No, no, no… no. After revisiting Jon Favreau’s ‘Iron Man’ more times than my wife would like me to admit, I sat down with ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ hoping for another blast across the stratosphere with an armored billionaire. Sadly, Marvel Animation’s foray into the frenzied world of Stark Industries is, in this humble fanboy’s opinion, an utter failure on a number of levels. Compared to this summer’s live-action blockbuster (as well as the character’s appearances in the ‘Ultimate Avengers Collection’ and ‘Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow’), ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ isn’t just tedious and awkward, it’s overplotted, underwhelming, and devoid of the one thing that would make an animated Shell Head flick worth watching: soul.
As ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ opens, wealthy inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (voiced by Marc Worden) is working to unearth the ruins of an ancient Chinese city that’s been buried for more than three-thousand years. What he doesn’t realize is that his excavation is about to unleash a powerful entity called the Mandarin (Fred Tatasciore), a mystical being that was once a blood-thirsty emperor and evil conqueror. To try and prevent the threat, a rogue organization called the Jade Dragons kidnaps Stark’s friend, James Rhodes (Rodney Saulsberry), and kills some of his workers. When the billionaire heads to China to investigate the tragedy, he stumbles into an ambush, gets himself severely injured and, ultimately, captured by the desperate warriors. After a daring escape, Stark refines a suit of technologically advanced battle armor, fights a group of elemental spirits intent on resurrecting the Mandarin, and faces a malevolent force that threatens the entire world.
Let’s put Favreau’s ‘Iron Man’ aside for a moment. Even without such a definitive adaptation of the character to go on, ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ is a whopping misfire that bastardizes too many of the comic’s fundamental concepts to win over purists, yet relies on too many illogical developments to create a compelling narrative for the uninitiated. As portrayed in the animated flick, Stark isn’t a witty charmer (as he is in the comics and the live-action film), he’s just a slick, corporate egomaniac with few redeeming traits. Likewise, the Mandarin has been drastically altered from his comicbook roots and essentially fills the role of relatively-unseen, mythical baddie. To make matters worse, the Jade Dragons, the elemental creatures, and a misplaced dragon (yep, the kind with scales, teeth, and a long tail) are flat, uninteresting sub-villains that don’t inject the story with any real tension or sense of danger. In fact, the entire plot (as presented) would be better suited for a 'Doctor Strange' sequel than a film that features Iron Man.
But that’s not all. The film’s plotting progresses painfully slow at first and is forced to jarringly accelerate as the story nears its climax, Stark’s character is neutered by unintentional hypocrisy and contradictive reasoning, and the battles are repetitive and uninspired. Granted, I could probably still shrug my way through the plot holes and dry stretches if the animation itself offered fans anything to get excited about. However, the character designs are by-the-numbers bland, the presentation’s frame rate is a joke, and facial expressiveness is stocky and wooden. I never felt connected to the people on screen and I certainly didn’t feel like they conveyed any realistic emotions. Compared to the kids in ‘Next Avengers,’ Tony and crew are nothing but dead-eyed, slack-jawed marionettes.
Finally, I have to take a moment to rant about my biggest personal problem with the film. Just brace yourselves… it’s a complaint that will only matter to those who’ve grown up reading Iron Man comics. I understand that the filmmakers (specifically former Marvel Studios head honcho and subsequent nemesis of fanboys everywhere, Avi Arad) were shooting to showcase a conflict between technology and ancient mysticism, but I think they missed the point of the Mandarin and his underlying conflict with Stark. The Mandarin is an opportunist; a modern day conqueror willing to take advantage of alien technology, science, or any inexplicable powers from the past. He’s the polar opposite of Stark, a man who uses his intellect and technological advancements to perform selfless heroics. The Mandarin is not Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ -- to make him a disembodied puppeteer is to strip the villain of his bite and his ability to be such a formidable foe. Ultimately, the only thing ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ retains of Stark’s greatest nemesis is the character’s name, nationality, and use of mystic rings.
Am I being too harsh? Maybe my expectations were just too high, but ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ is a mind-numbing adaptation of a Marvel mainstay, a poorly conceived tale of boring heroics, and the weakest entry in Marvel’s series of animated films. While I know a lot of people will nab this one on a whim when they buy the BD release of Favreau’s live-action blockbuster, I think they’ll be sorely disappointed with the results.
Low-budget animation aside, ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ arrives on Blu-ray with a colorful and competent 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that only suffers from a few problems inherent to its presentation. While its palette is often shrouded in shadows and intentionally undersaturated tones, primaries are vibrant, blacks are deep, and contrast is quite strong. Detail is as sharp as it is on every other Marvel BD release, allowing viewers to scrutinize the breaks in each fine line, the slightest imperfection in the art, and every texture in the painted backgrounds. This level of clarity may not result in the most aesthetically pleasing presentation, but it is technically sound. I’m mainly concerned with the transfer’s distracting banding, apparent aliasing (which gets particularly annoying in the third act), and some errant artifacts (although, considering the artifacts are static, the culprit is likely the original master rather than the transfer itself).
All in all, ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ looks as good as it probably ever will. It doesn’t measure up to the best 2D animated releases on the market (or the BD transfer for Marvel’s latest animated project, ‘Next Avengers’), but it should please fans of the film and those prepared for the usual problems associated with the studio’s earlier productions.
If you love explosions, magical implosions, and death rays galore, ‘The Invincible Iron Man’s generous DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track will make this disc worth a look. In spite of the film’s flat animation, the soundfield is three-dimensional, immersive, and surprisingly weighty. Quiet scenes actually offer listeners some decent ambience, while chaotic battles make the most of everything they’re given. Pans hurl missiles and energy blasts from speaker to speaker, rear channel directionality is especially involving, and LFE support is aggressive and satisfying. Better still, dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, leaving little question as to what’s being said even when everything on the screen is being obliterated. Sure, the actual sound design is bland at times and underdeveloped in a few sequences, but the track as a whole offers viewers an engaging sonic experience and at least one thing to get excited about on the disc.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ includes the same features as its 2007 DVD counterpart, but unfortunately presents all of the video content (except for the upcoming project previews) in standard definition.
Within minutes, ’The Invincible Iron Man’ begins to deflate at an alarming rate and never quite recovers from its crowded story, uninteresting characters, and mediocre writing. Thankfully, the Blu-ray edition delivers an above average experience with a faithful video transfer and an excellent DTS HD MA 7.1 surround track. The supplements are as uneventful as the film itself but, if you’re determined to give this one a try, the technical package will at least give you something to enjoy. Rent it… better yet, save three bucks and rent ‘Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow.’ It may be a kids’ flick, but it at least makes you feel something other than disdain.