Marvel TV Shows: Remember that time Human Torch was replaced by a robot?
The Fantastic Four have received pretty shoddy treatment when it comes to big-screen adaptations, but they haven’t fared much better on the small screen either. Probably one of the worst Fantastic Four cartoons is the 1978 show, The New Fantastic Four. Only lasting thirteen episodes and universally despised by fans, this cartoon ranks among the lowest of the Fantastic Four adaptations — and that’s saying something.
What made this show tank and why is it so detested? The main reason is probably that the Human Torch (aka, Johnny Storm) never makes an appearance. Ever. Not even in the opening credits. Safe to say, omitting one of the lead (and most beloved) characters from your superhero team isn’t going to endear any fans.
The alleged rumor behind the Torch’s absence is that the creators thought dumbass children would start setting themselves on fire in an attempt to emulate their favorite superhero. I could easily believe this to be true given that, based on my studies of 70s cartoons, no one seems to hate children more than the creators of children’s shows from this particular era. But no, the real reason was that Marvel was going through a phase where it kept licensing out its characters at random. At the time this cartoon was being made, the Human Torch was owned by Universal who was looking to create a live-action series around the character in the same vein as The Incredible Hulk. The series never happened, so it all turned out to be a total waste, much like this Fantastic Four cartoon.
Since Johnny Storm wasn’t going to appear, the creators knew it might look a little weird to have a show called The Fantastic Four without, well, a fourth team member. They weren’t about to change the team name to “The Terrific Three,” so something had to be done. They needed to add someone else to the roster. So, who did we get? H.E.R.B.I.E. We got H.E.R.B.I.E. the goddamn Robot.
Stan Lee created the character of H.E.R.B.I.E. (Humanoid Experimental Robot, B-Type, Integrated Electronics) as a replacement for the Human Torch for the show, while legendary comics writer Dave Cockrum was commissioned to design him.
However, Cockrum so utterly loathed the character that one day he finally walked out muttering obscenities and went out on a two-week bender to recover from the ordeal. (That’s how I choose to imagine it, anyway.) Jack Kirby did ultimately have to step in and finish H.E.R.B.I.E.’s design when Cockrum couldn’t take it anymore.
Cockrum was not alone in his hatred of H.E.R.B.I.E. Fans who tuned in to watch the new show likewise detested him. In my research, I managed to locate a few episodes on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JljS-hJJSQw) and DailyMotion (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6vtg44) (not the best quality, but adequate), and it’s easy to see why.
If the Human Torch did appear as his normal self, the show would probably have been mediocre at best. With its animation quality being so-so, uninteresting characters, dull storylines, and uninspired dialogue, it wouldn’t have been a great adaptation, but it might pass for serviceable. But H.E.R.B.I.E.’s presence and the Human Torch’s absence are just too distracting. Even knowing the legitimate reason behind Johnny Storm’s omission isn’t enough to make the cartoon enjoyable.
But yes, ultimately H.E.R.B.I.E. is the main problem with the show. As much as H.E.R.B.I.E. is billed as “the newest member of the group,” the whole dynamic in the show’s execution is more “The Fantastic Three and their Pet Robot.” H.E.R.B.I.E. rarely seems to get involved in any combat. Most of the time he stays behind at headquarters to do random tech-crap while the others are handling all the dirty work.
H.E.R.B.I.E. really only has a few primary functions in the show. He performs the rudimentary analysis and research that Reed orders him to do; tasks that Reed is probably capable of performing himself and has been shown in other adaptations to be perfectly able to do solo or on automation.
H.E.R.B.I.E. also has a great talent for stating the obvious after it’s already happened. For example, in one episode, Reed Richards has a one-on-one battle with Magneto and loses. When the rest of the team discovers a hog-tied Reed, H.E.R.B.I.E. brilliantly assesses the situation stating “My sensors tell me that something is not right!”
Yes, thank you for the shrewd analysis, H.E.R.B.I.E. Without your insightful input, we might have merely assumed that Reed Richards was just up to his usual wacky hijinks again.
H.E.R.B.I.E.’s other job is also to pick petty fights with the Thing and spew childish, unimaginative insults at him.
Actually, Fantastic Four in-fighting is a fairly common occurrence in both the comics and on-screen, so this is pretty accurate. And when the Human Torch is present, Johnny is usually the one in charge of regularly mocking the Thing. I’ll grant H.E.R.B.I.E. this one, he is admirably fulfilling his FF membership duties in this particular area.
Oh yeah, and H.E.R.B.I.E. is also in charge of cleaning the Fantastic Four headquarters. I guess Reed figured out that it’s a lot more cost-efficient to build your own janitor rather than hiring out.
I did actually learn more about H.E.R.B.I.E. through my research. While he was created primarily for this TV show, he was later given a role in the comics, where he’s supposedly more useful but also gets demoted from one of the Fantastic Four to their robot servant/researcher/maintenance guy/babysitter.
At least up until he ends up getting hacked and possessed by an evil cyborg and tries to kill everyone before he ultimately self-destructs.
This goes to show that it doesn’t matter how cute you make them, if you create a sentient AI robot, they will still eventually go insane and try to kill you.