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By Thomas Wheeler

One of the things I really like about Iron Man from an action figure perspective is that he can get away with having multiple variants of his armor, decidedly better than Batman or Spider-Man can get away with some of their variants.

I mean no disrespect to the Dark Knight or the Wall-Crawler. But really, when was the last time you saw Batman dressed in a bright orange costume outside of the action figure aisle? Or Spider-Man dressed up as a ninja? Heck, years ago, I saw this ridiculous Spider-Man figure that was dressed up in fishing and camping gear! Peter Parker never really struck me as the outdoors type to begin with, and even if he was, I don't think he'd be out there in costume!

But Iron Man? Tony Stark is an inventive genius, and he really has come up with multiple armors for his super-hero identity over the years. There's no reason why that shouldn't carry over into the action figure line.

It's certainly carried over into the movies. Iron Man has had no less than six distinct armors in his two movies, he'll reportedly be getting another for the Avengers movie, there's the likelihood of a third Iron Man movie, and that doesn't even count War Machine.

Now, the action figure lines based on the Iron Man movies have certainly provided for some interesting variants beyond the actual cinematic suits. What's been just a little disappointing, in my opinion, is that they honestly haven't been nearly as extensive or imaginative as they could be.

Basically, there's still been way too much red-and-gold in the Iron Man section of the toy department. I realize that these are Iron Man's traditional colors, but if Batman can wear bright orange, then Tony Stark can go buy a few different colors of automotive paint.

There have been a few exceptions. There was an impressive Deep Dive Iron Man that featured an entirely new design, and was mostly blue and silver. An Arctic Iron Man was actually purple and silver. But I really am of the opinion that the Iron Man line has been a little more conservative than it needed to be.

Recently, a handful of previously unseen Iron Man figures started showing up. Interestingly, they were still packaged on "Iron Man 2" cards, rather than the more recent "Iron Man: Armored Avenger" packaging. But hey -- why quibble? It's all good, the figures are all certainly compatible, and there were certainly some interesting entries here, that also allowed for some interesting color variety.

One of these was a variant of the Mark V Armor seen in the movie, done in a very cool black-with-gold-trim Stealth version. Another, which I'm reviewing here, is a very distinctive and unusual version of Iron Man's Mark VI armor, officially designated "Stark Racing Armor".

Let's consider a bit of the history of Iron Man, largely from a cinematic standpoint, and then have a look at this Stark Racing Armor.

Iron Man, real name Anthony Edward "Tony" Stark, was created by writer-editor Stan Lee, developed by scripter Larry Lieber, and designed by artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby, first appearing in Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963).

A billionaire playboy, industrialist and ingenious engineer, Stark suffers a severe chest injury during a kidnapping in which his captors attempt to force him to build a weapon of mass destruction. He instead creates a powered suit of armor to save his life and escape captivity. He later uses the suit to protect the world as Iron Man. Through his multinational corporation Stark Industries Tony has created many military weapons, some of which, along with other technological devices of his making, have been integrated into his suit, helping him fight crime.

Initially, Iron Man was a vehicle for Stan Lee to explore Cold War themes, particularly the role of American technology and business in the fight against communism. Subsequent re-imaginings of Iron Man have transitioned from Cold War themes to contemporary concerns, such as corporate crime and terrorism.

Throughout most of the character's publication history, Iron Man has been a member of the superhero team the Avengers and has been featured in several incarnations of his own various comic book series. Iron Man has been adapted for several animated TV shows and films. and the character is portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in the live action film Iron Man, in 2008, and the 2010 sequel.

Tony Stark is the head of Stark Industries, a major military contracting company he inherited from his father. Even though Stark is an inventive genius and wunderkind, he is also a playboy. One day, while his father's old partner, Obadiah Stane, takes care of day-to-day operations, Stark flies to war-torn Afghanistan with his friend and military liaison, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes a.k.a. "Rhodey, for a demonstration of Stark Industries' new weapon, the "Jericho" missile. However, Stark is critically wounded in an assault and finds himself the prisoner of an Afghan terrorist group known as the Ten Rings. Shrapnel in his chest is kept from entering his heart and killing him by an electromagnet built by fellow captive Dr. Yinsen. The Ten Rings leader, Raza, offers Stark his freedom in exchange for building a Jericho missile for the group, but Tony and Yinsen agree Raza will not keep his word.

During his three months of captivity, Stark and Yinsen secretly build a powerful electric generator called an arc reactor, which will power Stark's electromagnet, and then begin to build a suit of armor to escape. The Ten Rings attack the workshop when they discover what Stark is doing, and Yinsen fights back to buy Stark time as the suit powers up. The armored Stark battles his way out of the caves and finds the dying Yinsen, who tells him not to waste his life. Stark burns the terrorists' munitions and flies away to crash in the desert, destroying the suit. After being rescued by Rhodes, Stark returns home and announces that his company will no longer manufacture weapons. Stane advises Stark that this may ruin Stark Industries and his father's legacy. In his home workshop, Stark builds an improved version of his suit as well as a more powerful arc reactor for his chest.

