After the colossal disappointment of the two FANTASTIC FOUR movies, this DVD boxed set of the 2006 FF animated series feels nothing short of miraculous and surprises for a number of reasons.
FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD’S GREATEST HEROES is the fourth time the venerable super-team has been adapted to animation and this version is a vast improvement over its predecessors thanks to being a class act in just about every way. Using the first movie’s version of the group’s origin as its launching point — silently recounted in each episode’s brief opening sequence — the series gives us a Fantastic Four for the 2000’s in terms of the show’s feel and look, both of which owe much to Japanese animation. The classic Lee/Kirby heroes now at first glance look virtually indistinguishable from the legion of highly-stylized anime characters, what with their angular character designs and high-tech uniforms (as opposed to the crew’s all-blue old school lab/field jumpsuits), but the show’s scripters have done their homework and once the voice actors do their thing, the FF that we know and love are immediately recognizable. At first glance it’s definitely not for inflexible purists, but speaking as a lifelong FF booster who places them at the top of the list of the Marvel pantheon, I thoroughly enjoyed the twenty-eight episodes contained in the boxed set and welcome the production of more (something I definitely could not say for the three previous series).
Completely suitable for all ages, FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD’S GREATEST HEROES kicks off with the FF already a known entity and firmly ensconced in Manhattan’s Baxter Building, much to the irritation of the other tenants who constantly and unwillingly have to deal with the fallout from all the super-villains, extra-terrestrial conquerors, giant monsters and innumerable other threats the heroes contend with. Never an actual team of crime-fighting “super-heroes” per se, the FF spend the majority of their time engaging in super-scientific experiments presided over by resident brain Reed Richards (aka the Plastic Man-esque Mister Fantastic), and these forays into exploration often result in spectacular mayhem.
As per the Stan and Jack source material, the action is offset by the rampaging dysfunction within the FF as a family unit and that element works particularly well here, allowing the FF to register as a quartet of average, somewhat neurotic human beings who just so happen to possess superpowers. But what worked when fresh in the America of 1961 (the year when the Fantastic Four made their four-color debut) can be more than a tad outdated some forty-plus years later, so the familiar characters have been modernized, but those tweaks are wholly appropriate and in no way compromise the core of what made them great. Reed Richards epitomizes the sci-fi archetype of the brilliant scientist whose intellect and pursuit of knowledge and innovation distance him from the rest of humanity, but in the early days he was rather gruff and impatient with the rest of the team — especially Susan Storm, then known as the Invisible Girl — and if not for his genius being the key to solving most of the threats they faced Reed would have been an unlikable prick; in this incarnation Reed is still depicted as a research-obsessed nerd much more at home in his lab than in dealing with the mishegoss that goes on around him, but this Reed lacks the snippiness of old and now finds himself on the receiving end of his teammates’ impatience, derision and criticism. Susan’s role as the delicate girl-to-be-rescued has been thankfully dead and buried since the early-1980’s and John Byrne’s much-needed re-thinking of the character and renaming as the Invisible Woman, and the version found in this series retains the capable toughness of Byrne’s handling while bearing the doctorate degree of the big-screen version. This Sue is always right in the thick of the action, employing her force fields to great effect and giving the bad guys a very hard time indeed, and when not engaged in superheroic combat she serves as a sharp-tongued babysitter and voice of reason to the rest of the team. Ben (the Thing) Grimm and Sue’s younger brother, Johnny (the Human Torch) remain pretty much as they always have, but in their case little or no tweaking was necessary since the squabbling pair’s personalities and interpersonal dynamic were nailed from the get-go, although Johnny’s unending recklessness and towering assholism in this case are more in line with how he was portrayed in the two live-action feature films (but nowhere near as balls-out loathsome as seen in those two abortions). In short, coupled with the talents of the voice cast, this is an ideal Fantastic Four.
The stories are culled mostly from adventures spanning roughly the first five years or so of the comics and given a twenty-first century tarting-up in ways that reflect scientific and social advances since 1961 without sacrificing any of the energy that made them fun in the first place. Many of the FF’s classic adversaries are on hand, including Doctor Doom (natch), the Skrull Empire and the Super-Skrull, Ronan the Accuser, the Puppet Master, the Mole Man, Annihilus, the Frightful Four (with the Dragon Man and Klaw subbing for Medusa and the Sandman), and even the irrepressible Impossible Man puts in an appearance (in the best version of his initial story that we’re ever likely to see), while the black version of blind sculptress Alicia Masters is on hand to provide a chaste love interest for Ben. We also get the inevitable Thing/Hulk throwdown, a couple of top notch episodes involving Prince Namor (aka The Sub-Mariner), guest appearances by She-Hulk and Iron Man, and a sensible re-imagining of H.E.R.B.I.E., once an annoying robot designed to replace Johnny during the horrendous 1970’s cartoon series and now the F.F.’s sentient building-wide computer system who’s just as much of a neurotic as they are. The only major omissions are the Inhumans and a retelling of the classic Galactus/Silver Surfer arc, but I’m guessing the latter wasn’t touched upon thanks to the disastrous FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER being out while this series was first airing, and that’s a damned shame because I guarantee you that the makers of this cartoon show would have done a hell of a lot better in handling that epic.
An embarrassment of Marvel Universe riches, this twenty-eight episode boxed set is highly recommended, and keep in mind that when it comes to my beloved Fantastic Four I am a very tough critic, yet all I can find to grouse about here is the pointless element of having Ben depicted with a blue “4” scrawled across his rocky chest in what appears to be paint. And since that minor and pointless bit of business is easily ignored I’ll do just that and suggest you either buy this collection or add it to your Netflix queue. Marvel fans and kids will get a big kick out of it, and anything that can make me forget the trauma of the two theatrical features is most welcome in my DVD library.