown with The Mandarin himself does not disappoint. When I first saw Stark in the familiar red and gold armor I got a fanboy chill down my spine. The film mostly uses traditional 2-D animation, though the elementals and Iron Man himself are rendered using 3-D computer animation. The design of the Iron Man character lends itself well to this process and it works quite effectively.

I enjoyed The Invincible Iron Man, though not nearly as much as I had hoped to. Perhaps a sequel not bogged down by the origin story will be more to my liking.

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