Hiromu Arakawa's 'Fullmetal Alchemist' began serialization in July 2001 in the magazine Monthly Shonen Gangan. It gained almost immediate recognition as something truly special, and only a short while later, an anime adaptation was greenlit and began airing on October 4, 2003 and lasted until October 2, 2004. Due to the anime starting so quickly after the manga, the anime had to go at a slower pace in it's adapted material, as well as creating 'filler' (material not present in the original manga that often, but not always, doesn't do anything to further the main storyline) episodes, before eventually going in it's own direction separate from the manga - though it would occasionally sprinkle certain elements from further in the manga into it's storyline as well. Although the series was both a financial and critical success both in it's home country of Japan and in the rest of the world, and was extremely well received by fans in general, the drastic difference between it and the manga lead to a divide in opinions between Fullmetal Alchemist fans.
A few years later in 2009, a new anime series entitled 'Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood' began airing, promising to adapt the manga all the way through unlike it's predecessor. True to it's word, Brotherhood ended on July 4, 2010, roughly three weeks behind the manga, which itself had just ended. This feat was almost unheard of in anime adaptations, and was only accomplished through Arakawa's willingness to share the final chapter's manuscript with the anime staff prior to it's release.
Like the prior anime, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood was a huge success for everyone involved in it's release, and fans of the manga finally had an animated version true to it just as they had wanted. Still however, Brotherhood doesn't erase the success of the previous anime series, nor did the first series take away from the manga and Brotherhood when it followed. While the fandom at large seems to be able to co-exist with each other peacefully enough, each fan still likely has a favorite version, with some preferring the the first anime because it was what introduced them to the franchise, while others prefer the manga/Brotherhood for the same reason, or just considering it to be the 'original' version of the story. While neither opinion is objectively right, as everyone is entitled to their preference, there does seem to be some worth in examining the differences between the two versions.
The "First Half"
While I refer to this section by that title, it's not entirely accurate. It's true that the material that's roughly the same between the two series encompasses the first 25 episodes out of 51 for FMA, the same material only takes up about 14 episodes out of 64 for Brotherhood. There's no doubt though that this difference in episode count is a big factor in why each of these episodes feels different from each other even when they tell the same story.
The first FMA has a bit of a slow start in retrospect. The first two episodes launch you right into the thick of things with Ed and Al investigating Lior, without much explanation as to who they are or how exactly they ended up with their bodies the way they are. Episode 3 gives us the details of how the boys lost their mother and attempted to bring her back, concluding with Ed and Al heading to Central to become State Alchemists, giving a feeling that the story is truly about to begin. In Brotherhood this is certainly true; for the first series however, we are treated to about eight episodes of filler where only certain small elements have any bearing on what's to come.
In the middle of the filler however comes one of the first series' strongest points: the tale of Nina. The Elric brothers meet Nina and her father, Shou Tucker, as well as the family's dog Alexander, when Ed wants to learn more about biological transmutation. Tucker had achieved fame a few years prior for transmuting a chimera capable of human speech, but had fallen on hard times since then, his wife even having left him. However, as the brothers quickly find out, Tucker's wife didn't leave at all - Tucker had transmuted her and an animal together to make his first talking chimera. They find this out only when Tucker creates his second chimera capable of human speech...by using Nina and Alexander. This action is irreversible, so when the chimera Nina is killed soon thereafter by Scar, while the brothers themselves view this as murder, it is sadly more an action of pity.
The events around Nina and Tucker stay largely the same between the two series, with the fate of Tucker himself being one of the only major differences, and yet, I can't help but find the first anime's portrayal of the events even sadder. A part of it is bias from seeing that first no doubt, and seeing such a tragic sequence of events is definitely going to leave a strong impression on you the first time around. Even beyond that though, in the first series we meet the Tucker family an episode before everything goes terribly wrong. One episode might not sound like a lot, but it is enough to show us how adorable Nina is, and how much of a trooper she has become growing up with no mother and a father who is focused very much on his work. We even grow fond of Tucker himself in this episode, as he comes across as an incredibly dedicated, albeit slovenly man, but one who is more than willing to help Edward and Alphonse by allowing them to check out his research. In just one episode's time, we get to know the characters fairly well, and even begin to care for them, perhaps even thinking they're going to be a part of the larger background cast, only to have the rug pulled right out from under us in the most devastating way possible just one episode later.
