Monday, August 31, 2009

Iron Man and the X-Men

Did anybody else know that there was a new X-Men cartoon AND a new Iron Man cartoon, both airing in the US on the Nicktoons Network? That's right, you won't find these shows on Saturday mornings on Fox or WB, nor on the basic cable Cartoon Network, nor even the regular Nickelodeon, but only on the Nicktoons Network, which I had never heard of until just recently. Times have changed if first-run episodes of new Marvel cartoons are airing only on a triple-digit digital cable channel. On the other hand, it may not be accurate to call these "first-run," since these shows actually started airing in Canada months before debuting on Nicktoons.

After learning of the existence of these shows, I started watching some episodes via online streaming. Unfortunately, the Nicktoons website is slow-loading and difficult to navigate, and it is also missing more recent episodes of Wolverine and the X-Men, as well as the opening two-parter for Iron Man: Armored Adventures.

I do remember hearing some early buzz about Wolverine and the X-Men some months ago. What I'd heard was that it was geared toward younger kids, and I pictured something along the lines of other recent superhero cartoons like Teen Titans or The Batman. To my surprise, the art is nowhere near so stylized as The Batman, or, yet more extreme, the current Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Those shows seemed to try too hard to differentiate themselves from Batman: The Animated Series and the other Bruce Timm programs, and, while the newer projects were not devoid of merit, I personally found the increasingly juvenile stylings to be less and less appropriate for me as an adult viewer. Wolverine and the X-Men favors more realistic proportions and character designs that stick closely to the most iconic ones from the comics. While it never gets too intense, and the pacing is a tad slow from my adult perspective, it also doesn't settle into a cozy formula of condescending lessons, as was the case with the last kid-oriented X-Men toon, X-Men: Evolution. These X-Men are all about action and adventure, including many multi-episode arcs. And the show does not limit itself to concentrating just on a small set cast of heroes and villains, instead utilizing tons of characters from the comics.

The only real trickiness is that it starts in the middle of a story and assumes a lot of familiarity on the part of the viewer. Batman and Superman, in addition to being far more firmly established in American culture, are rather static characters that are easy to grasp even apart from any context. In contrast, much of what makes the X-Men is the classic stories themselves. I suppose the live-action movies boosted the franchise's mainstream visibility, but many of the greatest comic episodes--Sentinels, Dark Phoenix, "Days of Future Past"--were only winkingly alluded to. I doubt many viewers of the new cartoon will know the original issues or even the 90s TV series that provided many straight adaptations of them. Because the show writers know them too well, they may be trying hard to provide fresh spins on old stories, but I don't think most kids will appreciate that. They won't feel any sort of resonance when the new show plays with the old themes, and they may even feel like they're missing something, though they won't know what. Take the case of Magneto, for example, who should forever be known as the foremost antagonist to the X-Men. Wolverine and the X-Men seems to rule out any major battle between them, however, because, by the time of the show's present, Magneto has already taken a less violent line. Seeing this soft Magneto is only interesting after you've already known him as the team's most dangerous enemy, but you won't find that in this show. Seems like a waste to me.

Equally surprising for different reasons, Iron Man: Armored Adventures is a fresher take on a traditionally less popular but perhaps presently hotter hero. The twist is that Tony Stark and his friends, Jim Rhodes and Pepper Potts, are all teenagers. Far from being an ordinary high schooler, however, Tony is already personally responsible for many of the technologies developed within his father's company. Only after his father is killed and the company usurped is he forced to live a more modest life. He attends school, even though there's nothing there for him to learn, and he mostly amuses himself by intimidating his teacher and annoying his classmates with his genius and self-confidence. When not in class, he fights supervillains using the Iron Man armor that he built in his basement. He also already has a bum ticker. Basically, instead of giving us the young Tony Stark before he became Iron Man, they just took Iron Man and placed him in a teenager's body.

What really makes the teen angle weird, however, is that Obadiah Stane is a major villain on the show. Is he perhaps Tony's classroom rival, the school bully, or maybe a dastardly upperclassmen? Actually, no, he's a conscienceless industrialist who murders his way to power over Stark Industries. So he's still the evil counterpart to Tony Stark, but Tony himself is here too young to be the virtuous side of that coin. Their feud loses a little something, since teen Tony cannot face Stane as an equal outside of his Iron Man identity. Once in the suit, he mostly just makes warnings and blows things up. Their relationship is more comparable to the Spider-Man-Kingpin dynamic from the 90s Spider-Man cartoon, but I'm not sure it works quite as well here. Young though he may be, Tony is such an eccentric that it's hard to perceive him as the little guy. Fortunately, the role of Iron Man's nemesis is more fittingly filled by the Mandarin, who is also a teenager in this incarnation.

What I appreciate about both of these shows is that they don't try too hard to be cute. Iron Man: Armored Adventures especially is a fun yet layered series that respects its viewers and concentrates just on providing good and entertaining stories, rather than worrying about appealing to a specific audience or age. In fact, I wish Smallville could be written with such grace and conviction.

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

Mandarin: I've already seen those rings.

Iron Man: Where did you see them?

Mandarin: When I went down some icy cave with my friend, Tony.

Iron Man: My best friend is the Mandarin? Noooooooooooo!