The SmarK DVD Rant for The Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Heroes – Season One

Available at Amazon.com

Never let it be said that Marvel is shy about marketing their creations these days. On the heels of two mediocre Fantastic Four movies, we got a mediocre animated adaptation!

OK, that’s not fair. Certainly my original review was a little harsh on the four-episode “Volume one” that Fox released last year, but in fact watching the entire season left me pretty impressed overall compared to the slim pickings of the single disc. While the show is taken very faithfully from the original comic source material, the characters have been altered for the new century, with surprisingly witty writing and dialogue, almost a deconstruction of the superhero genre if you really want to get deep about it. I must be getting soft in my old age. After three volumes of randomly-selected episodes from the first-and-only season on the Cartoon Network, they’ve decided to compile the 17 aired episodes, plus another 9 which didn’t make it to air before the show was put on permanent hiatus, for a full season of 26. For those expecting the cheesy animation of the 90s version, this is a more anime-influenced take on the team, with lots of goofy reaction shots and mindless action.

Divided into four discs, the season is presented as follows…

Disc One

– “Doomsday”. This one serves as the de facto origin story, as the media learns that Reed Richards may have purposely exposed his team mates to the cosmic rays that gave them powers, and we flash back to their creation after everyone has some angst. However, evil robots soon preoccupy the team and we learn that the whole thing is a plot of Dr. Doom. But luckily, evil robots and power-neutralizing jail calls are no match for Johnny Storm when he’s got plans for later. Johnny’s impersonation of Doom for the media is pretty funny stuff.

– “Molehattan”. The Thing is just trying to enjoy a box of donuts, but he gets kidnapped by the Mole Man, one of the lamer members of their rogue’s gallery. In this case, he’s sucking entire buildings into the earth. This includes the Baxter Building, leaving Reed to babysit the tenants while they try to play with the toys in his lab. Mole Man is not exactly the height of excitement.

– “Trial By Fire”. More alien trouble, as Johnny gets transported to a Kree courtroom (“Are you Angry Smurf?”) to be tried for the crimes of humanity. Even more stressful is Ben Grimm left to give a speech on behalf of the team when Reed and Sue fly off to save Johnny. Reed gets sucked into being the lawyer for the defense, and he’s just right into it. And of course it wouldn’t be a courtroom drama without a giant battle with evil robots to cap it off, as Johnny redeems himself and puts the Kree Empire on the side of Earth in the upcoming battle with the Skrull Empire.

– “Doomed”. And we just get right into comic book weirdness with Dr. Doom somehow managing to switch bodies with Reed Richards in one of those “don’t think about it and you’ll enjoy it more” plots. Seriously, they put no effort into explaining it, it just happens. This leaves Reed trapped in a prison and Doom running wild in a stretchy body. Meanwhile Johnny Storm has to deal with reality TV. Sadly, it turns out that Doom’s biggest evil power is CUTTING REMARKS. Oh, snap, did he just call the Thing ugly? Shocking. Reed, meanwhile, fits right into the arrogant role of a supervillain, casually quipping “Yes. Yes I am.” when a cab driver asks him if he’s Iron Man. And of course when Reed insists that he’s not Doom but is actually Reed trapped in his body, they all just accept that and we get a big fight scene before they LET DOOM GO. Good lord.

– “Puppet Master”. The remnants of the cosmically-irradiated space station that created the Four falls to earth, turning normal clay into EVIL clay. An embittered sculptor, who turns out to be Alicia Masters’ stepdaddy, uses that to do some voodoo like he do on the FF. Meanwhile, Johnny babysits a bratty child actor in hopes of furthering his own career, but a little destruction on the streets of New York scares him into civility in no time. More funny lines from the Torch as he mocks the villain’s choice of “Puppet Master” as a name. And for once the endless monologue from a villain backfires, as Reed uses the exposition to figure out how to beat him.