Brotherhood however only gives us one episode with Nina and Tucker. Even if one hadn't seen the previous anime, or read the manga, or had the events spoiled for them, it just doesn't seem to leave near as much of an impression in this version of the story. There's also the fate of Tucker, which I eluded to previously. While some no doubt prefer his quick demise from Scar, and while I personally do wish he had died in the first incarnation as well - seriously, how hard would it have been to have him stumble out from underground in the chaos during Shamballa and have Hawkeye headshot him? - there is something to be said about his first anime fate being worse than death, and fitting. We're never quite told whether Tucker did it to himself somehow or if someone else did it to him, but for Tucker to be turned into a painfully designed chimera himself, and spend the rest of his pitiful life attempting to bring life into a Nina doll he's made, literally cradling it while scribbling on the wall the last time we see him...in some ways, that's a far more poetic justice.
The events surrounding Nina are definitely a major moment in the ongoing story in both versions, but if there is any one moment that trumps even it, it's the death of Maes Hughes. A favorite character for practically every fan, Hughes enters the series in a different way between the two series and even the manga, but one thing is made immediately clear in every incarnation - this is a man in complete and total love with his family. Faithfully devoted to his wife and almost sickeningly doting on his young daughter, and somehow still left with enough care and love to spread to his friends, Hughes is arguably one of the most stand-up characters in all of fiction. When he begins looking into the corruption of the military and trying to find out more about the Humonculi, and stumbles upon a huge secret that the bad guys can't let out, he is deemed too smart to live by them, and is attacked by Lust. He puts up a fight as best he can and manages to get away with Maria Ross tagging along behind him, but due to the missing mole on her cheek, he quickly realizes it's not Ross at all. Injured and desperately trying to reach Mustang on the phone, Hughes slits the shape-shifting Envy's throat, but it takes more than that to kill a humonculus - and it's then that we're hit with it. Changing into the form of Gracia, Hughes' beloved wife, Envy fatally shoots Hughes and leaves him to bleed to death. It's the most tragic way imaginable for a character like Hughes to spin off the mortal coil.
Again, like with Nina, the events surrounding Hughes' demise are roughly the same between both versions, with both concluding with a military funeral, the heartbreaking cries of Elicia, and the reveal of his posthumous promotion to Brigadier General, as well as Mustang swearing vengeance upon Hughes' killer once he finds them. The way things play out after this however are incredibly different, as this is the the major turning point at which the two series go in different directions (there are the events around Greed that technically appear in both versions, but as they occur so late in the first anime and are so radically different, we'll cover them in the next section). I might again be biased, but the way things turn out in the first series have always held much more weight in my mind. As with Nina, the amount of time in which we get to know Hughes is a major factor, only on a larger scale this time. In Brotherhood, Hughes appears right away in the filler episode 1, but he's gone by episode 10. In the first series however, Hughes appears in 5 (again in filler, curiously enough) and doesn't get offed until episode 25. We almost literally have twice as much time to get to know the character, which serves to drive the knife in all the harder when it's his time to go.
In addition to more time spent with him, we also get to see the development of his father complex in the first series, whereas it's already there in Brotherhood. When we're introduced to Hughes in the 2003 anime, Gracia is pregnant and we're made witness to Elicia's birth, and therefore get to see super-husband Hughes transformed into super-father Hughes. In Brotherhood we do get to see the birth of a child, but it's relegated to Rush Valley, which does carry more story to it than the 2003 version of the locale, but it still doesn't feel as deep and major when it doesn't tie in to one of the core aspects of a major character like Hughes.
