A year-and-a-half after the release of the disappointing live-action Fantastic Four movie, Marvel and Cartoon Network premiered Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes. One might wonder why it took them so long to get the FF back on the small screen, but all that matters is that they did—at least, for a ridiculously short time, before Cartoon Network inexplicably pulled the plug. And the show’s original DVD treatment was just as abysmal: a series of bare-boned, full-framed, single-disc releases with a pathetic four episodes apiece. Simply shameful in this day and age.
But now, at long last, Fox has released Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes in a single package, containing all 26 episodes. Bless you, kind sirs.
The show is based on the popular comic book, with a few modern and movie-related twists. For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows the story of four adventurers who gain fantastical powers when their spaceship is bombarded with cosmic rays. The show does not start with their origin—as it has recently been presented on the big screen—but it is obvious they are clearly in their early days as a team: with the exception of Dr. Doom (who, as in the movie, played a part in their origin), the four have never met any of the villains they encounter in the show.
What really sets the show apart is that it works better as a comedy. The Fantastic Four’s powers are just not made for today’s increasingly cautious broadcast standards and practises environment. The Thing is a super strong brute who won’t be allowed to punch anyone; The Human Torch controls fire, except he isn’t allowed to burn anything but robots; they have to be careful about hitting women, so The Invisible Woman is handled very carefully; and Reed is a thinker, not a fighter. The fight scenes are thus probably the show’s most disappointing aspect, but they’re still pretty enjoyable. There’s nothing distractingly bad about them, but it’s disappointing to see such a comedown with the epic smack downs in Justice League Unlimited so fresh in one’s memory.
Thankfully, the comedy is spot on, with a tone and characterisation striking similar to that of Mark Waid and the late great Mike Wieringo’s run on the comic book. For those of you who don’t read the funny books (and given the current state of most of them, I may be joining you shortly) the characters are simple, clean fun. They aren’t horribly two-dimensional, but they know their roles and play to their strengths. If you’d have told me before the show that someone could make Reed Richards hilarious, I would’ve looked at you funny. But as a super smart scientist who has absolutely no idea how to behave and who lacks even the smallest of social skills, Reed is likeable, even somewhat sympathetic and most of all, really fun to watch. The Human Torch is obviously based upon Chris Evans portrayal in the live-action film (one of the few things they actually did right in the movies) but expands beyond him and becomes all the funnier. Clearly a complete dumb-ass with very little interest in the opinions of others, he aggravates the villains and strokes his ever-growing ego constantly. The best example is in “Frightful,” in which a new awesome foursome are becoming the city’s sweethearts. In an attempt to boost his popularity, Johnny devises a ‘foolproof’ plan and hires a freelance photographer to take photos of him saving the city, which of course only results in his ruination. You get a No Prize if you can name the famous Marvel freelance photographer who guest stars in this episode. All in all, the series’ characterisation is what makes it so fun to watch, and I personally found it hilarious more often that not.
One of the few complaints I would make about the show’s writing is its lack of an overall arc. They did a few small arcs related to some of the villains, but there was no big build up to a massive threat. There was some good storytelling with Ronan, The Kree and The Skrulls, but there wasn’t really a reason to come back and watch each week in case you missed something important. Having seen how well The Spectacular Spider-Man has pulled this off, I wonder if Fantastic Four‘s fortunes would’ve fared better had a recurring storyline been in place.
Another of the show’s problems is Dr. Doom. He appears constantly, but none of those appearances have any real merit. As the ruler of Latveria, Doom has diplomatic immunity—a fascinating option once again ignored in animation, which sadly results in no real conclusion to any of his episodes. The vast majority of the other villains in the show were actually pretty well done (whoever came up with the idea of idea of making The Skrulls a complete race of intergalactic dumb-asses surely deserves their own shrine) but by the end of the show’s run I was praying for some kind of resolution. Doom is a season finale-style villain, and in this show he simply doesn’t work as a villain of the week. If he had been given his own arc instead of just randomly turning up every three episodes, it could’ve eliminated a few problems and in turn, made the show more interesting.
The show’s visuals are great. While streamlined designs are all the rage these days, one can’t help but be charmed at the designs for Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes. The level of details in many of them is spectacular, and the animation rarely falters, beyond the odd occasional lip sync. The bright, vibrant colours perfectly blend with the show’s characters, and the 3D backgrounds are wonderfully expressive: the externals of the Baxter Building, New York, and Reed’s lab are something to behold. I’m also a fan of the show’s new costumes. Moonscoop added their own flair to the majority of the designs, and the FF’s uniform’s arguably look cooler than ever before. The blue, white and orange mix well together, especially when compared to their relatively plain Kirby jump suits from the comic. But look for a nod to those same suits in one of the episodes.
Speaking of nods, there is plenty in here for fanboys. A lot of the episodes are adapted from Fantastic Four comic books (which is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it). They’ve even managed to turn annoying twerp H.E.R.B.I.E. into a hilariously paranoid supercomputer. The show is not short of guest stars either: Iron Man, Hulk, Namor and a handful more all appear in the show, which is sure to delight the fanboys. As mentioned above, there’s a cheeky guest star in one of the episodes that will simply have you grinning from ear to ear each time you see him appear. I am slightly disappointed we couldn’t get a Spider-Man cameo or guest starring appearance; to see Spidey swing through this city would’ve truly been a sight to marvel at.
