Monday, September 01, 2008

Fourteen Thoughts About the Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes Cartoon

That's the opening theme of 2006 animated series Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes, which I spent a week or two earlier in the summer watchng on DVD. I was downright shocked at how good it was. The whole thing is available in a single DVD collection now, as the series apparently only lasted one season, running for 26 episodes.

I honestly can’t imagine why it was cancelled, unless perhaps it was simply too expensive to produce, as it is easily one of the best superhero cartoon series I’ve ever enjoyed. Not only is it lightyears ahead of previous attempts to adapt the FF to a screen—small or big—but it’s head and shoulders above most other superhero cartoons as well.

I tried writing a review of the series a couple of times over the last month or so, but kept getting lost as I went on: 26 episodes is a lot of story to review, and there were so many little things I liked about the show that I kept catching myself going on and on to lengths even I thought were too excessively long. So instead, I’m just going to present Fourteen Observations About Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes in this simple numbered list format:

1.) The designs are great. I was really impressed with the design work t hat went into the show, from the characters to the costumes to the vehicles, gadgets and Doombots to the almost sitcom-like Baxter Building setting (with it’s two or three rooms where most of the time is spent, as if they were a handful of soundstages built on a studio lot somewhere).

At a glance—say, stumbling across the series while flipping through channels—some of the designs seem very, very wrong. Take Johnny’s anime character hair, for example. But the more time I spent looking at them, the more I liked them. Even Johnny anime hair, because, really, a stupid, spiky, anime pompadour is actually the perfect hairstyle for Johnny Storm, isn’t it?

Reed and Sue are both presented as much, much younger, giving the team more of a four peers vibe than the mom, dad and two squabbling little boys feel that is present in the comics (and most of the other media impersonations.

Ben Grimm is as big as a house, and wears a sensible pair of pants instead of either the bathing trunks of his comic book origins, or the weird old-timey bathing suit they make him wear in the Ultimate Fantastic Four comics. The painted-on “4” on his chest took some getting used to, but I ultimately came to appreciate that as an attribute as well.

Their costumes are also drastically different from all the previous versions I’ve seen, which usually incorporate one or two shades of blue, with some dashes of white and or black.

Here they still contain a blue element, but also a lot of white and some orange, which, in addition to matching Ben’s skin color, also gives the FF sort of an emergency services sort of feel.

2.) The animation is very strong. It’s really no surprise that this is the best animated of the various FF cartoons, which have been universally terrible on that front (and usually visibly cheap and shoddy looking). The animators incorporate a lot of computer imagery into the show, most often when showing vehicles, and while it’s not integrated all that smoothly, such instances never really sink the scenes, let alone the episodes they appear in. It’s actually pretty amazing how far along animation has gotten when it comes to marrying 2D and 3D effects from the days of, say, the '90s Spider-Man cartoon, or even Futurama...

3.) Sue and Reed are actually interesting. This is perhaps the most surprising thing about the cartoon, because despite how long they’ve been around and they’re amazing super-powers, Reed Richards and Susan Storm/Richards are two of the most boring characters in the entire Marvel Universe.

Part of this may simply be their proximity to Johnny and Ben, two of the more exciting and endearing characters in the entire Marvel Universe, but I think it’s simply a fundamental flaw in their original character DNA. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wanted a cool tragic monster character, a cocky teenage superhero, a girl, and a smart guy. Two of these things, clearly, are not like the others.

In the comics, Sue’s maturation seemed to be merely a matter of going from being the girl to being the wife/mom; a sort of den mother for the other characters there to break up fights, get kidnapped by Namor, and worry aloud about what an inattentive prick her husband is. Reed, for his part, has always been more of a plot engine than an actual character—he invents the things that cause the problems the other characters react to in interesting ways, and he whips up the doohickeys to solve the problems after we’ve had enough of Ben punching them and bickering with Johnny.

The two live-action films didn’t mess with this formula too much, even by casting much younger, hotter actors to play Reed and Sue than might be expected, based on their usual comics depiction.

Ultimate FF made a conscious attempt to make the pair younger and less parent-like—they’re teenagers, in fact—and to give Sue a greater stake in the plots, but the succession of writers on the series (Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, Mike Carey) didn’t actually succeed in making them fun characters to spend time with. Reed simply became Peter Parker with stretchy powers instead of spider-powers; Sue simply became another version of Reed Richards.

In the cartoon, both are much younger, and only really seem mature and parent-like when compared to their teammates.

Reed is still a genius, but he comes across as a lovable geek and science nerd, rather than an obsessive and aloof person. He’s not married to, or even dating, Sue, but it’s clear he kinda likes her, he’s just a little too shy and awkward to make with the dating yet.

Sue is therefore not really played as Reed’s helpmate, crush-object or life’s love; she’s simply a really good friend of his he seems to care about slightly more than he does Johnny and Ben. This Sue isn’t above being drawn into arguments with the others, and is self-consciously girly, in a somewhat flippant, rebellious way.