– “Zoned Out”. Johnny’s bimbo date accidentally activates Reed’s negative zone glove from the first episode, and we get more comedy moments you don’t normally see in more serious superhero shows, like Sue Storm conducting a tenants’ meeting for people terrified of supervillain attacks. Naturally, just to make it tougher on her, the building gets overrun by mutant bugs from the negative zone, which has Reed bailing on the meeting and leaving Sue on her own (“I’m just taking a shortcut…through the lab.” “WHAT?”) while Johnny and his date get stuck in the negative zone and everything that can possibly go wrong, does, like bugs that eat fire and Frankie somehow managing to annoy every monster in the area. Sadly, Johnny’s cowardice tips her off that he didn’t actually invent the internet, as he claimed. Some good running jokes in this one.

– “Hard Knocks”. Things pick up a bit as Hulk visits, and immediately starts kicking ass. Hulk and Thing smash and clobber while Johnny provides some really funny comic relief, and the show seems to get into a good entertaining groove by focusing on their internal bickering rather than the overblown melodrama of most superhero cartoons. The usual exposition every time Hulk appears on a show is stapled on in ham-fisted manner, with Bruce Banner explaining yet again that you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry and he did experiments with gamma radiation and all that shit. You’d think the guy would just get a medic alert bracelet telling people that stuff. “Allergic to penicillin and vitally important not to anger.” But they DO make him angry, thanks to Thing’s mama joke prowess (“Stupid rock man make fun of Hulk’s mama!”) and they’re friends and then they’re enemies and then they’re friends again and Hulk beats the crap out of government agents and none of it makes a lick of sense but it’s all pretty entertaining anyway. Seriously, though, if you’re looking for a plot, go elsewhere.

– “My Neighbor Was a Skrull”. Best title ever. And a very timely topic as well. The Four return from a space mission to find the Baxter Building residents acting weirder than usual. And HERBIE is speaking Spanish. And they’re asking an awful lot of questions about the Four’s weaknesses and powers. Much more so than you’d normally expect your neighbors to ask. The silliness continues with the Thing getting trapped in the workout room and used as a human pinball (complete with sound effects). Luckily Reed can see through their endless bad dialogue and figures out that they’re merely trapped in a Skrull ship, which has Johnny all paranoid about being probed. But it turns out that he’s justified in his paranoia, because the Skrulls have their genetic material now…and a deal with the Kree Empire, it seems.

Disc Two

“World’s Tiniest Heroes” Reed is playing with technology that shrinks things, and you’re probably already 17 steps ahead of the plot already, and you’d be right. And again, it’s more silliness, as the Four are shrinking into the Fantastic Four-millionths Of An Inch and the computer system is more concerned with exterminating what it perceives to be rodents infested the building. Luckily, Ant-Man bails them out with his amazing flying ants, and Reed saves the day with a sub-atomic deus ex machina. In a nice touch, when they try to explain it with eye-roll-inducing technobabble, Johnny Storm just calls them nerds to wrap it up. And I don’t even know what was up with the flying dog. Note to writers: It’s called PLOTTING, look into it.

“De-Mole-Lition” In the ultimate example of the light-hearted spirit of this volume, Sue just wants some quality time for the team that doesn’t involve fighting giant robots from Dr. Doom or smashing up the city, so of course a huge mole creature gets sent to destroy the city. This gives us a battle scene reminiscent of the cover of Fantastic Four #1, which I really hope was a deliberate homage on the part of the creators and not just a fluke. However, the team basically pays the impending destruction no mind, shrugging off the threat and squabbling with themselves the whole time while casually stopping the monster. And then it’s off to Subterreana to solve the mystery, which gives us Mole Man, the lamest supervillain in a long line of lame ones. And there’s more stupid non-plot stuff with a plan to destroy the world with mole eggs or some nonsense, but the running joke with Johnny Storm waiting for delivery of a new car is far more entertaining, as is Reed’s overriding concern with being able to scratch his nose while trapped by the Mole Man rather than escape. This one was nicely tongue-in-cheek, but felt like they had to go back and edit it later to add peril or something silly like that.