When Stark makes his first public appearance after his return, reporter Christine Everhart informs him that Stark Industries' weapons, including the Jericho, were recently delivered to the Ten Rings and are being used to attack Yinsen's home village. He also learns that Stane is trying to succeed him as head of the company. Enraged, Stark decides to intervene using his now finished suit. In a lengthy and elaborate scene, Stark dons his new armor and then flies to Afghanistan where he saves Yinsen's village and turns Raza's subordinate over to the villagers.

Seeking to find any other weapons delivered to the Ten Rings, Stark sends his assistant Virginia "Pepper" Potts to hack into the company computer system from Obadiah's office. She discovers Obadiah has been supplying terrorists with Stark weaponry and hired the Ten Rings to kill Stark, but the group reneged on the deal upon discovering who the target was.

Stane's scientists cannot duplicate Stark's arc reactor, so Stane ambushes Stark in his home, using a sonic device to paralyze him and take his arc reactor. Left to die, Stark crawls to his lab and retrieves his original reactor. Potts and several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents attempt to arrest Stane, but are attacked by him in his now functional armor suit. Stark races to the rescue and fights Stane, but is quickly overpowered without his new reactor to run his suit at full capacity. Stark lures him atop the Stark Industries building and instructs Potts to overload the large arc reactor in the building. This unleashes a massive electrical surge that knocks Stane unconscious, causing him and his armor to fall into the exploding reactor.

The next day, the press has dubbed Stark in his armor as "Iron Man". Agent Coulson gives him a cover story to explain the events of the night and Stane's death. At a press conference, Stark starts to tell the cover story given to him by S.H.I.E.L.D., but then announces that he is Iron Man.

In a post-credits scene, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury visits Stark at home, and, noting that Iron Man is not "the only superhero in the world", says he wants to discuss the "Avengers Initiative".

The 2010 sequel sees Stark go up against industrialist Justin Hammer, who has built a series of military-level armored robotic drones, as well as the introduction of War Machine, the armor work by Jim Rhodes. Nick Fury continues to press his Avengers Initiative.

The character, along with Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, has also appeared in a well-regarded Avengers animated series, which especially with regard to Iron Man, takes many of its cues from the movies, in that Jarvis is not a human butler, but a computer program assistant to Stark, and Tony Stark is -- well, frankly, a good bit more hyper and annoying than his comic book counterpart (I'm also not crazy about the character's voice). Additionally, Hawkeye is a former member of SHIELD, something he reportedly will be in the live-action Avengers movie.

So, how's the toy, and where do we get Stark Racing Armor? Well, the figure is part of the Concept Series of Iron Man figures. The line was broken down into three segments -- Comic Series, which were figures based more closely to Iron Man's comic book adventures; Movie Series, which represented armors and characters from the films; and Concept Series, which were speculative armors that could arguably have fit into either the movies or the comics, even if they hadn't ever actually appeared in either.

I'm inclined to put the Stark Racing Armor closer to the Movie Series for a couple of reasons. First of all, in the second movie, Tony Stark does actually drive in an automobile race. This race, or at least Starks participation in it, is brought to a decidedly abrupt and destructive halt by the sudden presence of Whiplash, who uses his weaponry to cut loose on Tony Stark's race car and basically shreds it into so much metal confetti.

After an experience like that, I reasoned, you could hardly blame Stark for wanting better personal protection the next time he wanted to race much of anything. However, it seems that the Stark Racing Armor doesn't have all that much to do with his little automotive incident. The back of the package for the Stark Racing Armor has an explanation for it that reads as follows:

"Every technologist in the world dreams of outdoing Tony Stark. In order to encourage competition, he holds an annual event in which he matches his stripped-down racing armor against all comers in a series of speed and combat trials. He's never lost, but every year he looks forward to the challenge."

Okay -- this is the second reason why I'm more inclined to put the Stark Racing Armor more in the movie universe than in the comic universe. For starters, I just can't see the Tony Stark of the comics universe doing something like this. He's a far more serious character in the comics than Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of the character in the movies, which while effective enough, has always struck me as being just a little too over the top.

Secondly, the Marvel Comics universe has a whole lot more super-villains in it than the Marvel Cinematic Universe has at the moment. If Tony Stark tried to stage an event like this in the comics, he'd have every armored super-villain from Doctor Doom to the Beetle showing up, and they wouldn't be there to race anything.

But the cinematic Tony Stark? Yeah -- he'd do something like this. Maybe the Stark Racing Armor doesn't have much to do with Tony Stark's racing incident against Whiplash in the second movie, which also saw Tony Stark break out his reasonably portable Mark V armor, which is NOT the basis for this Racing Armor, but in the movies, Stark is more than enough of a cocky showoff to set up a competition like this, just to leave everybody else's tin suits in his afterburners.

The armor is an extremely impressive design, and one of the things that I do like about it is that it is rather specifically NOT red-and-gold. I have all the respect in the world for Iron Man's traditional colors, and certainly wouldn't want to see them permanently changed, but there's no reason not to bring a fair amount of color variety into these variant armors.

