Friday, May 07, 2010

Nostalgia Theater: Iron Man Edition

I'm checking out Iron Man 2 later this afternoon, so hopefully I'll have a review up by tomorrow.

In the meantime though, let's hop in the WABAC to the mid-'90s, when Marvel, still flush from the Saturday morning success of its X-Men animated show on Fox, farmed out various other of its properties to shore up its animation domination. This led to a bumper crop of Marvel heroes on the small screen in the latter part of the decade, among which was a syndicated Iron Man/Fantastic Four combo platter served up to affiliates in fall of '94 as the "Marvel Action Hour."

Given this week's theme, can you guess which one we're focusing on?

The 1994 Iron Man starred the voice of Robert Hays (best known perhaps as the comedic lead in Airplane) as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Also, in a casting switcheroo that foreshadowed similar shenanigans on the movie franchise, they started out with Fresh Prince's James Avery voicing Jim Rhodes/War Machine, but he was replaced by Dorian Harewood after just a few installments. Lasting 26 episodes over two seasons, the show, at least initially, was pretty lousy.

The stories were juvenile, the dialogue was stilted, the animation wasn't great, and it was so jam-packed with supporting characters (the West Coast Avengers team, going by their '90s nom de guerre Force Works) and villains (every episode the team foiled arch-villain The Mandarin and his gang of cronies) that it was transparently obvious the show was primarily intended to move toys (which, at least anecdotally, it failed to do, given the number of Iron Man action toys that ended up remaindered within a few years). Here's the opening title sequence from that first season:

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Ugh.

Anyway, I wasn't the only one who felt that way, clearly, because the next fall, long after I'd written the whole thing off, something pretty rare in the animation world happened. The decision was made by the Marvel higher-ups to retool Iron Man almost from the ground up. A new production team was brought in, and in short order they created new character designs and crafted a more-adult, more-serialized arc for the entire season -- not to mention a spankin' new opening that was as different as possible from its predecessor:

Now that's better.

More impressive still, they did all this "in-continuity," so to speak, by devoting the season's first ep to setting up the new status quo. The Mandarin and Co. were placed on the backburner for the majority of the year, and the Force Works/Avengers team parted ways with Stark, leaving him to hold down the series on his own (along with his partner Rhodes). It did the trick -- at least creatively. The 1995 season of Iron Man remains one of the most mature and well-rounded series to emerge from Marvel's animated run of the '90s.

Unfortunately it wasn't enough to stem the ratings dip from that dire first year, and the second season would be the show's last (though Hays and Harewood would reprise their respective roles in an episode of the animated Incredible Hulk on UPN the next fall). Since then Marvel has returned the character to 'toon form a few times, both in several animated features and a Flintstone Kids version currently airing on Nicktoons, but none have matched the achievement of that second season. The entire 1994 Iron Man series just hit DVD stateside this past Tuesday, and it's worth a buy even if it means skipping right over those first thirteen eps to get to the good stuff.

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