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By Thomas Wheeler

The list of planned movies based on Marvel super-heroes in the years ahead is a lengthy one. The newest one, as of just before the Summer 2008 season, is based on IRON MAN. The movie quickly skyrocketed to the #1 slot and stayed there for several weeks, a remarkable achievement these days.

And of course, there is a toy line from Hasbro based upon the Iron Man movie. But for those unfamiliar with the character, I believe a certain amount of background information is in order.

Iron Man is Tony Stark, a phenomenally wealthy industrialist who for a time ran a highly advanced weapons development facility. In the comics, the character first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 in March 1963, and was created by writer-editor Stan Lee, scripter Larry Lieber, and artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby.

In 1963, Lee had been toying with the idea of a businessman superhero. He set out to make the new character a rich, glamorous ladies' man, but one with a secret that would plague and torment him as well. Lee based this playboy's personality on Howard Hughes, explaining, "Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multi-billionaire, a ladies' man and finally a nutcase"; While Lee intended to write the story himself, he eventually handed the premier issue over to Lieber, who fleshed out the story. The art, meanwhile, was split between Kirby and Heck. "He designed the costume", Heck said of Kirby, "because he was doing the cover. The covers were always done first. But I created the look of the characters, like Tony Stark and his secretary Pepper Potts".

Iron Man first appeared in 13- to-18 page stories in Tales of Suspense, which featured anthology science fiction and supernatural stories. The character's original costume was a bulky grey armor, which later turned golden in his second story (issue #40, April 1963), and then redesigned again as a sleeker red-and-golden armor starting in issue #48 (Dec. 1963), drawn by Steve Ditko. In his premiere, Iron Man was an anti- communist hero, defeating various Vietnamese agents.

Throughout the character's comic book series, technological advancement and national defense were constant themes for Iron Man.

Anthony Stark was born on Long Island, the son of Howard Stark, a wealthy industrialist and head of Stark Industries, and Maria Stark. Tony is a boy genius, entering MIT at the age of 15 to study electrical engineering, and graduating summa cum laude. After his parents' accidental deaths in a car crash, he inherits his father's company.

While observing the effects of his experimental technologies on the American war effort, Stark is injured by a booby trap and captured by the enemy, who then orders him to design weapons for them. However, Stark's injuries are dire and shrapnel in his chest threatens to pierce his heart. His fellow prisoner, Ho Yinsen, a physicist whose work Stark had greatly admired during college, constructs a magnetic chest plate to keep the shrapnel from reaching Stark's heart, keeping him alive. Stark uses the workshop to design and construct in secret a suit of powered armor. Stark uses the armor to escape, although Yinsen dies during the attempt. Stark takes revenge on his kidnappers, then heads back to rejoin the American forces. Along the way he meets a wounded American Marine Corps helicopter pilot, James "Rhodey" Rhodes.

Writers have updated the war in which Stark is injured. In the original 1963 story, it was Vietnam. Later, in the 1990s, it was updated to be the first Gulf War, and then updated again to be Afghanistan, the locale also reflected in the movie. However, his time with the scientist Yinsen (who in the movie was not of Asian origin) is consistent through nearly all incarnations of the Iron Man origin, depicting Stark and Yinsen building the original armor together.

Although possessing no super-powers of his own, and his heart condition long since corrected, Stark is a genius, with an advanced degree in mechanical engineering. He has shown great business acumen, regaining control of his companies after losing them multiple times, and building the holdings of his companies, increasing his personal wealth. When Stark was unable to use his armor for a period of time, he asked Captain America for training in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat and has become physically formidable on his own.

Iron Man's armor has been adapted and upgraded over the years, although has seldom lost its traditional red-and-gold color scheme. There was a period, presented predominantly by writer David Micheline and artists John Romita Jr. and Bob Layton, when Stark utilized a variety of specialty armors, including one of the most popular, the all-black Stealth Armor. Other suits were designed for work in outer space, as well as to go up against specific challenges such as the Hulk or Thor.

However, as real-world technology has increased, so have the even more advanced capabilities of the armor. Perhaps no comics character is more tied in to real-world technology than Iron Man. He MUST stay ahead of the curve or he would be seen as archaic to the readers. Imagine if he were still using "transistorized" armor today? One story presented a few years ago, however, showed what can happen when the armor gets a little too high-tech. One notable design actually achieved a level of self- awareness and started acting out in ways Stark found abhorrent.

