Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.
Released: 23 January 2007
Director: Patrick Archibald, Jay Oliva, and Frank Paur
Stars: Marc Worden, Gwendolyne Yeo, Fred Tatasciore, Rodney Saulsberry, and Elisa Gabrielli
When cocky industrialist Anthony “Tony” Stark’s (Worden) efforts to raise an ancient Chinese temple leads him to be seriously wounded and captured by enemy forces, he builds a mechanised suit of armour to escape and ends up embroiled in an ancient prophecy regarding a supernatural despot known as “The Mandarin” (Tatasciore).
Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) took cinemas by storm, Marvel had some notable success in the field of animation. While the X-Men animated series (1992 to 1997) remains one of their most celebrated efforts, other Marvel properties came to be adapted into cartoons, including ol’ shellhead himself, Iron Man. I used to watch the Iron Man cartoon (1994 to 1996) as a kid and, for the most part, this was my primary window into the character as I was more into Peter Parker/Spider-Man at the time. In 2004, perhaps as preparation for their upcoming series of live-action adaptations, Marvel entered into an agreement with Lions Gate Entertainment to produce ten direct-to-video animated features. The success of the Ultimate Avengers (Richardson, et al, 2006) features led to a solo feature for Iron Man and, while this film made notably less than its predecessors and was met with mixed reviews, this did little to deter Marvel from producing more animated features or their live-action efforts.
The Invincible Iron Man is an interesting twist on the Iron Man formula that many may be accustomed to in that it’s perfectly happy to mix the supernatural and mystical with the character’s more technological aspects. While these elements have often been intertwined in the comics and led to many a story pitting science against magic, I have to say that I was a bit surprised to find the film having such an oriental flavour right from the get-go and intertwining Iron Man’s origin in with that of the mystical and prophecy regarding an “Iron Knight” opposing the entity known as the Mandarin.
In China, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Saulsberry) is overseeing the work on unearthing an ancient city. As if superstitions weren’t bad enough, the work is threatened by potential geological issues, and Tony Stark constantly letting Rhodey down in regards to supplies and resources for the project. Even worse is the constant threat of a terrorist group known as the Jade Dragons, who attack the site with bazookas. Frustrated, Rhodey tries to force Tony into action; Tony is aghast at the idea of sending munitions to help defend the site since he doesn’t want any bloodshed but, despite promising to fly out to support him, Tony finds himself more distracted by a gorgeous redhead. Tony’s cavalier attitude and arrogance aggravates his Board of Directors, who disagree with his excavation of the temple and have grown tired of his egotism and the secrecy regarding his scientific endeavours and even his father, Howard (John McCook), reluctantly agrees to cut Tony’s funding and influence off.
At the site, a bombardment of sonic vibrations expand “liquid steel” to safely raise the entire lost city up to ground level. The Jade Dragons’ leader, Wong Chu (James Sie), adamantly opposes this and vows to kill anyone who gets in their way; though Li Mei (Yeo) openly defies this order, the attack is successful and Rhodey is taken prisoner, which is finally the kick up the ass Tony needs to get over there and get involved. However, this is all part of the plan for the Jade Dragons to ambush Tony’s convoy and, in the attack, he is not only also captured but critically injured as well. This presents another interesting twist on Iron Man’s origin where Tony is held captive alongside Rhodey as well as Ho Yin (Unknown/Unclear), and also that his entire capture was by a group of extremists trying to return the Mandarin’s tomb to the ground.
Unlike traditional depictions of the character, The Invincible Iron Man’s Mandarin is a purely mystical and supernatural entity of myth and magic; he is protected by the four Demon Elementals, which take the form of armoured, Samurai warriors. Thanks to Ho Yin and Rhodey’s background as an army medic, Tony’s life is saved by a crude iron lung, of sorts. After Ho Yin informs them of the legend of the Mandarin and is executed by Wong Chu, they construct an elaborate suit of armour to stop the Elementals, who are causing destruction all over the world in search of the ten rings that will resurrect the Mandarin.
If there’s one thing holding The Invincible Iron Man back, it’s the quality of the animation; while it’s okay, for the most part, and has a bit of a pseudo-anime flavour going on, it’s all very rigid and basic and a bit blurry around the edges. Similar to the Iron Man cartoon of the nineties, it also features an abundance of CGI animation, particularly in the depiction of the Demon Elementals, which lends them an otherworldly quality and helps realise them as creatures of magic.