4.) This is the best Johnny Storm, like, ever. Johnny’s been a teenager for decades now, and his immaturity played for laughs, but it’s usually a very limited kind of immaturity that is closer to “normal” than a sort of caricature. That is, he likes pretty girls, cool cars and the fruits of fame more than he likes super-science and risking his life exploring the bounds of reality at the whims of his mad scientist brother-in-law who happens to treat his sister like crap. Who wouldn't?

This Johnny has the same interests, but the show’s creators present him as a character the audience can laugh at rather than with. He quips and makes jokes all the time, but they usually aren’t funny quips are jokes; I mean, they’re funny in that he thinks they’re funny and he actually says them, but they’re not funny. (Example: "I thought your name was Dr. Doom, not Dr. Dumb").

In other words, Johnny is a character you’re more likely to roll your eyes at than want to high five. He’s not just Sue’s annoying little brother, he’s everyone’s annoying little brother. Especially the audience’s. (I say this as a 31-year-old with younger siblings, though; maybe actually little kids do think this Johnny is more seriously awesome than awesomely funny. I don’t know. I'm old).

This Johnny doesn’t just pick fights with Ben, although they argue with each other quite a bit, and have an ongoing prank war that lasts the length of the series (including some pretty neat ones I’ve never seen in the comics, like Johnny frying eggs on Ben’s brick chest while he’s still asleep, awakening him with breakfast in bed). He also constantly makes fun of Reed for being a nerd (sometimes coughing, “Nerd!”) and his sister for having lame powers.

Among the running gags involving Johnny are his pathological fear of water, which make the Namore episodes interesting, and the little girl shreik of a scream he lets out every time he’s caught off guard by something scary. I loved that. I laughed out loud, like, every time Johnny screamed.

5.) “Imperius Rex!” just doesn’t sound quite as cool shouted out loud as I thought it might.But seeing the cute little wings flapping on Namor’s heels as he poses above the water, glaring down at his foes looks even cooler than I thought it would.

6.) The FF’s neighbors are pretty funny. Among the show’s running gags is that the team shares the Baxter Building with a colorful group of neighbors whom all hate them for all the robot attacks and getting the whole building shot into outer space by Doom or whatever. There’s an episode involving Skrulls replacing the neighbors and Willie Lumpkin in an attempt to study the FF and see what makes them tick which is particularly amusing. After all these Bendis-written Skrull stories, it’s easy to forget that they were created as essentially laughably inept alien invaders.

7.) Kirby and Lee’s original FF comics were something pretty special. I noticed while watching the series that I’d seen elements of many of these stories before. Not just the various characters, but plot elements as well. Some I’d seen in the two live-action films. Some I’d seen in previous cartoon series. Some I’d seen in Ultimate FF, or referenced in other Marvel Comics, or made fun of on comics blogs and in Twisted ToyFare Theater. Or in all of the above.

A lot of these stories are really being passed down from creator to creator, generation to generation, and they still work today. One could say this about pretty much any superhero who’s been around a long time—Superman started decades before the FF, for example—but I think the Fantastic Four stories are somewhat remarkable in that it’s not simply different takes on the same character/s and their origins that are being passed down from decade to decade and medium to medium, but whole plots. The Kirby/Lee FF run seems an astonishgly flexible and durable peice of superhero history, and I won't be at all surprised to see some of these exact same stories pop up in the next FF cartoon.

8.) HERBIE has a place on the team, and it's his own place. He’s the sentient computer system that runs the Baxter Building and gives Reed someone to talk science to all the time, and he’s also used as comedy relief. But he doesn’t replace Johnny on the team, like in some FF cartoons, where producers worried impressionable youths might try imitating the Human Torch by setting themselves on fire. Because children are idiots.

9.) Some surprisingly big FF characters are missing. There’s no Black Panther, no Silver Surfer, Watcher or Galactus, and no Inhumans in the series. At all. I imagine that the creators might have been told hands off the Surfer, Watcher and Galactus, pending the second film (this series was produced between the two live-action movies), and maybe someone else had the rights to the Black Panther, who appeared in the second of those awful Ultimates direct-to-DVD animated films, and is also going to have his own BET cartoon. I can’t imagine why The Inhumans didn’t get an episode though; they, like the rest of the characters above, all appeared in the mid-90's FF cartoon series.

While those guys were all missing, we do get plenty of Dr. Doom and Mole Man, plus The Puppet Master (who is now black, since Alicia Masters is also black, as per the film), Annihilus and Impossible Man. The Wizard, a different version of the Frightful Four (Paste-pot Pete/Trapster, Klaw and Dragon Man), Ronan the Accuser, The Super-Skrull, The Grandmaster and even Diablo all appear as well.

10.) There are a lot of Marvel guest-stars. The Hulk, Iron Man, She-Hulk and Ant-Man (“Don’t tell me you’re in a shrinking contest with another scientist,” an incredulous Sue scolds Reed) all appear in pretty substantial roles. Squirrel Girl has a brief cameo, being rejected from joining the team during try-outs to replace a temporarily cured Ben, and an unnamed Peter Parker, referred to by Johnny as “The Photographer,” also appears in an episode.

