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By Thomas Wheeler

Take any given individual super-hero that has, for one reason or another -- usually a movie -- gained a certain prominent in the public eye, and that super-hero will generally see a host of action figures based on his likeness. Probably the two best known over the long haul have been Batman and Spider-Man.

The only problem is -- these guys don't really have a whole lot of wardrobe changes. Batman has dropped the yellow circle from around his bat-emblem, and that's about it. Spider-Man has had that problematic black costume which went on to become one of his most notorious super-villains, and he had another costume designed for him by Tony Stark, but that's about it for him, as well.

So you come to an action figure line that wants to focus on these individual characters, and the toy company generally comes up with a wide range of variations of costume and capabilities that have little to do with the character as he appears in the comics, movies, or anything else. From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense. From a character standpoint, not quite so much.

But then you have a character like Iron Man. Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark has become mega-popular in recent years, thanks to a blockbuster movie that no one was entirely sure was going to be a blockbuster, and now with a sequel movie out there as well that just ups the armor ante that much further.

I've always liked Iron Man. The character is nearly plausible. If there were a Tony Stark out there, and the technology existed to build the fancy armor that he has, he probably would. I like the technology basis of the character. And the armor is cool, too.

And unlike the Dark Knight or the Web-Slinger, Iron Man can get away with multiple outfits a whole lot better, because between the movie and the comic books, he really HAS had multiple armors over the years. The vast majority of these have been upgrades of his basic armor uniform. Unlike many super-heroes, Iron Man has the distinct problem of trying to stay ahead of real-world technology. His original armor in the comic books was transistor-powered and its rather limited arsenal was based on reverse magnetism. These days, that sounds only slightly less primitive than saying Tony Stark went off and joined an Amish community.

Apart from upgrades, however, Stark has, on occasion, created a number of special purpose armors, everything from a Stealth Armor, probably the best known of the lot, to a huge suit designed to go up against the Incredible Hulk! He even assembled a massive suit of armor in the Avengers-Transformers crossover that let him go toe-to-toe with Megatron himself!

Now, the variant armors that have appeared in the Iron Man action figure lines over the years are doubtless more extensive than what Stark has created in the movies or the comics. But the difference between Iron Man and virtually any other super-hero who has gone through the same action figure procedure is -- in Iron Man's case, it's not at all implausible that he COULD create such special-purpose armors if he wished, and they'd be a perfectly reasonable fit within the story concept.

The current IRON MAN 2 line from Hasbro, based on the new movie, certainly has quite a few variations in it. Along with all of the established movie armors, there have been some very interesting speculative armors, in all of the various sub-concepts -- Comic, Movie, and Concept Series.

The vast majority of the Iron Man 2 figures are in the 4" range. This seems to be the size of action figure that Hasbro wants to focus on for almost all of their action figure lines these days -- Star Wars, Iron Man, Marvel Universe, G.I. Joe, Spider-man -- all tend to be within this size range. It makes sense. The toys are reasonably economical and don't take up a lot of space at that size. Stores can carry more product, and fans can afford more of them.

Still, if you're looking for something a little bigger, there is a very interesting set exclusive to Toys "R" Us. Called MISSION TECH ARMOR, it features three Iron Man figures that are all on the high side of six inches! I am of the distinct opinion that these figures are either repainted from certain Iron Man figures from the first movie, whose toy line was also in this scale, or perhaps are figures from that line that didn't quite make it out before it had run its course.

Honestly, I'm not sure. I don't recall seeing Iron Man toys that looked quite like these, even in other colors. Granted also, I wasn't paying all that close attention. I've been able to determine that these figures have a copyright date of 2008, so it's entirely probable that the figures were originally created for the extension of the first Iron Man movie line.

Whatever the case, it doesn't really matter all that much. They've been packed for Iron Man 2, even though they're not to scale with the rest of the action figure line, and they are an extremely impressive threesome!

What we have here is an Iron Man variation on a theme that was established by G.I. Joe, in a sense. There were a couple of G.I. Joe sets that consisted of three figures that were themed to Sea, Air, and Land. This Iron Man set has specialty armors for the Arctic, Space, and the Desert. It's a bit of a stretch, but snow is really just frozen water, if you keep going through the air high enough you eventually will hit space, and the Desert one could certainly qualify as the land equivalent.

