Sometimes I'm convinced that there will never be another period in superhero animation quite as exciting as the early 1990's. There were shows literally popping up on nearly every single network with each new season, some ranging from the immensely popular (Superman: The Animated Series for example) to the truly obscure (anyone remember Ultraforce?). The shows were typically divided into two separate and distinct classes: The after school series and the Saturday morning series.
As logic would suggest, the after school shows were a bit darker, grittier and allowed to get away with much more (watch an episode of Batman: The Animated Series if you find yourself in doubt) while the Saturday morning set was generally brighter, milder, and a whole lot more campy. Interestingly, this is where a majority of Marvel's animated shows found themselves and many were represented: X-Men, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and The Hulk to name a few.
I recall enjoying some of the earlier entries mentioned clearly but somehow managed to fall out of the whole scene by the time shows like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk aired (I suspect it had something to do with jobs, girlfriends, sports cars, that kind of stuff).
Anyway, you'll likely understand my excitement when I discovered that Marvel has finally decided to grace us with an official DVD box set. I ordered without hesitation in anticipation of catching up on what I missed out on all those years before- Hey, better late than never!
The set comes in at a total runtime of 572 minutes and contains all 26 episodes of the show across three discs.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 (stereo) and the only language option is English. Extras are completely zilch but again, beggars can't be choosers (or so I'm told).
Now onto the show itself: In the history of animation I'm aware of only one other program that managed to pull off such a radical swing between the first and second season and live to tell about it. That other show just so happens to be another Marvel property: Fantastic Four the 1994-95 series. I was warned countless times about the unambiguous swing from awful to decent even before I began the series but it's still difficult to accurately convey the train wreck that is the first season (episodes 1-13) of Iron Man without appearing overly merciless or on an agenda.
In effort to keep it simple, I'll start at the beginning. The first episode, And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead, somehow manages to combine all of the worst elements of Superfriends, Scooby-Doo, and He-Man then manages to integrate them into a muddled mess of plot points and poor acting. It should be noted that Fresh Prince's Uncle Phil (James Avery, none other than Shredder from competing show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) provides the vocals for James Rhodes/ War Machine in the early episodes then vanishes around the fifth episode never to be heard from again.
Honestly, if this first episode was in fact the pilot, it's downright amazing that the show ever saw the light of day. Fortunately things get a little better in the subsequent 12 episodes. Rather than try to cram as many scattered subplots into the twenty-three minutes as humanly possible, writer Ron Friedman settled down into a rhythm that was much closer to what we could expect from some of the finer moments of shows like Superfriends or the 1980s incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The plots almost always revolved around the Mandarin and his band of lackeys hatching up some scheme of world domination and Iron Man (with what is called the Armory Team (more on that later)) stepping in at the zero hour to save the world.
There are some really convoluted attempts at back-story amidst these episodes (such as Iron Man and Mandarin's origins) but even a fan of these characters will likely end up slightly more confused than enlightened (that's experience talking right there).
I'm not sure what they were thinking when the decision was made to integrate stock footage into each episode for Stark's transformation into Iron Man but the only mistake superseding that one was to approve the computer generated stock footage that they had to do it with! Sure I realize CGI was absolutely cutting edge back in 1994 when the show was being produced but why nobody who watched the test footage stopped to say, "why does Iron Man's armor go from red to pink in this sequence?" is beyond me.
Then there's the Armory Team... Why this show wasn't called Avengers Junior is really anybody's guess. Tony Stark is surrounded at all times by War Machine, Spider-Woman, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and Century. On the other side of the coin our buddy Mandarin doesn't make a move without the aid of Modock, Blizzard, Dread Knight, Hipnotia, Grey Gargoyle, Whirlwind, Blacklash and occasionally Living Laser and Stark-hating mogul Justin Hammer (each complete with single-brain cell intellect).
Just as things were starting to get better, the thirteenth and final episode of the first season (The Wedding of Iron Man) comes along and introduces a new low point to an already sinking series. Namely when a Tony Stark, dressed in drag, dons the Iron Man armor to appear at his own wedding to Julia Carpenter to prove once and for all that the man walking down the isle simply cannot be the same dude in the armor (never mind just letting someone else wear a replica Iron Man armor to the wedding). Rather, the show's big ironic twist comes when the Tony Stark getting married reveals that he is in fact just an android by opening his tuxedo to reveal a chest full of computer components apparently salvaged from the early Apollo missions. Cue up forced laughter of superhero team standing in a circle then fade to black. I think perhaps now you may better understand the Superfriends comparisons.
Then suddenly, just when you realize there's no way you'll be getting a refund for the $20 you sunk on this box set, the second season begins and within the first fifteen seconds of the first episode (# 14, The Beast Within), all hope is restored. The show's not just good when compared to the first season; it's just plain good period. The artwork is better, the voice acting more consistent; the beginning theme music/ animation is superior, the pacing is much more organized and above all else the episode plots are spot-on.
It turns out that while X-Men the Animated Series was done by Saban and Spider-Man by Marvel Film Animation, the first season of Iron Man was done by a company called Rainbow Animation Group, a firm oft criticized for having been stuck in early 1980's in terms of animation style and quality of production.
Season 2 went with a new firm (Koko Enterprises) and kicked Ron Friedman to the curb in favor of Tom Tataranowicz. Better still, rather than create new "kid friendly" material for the animated format, the second season witnessed a return to some of the classic comic-story threads that made Iron Man such a promising property throughout the years.
The Mandarin remains one of the focal points but this time the show wastes little time in having a deal gone bad between he and a (much more intimidating) Fin Fang Foom results in his power rings being scattered throughout the globe. Not only does this move level the playing field, it creates an excellent ongoing thread element where the viewer is given a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of a powerless Mandarin in the final few moments of each episode.
Additionally the team element comes to an end only rather than just cheapen out and scratch the remaining heroes, the second season writes in a pretty believable reason for the "Armory Team" to become disgruntled under Stark's leadership which results in their walking. Jim Rhodes and Julia Carpenter (War Machine & Spider-Woman respectively) opt to stick it out with Tony.
Another point of improvement worth noting is the inclusion of depth brought to the characters in the second season. The cardboard-cutout, one-dimensional (and I'm rounding up there) characters of the first season evolve into individuals with realistic motivations, ambitions, and fears (like Jim Rhodes developing a phobia of being trapped inside his War Machine armor which just so happens to have been based on a then-current comic storyline).
In conclusion the fact that season 1 pales in comparison (and that's putting it very lightly) to season 2 is not nearly as remarkable as the fact that happened twice, in as many years, to the same people!
I've found that the best way to view this collection is to consider it a purchase of the stellar second season with the complete first season included as a bonus feature.