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By Thomas Wheeler

I've said it before with any number of Iron Man reviews. The cool thing about Iron Man is that, unlike some other super-heroes who tend to have multiple variations of themselves produced within their respective self-named action figure lines, Iron Man can get away with it a good bit better, since there's no reason that Tony Stark couldn't build a wide variety of specialized armors, and in fact has done so in the past. Now, I'm not saying that he necessarily has built all of the varieties that have appeared in the assorted action figure lines, but I do tend to find them more plausible than a bright orange Batman or a Spider-Man running around in a ninja costume or whatever.

With the movie IRON MAN 2, the average action figure section of most toy stores or toy departments is up to the ceiling in little armored action figures. And it seems that just about everybody with a significant toy department has managed to secure some sort of exclusive product. Walmart opted for some 6" figures. So did Toys "R" Us, as well as a multi-pack of the 4" scale figures. Target got such a multi-pack, as well, and for that matter, so did K-Mart! It's that particular multi-pack that I'll be reviewing here.

The Iron Man 2 line of action figures has been divided into three main categories. There is the MOVIE SERIES - figures based on characters and armors that did appear in the movie; COMIC SERIES - figures based on characters and armors more closely affiliated to the comic books, and the CONCEPT SERIES - armored figures that really, could fit into either world, but haven't necessarily appeared in either, although one of the figures in this particular set certainly has, in some form.

The K-Mart exclusive three-pack is called PROVING GROUND, and it features three very distinct, diverse, and impressive figures, including a Hulkbuster Iron Man, a new version of War Machine called "Recon" War Machine, and a "Holographic" version of Iron Man's Mark VI armor from the movie.

Trying to work that mess together can't have been easy concept-wise, but the text for this Proving Ground set on the back of the package does the best that it can to do so. It reads as follows:

Deep in the vault that contains all of Tony Stark's untested prototypes, powerful armor suits await the day they'll be needed. There are original 3-D design elements of the mighty Mark VI armor, as well as his own version of War Machine, a suit designed for wholesale destruction of enemy targets. Lastly, there is the Hulkbuster suit, an imposing armor built in case Iron Man ever needs to take on the strongest creature there is.

Let's start with the armor that arguably has the most history, at least in the comics -- the HULKBUSTER ARMOR.

It's very presence in this set -- and it is interesting to note that this Hulkbuster Armor is ENTIRELY different from the one available on a single card as part of the "Comic Series" -- is certainly indicative of the intent on Marvel Studios' part to unify as much of what's being referred to as the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" as possible, eventually leading in to an Avengers movie that will bring together all of the assorted heroes presently being given individual movies.

It more or less started when Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, turned up following the end credits of the first Iron Man movie, and wanted to discuss something about the Avengers with Tony Stark. Then Stark and Fury had a cameo in the most recent Hulk movie. Then Thor's hammer turned up at the end of the second Iron Man movie. There's bound to be a Captain America reference somewhere (technically, his shield could be seen on a work table in the first Iron Man movie), and -- well, you get the idea.

Will there be a Hulkbuster Iron Man in any of these movies? Unknown. But the concept of Tony Stark building a set of armor that is designed to go up against the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant certainly has precedent in the comics.

The first appearance of any sort of Hulkbuster armor goes back to 1994, in Iron Man #304. It was designed for maximum strength amplification at the cost of reduced versatility and mobility. Obviously, it was specifically designed for hand-to-hand combat with the Hulk. The armor was rated with a lift (press) capacity of 175 tons. During its maiden run, the armor enabled Stark to hold his own in sustained physical combat with the Hulk.

There was a second Hulkbuster armor, years later. During the "World War Hulk" storyline, Stark designed a new Hulkbuster armor, in order to battle the Hulk upon his return from space. He does so in "World War Hulk #1", and initially was able to hold his own against his foe. The new armor was built as a large exoskeletal shell which fits around his normal armor and is equipped with rocket-boosted gauntlets, capable of punching the Hulk back several miles. With the damage done by the Hulk and the entire Stark Tower collapsing on the already damaged armor, it was unable to continue functioning.