– “Impossible”. The light-hearted weirdness continues as Reed launches a probe to teach aliens about humanity, and they get a spazzy shapeshifting alien for their troubles. They name him Impossible Man and soon he’s making a nuisance of himself in every way possible. It’s basically the FF version of Mr. Mxyzptlk, as he’s a giant pain but not really a threat. Although ramping up the battle merely serves to make him more excited, the ultimate solution (taken right from the comics), is much simpler and more effective.

– “Bait and Switch”. Reed experimenting on broccoli triggers a switch in powers, as Johnny and Sue swap powers, as do Reed and Ben. This gives us lots of gags, like Johnny remembering heat for the first time and Ben’s old clothes suddenly looking even more ridiculous. However, behind all the wackiness is another Dr. Doom plot to rule the world. And despite some angst from Ben about being turned back into a rock man again, everyone gets their powers back, although we still don’t know what Doom’s actual plan was.

– “Annihilation”. The destructive sphere from the last episode returns, sucking the Four into the Negative Zone and screwing up their powers in the process. Kinda creepy actually, with Reed melting like a Salvador Dali painting and Ben turning into even more of a freak. Great moment as Annilhilus makes his big entrance and Johnny totally undermines it by insisting on calling him “The Annihilator” like he was a wrestler or something. Sadly, even with an awesome name like that, he just proves to be a pawn for Dr. Doom, who has big plans for the Zone. The power’s too much even for Doom, resulting in a situation that’s terrib-awful! I have to admit, there’s some REALLY witty writing in these shows, even among the overblown battle scenes. Doom appears to be dead, but c’mon.

– “Revenge of the Skrulls”. So the Skrulls are back for round two, or rather Ronan the Accuser and his Skrull cohort, which has the Four bickering about stopping an alien invasion that’s kind of stupid. “Johnny, get the leprechaun!” “Cool!” The Skrulls invade the Baxter Building, but the FF are stuck with a dorky super-fan who proves to be much more of an irritation. Another hilarious moment has Ronan making his big return to get revenge on Johnny…who’s so clueless that he doesn’t even remember him. Ronan and Super-Skrull join forces, which has the nerdy fan in hysterics (“Dude, it’s a SUPER VILLAIN TEAM-UP! SWEET!”), but he actually ends up saving the day because of his extensive role-playing experience. Really, really funny episode.

– “Strings”. Weird stuff is going on. Reed is inventing stuff and he doesn’t even know why, and the mayor kicks them out of the city. So the worst happens, and they have to get….JOBS. The whole thing is the work of the Puppet Master, using his powers from jail to mess with them. Kind of a dull one, unfortunately.

– “Imperius Rex”. Hey, it’s Sub-Mariner time. Prince Namor rises from the ocean to ban humanity from the waters of the world (and face zingers from Johnny) and he’s bringing giant mutated fish with him. Johnny and Sue follow him down to Atlantis (despite Johnny’s extreme hydrophobia) and the Thing gets to beat up all sorts of exotic sea life while trying to rescue them. And they fight. And fight. And fight. But really that’s mostly what the original appearances in the comics were like, so fair enough.

Disc Three

– “Doomsday Plus One”. So, Doom returns from the Negative Zone, and this time takes over HERBIE. And the tenants are OUTRAGED. (“Does he live here? Does he pay rent?”) Especially when the Baxter Building gets launched into space, in one of the sillier master plans hatched by Doom. And it really kills the property values. But hey, Reed can fly a rocket-powered skyscraper just as well as Doom can, so they’re OK. Johnny’s continuing girlish screams of terror and frustration at the lack of physical confrontation with Dr. Doom are funny stuff.