Rhodey is initially incensed to find out that Tony has secretly been constructing various armours behind his back; believing that Tony has betrayed his anti-weapons ideals, his concerns are set aside as all of those armours come in handy not only for tracking down the Mandarin’s rings but battling the Elementals. The CGI work on the armours is good, if maybe a little too “fluid” at times, and there are a decent array on show here, from the bulky grey armour to the submarine suit and the familiar red-and-gold armour that’s become Iron Man’s standard. Unlike other depictions of Iron Man, the actual construction and capabilities of the armours is of little consequence here; we don’t really learn anything about the Arc Reactor technology or the Repulsor blasts and there’s no allegorical scenes of Tony building the armour. They simply exist because he built them prior to the film, which is good on the one hand as it lets the film get to the fights a lot faster but also a little disappointing as seeing the construction and evolution of the armours is always a fun aspect of the character. Still, thanks to the Mandarin’s rings being hidden all over the world, Iron Man’s battles against the Demon Elements get to take place in such animated locations as the bottom of the ocean and inside a raging volcano. While the CGI in these fights can be a little jerky and wonky at times, they’re decent enough, for the most part, and add some visual variety to the proceedings (a fact helped by the inclusion of actual dragons for Iron Man to fight!)
There’s also a couple of competing sub-plots at work in the film, including a bit of corporate intrigue surrounding Stark Industries and Howard’s insistence on directing the company (and Tony’s genius) towards weaponry. This leads to him running afoul of Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.) Agent Drake (John DeMita), who is potentially a prototype for Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and him and Rhodey finding themselves fugitives. It is also the cause of a great deal of animosity between Tony and his father as Howard is indirectly responsible for Tony and Rhodey’s capture and Ho Yin’s death since it was he (as in Howard) who supplied weapons to the site and thus armed the Jade Dragons.
While there isn’t a great deal for Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gabrielli) to do other than offer dry witticisms and cover Tony’s escape and actions in her own way, Li Mei is a pivotal part of a crucial sub-plot in the film; initially depicted as a reluctant follower of Wong Chu, she is burdened by having been born a woman and thus judged as being insufficient to opposing the Mandarin in a strictly patriarchal society. There’s a bit of a brief romantic angle teased between her and Tony but, rather than being reduced to a mere prize for Tony to earn or a damsel to save, Li Mei strikes back against her oppressor when she shoots Wong Chu dead to help Tony and Rhodey escape and even travels to America to help Tony track down the last of the rings. Li Mei’s story turns out to be one of deception as, after Iron Man retrieves all of the rings, she claims them for herself and reveals that she tried to keep him away since she is destined to be the vessel for the Mandarin’s resurrection. Although despondent at her fate, and Tony’s decision to stand by her and thus fulfil the prophecy of the Iron Knight battling the Mandarin to the death, she nevertheless willingly allows the Mandarin’s malevolent spirit to posses her body for the finale. Thus, in another twist on the traditional depiction of the Mandarin as a Fu Manchu-type, the sorcerer is instead rendered as an ethereal force that inhabits and surrounds Li Mei’s naked body and wields incredible elemental powers. Ultimately, though, Iron Man is able to dispel the Mandarin not through brute force or technology but by appealing to Li Mei’s humanity, though she dies in the process. Having learned the value of responsibility and self-sacrifice, Tony returns to America makes amends with his father by buying a controlling interest in Stark Industries and giving ownership to Howard (who immediately fires the entire Board).
The Invincible Iron Man is a decent enough animated feature; it’s not exactly the most action-packed cartoon I’ve ever seen but there’s some interesting twists on the classic Iron Man formula that make it an entertaining watch, at times. The decision to tie Iron Man’s origin in with the Mandarin is a fascinating one; the two have always had a violent and storied history and represented the dichotomy of technology versus the supernatural and, to me, the Mandarin has always been Iron Man’s greatest foe. It’s disappointing, then, that the Mandarin doesn’t really show up until the final few minutes of the feature and in a greatly altered form; while the Demon Elementals fill the void on his behalf, a lot of the film seems like needless filler. The Invincible Iron Man seems to primarily function as a prequel to the Ultimate Avengers animated movie and, in that regard, it does help shed a little light on the character but there’s not really much Iron Man action for my liking and Marvel definitely did a better job representing the character in the nineties cartoon and the subsequent live-action films.
Could Be Better
What did you think to The Invincible Iron Man? How do you think it compares to the other Iron Man cartoons, Marvel’s other animated efforts, and the character’s live-action movies? Did you like the twists presented in the film, specifically regarding Iron Man’s origin and the depiction of the Mandarin? Would you have liked to see more animated films in this style or were you never a fan of Marvel’s feature-length cartoons? Whatever your thoughts on The Invincible Iron Man, leave a comment below and check in next Monday for more Iron Man content.