While I was researching the history of the Hulkbuster Armor, I even came across another suit of armor Stark had designed, called the Thor-buster Armor! It was powered by an Asgardian crystal given to Stark by Thor to use as a possible power source for mankind. Instead, Stark used it to build a powerful armor in case Thor ever went bad. Not terribly trusting, is he? Get the impression that if he moved to the DC Universe, he'd build a Kryptonite Armor?

Here's my take on the Hulkbuster Armor. Stark thinks technology can solve every problem known to man -- including rampaging behemoths like the Hulk. But that's an ego-driven notion -- since Stark is one of the best technologists around -- that doesn't always play out. The problem when you're up against someone like the Hulk is, due to the nature of his powers, the madder he gets, the stronger he gets, and sooner or later, his strength is going to exceed the capabilities of even the best machine, because a machine cannot grow stronger. And eventually, the Hulk is going to crumple that armor like an aluminum can. Okay, in at least one instance, it had to have an entire skyscraper dropped on it, but still...

So, how's the figure? Well, it's -- BIG. The average height of an Iron Man figure is roughly 4-1/4". The Hulkbuster Armor is more like 5-1/4". That's a huge difference at that scale. It's also a lot larger overall. Its legs are almost as big around as the torso of an average figure.

One gets the distinct impression, between its size and how the limbs are designed, that this isn't a suit that's "form fitting", let us say. Certainly the arms do not appear to allow for direct human occupation. The comic-based Hulkbuster armors were both described as exo-suits that attached to more standard Iron Man armor. I can readily see that being the case here, or, if Stark has a brain in his head, it might be an entirely remote-controlled suit.

It definitely has Iron Man's colors, and a superficial resemblance to the character. The bulk of the armor is a deep metallic red, with metallic gold trim. But it also has a far more mechanical appearance to it than a standard Iron Man armor. There is a great deal more sculpted detail to it, and it looks far more robotic -- again, especially in the arms.

The head, such as it is, is a low dome that rises up from the torso. In a way, I'm reminded here of the Marvel character known as the Juggernaut. There is a broad gold faceplate that resembles Iron Man's own, including deep-set light blue eyeslits. The head does not turn.

The torso is massive, and mostly metallic red with some gold trim. It has a great deal of mechanical detail sculpted into it, especially on the back. The shoulder armor is actually sort of hovering over the shoulders, and is held in place by two rods extending from a secure point on the back. Figurewise, this creates a slight problem if the plastic is even a little bit off, which on the figure in this set, it is, just a bit, as the left shoulder doesn't align quite as well as it should. It's a cool design, but practical application is another matter.

The arms are very robotic in appearance, with a great many angles, visible pistons, and extremely robotic-looking hands with squared off, jointed fingers, which are only three per hand plus the thumb. There is no way that a human arm could fit into these, nor do I think it was intended to look as though one could.

The legs are a little more debatable. They also look extremely mechanical, and also have the pistons on them (which is actually a rather cool look), and are extremely bulky. I tend to doubt that a person could fit into these, but then it does sort of leave the question as to just where a person would fit into this armor. The feet, in particular, are highly robotic in appearance, very angular, with two "toes" in the front, and extended heels, which one assumes might provide a little more stability if one is trying to take on the Hulk punch-for-punch in this thing.

Overall, the figure has a very cool and impressive look to him, and is certainly imposing standing in the midst of any other Iron Man 2 figures. Articulation is good, and includes the arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles.

Any complaints? Just two - The hip joint on most of the Iron Man figures is a rather strange design in my opinion. It's a not-quite-ball-and-socket that has a back-and-forth movement incorporated into it, and yet the entire "ball" rotates around in both the hip and the upper leg. This unfortunately has the effect of occasionally misaligning the back and forth movement, which is designed to let the leg move forward and back, and, if swiveled around, out to the side. This strikes me as a bit over-engineered, and it's not always easy to get it to cooperate. For whatever reason, these problems are made worse on the Hulkbuster figure, and honestly, the left leg (at least on the figure I have), seems to be set further away from the main body than the right leg. This, at the very least, presents a rather asymmetrical appearance.