Let's consider these armors individually:

ARCTIC CRUSADER IRON MAN - Arguably looking the least like Iron Man from a color standpoint, this is nevertheless an extremely impressive and highly detailed suit of armor. It's mostly metallic blue, with dark grey and silver elements.

Clearly all three of these armors are meant to be based on the movie Iron Man. The configuration of the helmet is a dead giveaway in that regard. The helmet is mostly metallic blue with a silver faceplate.

The Arctic Crusader Armor is by far the bulkiest of the three. It has massive shoulder extensions, a thicker than usual chestplate, a high collar, and very thick gauntlets and boots. One can imagine that Tony Stark has installed an impressive heating unit in this thing, and is nice and toasty warm inside. Heck, the suit's big enough, it can probably serve him coffee in there. Find out those raised shoulder pieces are actually containers of Starbuck's finest...

The painted detail is as extensive as the sculpted detail, and has been carried out very effectively. I am very particular when it comes to neatly painted detailing, and I am pleased to say that all of the figures in this set have been very well done.

Arctic Crusader Iron Man also moves readily. If there was one slight problem with the original Iron Man movie figures, it was that something about the paint formulation tended to stick the parts a fair bit. I'm not really sure why, but it seems to be a problem that has been resolved well in time for the sequel. The figure is superbly articulated, and moves at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, double-jointed elbows (an impressive bit of workmanship given the bulk of the figure), mid-torso (fortunately the armor design accommodates this well), legs, upper leg swivel, double-jointed knees, and ankles.

My only gripe is with the leg articulation. It's a sort-of ball-and-socket design with a back-and-forth movement built into it, that just tends to be a little strange. It's not unique to these Iron Man figures, or even the Iron Man line in general. I've seen it on other Marvel products from Hasbro, and -- honestly, I don't know how it could be corrected, but it is just a little odd in how it allows the figure to move.

Arctic Crusader Iron Man comes with a large accessory which resembles a gun. Really, it looks like the sort of thing where if we had a company crossover between Marvel and DC, Batman's arch-enemy Mr. Freeze would take one look at this thing and wonder where he could get one. However, according to the back of the package, it's not a gun. It's a drill, and the front part of it does indeed spin. One assumes this is for drilling through tough arctic ice, but I suspect it could be used as a weapon if Iron Man wanted to. He still has his repulsors, though, so don't think this is a weaponless Iron Man!

Now, let's head into outer space and check out...

STAR FLARE ARMOR IRON MAN - Iron Man has had to travel into space before, but never with quite this much style. What's interesting is that, in the package, the armor looks to be mostly black with silver star flecks painted on it. Open the package and take a closer look, and you get a real surprise -- most of this figure has been molded in a transparent black plastic (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but trust me, it works), with little silver metallic flecks molded into it. If Iron Man needed to travel into space and for whatever reason needed to be somewhat camouflaged, this would do it!

The painted detail on his armor is mostly dark red -- an unusual color for space armor, but in keeping with Iron Man's traditional colors, and, who knows? Maybe he's a fan of Darth Maul. Other areas of the armor are a metallic pewter gray.

This armor has some very interesting angular details to it that almost make it look anime-inspired. The shoulder pieces are fairly pronounced, though not as much so as the Arctic Crusader armor, and they have ridges sculpted into the sides. The chestplate is more complex than average by far, with not only the central circle detail, but two more off to either side. The gauntlets are somewhat more detailed, as well.

Star Flare Iron Man has a sort of tunic around his waist, with intricate red stripes painted in it. I think this is what makes him look especially anime-like. I've seen no shortage of Japanese robots with this sort of detail. I could probably pull half a dozen Gundams off my shelf that have this without even trying. By contrast, the boots seem almost undetailed, until you look around to the back of the figure, and see some dark red detailing there. Iron Man's faceplate is dark red, with white eyes. The rest of his helmet follows the star pattern.

Star Flare Iron Man comes with some interesting accessories. Chief among these is a second helmet, which snaps reasonably well into the pronounced collar on the chestplate. This might seem a tad redundant, since Iron Man's armor is itself sealed, but hey, if you're traveling in space, you don't take chances. I recall one incident in the comic book where the villainous Justin Hammer had managed to secure remote control over Iron Man's armor, and opened his eyeslits and mouth while the Golden Avenger was in the deep ocean! You have something like that happen to you, you start taking precautions. The helmet is a nice piece of work, with what looks to be two small external oxygen tanks around the back. It is mostly transparent black, with red detailing, which frankly looks a bit like a futuristic canopy.

