- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2010

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with Blu-ray-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Iron Man 2, (Paramount Home Entertainment, rated PG-13, $35.99)  Actor Robert Downey Jr. returned earlier this year as billionaire weapons-tech wonder Tony Stark for a live-action sequel based on one of Marvel Comics‘ famed superheroes.

The movie, available in a Blu-ray set, dazzles within the high-definition format.

Comic-book fans, action-movie aficionados and military-gadget geeks will not be disappointed, as director Jon Favreau’s sequel balances drama, humor, some campy villains and jaw-dropping, high-tech wizardry to show off Iron Man’s new adventure.

Our slightly angst-ridden hero is caught in a sins-of-the-father story spiral. Stark finds himself in a fight for his life against a son looking to avenge his father’s legacy while slowly poisoning himself with the technology keeping him alive.

Moments to savor include Iron Man’s first fight with nemesis Whiplash on a Grand Prix racetrack, actor Mickey Rourke’s scene-munching performance as Ivan Vanko (aka uber-villain Whiplash), a pair of meetings between Tony Stark and Nick Fury (the one at the doughnut shop remains classic for comic-book fans) and a final, albeit too brief, battle royal, that clearly demonstrates what happens when you don’t wear a helmet.

The supporting cast is a who’s who from the Iron Man-Marvel universe and includes Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson as the legendary Nick Fury, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, aka War Machine, Mr. Favreau as bodyguard Happy Hogan and Sam Rockwell as rival weapons industrialist Justin Hammer.

There’s no question the first Iron Man film had more impact with its origin-of-the-hero story line and Mr. Downey’s fresh performance, but “Iron Man 2” still makes for a satisfying popcorn-munching evening.

Best extras: Amid the roughly three hours of bonus features, the comic-book fan likely will be hanging out at the S.H.I.E.L.D. Data Vault.

Fans can watch the Vault as a pop-up overlay on the screen while the film is playing — with even some integration into the action (the scans and information on the armor suits are awesome) — to get information such as Tony Stark’s blood toxicity levels or access to Howard Stark’s tech briefings.

Or, much more rewarding is simply going to the interactive encyclopedic version of the Vault to watch quickly all of the overlays and much more.

In this mode, viewers get modules on the Avengers Initiative, Super Soldier Initiative, Project: New Mexico and Project: Iron Man. Each offers biographies on movie versions of characters involved and plenty of text background worth reading.

Specific highlights include being able to read the Golden Age Captain America Comics, No. 1 from 1941 (make sure you have a really big screen), getting a view of Hulk’s gamma chair and seeing schematics of Cap’s adamantium shield.

The only glaring inconsistency in the information presented are the entries related to Bruce Banner. Actor Edward Norton will not be returning to the role for the 2012 Avengers film, but he is mentioned all over this resource.

A second disc of extras features a 90-minute “making-of” documentary and three featurettes about the comic-book roots of Nick Fury, War Machine and Black Widow. Marvel Publishing honchos Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley and Ralph Macchio pipe in with comments and plenty of artwork. By the way, artist Greg Land’s Widow is stunning.

Finally, I’ll mention an optional commentary track by Mr. Favreau. Unfortunately, his funny, “one of the guys” personality is missing here. He is all business as he deconstructs the massive blockbuster, talking us through every scene. It’s great, but I could have used a few more chuckles.

Read all about it: Marvel Publishing has chronicled Iron Man’s adventures since 1963. I suggest either Invincible Iron Man Omnibus: Volume 1 ($39.99) for a look at the first 19 issues of the current, Eisner Award-winning series. Or, for the sake of nostalgia, grab the black-and-white Essential Iron Man: Volume 1 trade paperback ($16.99) compiling Silver Age Shell Head stories from Tales of Suspense issues Nos. 39 to 72.

Smallville: The Complete Ninth Season, (Warner Home Video, not rated, $69.98)  Is anyone blown away to realize that Clark Kent’s early years have been chronicled on television since 2001?

I’m thrilled that “Smallville” continues — although I need to see Superman in the traditional costume, already — and last year’s season of 22 episodes is available in the Blu-ray format in a four-disc set.

I won’t spoil the ever-evolving conflict between Clark and General Zod or the sputtering relationship between Clark and Lois but will mention it’s nice to see shows highlighting DC Comics‘ stable of heroes such as Zatanna, the Wonder Twins (that is correct, sir), Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter.

The best of the episodes for the comic aficionado is the 84-minute “Absolute Justice,” which introduces the Justice Society of America.

Heroes Stargirl, Dr. Fate and Hawkman mix it up with the fledgling Justice League of America within a Watchmen-like murder mystery that provides some fun moments.

Pure geek-outs include a walk into Justice Society headquarters and a look at some display cases revealing Wildcat’s boxing gloves, the Flash’s silver helmet, Green Lantern’s lantern and Hawkgirl’s cracked helmet.

Overall, a solid season that looks gorgeous in high definition.

Best extras: Fans will find very little bonus material that expands on “Smallville” and its comics mythology.

First, the 30-minute “Absolute Justice: From Script to Screen” explores the Justice Society episode and stars comic scribe Geoff Johns. Unfortunately, it focuses too much on the casting of the characters, even including audition tapes and costumes, with not enough about the comic-book origins of the 1940s superhero team.

“Kneel Before Zod” offers a compact 15 minutes of information on Kal El’s most fierce Kandorian foe. What’s cool here is a focus on the “Superman II” movie Zod along with his appearance in comics.

DC Comics‘ co-publisher Dan DiDio, “Superman” director Richard Donner and actor Terence Stamp, who played Zod, bring back the film memories while Geoff Johns and DC Comics group editor Matt Idelson look at his sequential-art characterization.

Read all about it: DC Comics offers plenty of resources to learn about some of the co-stars of this season’s shows. Specifically, try hardcover-edition reprints of the All Star Comics Archives (11 volumes averaging $49.95 each), which cover the 55 issues of Justice Society appearances from the 1940s and 1950s.

Mars Attacks! (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $24.98)  Director Tim Burton crafted quite the odd-yet-star-studded movie back in 1996, adapted from a 1960s trading-card set.

Now available in the Blu-ray format, this maximum B-movie send-up stars some bulbous-headed extraterrestrials (closely designed to mirror their original card illustrations) from the red planet who think Earth is easy pickings for a takeover.

A blockbuster lineup of co-stars includes Jack Nicholson in a dual role as president of the United States and a greedy casino owner, Glenn Close as the first lady, Sarah Jessica Parker as the pinheaded reporter, Pierce Bronson as a scientist, Martin Short as a perverted White House press secretary, Rod Steiger as a general, Danny DeVito as a mouthy gambler and Tom Jones as Tom Jones.

Scattered subplots taking place in Washington, D.C., Kansas and Las Vegas all lead to a rousing final battle between Martians and humans with much help from Slim Whitman. I’m not making this up.

Surprisingly, the high-definition format does little to help this violent, live-action cartoon stand out. The aliens and their sharp color palettes stand out too much, making them a distraction against the muted hues of the actors and set locations.

Best extras: Viewers will find a massive missed opportunity with the high-definition debut of “Mars Attacks!” There’s no optional commentary track from Mr. Burton, no featurette on the making of the bizarre aliens, no historical documentary on the origins of the Mars Attacks license and not even a slide-show peek at the trading-card set.

Read all about it: Topps Comics offered a five-issue miniseries in 1994 based on the cards, with extra stories tied to a pre-invasion plot. Grab the graphic-album trade paperback ($12.95) to read the entire series concocted by Keith Giffen.

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