Highlight episodes include “The Cure”, in which Ben is finally transformed back into a human, and She Hulk takes his place on the team; “My Neighbour Is a Skrull,” which sees the Baxter Building overrun with Skrulls curious to learn about the Fantastic Four and their powers and demonstrate their shocking grasp of our culture in an attempt to learn about the same; and “Frightful”, an episode which sees the FF’s popularity dwindle as a new superhero team comes to town to steal their thunder. The epilogue to this episode gives the show’s its best line, which actually comes from Mr. Fantastic. Trust me, you’ll love this one.
On the colder side of the pillow, there’s a few too many appearances from Dr. Doom which ruin a lot of the stories he’s in. Sadly enough, “Shell Games”, guest starring Iron Man, is among them. It’s not a terrible episode by any means, but as a massive fan of Iron Man, I was disappointed to see the episode turn into another typical Doom bout. “Zoned Out” features the Four’s first visit to The Negative Zone and doesn’t do much with it; and “Trial By Fire” is a little weaker than I’d have liked—so naturally, guess which episode Cartoon Network picked to air first? In fairness to the show, there’s not really a bad episode to be found. There are no real rotten stinkers that you’ll feel compelled to skip over, but the above are a bit below the show’s batting average.
The DVD set comes in a very nice package with spectacular artwork that folds out to store all four discs. It’s nice to see that some effort went into this one, and other companies could learn from it. There’s also a section to neatly host a booklet, which mine didn’t have, unfortunately, but I assume that it details which episodes are on each disc. Here’s another compliment for Fox: the episodes are in production order, which I think works a lot better than the original American, Canadian and British airdates, which were all different.
The show is presented in its original widescreen ratio and looks stunning. While some companies are still foolishly releasing their animated properties in the incorrect 4:3 ratio, it’s nice to see that Fox has done this properly, especially as the previous releases were full-screen. The transfer is great too: everything pops on screen as it should, without a trace of grain, interlacing or dirt. It really does make Moonscoop’s New York shine. I don’t claim to be an audio buff but everything is at it should be in that regard, so I have no complaints about that.
As for the extras, there’s quite a lot here, none of it kiddie-oriented. First up in a collection of audio commentaries with story editor Chris Yost and executive producer Craig Kyle on “My Neighbour Is A Skrull”, “Scavenger Hunt” and “Contest Of Champions”, in which writer Josh Fine joins them. They provide an informative opinion and have great chemistry together; Kyle even manages to get in a few funny lines over the course of the episodes. Yost mentions what he wanted to do with “Scavenger Hunt”, the show’s finale, and mentions he would love to do more, which unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen because of Cartoon Network’s current idiotic state of affairs. I really enjoyed these commentaries and hope to see them continue with Marvel/Lion Gates DVDs and their other animated properties.
Next up is “From Origins To Animation,” in starts with Stan Lee talking about how he wanted a superhero team book but didn’t want to write a group of gods fighting fat men in suits, but instead wanting real people to deal with fantastical threats. “The Man” also talks about collaborating with co-creator Jack Kirby and his love for “The King’s” work. From there we hear from various comic book writers and the show’s creative team with their thoughts on the Fantastic Four. Mark Waid provides a particularly brilliant insight on the group and explains his view on why Reed decided to make the four fantastic after they received their powers. With Waid being my favourite Fantastic Four comic book writer, I personally found it great to hear from him. Unfortunately, the artist who drew his run, the magnificent Mike Wieringo, recently passed away and wasn’t interviewed.
“Rise Of The Rogues” offers various insights into the Fantastic Four’s villains and how they were translated onto the small screen. Most of them were adapted well, which can’t have been easy considering the way the show veered more towards comedy than action, and making villains funny and threatening at the same time would no doubt be very challenging.
“Traveling to New Dimensions” documents the show’s mix of 3D and traditional animation and how they managed to integrate the two, with results I personally found very impressive, worlds ahead of some of the other cartoons currently and on television. We travel to the Moonscoop offices and speak to some of their designers and director Franck Miohel. They are obviously a very talented group of people and have a real love for the source material—take one look at Reed’s lab and you’ll find the Kirby influence mixed with futuristic technology. They speak of which characters they found challenging and who they had the most fun with, and the problems of The Thing’s model due to the amount of rocks that compose his skin. To their credit, the complicated design is always drawn completely on model, no matter how difficulty the staging is. It’s refreshing to see them willing to go into so much detail to stay faithful to the source material, whereas most would’ve just simplified the model.
The remaining feature is a stills gallery that I unfortunately couldn’t get to work. I am uncertain if this is a fault with my set or a production error, but when I select the feature, it simply restarts the menu theme.
This is a very light-hearted show, so that it isn’t really fair to compare it to Justice League Unlimited. Admittedly, it isn’t for everyone but there are some people out there who never really gave the show a chance. Of course, with Cartoon Network on the case, they didn’t really get too long to make up their mind one way or the other…