The 90s were a turbulent time for Marvel Comics. While they nearly saw financial ruin, they also met with success by teaming with Saban Entertainment to introduce two of the most beloved animated series of the decade: X-Men: TAS and Spider-Man: TAS. Boosted by their success with Saturday morning cartoon, it wasn’t long before Marvel attempted to bring even more of their biggest properties into the world of animation… with varying results.
The Marvel Action Hour was perhaps Marvel’s biggest endeavor, by way of Genesis Entertainment, featuring two of their flagship franchises: Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. Long before either title became fodder for Hollywood they were stuck in limbo, constantly being brought in and out of cinematic development. The Marvel Action Hour tested the waters by bringing viewers a glimpse at each title’s respective cast and their place within the Marvel Universe. Naturally, as the face of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee served as our guide and trusty narrator who’d always open each series to discuss the latest adventures of Iron Man and the Fantastic Four.
Iron Man saw the animated introduction of the famed Avenger as Tony Stark, a famous industrialist, is captured by rebels in a foreign country. By building his own super suit, he breaks out and makes it back home. There, he transforms the suit into an alternate identity and uses it to fight against villains that seek to infiltrate and/or destroy Stark Industries. Here, Iron Man is Tony’s secret bodyguard that not many people know is Tony, and through the armor, he’s able to battle his worst foes.
The series itself introduced a ton of famous Iron Man rogues and allies such as Rhodey aka War Machine, Hawkeye, Whiplash, Fin Fang Foom, Justin Hammer and the Mandarin. Robert Hays voiced Stark, who was at constant odds with his friends over use of the armor and his reliance on the suit, while often using a plethora of variant Iron Man armors to battle organizations like Hydra and AIM (all of which were ripe for merchandising possibilities). In season two of the series, Iron Man was retooled to be a darker, more mature series. The focus shifted to a more conflicted Stark and the storylines borrowed much more frequently from familiar comic book arcs. There was even a new opening theme song.
Fantastic Four was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Iron Man, focusing more on a familial dynamic than the lone vigilante fighting crime. Like the first season of Iron Man, it was much more kid friendly, even featuring a two-part origin episode where the Fantastic Four are being interviewed on a talk show by none other than Dick Clark. Over the course of those two episodes, they explain how they went into outer space and got hit by Cosmic Rays which transformed them into four, very dysfunctional, super humans.
Brian Austin Green did the voice of Johnny Storm (oddly, he sings a musical number in the first episode). Again, like Iron Man, the Fantastic Four series was retooled during its second season where the storylines became much more mature, dramatic, and featured many familiar storylines and characters from Fantastic Four canon. In addition to cameos by the Annihilator, The Incredible Hulk and Black Panther, The Inhumans played a huge part in the second season.
The Marvel Action Hour was an ambitious gimmick, typical of Marvel’s penchant for theatricality, but ultimately the results were mixed with the novelty not lasting very long and the series themselves being mediocre (at best). I won’t say that Iron Man and Fantastic Four were terrible animated series, but even at their best they didn’t quite show fans what these characters were capable of. The animation was rough, especially in their first seasons, and despite improving as they matured during Season 2 the production quality still left a lot to be desired.
When The Marvel Action Hour finally ended in 1996, both shows went on to live in syndication for a few years. In some markets the series was even retooled as Marvel Action Universe during its second season and featured the TMNT-esque Biker Mice from Mars. For those 90s kids and Marvel Comics fans looking to relive this slice of animation nostalgia, both cartoons are currently still available. An Iron Man complete series was released on DVD in 2010, thanks to Buena Vista, while a Fantastic Four complete series was released in 2005.