It might sound like I'm entirely pro-2003 series, but there are two aspects to the aftermath of Hughes' death that Brotherhood has that's somewhat lacking in the first series. Both of which however tie in to the concluding storylines as well as some key characters, so I'll discuss those in a later section.
If you noticed a pattern here, it's that the difference between the two takes on the first parts of the series largely comes down to time. While in the first series things are more fleshed out, despite being arguably bogged down by filler at the same time, they do take longer to get through and thus longer to start getting to the real meat of the story. Brotherhood however speeds through the earlier material, which dampens the effect of the storytelling in that portion of the story. This was likely an unavoidable compromise however. They couldn't not cover those events as they were all important to the ongoing narrative, but the two series were only about five years apart in creation, a little too soon to not have to get through the familiar territory faster and get to the new material before fans lost interest. Brotherhood's greatest fault with this material isn't really a fault of it's own making, so it's a little more forgivable when looking back.
The first parts of the two series stay roughly the same, but after that point they begin to diverge greatly, with storylines heading in entirely different directions and including different characters - with some characters that appear in both versions actually being completely different themselves.
One of the biggest differences occurs with the humonculi, what they are, where they come from, and what their purpose is. In both series, humonculi are artificially created humans with strange powers and an insane healing factor that practically makes them immortal. The similarities between the two somewhat stops there. In the first anime, the humonculi are later revealed to be the results of failed human transmutation, an additional 'sin' for those who would attempt it, as well as being what they get in return for what they give up to the Gate. This leads to an even more traumatic outcome for the Elric brothers and their teacher Izumi Curtis, with Sloth and Wrath respectively turning out to be homunculi they created, given the very likeness of their deceased mother and child.
The humonculi in Brotherhood however have no connection to human transmutation whatsoever. They instead originate from their Father, who is himself the original Humonculus, who was himself created through alchemy but not the human transmutation variety. Father created them from his own body by purging himself of 'human' emotions, specifically those of the seven deadly sins, which he considered unworthy. As such, the humonculi are literal incarnations of the sins that serve as their names, whereas in the first series their names seem to stem either from the emotion that brought the alchemist to try and bring someone back, or just the nature of their character. The naming and creation scheme serves some of the humonculi better in one version than it does in another.
- Lust in the first series was created when Scar's older brother tried to bring back the woman he loved. Love and lust can certainly be seen as two sides of the same token, so presumably that is why she was created as that sin. For her Brotherhood version, we're just left to assume that Father actually had a frisky side, which is kind of terrifying in retrospect.
- Gluttony however seems to work out better via his Brotherhood origin. We might not know who Gluttony originally was in the 2003 series, but it's hard to imagine how gluttony would have been a reason someone tried to revive him. The character just being the incarnation of Father's hunger seems more fitting.
- Envy is a bit of an odd one out in that both origins fit him but in different ways. In the first series he is the first homunculus, a result of Hohenheim and (presumably) Dante's attempt to bring their child back to life. It's more likely that a sense of loss is what led to his transmutation rather than Hohenheim being envious of anyone, but Envy himself is shown to be extremely jealous of Hohenheim's care for the Elric brothers. His name definitely stems from his nature, though admittedly that works even better in Brotherhood where he quite literally is 'Envy' incarnate.
- Greed, like Envy, is one that seems to get his name from his very nature and thus makes a little more sense via his Brotherhood origin. In the 2003 series the only note about his origin is that Dante created him, and it's left unclear exactly what greed she had when she transmuted him.
- Wrath, honestly, is a bit of a weak character in terms of fitting his sin in both versions, despite being two entirely separate characters in both. The 2003 Wrath is the result of Izumi's attempt to bring her child back to life, and it's almost impossible to imagine how wrath would tie in to that. The child Wrath is certainly vocal about his wish to kill her for it, and is thus filled with the emotion, but it still falls a little flat in the naming scheme. Brotherhood's Wrath however is Fuhrer Bradley, and while this version is likewise filled with fury and readiness to slaughter, he almost seems more 'prideful' than anything.