11.) In an alternate present accessed by some time travel business, Dr. Doom rules with an iron fist—and Johnny stops to by a gets a Doomaccino at Doombucks. Mmm, Doomaccino…

12.) This Annihilus is totally awesome. Totally, totally awesome. The vaguely insectoid ruler of the Negatize Zone sounds kind of like a cross between Starscream and and an effects pedal, and most of his dialogue consists of “RooooooaaAAAAhhhrwwwkkkk!” and, “I annihilate!”

When the FF visit the Zone and get knocked out and captured by Annihilus, Reed awakens, and Johnny excitedly prompts Reed to ask their captor his name. Reed does so, and Annihilus zaps him and screams“I Annhilate!”

It’s Doom that gives him the name "Annihilus," which annoys Johhny: “We’re calling him The Annihilator. I get to name all our villains.”

13.) Did I mention the cartoon is actually funny? Because it is.

Surrounded by an overwhelming odds, and fighting for survival, Ben says over his shoulder, “In case we don’t make it out of here, I just wanted you to know I never liked you, Johnny.”

“I know you didn’t,” Johnny responds soberly. “I know.”

14.) This is really what Ultimate Fantastic Four should have been like. So, to recap, Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes reimagines the Fantastic Four for a new generation, making them seem modern and relevant without sacrificing any of the positive aspects of their original conception, keeping many of their most memorable stories somewhat intact and making the whole thing enormously entertaining—for either lifelong Marvel Comics fans or complete newcomers.

Why on earth isn’t Christopher Yost, who was one of the main writers on the cartoon and is currently writing lame X-Men comics for Marvel Comics, writing Ultimate FF?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go set my self on fire to play Human Torch…


LurkerWithout said...

So this thing is available for purchasing right? You're not just teasing me with "This is awesome, pity its long gone" are you?

LurkerWithout said...

Never mind. Right there in the first paragraph you say it is...

SallyP said...

I blush to admit that I have never seen this, but it certainly does sound watch-worthy.

Sea_of_Green said...

I did catch a few of these cartoons on cable and thought they were highly enjoyable -- and then they just completely disappeared! Yeah, why the heck did they cancel this show? It WAS a superb cartoon, and a hundred times better than not only the previous FF cartoons but also the live-action films. Maybe they didn't advertise it well enough to attract viewers -- or perhaps viewers were too worried that the series was just like (i.e. crummy) the movies. Whatever the case, I agree -- the DVD set is a MUST-HAVE.

Anonymous said...

These are OK.
Maybe it's an "age" thing, but I watched a few episodes and wasn't too impressed really.

Not great.
But the whole skateboard-chic/anime Johnny was a stretch. And Ben as a walking graffiti-tagged wall with baggie-pants smacked of some hip-hop fan wanna-be-ism.
Youngish Reed is OK, and Sue was fine.

For my tastes, I'll go watch my copies of the 1960's FF cartoon.

THOSE were cheesy-good with the BEST damned theme song ever!

(There were two versions; one with narration and one without.)

Now you kids get offa my lawn!

Leigh Walton said...

Holy shit, Annihilus is Scott McNeil. I just squealed like a little girl myself.

Aaron said...

The Contest episode might be the funniest moment from any version of the Fantastic Four, ever.

"Skrulls are excellent spellers."

Anonymous said...


I've seen a few of these on youtube, but I didn't realize it was cancelled. Probably for cost, as the episodes are all better than the cartoons I grew up watching.

Evie said...

I see Aaron already commented, but we basically can never shut up about how sweet this show is, and will play a clip of it on our podcast at the slightest provocation. I will admit I'm not a huge FF fan, but this show turned me around. So good.

Shaun said...

I didn't really like the show the few times I caught it while it was airing, but on the strength of this post I'm going to Netflix the lot.

As for favorite interpretations of the team, I've been very impressed with the Marvel Adventures FF book, which nails all four of them exactly the way I like.

David said...

Everybody is Scott McNeil.

And aside from the Dan Slott episode, I didn't enjoy the series much. Partly because of the frenchanime, mostly because of Johnny. You're really expected to laugh with him, along with other similarly out of place characters such as Beast Boy in Teen Titans or Michelangelo in the 2003 TMNT cartoon.

That had nothing to do with why it disappeared though. Cartoon Network currently is only interested in promoting shows it owns entirely. Which is why the thoroughly mediocre Ben 10 got the marketing blitz from hell when it came out. Shows they don't own lock stock and barrel tend to be given the Transformers treatment.(Until TF:Animated every Transformers series on CN got banished to six AM after the first few eps.)

Now, if you want a real quality superhero cartoon, grab Spectacular Spider-man. Cheeks' art style takes some getting used to, but it has the same showrunner as Disney's Gargoyles and the first true rendition of Parker Luck in ages. Instead of bad stuff happening to Peter at random, he makes hasty decisions as teens are wont to do and those decisions have consequences.

Anonymous said...

I too was shocked at how well done this series was. I recently bought the Season 1 DVD and just finished watching. The "Fourteen Thoughts" are pretty much spot on with the exception of the Reed/Susan relationship IMO.

To me it seemed like Sue was more interested in Reed at this point and they were gradually building on the relationship as they went in the series. And in "Imperious Rex" it was certainly implied that even Ben knew there was something more than friendship in the relationship.