Thursday, July 10, 2014

Animated Autopsy - Iron Man: Armored Adventures

As Superhero movies have risen in popularity and box office draw, it's no surprise that an influx of superhero cartoons and TV shows has followed. The nature of the tie-in beast means that most of them draw material, characterizations and even plots from the film properties they're intended to point audiences toward. When it works, it works well; Batman: The Animated Series and Spectacular Spider-Man were both tie-ins themselves. On a tier below that one, then, we have Iron Man Armored Adventures.

Originally premiering between Iron Man and Iron Man 2, IM:AA is an all CGI show done with a cel-shading art style, similar to Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, to keep the animation more cartoonish and prevent it from sinking into the uncanny valley as many CGI productions do. With production done by a Canadian studio, Method Animation, most of the actors and producers involved aren't as familiar to audiences as the staff of, say, Avengers Assemble. The main showrunner was Christopher Yost, who also oversaw Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and would go on to pen the film Thor: The Dark World. Aside from him, none of the other staffers or writers on the show have any similar credits to their name. The animators were primarily known for the Barbie DTV movies, and the voice cast is almost entirely unknowns unless you watch Canadian anime dubs.

Where the show made its mark compared to its peers was its re-imagining of Tony Stark from a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist into a high-school age science prodigy with laziness issues, a chip on his shoulder and an innate desire to do the right thing. When Howard Stark is killed in a plane crash that Tony only survives thanks to his prototype Iron Man armor, the teen is put into custody of Roberta Rhodes, Tony's best friend's mother and the Stark family attorney. Per his father's will, Tony is placed in high school and forced to maintain good grades or forfeit the loss of not only his inheritance but also his claim to the chairmanship of Stark Industries.

One would think from the synopsis that the crux of the show would come from Tony's struggle to balance superhero and high-school life, similar to Spider-Man. The real surprise of this show, then, is how casually they subvert that expectation. Tony is bored of school within the first few minutes of his arrival, and most of the show has him either passing his classes with ease thanks to his own vast knowledge of math and science, or leaning on his friends Rhodey and Pepper to squeeze him past the other classes he takes. The focus of the story is the varying interests of the characters affected by Howard's death: Tony, Stark Industries CEO Obediah Stane and a mysterious villain called The Mandarin, and how their interests meet, clash, part and meet again. Tony wants to discover the truth behind his father's death, Stane wants to keep control of the company he helped build at any cost, and the Mandarin searches for the equally mysterious Makluan rings, which are said to be the key to ultimate power.

Where this show surprised and pleased many viewers was its strong characterization and writing. Tony begins the show unconcerned with the idea of being a superhero, concerned instead with the matters surrounding his father, Stane and the company. It's only with Rhodey's urging that he decides to use his armor to do more than put a halt to Stane's schemes, his friend unwilling to let Tony succumb to a desire for vengeance and keeping his reckless, arrogant streak in check. Pepper Potts, re-imagined in this series into a motor-mouthed over-enthusiastic classmate of the two boys, annoys them as much as the audience before endearing herself to all with her enthusiasm for doing the right thing and refusal to be the damsel in distress. Stane, while an antagonist, is not evil, driven by a desire to better the company and improve its standing in the world market but lacking Howard and Tony's mechanical genius to make it so. The Mandarin (no spoilers) is almost as subversive a character in this series as he would turn out to be in Iron Man 3, though without the potential for the fandom raging against it.

As the show went on, more and more of the Iron Man gallery of rogues were introduced, including Whiplash, the Crimson Dynamo, Justin Hammer, Madame Masque and others, as well as giving cameos to other Marvel heroes, like Black Panther, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury and even Jean Gray. The spiraling escalation of hero and criminal technology ignited by Tony's armor played itself out over both seasons, with War Machine, Extremis, Titanium Man and War Monger all appearing as both Tony and his foes continually one-upped each other. And through it all went the show's strong character and myth arcs as Tony searched for any clues related to his father's death, gradually becoming a hero in his own right.

Overall, IM:AA wasn't quite on the level of Spectacular Spider-Man, but it was the closest we've gotten since that show was cancelled. Its willingness to subvert and re-invent large portions of the Iron Man mythos and stray farther and farther from the lead provided by the films it tied in to meant the characters and plots could grow and move in new and exciting ways, and the strong focus on Tony and the characters around him gave the show a driving point that kept it from losing itself through the more shallow episodes. The show ran for two seasons for a total of 52 episodes and is available on Netflix and DVD.