[DVD Review] Iron Man: The Complete 1994 Animated Television Series

Hi there!

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 Just Hammer. Though all of the characters 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 that the series just never really came together.

Contrast the first season with the second season however and it’s like night and day. Without 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 James Avery (Philip Banks on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) 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.

This article was originally published at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: Superman: The Complete Animated Series

Let me tell you a little story…

In 1992, at a science fiction convention in Denver, Colorado, I had my first glimpse of Batman: The Animated Series. That night we watched footage from “On Leathery Wings,” which focused on a battle between Batman and the Man-Bat in Gotham City. From that point on, I was addicted to the DC Animated Universe as produced by Warner Brothers Animation. Over the next few years, I watched Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited.

Each of these series proved not only that a cartoon could be more adult in nature and still appeal to kids, but that it could deal with more serious themes of love and loss, dedication, sacrifice, and justice. No longer were these kiddie cartoons, but something deeper.

So when Superman: The Complete Animated Series was released in November 2009, I was very excited to see it – spread across a 7-disc collection, all 54 episodes plus commentaries, making-of features, trivia, and more. Not only could I see these episodes again, but I could show them to my daughters and share these great stories with a new generation of animation lovers.

Starting with the destruction of Krypton and Kal-El’s parents sending their only child to an unknown life on a distant planet, the series begins with a bang. I hadn’t seen the original three episodes (“The Last Son of Krypton” parts 1-3) in many years and was happy to find that they were still emotionally relevant and packed a punch to start the series right.

Some of my favorite villains of all time are in these episodes – Lex Luthor, Braniac, Lobo, Darkseid, Bizarro, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and many many more. You even encounter many of the heroes like the Flash, Batman, Supergirl, Green Arrow, etc.

It’s also interesting after all these years to go back and listen to the many different voice talents involved in production. Tim Daly (Wings, Private Practice) as Superman, Clark Kent, and Bizarro… Clancy Brown (Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers) as Lex Luthor… Dana Delany (China Beach, Desperate Housewives) as Lois Lane… Michael Ironside, Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Edelstein, Joely Fisher, Ron Perlman, Malcolm McDowell, Michael Dorn, Lori Petty, Brad Garrett, William H. Macy… the list goes on forever. It reads a virtual “Who’s Who” of actors and actresses from then and now.

Since all of these series stopped airing new episodes, I have to say that the number of animated shows I still catch regularly has dropped dramatically. The style of Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series and all the rest hearkens back to the Max Fleischer Superman series from the 1940s mixed with modern techniques for the time. There’s something about the style that WB Animation used for all of them that can’t be matched by more modern, CGI or mixed media animation these days.

Fifty four episodes aired over the course of a bit more than three years between September 1996 and February 2000. And though they may have run out of stories from the original comic books, I probably would have continued to watch!

In addition to the episodes themselves, which I really enjoyed watching again, there are a number of extras scattered through the seven discs that really make the collection worthwhile. Creator commentaries, making-of featurettes, trivia tracks, and more are distributed across the main six discs.

For me, the feature on Disc 7 – “The Despot Darkseid: A Villain Worthy of Superman” – really shows the difficulties faced by writers trying to come up with viable villains for the hero. Darkseid is definitely a worthy villain from outside the normal Superman universe. The writers and directors involved in the animated series talk at length about Jack Kirby and the contributions he made to comic books. Darkseid brings a true evil, fascist dictator – almost an Anti-Superman – with great strength and intellect to the DC Universe. Suddenly Superman could be hurt and the whole world is in peril.

If you were a fan of Superman: The Animated Series when it originally aired in the late 1990s or have been catching it on Toon Disney, I think Superman: The Complete Animated Series is an amazing collection. Having all of these episodes in one place makes it entirely too easy to fall back into the habit of watching them after schoolwork!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up Superman: The Complete Animated Series and other awesome animated titles from Amazon below:

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