Having been a fan of the various Marvel animated shows since I can remember, I have many, many fond childhood memories of watching them on Saturday mornings. There are some moments that I still remember vividly, nearly twenty years on. I doubt I will ever forget the awe I felt seeing Spider-Man in the middle of Manhattan, hanging upside in a costume he’d never seen before. Or the complete surprise when the Reverend from X-Men turned into Morph, who I’d long suspected dead. Even the feeling of complete awesomeness that I felt when I first heard the incredible theme tune from the second season of Iron Man has long lived on in my mind.
Unfortunately, there are a few bad memories from the era that I’ll also never forget, no matter how hard I try. The first season of Fantastic Four is chief among them. Even at the age of 8, I couldn’t believe how bad the show was. Unlike most of you, I’ve even had the great misfortune to sit down and review each and every episode for my website, and now Liberation has released the complete first season in Region 2, with the vastly superior season two to follow later in the year. Buena Vista had previously released a poor, edited version of the show (shockingly, with TV graphics slap across some of the opening episodes) back in 2005, but the complete set was never released in the UK, where we only got a poor single-disc release with a mere five episodes.
The cover art is very reminiscent of the late Michael Turner’s work, which doesn’t in the slightest reflect the artwork found in the show, which is good and bad at the same time when one thinks about it. The upcoming season two release also has similar artwork—Liberation usually has the artwork on the covers reflect the visuals behind the show, which has produced some outstanding covers for the 1980’s The Incredible Hulk and ’67 Spider-Man, but here it’s rather generic. At least it is better than the utterly crap visual styling found in this season. More on that later…
I am sad to say the show fails on every conceivable level. The series follows the awesome foursome’s adventures as they meet a host of supervillains for the first time. While the series does not start at the very beginning, the origin is told in flashback (on a chat show with Dick Clark, of all people). There is a slightly original twist on the comic origins, as it was in dire need of an update, as stealing a rocket ship to beat the Commies into space has no relevance in the 1990’s. In this one, Reed and his crew flew into space to study a cosmic disturbance that turned out to be The Silver Surfer, whose powers altered normally harmless cosmic rays, which of course caused the cellular transformation which made the four fantastic. They then announced that they should use their powers for good, as the writers were far too lazy to give them an actual reason.
It doesn’t work for me: had the crew attempted to logically explain why the characters became The Fantastic Four it would’ve done wonders for that what can only be described as pathetically one-dimensional characters. Reed turned the four into celebrity superheroes to make up for the fact that he’s forever cursed them as freaks and to save them from scientific persecution. To avenge (for lack of a better term) the fact that none of them will have the slightest chance of a normal life he turned them into the planet’s favourite family: heroes everyone can look up to. But there was no sign of this in the show, or any sign of any other interesting characterisation. The supposedly super-smart Reed Richard comes across as a pompous ass who has to solve every problem the characters find themselves in thanks to their completely illogical and utterly stupid actions. Sue is a typical blonde bimbo who shows little sign of life at all. Johnny tries far too be hard to be cool and comes across as corny more than anything else. Ben occasionally shows signs of self-hatred for looking like he does but is more often than not played as the comic foil. This is completely overdone, however, which makes it difficult to sympathise with him, especially as he rarely offers a funny line and comes across as an annoying orange twerp. It’s amazing how they’ve managed to translate comic book stories that I enjoyed reading and turn them into something that I now hate watching. It must take a special talent to do that.
With our heroes failing to live up to expectations, how do the villains fare? No better, I regret to inform. There’s nothing especially memorable about them. Actually, scratch that. There’s nothing especially memorable about them in a good way—they all pretty much suck. The Puppet Master does come across as slightly creepy in some scenes, mainly thanks to the always dependable Neil Ross, but the writers aren’t smart enough to do anything other than make all the villains complete idiots. This especially makes the Galactus episodes something I couldn’t sit through. To see a character with the potential of Galactus, a villain who isn’t quite evil but has to devour worlds to survive, could’ve made for one of the most epic stories ever in animation, but it’s mainly just the FF standing on the rooftop, complaining that their planet is about to be consumed by the devourer of worlds, who is then defeated in an insulting manner. It’s just awful. Try as I might I couldn’t find a single redeemable thing about the show’s writing. It’s lazy, the comedy isn’t funny and there’s no sense of drama or characterization, and this in an age when Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men were producing consistent entertainment each and every week.
Visually, the show was just as bad. As is abundantly clear, the show was nothing more than a 22-minute toy commercial, and one wonders why more care didn’t go into the look of the show: it looks and moves like crap. The robin egg blue look given to the leads’ costumes doesn’t do them any favours and neither do the actual models. For a character who spends the majority of his time aflame, The Human Torch simply doesn’t pop on screen, and the flames look like they would struggle to set petrol alight. The Thing comes off even worse. He’s just an eye sore, and looks completely out of place in even this show. The visuals look about twenty years behind the times, the kind of thing you would expect from Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The majority of the characters don’t even have shading, so they look completely flat. The staging is just as bad; despite how cool their powers are, the four never do anything remotely cool with them (especially when compared to some of the innovative stuff shown in the recent Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes cartoon). The animation is also incredibly stiff throughout, with the exception of the show’s finale, which, while ridiculously rubbery, looks a lot better than any of the episodes. It’s hard to give credit to a production as bad as this. It all fails, and it fails miserably.
I suppose one could praise some of the cast. Neil Ross, who has never phoned it in through his entire versatile career and probably never will, does a fine job trying to breath life into villains devoid of interesting characterisation, and Beau Weaver and Chuck McCann are decent enough in their respective roles until you realise just how much better they come across in season two when they have better lines to deliver and a superior voice director to work with. The highlight of the casting comes in the form of Mighty Galactus, as the late, great Tony Jay plays Big G here. But again, the same song must be sung: he is infinitely better in season two.
As for the DVD itself, if you’ve purchased any of the other Liberation Marvel DVDs by now you’ll know the story: a nice enough transfer with respectable audio and a short presentation about the show’s restoration. I highly doubt that the creative team behind this one would be willing to spill the beans on the show anyway, so creative commentary would’ve been a no go even if Liberation had money for proper features.
As a fan of the characters I can only advise you to save your money on this release. There’s nothing here except an expensive Frisbee, so save your money for the season two release, where the four become truly fantastic.