The other is a complaint I've heard about rather extensively on this figure -- stuck parts. This tends to be caused by an excess of the metallic-finish paint. It was a frequent problem with the figures from the first movie, but I had thought it largely resolved in this line. But, sure enough, there were a few stuck parts. Most of them loosened fairly readily, although there's a foot that I'm still trying to free up. This isn't that big of a dilemma, as most of the parts will loosen with gentle force. Emphasis on the "gentle", folks.

Now let's turn out attention to RECON WAR MACHINE.

War Machine is a well-established character in the world of Marvel Comics. He is James Rhodes, longtime friend and associate of Tony Stark. After filling in as Iron Man for an extended period of time, Rhodes was given his own armor by Stark, which was dubbed War Machine. A far more "battle-ready" set of armor, the original War Machine was silver and dark gray, and armed to the teeth. War Machine enjoyed his own series for a time, and has been an active part in the world of Iron Man ever since.

It was no great surprise that with Rhodes being a part of the first Iron Man movie, and casting a knowing look at the silver Mark II Iron Man armor, that there was an above-average chance of War Machine turning up in the sequel movie, which he most certainly does, and of course, War Machine has been added to the Iron Man 2 action figure line.

However, this "Recon" War Machine is like no War Machine that I've ever seen in either the comics or the movies, and in a way I sort of find it surprising, since he has a color pattern that seems almost obvious for a suit of heavily-armed armor that goes by the name of War Machine.

Rather than the silver and gray of the traditional War Machine, this Recon War Machine, while retaining some of the silver trim, instead has a green and tan CAMOUFLAGE color scheme! The result? One extremely impressive, very cool, very tough-looking suit of armor!

Now, on the other hand, I can see a practical reason why there may not have previously been a camouflage-armor War Machine. Even though Stark has built "Stealth" Armors, the War Machine armor is not inherently designed for stealth. And one does have to wonder how much good a camouflage paint job is going to do if you're stomping through a forest on some battlefield somewhere wearing this thing. You're essentially a humanoid tank, and tanks aren't exactly known for stealth, either.

The War Machine armor, as one would expect, has strong resemblances to Iron Man. However, it's also a lot more rugged-looking. The shoulder pads are bulkier, as are the gauntlets and boots, the armor in general looks somewhat heavier, without being massive like the Hulkbuster armor. It's obvious that there is a person inside of this. And, of course, the War Machine armor is more obviously armed, as well. Please note the machine gun mounted on one shoulder, and the missile launcher on the other.

The Recon armor is almost entirely green and tan camouflage, and I pity the painters or imprinters or however this was done. It can't have been easy on this detailed a figure, but the end results are extremely impressive. The silver trim is restricted to the faceplate, and portions of the upper arms, upper legs, and a bit around the sides. The only other significant colors on the figure are yellow eyeslits, and black gloves and shoulder weapons.

There are other markings stamped on the figure, including registry numbers on the shoulder pads, and black and yellow striped warning labels on the lower arms. The paint work across the entire figure is very neatly and extremely impressively done.

Articulation is excellent. The figure is poseable at the head, arms, elbow (including a swivel, something that some more recent Iron Man 2 figures have eliminated, much to the annoyance of collectors), wrists, mid-torso, legs (with a design that looks and works a whole lot better than Hulkbuster's), knees, and ankles. Additionally, the two shoulder-mounted weapons can be slid down the back a ways on two little tracks. Very nice touch. Also, the two weapons rotate on their mounts.

There is a separate accessory, the only one in the entire set. It's an ammo belt for War Machine's shoulder-mounted gun. Although it does clip into a slot on the side of the weapon, it doesn't stay put all that well, and I personally recommend putting it with a Ziploc bag, unless you decide to save the entire box that the figure set came in.

Any complaints? Just one. The mid-torso articulation point is rather distressingly loose. I don't know if this is the case with all of the Recon War Machine figures manufactured for this set, or just a few here and there, and I got one. But it is a little bothersome. Even more bothersome is the fact that the Holographic Iron Man figure has the same problem, to an even greater degree. And I'm not sure if anything can be done about it.

