Case Study 29: Iron Man, Episode 24–“Hulk Buster”

Original Airdate: February 10th, 1996 on first-run syndication

Since I’ve already covered multiple varieties of off-brand superhero cartoons as well as a key entry in the DC animated universe, it was only a matter of time before I got around to Marvel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become inescapable in pop culture circles over the last eight years, and the Iron Man franchise has been a key component. In addition to more than 50 years of Iron Man comics, the metal-plated hero has appeared in five MCU movies and was the headliner in three. The 1990s animated series is not the only television credit for Iron Man—he’s also the star of offerings from 2009 and 2011, plus countless appearances in various versions of The Avengers on the small screen. 1992’s X-Men comes in for almost as much critical praise today as Batman: The Animated Series so theoretically, other 90s Marvel offerings could be just as good. How does Iron Man fare?


  • The Hulk. As the name implies, this episode of Iron Man features another signature Marvel character—The Hulk (Ron Perlman, Hellboy.) In fact, if you’ve seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, you’re already familiar with Iron Man’s special suit of Hulk Buster armor, which was only a relatively recent innovation in the comics at the time this episode aired. Let’s lay our cards on the table here–The Hulk is fucking awesome, both thematically and on a practical level. The Hulk represents the duality between the analytical, scientific mind of his alter ego Bruce Banner and the unchecked, raging id of his persona as The Hulk. The Hulk’s capacity for reason and restraint is very small and Banner is a geeky scientist incapable of smashing through walls like the Kool-Aid Man, though the show manages to shit in the Hulk duality punchbowl at a couple points, as I’ll point out below. The saving grace is that even badly written Hulk is pretty damn entertaining, and while the fights between Iron Man (Robert Hays, Airplane!) and The Hulk in this episode don’t compare to the jaw-dropping cinematics of the fight in Ultron, it’s always an amusing twist when the heroes have to spend as much time fighting their nominal colleague as they do the Monster Of The Week. The Hulk is also put to reasonably good use in other respects. Much of the episode hinges on his atomic origins and thanks to time travel Iron Man gets a front row seat. He gets the chance to save Bruce Banner from a life consigned to monstrousness, which is something we know Banner would want—but The Hulk stops Iron Man out of self-preservation. It has implications on the constant tug of war between intellectual misery and idiotic selfishness, though I doubt “Hulk Buster” is making a sally into arguments about the nature of happiness.


  • Voice acting. Look, I love Airplane! as much as the next guy, but either Robert Hays is phoning it in like he’s Ma Bell or else he wasn’t cut out for this line of work in the first place. Especially when compared with Robert Downey Jr., Hays’ Iron Man has all the charisma of one of those damp, lonely socks you see lying in the gutter. It’s not just a Hays problem, though—outside of Perlman everyone delivers a pretty lackluster performance. For instance, Iron Man’s pal James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Dorian Harewood, Full Metal Jacket) manages to muster only mild concern upon seeing that Bruce Banner has suddenly turned the color of Ecto Cooler in the backseat of the chopper that Rhodes is flying. But, hey, it’s a kids’ superhero cartoon—I can kind of see why no one brought their A-game.
  • Lazy writing. Iron Man makes no effort to avoid even the most careworn of cliches, and it manages to make them seem even stupider in the execution. Some of this can be attributed to one of the pitfalls of adaptation. The villain of this particular episode of Iron Man is a guy who calls himself The Leader (Matt Frewer, Max Headroom.) Now, it’s Marvel universe canon that The Leader’s origin story entails an accident at a nuclear waste disposal facility—specifically, an entire barrel of nuclear waste gets dumped on the poor guy headfirst in a rather comical fashion. This is a pretty damn stupid origin story. It was lazy in 1964 and it’s lazy now. The comics are married to fifty years of history and can’t fix that without retconning, but this show was a fresh slate and anyone out there who would get themselves up in arms about this cartoon rewriting The Leader’s history is too nerdy to function. This was an opportunity to improve, and it was a missed opportunity. This story fits into a plot arc about The Mandarin’s (Robert Ito, Quincy M.E.) quest to regain the ten magical rings which will give him unspeakable powers but which were previously scattered around the Earth. Again, the quest for a complete set of magical McGuffins spread to the four winds is another hoary cliche and it doesn’t speak to great storytelling ability. This is also true to the comics, though, which brings us to another law of adaptation—when you’re doing an adaptation, you have the power to fix bad writing in the source text and it’s on you if you instead decide to mindlessly reproduce it. As I said above, the writers also manage to fuck up the classic Hulk duality. For one thing, Banner is inexplicably beefy, which sort of undercuts the whole scrawny nerd bit. For another, The Leader’s entire evil plan is predicated on travelling back in time so that he can get the fateful blast of gamma radiation that led to Banner’s transformation into The Hulk, on the logic that then he’ll have super-intelligence AND super-strength. Maybe the problem here is that The Leader is more of an idiot than he realizes, because as I said, the whole point of The Hulk is that he’s intelligent as Banner and strong as The Hulk but he doesn’t get to be both at the same time. So the whole affair doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense and just seems like a big waste of time.

Motivation: Power. The Leader wants that sweet, sweet gamma so he can be more effective at supervillainy.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. This is a pretty mediocre and lifeless outing, but chances are your kid and/or slavering, unwashed fanboy will stare blankly at it for 22 minutes and it won’t annoy the pants off of you, so you could do worse.

NEXT TIME: We pick up our long-neglected nonfiction coverage by flying into the heart of Mayday!

Case Study 29: Iron Man, Episode 24–“Hulk Buster”