In the comics, Stark's most current armor, as of this writing, is called the Extremis armor. After being critically injured during a battle with an Extremis-enhanced adversary, Stark injects his nervous system with a modified techno-organic virus (the Extremis process) that not only saves his life, it gives him the ability to store the inner layers of the Iron Man armor in the hollows of his bones as well as control it through direct brain impulses. Stark can control the layer of the armor underneath his skin and make it emerge from numerous exit points around his limbs as a gold-colored neural interface under-sheath. While in this form, Stark has technopathic control of the armor and can suit up at any time, calling the larger components to him. Furthermore, the Extremis process has increased his body's recuperative and healing abilities. He is also able to connect remotely to external communications systems such as satellites, cellular phones, and computers throughout the world. Because the armor's operating system is now directly connected to Stark's nervous system, its response time has been significantly improved.

Personally, I think that's taking technology a BIT too far, and is certainly not reflected in the movie. But it does illustrate the level to which the comics need to stay ahead of real-world technology.

Tony Stark has generally been presented as a confident businessman and a technological genius, although he has had his failings. Most notable is the legendary story, recently released in a special hardcover edition, where Stark fought the ravages of alcoholism in "Demon in a Bottle". The story won accolades for its realistic portrayal of an alcoholic in denial, and Stark's eventual realization of his condition and subsequent turnaround.

Iron Man hasn't quite enjoyed the same limelight as other Marvel characters. He's not quite as well known as Spider-Man, or Captain America, or the X-Men, or even the Hulk. A friend of mine likened him to DC's Green Lantern -- a prominent character within the comics universe in which he operates, but not as well-known in the general entertainment media. I'd say that -- at least until the release of the movie -- that was a fair assessment.

The movie has certainly made Iron Man much more of a household name. It blew away all expectations of what many insiders thought would be a "moderate" hit to become the first major blockbuster of the summer, really before summer actually got going.

The Iron Man movie stars Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and, obviously, Iron Man. I have no particular opinion about Downey one way or the other. I don't tend to follow the careers or activities of actors all that much. Downey, in my opinion, played a very capable Tony Stark, if a little over the top at times. I was reminded a little bot of Michael Keaton trying to be Bruce Wayne in the first two Batman movies. Now, Downey managed to look a lot more like Tony Stark than Keaton ever did Wayne, but I think Downey was just a little excessive in some of his attitude and mannerisms. Stark has tended to strike me in the comics as being a bit more serious.

The movie presents the origin story of Iron Man very capably, and quite accurately. It also works in the fact that, in the comic books (and no doubt at the time as part of the growing anti-war movement), Tony Stark took his munitions company and turned it into one based on technological developments. Obviously this is a much more abrupt turn in the movie, and it provides the focal point for the primary post-origin conflict, between Stark and longtime Stark Industries associate Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges.

Stane is another character lifted from the comics. In the comic story, Stane was a rival of Stark's who was looking for a "challenge" in the business world, and saw one in Stark. He managed to take over Stark's company (saving a bundle on the name change since he only had to replace two letters on all the signage), and indeed, much as in the movie, Stane developed his own suit of armor, the Iron Monger, to challenge Iron Man.

The movie is a bonafide hit. I have yet to read a poor review of it, and I have had several people tell me that it is the most authentic super-hero movie, the most respectful to the source material, that they have ever seen. I am inclined to agree. All of these good words actually got me into the movie theater -- no easy trick -- to see the film. I was extremely impressed. And when you consider all of the super-hero movies over the years, all of the characters that have made the transition -- Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and everybody else, with multiple films per character, to do well enough to get called the most accurate and respectful movie interpretation of a well-established comics character... that's pretty impressive.

The movie also manages some truly amazing special effects with Iron Man's armor, too. The film is truly amazing. If you haven't seen it, find some way to see it. If it's out of the theaters by the time you read this, go get the DVD.

Oh, yeah, I also liked the fact that the music in the movie made a bit of use of the theme from the 90's Iron Man animated series. I was surprised, since I didn't think that show had been that well received, but it was a nice touch.

The astounding popularity of the movie, however, did result in one mildly negative thing -- it made it near impossible to find the action figures. They were reasonably plentiful in the weeks preceding the movie, but I didn't purchase any of them at that time. I decided to wait to see if I wanted to see the movie, and if I did, and liked it, then I would get some of the figures. That proved to be some of the worst timing in action figure collecting that I've ever managed. The figures just plain vanished. I've never seen the like of it.