Star Flare Iron Man also has a highly detailed backpack, mostly transparent black with the silver star flecks and some red detailing. There are two red hoses that run to and from various points on the backpack, and a third red hose that can be attached to a weapon that the figure comes with. The weapon itself does not have a specific name on the package, but it does note that it fires a spring-loaded missile.

Star Flare Iron Man has the same excellent level of articulation as the other two Iron Men in this set, and is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, double-jointed elbows, mid-torso, legs, upper leg swivel, double-jointed knees, and ankles.

Now let's head back to Earth and consider the final entry in this collection --

SANDSTORM ARMOR IRON MAN - looks the most "Iron Man"-like of any of the three armors in the set, in that the main colors of his armor are indeed red and gold. However, there's also quite a bit of pale tan on the armor as well, which certainly sets him apart from being a typical Iron Man.

Of the three, Sandstorm Armor Iron Man is the sleekest of the lot, the least bulky. What sort of environmental advantage this might have I'm not sure. The helmet is fairly typical for the first movie Iron Man, red helmet with a gold face place. It's the rest of the armor that's especially distinctive.

The overall design is very angular, lots of sharp points and straight lines. There are these wing-like fins on his lower arms and lower legs. Speculatively, these might provide Iron Man with greater stability flying over desert mountains, or through some of the windstorms and nasty sandstorms.

The shoulder armor is very sharp and angular, and there are more ridges on the torso than usual. Curiously, the insides of the upper legs seem to show exposed cables, although these are all painted metallic gold. That's not the best design for desert armor. Ask anyone what sand does to the average machine.

A few small details on the armor are painted in dark metallic grey. These are small screw-like details on the front and back. They're well painted enough so that for a brief moment I thought they were actual screws. Some parts of the armor, especially the red, have been hand-streaked with a sort of light dry-brush of gold, doubtless to indicate paint scraped off by flying sand. I can see the logic of this, even though it's not a toy-painting practice I approve of. And we all know what the movie version of Tony Stark is like. He wouldn't let any scrapes or dings in his armor last any longer than they had to.

Of course, the figure is as well articulated as the others, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, double-jointed elbows, mid-torso, legs, upper leg swivel, double-jointed knees, and ankles.

The figure comes with an interesting accessory -- it's a clip-on backpack with small wings that spring out somewhat. Given the additional wing-like appendages on the arms and legs of the figure, I find myself wondering just a bit what the "original" purpose of this particular armor suit must have been. Given that almost all Iron Man suits can fly without any additional aerodynamic assistance like this, one has to wonder a bit.

At the same time, it's somewhat amusing that an Iron Man figure with spring-out wings comes out at about the same time as a new Toy Story movie is on the way, given one of Buzz Lightyear's most prominent action features.

The packaging for these figures is superb. I don't usually talk about that sort of thing, but it's worth mentioning. The figures come in a long box, but each one is on an individual "bubble", and up against a distinctive background, all of which have superb illustrations. Arctic Crusader Iron Man is posed against a grey and white blizzard, with a hidden Soviet base visible in the background -- unless the owners hung a red star above the door just for the heck of it. Star Flare Iron Man seems to be standing on the ruined moon of a planet in the distance, with a massive sun dominating the sky. Sandstorm Iron Man is standing against the wreckage of a desert battlefield.

So, which of these figures is my favorite? I can't decide. They all have their cool points. I like all of them.

So, what's my final word here? The worst thing I can say about them is that they're not size compatible with the rest of the Iron Man 2 line. But -- big deal. I doubt that's going to be that much of a factor for kids, and it shouldn't be for collectors -- especially if you still have a supply of Iron Man figures from the first movie. They'll be perfectly compatible with those. For myself, I've never felt the need to restrict myself to one size of action figure. I've got everything from 2" Air Raiders to a 15" Galactus around here. It's all good.

Bottom line -- whatever the original releases of these figures might have been, assuming they were originally released during the first movie toy line -- their current incarnation is spectacular. These are some exceptionally cool and highly impressive Iron Man figures, and any Iron Man fan would find them a welcome addition to their collection.

The IRON MAN 2 "MISSION TECH ARMOR" THREE-PACK from TOYS "R" US definitely has my highest recommendation!