The armor is based mostly on the Mark VI armor, which was the most prominent armor seen in the second Iron Man movie. One of the things I sincerely appreciate about the Iron Man movies is that they have been generally respectful to the look of the character. They haven't taken the basic design of Iron Man so far afield that he isn't recognizable. This is Iron Man, no question about that.

As for the Stark Racing Armor Iron Man -- well, this is Iron Man if he built an armor for a NASCAR race, which based on the explanation provided with the action figure, isn't too far removed from the truth of the matter.

If you've ever seen a NASCAR race, you know they feature colorful cars that generally have one or two major sponsors, and are then covered with smaller stickers representing everything from the type of tire and auto parts used by the racing team that owns the car, to, for all I know, the driver's favorite roadside restaurant.

Now, Racing Armor Iron Man doesn't need any corporate sponsorship other than Stark Industries, but he's got that in spades in his armor.

Racing Armor Iron Man is pretty much tri-colored -- blue, black, and silver. The iconic faceplate on the helmet, one of the most effective carryovers from the comic book in my opinion, is silver. So are the upper arms, upper legs, and knees. The rest of the armor -- helmet, torso, lower arms and hands, much of the rest of the legs, the boots, and feet, is an interesting angular pattern of dark, semi-metallic blue and black. The paint stencils for this figure must be considerable. They're certainly distinctive.

But beyond the paint stencils, you've got the imprints. Imprinting logos, emblems, and other designs onto action figures has been a common practice at least since the 3-3/4" G.I. Joe action figure line. That's at least where I first encountered it, in the form of the Cobra emblems on Cobra Troopers and Officers. The technology and what it's capable of has obviously increased since then, and that's certainly evidenced on Racing Armor Iron Man.

The right shoulder plate has a white stylized "S" on it, for "Stark", and the left shoulder plate has the number "11", also in white -- not entirely sure of its significance. The work "STARK" appears in some very nice futuristic type on the torso, in white, diagonally beneath the triangular arc reactor on Iron Man's chest. The same "S" as is on the shoulder plate appears further up the armor, and a second "Stark", in lower case and a different font, appears on the lower left side of the torso.

The same fancy "STARK" that appears in the center of the torso also appears on the lower left arm, also in white, and on the lower right arm appear the words "STARK INDUSTRIES", with a white line over the top of the words, angling down at the end. This is taken directly from the movies.

In the silver area of Iron Man's upper right leg is the word "STARK", in black, with a line underneath it, and a red curve leading to some extremely small red printing underneath the "STARK" which reads, "ENGINEERING".

In the silver area of Iron Man's upper left leg is also the word "STARK", in a slightly different font, with a red curved line through it, and below that, in printing even tinier than the "ENGINEERING" on the right leg, are the words "MOTOR RACING".

Still, one has to be impressed with the precision of the printing. The last time I saw printing this small, it was on a series of clear vinyl labels that were to be applied to a G.I. Joe vehicle. And I would think it would be far easier to print a flat sheet of labels than the angular leg of an action figure.

Admittedly the process is not perfect. The words "Motor Racing" appear very close to an assembly seam on the action figure, and I've seen a couple of these Stark Racing Armor figures where these words just didn't quite make it somehow. Still, it's impressive that the technology exists to even attempt it. I can't even quite tell you how small this lettering is. My ruler doesn't go that far.

The eyeslits are also imprinted, and this is something that, on other figures, I've encountered some serious alignment problems with. Hopefully it's something Hasbro can correct before the Avengers line really gets rolling. Fortunately, in the case of Stark Racing Armor Iron Man, his eyeslits are properly placed. They're mostly white, with a touch of red around the edges, and a very narrow black outline.

Articulation of the Stark Racing Armor Iron Man figure is excellent. He is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, including a swivel, wrists, mid-torso, which works reasonably well with the armor design, legs, knees, and ankles. About the only criticism I have is that the leg design is a little over-engineered. It has a combined back and forth with ball-and-socket design, and the combination just doesn't work that well together. Hasbro should consider switching all of their Marvel-based figures to the more straightforward design used by most of their Marvel Universe figures, which is reminiscent of G.I. Joe. Hey, it works, you know?

Stark Racing Armor Iron Man comes with a spring-loaded missile launcher which clips to his lower arms. Precisely why he'd need something like this in what is allegedly a good-natured competitive race, I'm really not sure. Maybe Justin Hammer's successor has some nasty surprises. And the figure also comes with a display stand, and a set of "Armor Cards". This is a rather cool feature that was implemented with the Iron Man 2 line, that includes two transparent cards, and a solid one, all of which have some of the armor components printed on them, and displayed in fairly close proximity to each other, which the display stand allows for, they create a cool sort-of three-dimensional display.

So, what's my final word? I'm glad this figure has finally come out, and I'm glad to have him. It's not the sort of thing that I think the Tony Stark of the comic books would do, but I don't have much trouble envisioning the cinematic Tony Stark coming up with something like this. And it's a cool figure, with a more distinctive color scheme than most, and the assorted markings on the figure just add a little extra impressive touch to it. I believe any fan of Iron Man would be very pleased to own this figure.

The STARK RACING ARMOR IRON MAN figure from the IRON MAN CONCEPT SERIES definitely has my highest recommendation!