Obviously, all of these figures were bought by the sudden astounding number of new Iron Man fans. As to the ongoing absence in the week or so leading up to the movie and the weeks that followed, the closest thing to a good explanation that I've heard is that nobody expected the movie to be as popular as it was, and the toy line was simply overwhelmed. At least the stores maintained shelf space for it. Hasbro, no doubt, got back to work on Iron Man as soon as they could, even as they were shipping Hulk and Indiana Jones toys.

Officially, this is IRON MAN MARK 3. It's the best known Iron Man, the red-and-gold Iron Man. In the movie, the Mark 1 Iron Man is the borderline junkpile that Stark and Yinsen build, along with the device to maintain Stark's heart, which utilizes a technology that Stark Industries, and notably Obadiah Stane, believed to have been a dead-end and not worth pursuing further (another important story point in the movie).

The Mark 2 Iron Man armor is a silver edition of the sleeker armor that Stark develops when he returns home. This is seen only briefly, although at one point when Stark's military contact, Jim Rhodes, realizes what Stark is up to and sees the silver armor, he sort of nods and says, "Next time". In the comics, Stark constructs a powerful silver and grey suit of armor for his friend Rhodes, who becomes a character named War Machine.

Stark gives some thought to an all-gold armor, which is a nice nod to the golden armor that Iron Man wore for a time early in his career, but feels it is too gaudy, and, looking at one of the numerous fancy automobiles he owns, instructs the computers refining his armor to "throw in some hot rod red." The Mark 3 red-and-gold Iron Man armor is born.

The design of the figure, and as such the design of the armor, is very impressive, and manages to incorporate a look that is entirely respectful to the vast majority of the comic designs of Iron Man's armor, while having a distinctive look of its own. Appropriately, the armor has a red helmet with a gold face plate, and narrow eyeslits and a mouth. In the movie, we can see Stark keeping track of a wide range of projected displays in front of his face, which is also in keeping with the comic. The torso, gloves, and boots of the armor are red, while portions of the arms and upper legs, although not quite as much as is typical in the comics, are gold.

The movie chose, understandably, to use a somewhat darker color scheme. Even I'll admit that the bright, primary colors of a typical comic book palette wouldn't translate all that well to the big screen. The straight yellow is a very metallic gold, and the straight red is a darker red, not quite burgundy.

The figure stands a little over 6" in height, making it roughly the same scale as a Marvel Legends figure. But the similarities pretty much end there. This is not a Marvel Legends figure. The proportions are slimmer and more realistic. You're not going to stand this movie Iron Man figure next to a group of Marvel Legends figures and have him blend in that well. This is not a criticism. He's not intended to blend, nor, do I believe, should he. Simply an observation.

The figure has excellent articulation, and is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, double-jointed elbows, wrists that move back and forth and rotate, mid-torso movement, legs on a ball-and-socket design allowing for considerable movement, double-jointed knees, and ankles that move back and forth and rotate.

Sculpted detail is excellent. This is a set of armor with quite a few ridges and panel lines in it, and all have been detailed very nicely. Paintwork is excellent, with the bulk of the armor painted a glossy, somewhat metallic dark red, with the appropriate metallic gold trim. A few highlights -- blue eyeslits, some silver trim here and there, are all nicely done, including on the center circle on the armor which represents Stark's life-saving power device that keeps his heart going. I will say that I saw a few specimens in the stores where the gold could have been applied more neatly, where it had streaked or had been smeared, but these were the exceptions.

Any complaints? Two, both relatively minor. The little "shoulder pads" are separate attachments, and they don't like to stay attached very well. They're molded with pegs that fit into little recesses in the shoulders. They can't be glued in or they'd hinder the articulation. But they really should've been designed a little better. They tend to droop a bit. If you own this Iron Man figure and he's going to see any amount of play activity, make sure you keep track of these pieces.

Secondly, and this is something that I have seen happen rather frequently on figures that are given all-covering paint jobs that are either heavy on the metallic or have a very distinct glossy sheen -- some of his articulation sticks a bit. This is simply a result of the paint. This can be overcome with some "persuasion" on the parts, but be careful with the degree you force movement. You don't want to break your Iron Man figure. I'm still trying to get the head on mine to move.

However, these are relatively minor points on an otherwise truly excellent action figure, from a truly excellent movie. I can't say anything bad about the film, and I really don't have anything bad to say about this figure.

The IRON MAN MOVIE "Mark 3" IRON MAN figure most definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!

Now, I wonder who'll be in the sequel...?