Last week I talked about the 1978 cartoon, The New Fantastic Four and what a terrible FF adaptation it was for the small screen. Did I say it was the worst of the Fantastic Four TV adaptations? Because it is not. As of today, it is definitely NOT the worst of the Fantastic Four cartoons. This honor can officially be awarded to the 1979 TV show, The Thing.
Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four is probably the most memorable character of the team. He pulls himself out of an impoverished background and a bad neighborhood, where he was a street fighter before earning a college scholarship. He received multiple degrees in engineering, studies space flight and agrees (albeit reluctantly) to pilot his buddy Reed Richards’s rocket ship to space. Then, as a result of a terrible cosmic ray accident in space, Ben gets on the wrong side of one particular comet and is permanently transformed into the rocky, orange-hued creature we know today. The Thing as a character is rough, tough, ready to fight and never without a humorous quip. But underneath that boorish exterior is a tortured, sensitive soul who struggles with his disfigured appearance and still harbors significant resentment about being the only one of his team members who got the short end of the stick from a very fickle ray of cosmic energy.
With a backstory like that, you would think a pretty cool cartoon could be developed. We could watch the Thing in action, clobber some villains, all while exploring his inner psyche where he has to deal with his completely justified insecurities while hiding beneath a mask of confidence and humor.
But no, that would be far too interesting and compelling a show. What Hanna-Barbera actually gave us was a giant, steaming pile of crap. Instead of the adult test pilot and astronaut, Ben Grimm, we’re presented with a whiny, dumbass teenager who goes by the name of “Benjy Grimm.” I guarantee that you will utterly hate this character in less than five minutes.
The full name of the cartoon was actually Fred and Barney Meet The Thing. Yes, that Fred and Barney. Of The Flintstones. The Thing appeared as an 11-minute segment during the hour-long show, The New Fred and Barney Show, but despite the title, the Flintstones have absolutely no interaction with The Thing. Though Fred and Barney appear in the cartoon’s introduction, they are weirdly never seen in the show itself. So, the title is a disappointment for anyone looking for a Thing vs. Fred Flintstone showdown.
In the universe of this show, the rest of the Fantastic Four doesn’t exist. There was never any traumatic accident that gave Benjy his powers. He just happens to be in possession of a set of magic rings. At the first sign of trouble, Benjy just bashes the rings together and says the magic words, “Thing ring, do your thing!” in his nasally voice.
I don’t know why, but somehow this mantra just sounds so dirty to me.
After he says the magic words, all these orange rocks come flying out of nowhere and attach themselves to Benjy’s body so he can become the Thing. It doesn’t matter where Benjy is, those rocks will arrive speeding through the air. Happily enough, those stones whizzing by at 100 miles per hour do absolutely no damage to any buildings or innocent bystanders.
In this show, the character of “Benjy Grimm” doesn’t have any of the angst or inner turmoil that Ben has to deal with on a daily basis, because “Benjy” has the privilege of shifting back and forth between his human appearance and his Thing form whenever he wants. Which is a plot point that significantly diminishes the Thing’s character development.
Oh, I’m sorry, there is one episode where Benjy is feeling glum because of how ugly he looks when he turns into the Thing.
May I remind you again, that he can change back and forth at will? Something that Ben Grimm could only dream about? I told you this kid was a little turd. By now, I bet most of you are probably wishing you could punch him right in the groin.
And he cheers up immediately when his girlfriend (who knows his identity) assures him that of course, he’s perfectly pleasant-looking when he’s The Thing.
Obviously, this is because he’s absolutely unbearable to look at when he’s his usual, puny, sniveling self. Being an orange rock monster can only serve as an improvement.
For the record, I don’t identify Benjy Grimm as being the same person as Ben Grimm. The real Ben would write this guy off instantly as a total weenie.
Even when Benjy is the Thing, he’s still remarkably unimpressive. He doesn’t even have a real personality. He just spouts a slew of puns and catchphrases (while sounding like a chainsmoking Ralph Kramden) and solves whatever trivial problem is plaguing his neighborhood that day. I’m not kidding when I say that the issues the Thing is called to solve are usually very minor. In one episode, Benji becomes the Thing in order to move a bunch of cars in a parking lot so his friends can find a spot. Again, I wish I was joking about this.
Good God, he’s actually double-parking the car. Now I know that the real Ben would despise this little asshole. Ben Grimm would never double-park, and he would definitely want to clobber anyone else who would dare commit the ultimate parking lot crime.
The Thing in this show doesn’t even fight crime. Not real crime, anyway. You’re not going to see him do battle against any supervillains or foil any elaborate schemes. No, the Thing’s primary archenemies are a group of incompetent teenage street toughs called “The Yancy Street Gang.” All they really do is act mildly antagonistic towards Benjy Grimm and his friends and cause low-level mischief in the neighborhood.
The original Yancy Street Gang from the comics was a part of the real Ben Grimm’s character history. Ben was a member of the gang in his youth, and after becoming the Thing, he was often the target of their pranks.
They all later formed a reasonably amicable truce. The Yancy Street Gang were never villains, they were just annoyances at their worst.
Just look at this Yancy Street Gang.
Does this look like a gang worthy of superhero intervention? These clowns have got to be the most inadequate-looking clowns to ever challenge the Thing. They don’t even look like teens; these guys are clearly in their late 30s.
And look at this guy. What the hell is the deal with that hat? Is it really strapped under his nose? Unless the creators are trying to convince us that this character has had a lobotomy, this is just lazy animation.
Other times, when he wasn’t facing off against the pathetic Yancy Street Gang, Benji and his friends would sometimes solve mysteries Scooby-Doo style and encounter weird characters, like this random dude.
I’m pretty sure Hanna Barbera’s lowest-rent Scooby-Doo knock-off cartoons would consider this beneath them. I’m looking at you, Jabberjaw.
While The New Fantastic Four was mostly boring, with H.E.R.B.I.E the robot serving as an irritating presence, The Thing is just mind-numbing drivel. It’s also a complete violation of a beloved comic book hero’s character. I watched a few episodes from YouTube and feared I might have a brain aneurysm from the sheer stupidity of what I was watching. This wasn’t even enjoyably bad, it was just plain wretched.
Remember last week, when I said that no one hated children in the 70s more than the people who created their TV programs? Well, The Thing is candy-colored cartoon evidence of the Hanna-Barbera executives’ utter contempt for their child viewers’ intellectual capacity, and the sadistic pleasure they took in torturing them with their content.