Monday, December 14, 2009

“Today you get to witness a 3,000-year-old city rise from the dead.”

We’ve already established that I enjoy Iron Man. Not my favorite superhero, but he’s up there. And, after watching and enjoying Green Lantern: First Flight, I figured I’d take a look at the recent direct to video projects from Marvel. I figured The Invincible Iron Man would be a good start, seeing as it was released a year before the Robert Downey Jr. version. Results were…mixed.

A slightly different take on the whole origin of Iron Man, this one starts with Tony Stark funding a big dig in China to raise up an ancient city that was the capital of an emperor known only as the Mandarin. Now, the Mandarin was a bad dude back in the day and there’s a group of locals who aren’t too pleased with Stark’s efforts, who seems to be doing this project mostly for shits & giggles. This underground movement likes to voice their displeasure by blowing valuable equipment and people up with regularity, and eventually they critically injure Stark when they grab him on his arrival to China. He wakes up in an iron lung that’s keeping him alive, this gets upgraded to a portable version and the leader of the rebels tells Stark to find a way to fix the problem of raising the city above ground or else James Rhodes and Stark will die. He emphasizes this by shooting the random old mystic guy who helped heal Stark in the first place. Stark & Rhodes escape with the help of a Mk. I suit of Iron Man armor and Li Mei, one of the rebels who took a liking to him.

Stark finds himself a fugitive because somebody in the company was fudging paperwork and making it look like Tony was making illegal arms deals and he’s also got to try and stop four demonic elementals from gathering the Mandarin’s ten rings and reviving the bastard.

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Marc Worden voices our hero in this version. Here, Stark’s much less sympathetic than the live action version pre-accident. He’s not just negligent about his responsibilities, he’s also a callous bastard who doesn’t really give a damn about his employees being killed in regular raids on the dig site, and he’s too busy fooling around in hot tubs with hot women to even care. True, he eventually mans up to become a hero, but he never really makes amends for his previous douchbaggery, just kind of sweeps it under the rug quietly.

James “Rhodey” Rhodes: Rodney Saulsberry voices Stark’s stalwart buddy and the guy on-site supervising the dig. He’s much more likable than Tony throughout the film, frequently calling Tony out on his bullshit. He doesn’t get a set of armor in this film either. He’s way more likable than Stark in this and a much more sympathetic, grounded character.

Virginia “Pepper” Potts: Elisa Gabrielli voices Stark’s assistant, giving her an oddly British clip to her accent. Pepper’s fine in this, actually, being sassier and a little more sarcastic in her sparring matches with her boss, though when the chips are down she gets things done. Doesn’t hurt that the design of the character gives her a “hot librarian” look with the pinned up hair and glasses. My pick for badass of the movie.

Howard Stark: John McCook voices Tony’s dad, a man who’s really being leaned on by the board of directors to kind of clamp down on Tony and shut him out of the business. This is somehow seen as a bad thing, though I’m not really sure, since yeah, Tony’s being really wild with his spending, like the whole dig in China that I’m still not sure why he was funding. So…yeah.

Li Mei: Gwendoline Yeo voices one of the ranking members of the Jade Dragon group that is really unhappy about the raising of that city. She takes a liking to Stark and doesn’t want him to die when they capture him, but she’s marked by an ancient destiny that ties her inextricably to the Mandarin.

Wong Chu: James Sie voices the leader of the Jade Dragons, who are arguably a group of good guys who are trying to stop the catastrophe that raising a city would bring. I say arguably, since he’s also a really big asshole who murders people left and right, conducts terrorist raids and so on. Yeah. These are the guys trying to prevent a disaster. Sure...

The Mandarin: Fred Tatasciore (hey look, its Saren from Mass Effect) voices our Ancient Evil that Stark desperately tries to stop from coming back. Mandarin’s barely in the movie, only getting resurrected at the end for a rather strange fight scene, but his presence is found throughout the movie, particularly in his four Elemental henchmen that are going around the world looking for his rings. The Elementals are okay, I suppose, but they’re obviously just a bunch of minibosses for Stark to pound on, Megaman style before he fights Dr. Wily-- I mean, Mandarin. Also, they’re based on the 4 Western Elements (Earth, Air, Water, Fire) and not on the 5 Chinese Elements (Water, Earth, Fire, Wood, Metal) which, well, that’s a clear case of Did Not Do The Research.

Directed by Patrick Archibald, Jay Oliva and Frank Paur, the animation quality is strikingly uneven. CGI is used heavily for things like the 4 Elementals and for the Iron Man Armor itself, but it never quite meshes with the traditional 2D art of the rest of the characters. There’s a slight disconnect, and a bit of the uncanny valley in the CGI movements as well. The 2D art has moments of goodness and then moments of incredible stiffness and “lack of expressiveness.” Like I said, uneven.

This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have great moments. Some of the fight scenes are handled really well and the Iron Man CGI does look pretty good overall. The fight with the Earth Elemental in a volcano was pretty inventive visually, and then the whole street fight in the raised city where Shellhead’s fighting off an army of Terra Cotta soldiers magically animated by the Mandarin’s power is actually pretty awesome, made more so by the fact that the only suit he’s got available to him at that moment is his cobbled together Mk. I. And then he has to fight a dragon. The final fight with the Mandarin is quite a bit stranger and less interesting, quite honestly.

All right, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber get credit for creating ol’ Shellhead (for the record, Buckethead is not an accepted nickname for Iron Man, it is both the stage name of an esoteric guitar virtuoso and the nickname for another Marvel Superhero named Nova) and Avi Arad, Greg Johnson and Craig Kyle worked on the story and script of the movie. This too is uneven, because there are lots of plotholes (like why the Hell does Stark care about raising this city above ground???) but it also throws some interesting nods and ideas into the mix. SHIELD makes a very clear presence in the movie, which is a nice continuity touch, and I rather like the idea of Stark having to go into the final battle with a completely outclassed suit that gives the Mk. I time to shine. But the overall movie feels unpolished, like they’re really just going through the motions. There’s a third act twist that, while it makes sense, also feels tacked on just to have a twist, and the ending itself is just pretty weak.

Original music by Guy Michelmore. Its fine, does the job nicely, but I can’t really remember anything from it.

Yeah….The Invincible Iron Man isn’t a very good movie. While it does bring a few interesting things to the table, it doesn’t have the panache of the superior live action film. Ultimately its an inoffensive if slightly underwhelming effort. I can’t really recommend it, unless you’re really jonesing for an Iron Man fix. Its not a complete waste of time though: it has Iron Man killing the hell out of an actual dragon. That’s one thing its got over the live action film.

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