However, that aside, this is an exceptionally cool figure, a truly interesting variant of War Machine that results in an armored warrior that looks very ready for some serious battlefield action.

Now, finally, let's consider the HOLOGRAPHIC IRON MAN.

Technically, this isn't "really" a suit of armor. The package describes it as "the original 3-D design elements of the mighty Mark VI armor". Essentially, it's a three-dimensional diagram. Tony Stark wouldn't be wearing holographic armor. If nothing else, it wouldn't be especially practical. I doubt that holographic weaponry would be especially effective in combat, and one bad glitch and the armor disappears and you've got Tony Stark doing a modern take on the "Emperor's New Clothes" fable, and nobody wants that.

This particular figure is somewhat akin in its own way to some of the "holographic" figures from the Star Wars line, or that one Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe, that were designed to mimic a holographic projection, by being molded in transparent blue plastic.

The figure is molded in transparent blue plastic, and is a straight recolor of the Mark VI Iron Man figure, which was the top of the line armor that Stark developed in the sequel movie, and has pretty well become the iconic armor from the film. But it's the details that really make this figure stand out from previous "holographic" figures from other toy lines.

Across pretty much the entire body of the figure, are these grid lines, done in dark blue and white, that are intended to resemble the sort of grid lines that are used for the development of computer animation, but which you're not really supposed to see in the final result, unless, of course, that's part of the purpose of the animation. Sometimes it is. You won't see them in "Shrek", for example, but there are times when it's the purpose of computer animation to look like something from a computer, and that's certainly the case here with this figure.

The detail, for the most part, must have been done with the same sort of stampings or imprintings that finely detailed emblems and logos, like the Cobra insignia for G.I. Joe, or the Autobot or Decepticon logos for Transformers, are done on their respective figures. You're not going to get this kind of result through stencil spray painting.

And it is certainly very extensive. There's scarcely a single individual piece of this figure that doesn't have some sort of detail on it. I think maybe the little elbow joints don't, but that's about it. The end result is a very unusual, but very cool-looking Iron Man figure, that -- yeah, looks like he could be sent into the world of Tron and kick some serious cyber-butt if he had to.

The figure is of course very well articulated, and is poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, legs, knees, and ankles. As I noted before, the mid-torso joint is unfortunately extremely loose. Hopefully this is just a case of this particular figure and not the entire production run. Alas, even though this figure is transparent blue, I still can't discern the assembly procedure well enough to determine what, if anything, I could do about it. And I certainly don't intend to try to dismantle him.

So, what's my final word here? This is a very cool set of figures, even if their place of retail, K-Mart, is a little unusual in my opinion. But perhaps not. Although K-Mart is not as highly placed anymore as Walmart and Target, it still manages various exclusives here and there. It has also been known for Star Wars exclusives, and occasional Hot Wheels. So now, they also have an Iron Man exclusive.

The Hulkbuster Iron Man is imposing and impressive, but I am concerned that given the relative scarcity of the single-carded Hulkbuster Iron Man, some fans might think that this is the same suit. I thought that, until one day in K-Mart after I had acquired the three pack when I saw the two versions side by side. It's definitely not the same suit -- and honestly, the one in this three-pack is the more impressive of the two in my opinion.

The Recon War Machine and the Holographic Iron Man are the real stars of this three-pack, however. In the case of Recon War Machine, you've got an amped-up version of a seriously powerful and seriously heavily-armed set of armor, that has now been given a paint job that makes him look that much more ready for some serious combat. In the case of the Holographic Iron Man, you've got a wild version of the Armored Avenger that looks high-tech and futuristic -- two things Iron Man has always been known for -- and due to the nature of the figure, also looks very distinctive and unique. And, yes, makes a presumably unintentional nod to another popular movie, not associated with Iron Man.

Overall, it's a very cool set of figures. The problems are relatively minimal, and certainly should not discourage anyone from bringing these three cool figures into their Iron Man collection.

The IRON MAN 2 K-MART Exclusive PROVING GROUND THREE-PACK definitely has my highest recommendation!