– “The Cure”. Reed fixes the Thing! Pretty easily, as it turns out, although the catch is that Ben is reverted to the time from before the accident, so he doesn’t know about his former powers or remember anything after the whole transformation happened. Hijinks result, but when Mole Man attacks they have to recruit a fourth member to replace him…She-Hulk! But first we get the obligatory parade of loser “heroes” like Captain Ultra and Texas Twister, and a girlish scream from Johnny. Funny EVERY time. The goofy plot this time involves setting off all the world’s volcanoes at the same time, which is so stupid that even Mole Man admits that it’s kind of a dumb plan. Fun stuff.

– “Frightful”. The FF get upstaged by the Wizard and his Wizard’s Four, who have the powers of super-pretension if nothing else. Johnny’s plan to strike back involves hauling around a deliberately unnamed freelance photographer, who I’m pretty sure is intended to be someone else owned by Sony Pictures instead of Fox. And you know they had to work Pastepot Pete into this goofy show somewhere, and that gets milked for all the cheap gags you’d expect. It’s the old “villains setting up their own heroics” trick, which turns the Wizard’s Four into the more familiar Frightful Four.

– “Out of Time”. Reed builds a time machine…on a bet…and wouldn’t you know, one trip to the prehistoric era later and Dr. Doom is ruling America. He even has Doombucks and Doom-Mart, so you know it’s serious. Fixing the past requires a plot so convoluted that only Reed could possibly follow the logic, so it’s a nice twist when he’s wiped out of existence early on, and we get a funny, Back To The Future-style trip to their origin as the Thing practices the art of not being seen. It’s time travel goofiness, just accept it. “All right, everybody back into the time machine!” is a funny punchline, too.

– “Atlantis Attacks!” Well once we got Namor, this was the next logical step. Atlantis gets overthrown by the bad fish people and Reed has to practice maximum diplomacy to keep on Namor’s good side and prevent an invasion of New York. Not a big Sub-Mariner fan, so this one dragged for me.

– “Shell Games”. IRON MAN, beeyotch! Man, I bet they’re scrambling to green-light an Iron Man series right now, too. Another attack on the poor Baxter Building, this time by Tony Stark’s armor, run AMOK. And it’s total Marvel Geek action as a historic selection of his previous suits make appearance and creep Johnny out (“Is it…haunted? Because I hate ghosts.”) But of course it’s Dr. Doom behind it, or rather…IRON DOOM! This is so badass. And finally the all-out Doom v. Four battle, leading to a great line from Iron Man with “But I don’t want a deadly enemy!”. They totally nail the Stark character, and it’s great stuff all around for my favourite of the series.

– “Johnny Storm and the Potion of Fire”. Pretty obvious allusion with that title. The Four battle Diablo, who sounds like he’s the bee from those annoying allergy commercials, and who seems to have a pretty firm grasp of magic. This sets up the running gag for the episode, as Reed constantly denies the existence of magic despite all the evidence to the contrary, setting up the big payoff joke at the end. Johnny also does the Dark Phoenix thing, getting all super-powered and yet evil.

– “Contest of Champions”. The references get more obscure now, as they haul out an old pre-Secret Wars story from the 80s and update it. Ronan the Accuser whines to the Grandmaster about how the Four are always cheating to beat him, so the team gets sucked into a giant game of DEATH against the villain super-team of Ronan, Super-Skrull, Annihilus, and … The Mole Man? (“It burns! The sunlight burns!”) The Impossible Man gets subbed in to make things a bit less annoying for the omnipotent Grandmaster, and it’s the ever popular Superhero Tournament To The Death. Round one features Sue v. Annihilus in a foot race, Thing v. Impossible Man in an eating contest, Johnny v. Super-Skrull in a skateboarding event, and Reed v. Ronan in a stealth battle. Then the writers throw out all pretext of serious combat as the elimination round is Reed v. Impossible Man in charades (“It’s a hamburger!”), Sue v. Ronan in hide & seek, Thing v. Skrull in a scooter race, and the highlight: Johnny v. Annihilus in a spelling bee (“Can you use it in a sentence?” “No.”). The semi-finals feature a staring contest between Thing and Impossible Man, while Johnny has to face Ronan … in the ocean. That one doesn’t go well for him. The finals feature Thing v. Ronan in a fair and honourable fight, and the ending to that one is pretty clever and fits the rules of the game to boot. Another really good one as they build up creative steam just as the series nears the end.

