Marvel’s First Family: Revisiting Fantastic Four (1994-1996)

Has there EVER been a good adaptation of Fantastic Four? We take another look at the ’94 series. 

Created by Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four have had a rough time away from the page. An unrelated 1994 feature produced by Roger Corman was never officially released, and the three big-budget attempts have hardly been a step in the right direction. To achieve a truly perfect adaptation (listen up, Trank), it seems that filmmakers need to hit a middle-ground between the FF’s kiddie-friendly origins and something more, well, adult for the grown-ups. They got the latter right with this summer’s box office dud but also ensured that little of the style and fun of the source material broke through.

This animated incarnation presents the team as they were originally. There’s Reed Richards, a gifted scientist and all-round genius, his intelligent girlfriend Sue Storm, and her impulsive brother Johnny. Rounding out the quartet is pilot Ben Grimm, a good friend of Reed’s, who agrees to fly them into the cosmos to document an unexplained space phenomenon. Naturally, things don’t go to plan – the ship is struck by cosmic rays, and after crash-landing, they soon realise that their molecular biology has been altered. Reed can stretch his body any way he wishes, Sue can turn invisible at will, Johnny can transform his entire figure into a living flame, and Ben? Well, he draws the short straw – the rays have turned him into a hulking mound of rock, but one blessed with unparalleled strength. Upon returning to New York City, their home, they set up shop as superheroes – dubbed The Fantastic Four by the press – and enjoy the fame that comes with their strange gifts. Yet does having super-powers make family life any easier?

With a concept that appreciably childish, it’s hardly surprising that Lee and Kirby’s work has been targeted by animators on several occasions. The 60s version was a lot like that era’s Spider-Man – cheap, cheerful and not terribly good. It wasn’t until the 90s variation on the material that we finally got a worthwhile cartoon out of The Fantastic Four. But it got off to a truly awful start. The initial slate of thirteen episodes were marred by terrible writing, exaggerated voice-work, patchy animation, and weak story arcs. In fact, the first season is almost unwatchable. Producer/screenwriter Ron Friedman seemed to abandon much of what made the comics work.

It’s a shame, since the first batch includes a great deal of famous characters and landmark stories that simply go to waste. The troubles begin with the two-part backstory, which bypasses the usual linear approach. Instead, Reed (Beau Weaver), Sue (Lori Alan), Johnny (Brian Austin Green) and Ben (Chuck McCann) recount their adventures on the sofa of Dick Clark’s television show. Through flashbacks, we discover how they gained their powers, but Friedman keeps cutting back to the present for some ill-judged humour. It could have worked – the “superhero as celebrity” concept is still pretty fresh in the genre, seen on the screen mostly recently in the Iron Man films. In fact, it’s a relief to watch characters that don’t care about revealing their powers to the public, giving the material a welcome dose of social satire. But the first season of the show squanders this aspect of the comic, too. Therefore, the sight of fan-favourite baddies Dr. Doom (Simon Templeman) and Galactus don’t cause a stir like they should. The scripts are simplistic at best, and never once do we feel like the FF are under threat, since every adventure is tied-up neatly.

The animation just about works. It’s colourful and pleasantly retro, and the character designs are faithful to Lee and Kirby’s vision. But the direction seems to spoil this to no end, and it’s clear from every episode that the series was put together hastily (and for very little money). The final nail in the coffin was the absurd opening titles. Combining a horrendous theme song with trashy visuals, it was a joke no-one seemed to be in on:

Now compare that to the opening for season two:

Ah, yes, season two was everything the first wasn’t. The show was re-tooled in every way imaginable. From the get-go, the improvements are obvious. The titles are actually good, setting the tone for the show impeccably, and the animation is much stronger. It seems to pulsate with a new life, like it’s a different show entirely. And the reason for it’s upsurge in quality? The sacking of Friedman, probably. His replacements provided stronger scripts, with story arcs that did justice to each of the characters and kept you entertained. The first step to making the show more involving was to make the characters more likeable. In fact, I’ve always considered The Fantastic Four to be the most human of Marvel’s universe. Like Peter Parker, they have to deal with a flurry of real-life issues that even children can relate to on some level. Ben must deal with his horrifying appearance (which Reed feels guilty for), Johnny feels lonely due to such a powerful gift, and the relationship between Reed and Sue is often put to the test, as the strains of juggling family life and saving the innocent begin to take their toll.

The highlights for me included “The Inhuman Saga,” a three-episode arc that deals extensively with The Human Torch – by far FF’s most enjoyable character – and “Doomsday” with the Silver Surfer and old planet-eating Galactus. They follow the comic events as closely as they can, and surprisingly, they pack some emotional resonance. Johnny finds his true love (introduced earlier in the season), only to lose her in a tragic chain of events. Yet it isn’t all gloomy. The Fantastic Four has always revelled in its light and breezy atmosphere, and most of these episodes are just pure fun. In one instalment, they team-up with everyone’s favourite God of Thunder, Thor, and there’s a welcome appearance from Daredevil who aids the Four in yet another tussle with Dr. Doom. However, most comic book geeks will love “Nightmare in Green” the most, in which The Thing and The Incredible Hulk come to blows. Need I say more?

The second season of Fantastic Four is so solid that you might forgive the atrocious thirteen episodes that begin the series. It certainly improved in leaps and bounds, and is one of the better representations of Marvel’s comic to date (yet, due to poor ratings, the show was summarily cancelled just when it was getting interesting). We wouldn’t get another watchable FF cartoon until 2006’s World’s Greatest Heroes. Maybe they will finally get it right in live-action one day…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • If the show had been picked up for a third season, producer Tom Tataranowicz wanted to go into the whole Sue Storm pregnancy story arc. That also would have given a chance for the the Sub-Mariner to return as he played into the whole thing (ala Fantacic Four issues leading up to and around issue #100). Tataranowicz also considered bringing Medusa and She-Hulk into the mix as part of the team.
  • Iron Man makes a cameo in one episode with a different design from his own show and doesn’t speak.
  • In the comics, for years Sue Richards was known as Invisible Girl. They modelled the Fantastic Four after the more recent comics where she had changed her name to the Invisible Woman.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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