Disc Four

– “Doom’s Word Is Law”. Yes, it’s another Doombot, but this one is self-aware and gets adopted by Thing as his little clobbering pal. Sadly, his lessons in torturing Johnny are interrupted when Doom kidnaps Reed and Susan, leaving Thing and Johnny to formulate a plan and save them. Doom’s total shock at the range of dumb luck that allows them to SUCCEED is great (“I thought we were melting in!” “No, I said we were SMASHING in!”), and the Rocky V showdown between Thing and his robot buddy is inevitable.

– “Scavenger Hunt”. And the series wraps up in a big way, with the potential invasion of Earth by Terminus. Yeah, it’s another giant robot for them to fight, and frankly I’m pretty disappointed they didn’t go with Galactus to wrap things up, but I guess the movie gayed that villain up too badly to use him again. Luckily, Terminus is all-powerful, but so dumb that even Johnny can come up with a plan to stall him long enough for the Four to combine their powers and bring him down. And that’s the series.

As noted, the original four episode DVD wasn’t really a good cross-section of the show, as the full 26 episode run really showcases the goofy humor that made the series so fun for old-school comic geeks like me. I should also note that I watched some episodes with a very young comic fan, and he was entranced from start-to-finish, always an impressive accomplishment for a show like this. If you’re a Comic Book Guy type of obsessive nerd, you’ll probably be mortified by the liberties taken here as far as the tone and animation style goes, but the show never takes itself seriously and there’s some of the funniest dialogue for a comic adaptation this side of the Tick. Unfortunately the villains get pretty repetitive (too much Doom, too much Ronan, too much Mole Man) and the actual story elements are paint-by-numbers archetypes at best, but it’s roughly 6 million times better than the movies, so I can recommend it without hesitation if you’re looking for something closer to the spirit of the comics than those were.

Audio & Video

Now this is more like it. While the original release was cropped into 4 x 3 for some reason, this is presented in the original, glorious 16 x 9 widescreen and it looks, well, fantastic. Colors are extremely bright (too bright, in fact, at times), and the CGI looks lifelike thanks to the better resolution offered. But even better is the audio mix, as this set offers the most aggressive 5.1 surround mix I’ve ever heard in an animated show, with things frequently zooming into the rear speakers and the subwoofer rumbling impressively thanks to the frequent action set-pieces. The soundstage is all over the place, with distinct action coming from all channels, and my only complaint is that the dialogue is very low compared to the other portions of the soundtrack and I had to crank up the center channel to hear it. A great home theatre demo choice, for sure.

Bonus Features

Not too bad. You get three episode commentaries from the writers, mainly with them discussing how they came up with ideas and praising the voice actors and such. The fourth disc contains the rest of the features, which run about 40 minutes total and are broken up into three chapters: “From Origin to Animation” with Stan Lee and Marv Wolfman talking about the original comics and how they translated into the series; “Rise of the Rogues”, with more talking heads discussing the villains of the show; and “Travelling To A New Dimension” features a trip to the animation studios in Europe to show how the 3D modelling works. And of course, there’s the ever-popular photo gallery, which has some neat stuff like a selection of the original comic covers that inspired the shows.

The Pulse:

I’m doing a 180 from my original look at this series, as the light-hearted tone and impressive presentation of the DVD won me over and made me into a fan of the show. Too late to save it, of course, as it was cancelled by the Cartoon Network and died off well before this DVD set came out, but for those who missed it (which is most people), it’s well worth a look for comic fans as long as you don’t take it seriously, much like the creators didn’t.

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