- Sloth is easily the weakest one on the naming scheme regardless of which series is being discussed. The 2003 Sloth is the accidental creation of Ed and Al's transmuted mother. Nothing about her actions nor her character fits the sin at hand, and while an argument could be made that the brothers were 'lazy' in not waiting to learn more alchemy before trying human transmutation, it's easier to call them 'hasty' which is the exact opposite of sloth-like. Brotherhood's Sloth, a huge wall of muscle of a man, definitely fits his name better. He's slow moving, doesn't appear to be too swift or even capable of thought much further than following orders, and constantly complains about what he has to do and would rather just do nothing - but then a curve ball is thrown with the revelation that, when he wants to be, he's the fastest of the humonculi. It's a bit of an odd turn that comes out of nowhere.
- Finally, Pride is another character that's different between the two shows. 2003's Pride is the Fuhrer, and while we don't get much with the character after this revelation, he does seem to be a bit more 'prideful' than 'wrathful', despite being shown to have a burning rage within. This could possibly be due to him being a homunculus that somewhat does come from a human, but the second Greed was much the same and didn't seem to fall prey to this issue. Brotherhood's Pride comes in the form of Selim Bradley, the Fuhrer's 'son', who is the first second-generation homunculus created by Father. The character definitely shows signs of being proud, sometimes overly so, of his homunculus nature, so he fits his naming scheme well, even if it does leave the Fuhrer a little more in question.
One last thing seems worth mentioning about the humonculi, and that's their motivation or lack there-of. In Brotherhood, they (barring Greed) seem to possess an almost unflinching loyalty to their Father. Other than Greed who is off doing his own thing much of the time, and most of them taking a perverse delight in causing humans pain, they don't seem to have much else going on. In the first series though, they almost all seem to have their own things going on in the background, with the exception of the Fuhrer being Pride being introduced too late for us to know what else he might have going on. Lust however wants to become human and seems to form some attachment to the person she was before; Gluttony has a soft spot for Lust (who wouldn't?) that seems far deeper than the shades his Brotherhood incarnation has; Envy absolutely loathes Hohenheim and by extension Ed and Al; Wrath shares a similar loathing for Izumi and yet has a child's desire for it's mother, which he misplaces towards Sloth; and Sloth longs to sever her connection towards the Elrics because she too seems to have some recollection of her former self. The humonculi are a devastating force in both versions of the story, but perhaps due to their origin, they feel more 'human' in the first series.
In both versions of the story, there lies a final 'big bad' that lies in wait behind the homunculi, having them work to their own means for a goal that largely benefits only them rather than the humonculi as well. I've already talked a bit about Father, but in the first series the humonculi are working for a woman named Dante. Dante and Hohenheim were celebrated alchemists, as well as lovers, in a forgotten city from hundreds of years prior to the FMA storyline, who one day succeeded in creating a Philosopher's Stone. The attempt left their city almost barren of life, and Hohenheim on the verge of death, so Dante acted quickly and on a whim, used the Stone to bond Hohenheim's soul to that of another man. The act not only saved his life, but it revealed to them a clear path to eternal life, a path that Hohenheim would grow to resent. Eventually he left Dante, who grew more and more embittered as time went on. Separately, they both discover a snag in their immortality however - their stolen bodies, which innately reject their souls, begin to decay over time, and the process begins to happen faster with each jump to a new body. While Hohenheim resigns himself to this fact and wants to live a peaceful life with his new-found family (at least until he finds himself unable to allow them to see his decay), Dante becomes obsessed with just jumping to a new bodies at a faster rate in a vain attempt to keep escaping death. This gives rise to a problem in the form of her dwindling supply of Philosopher's Stone left by Hohenheim, and thus she comes up with a plan to cause tragedies throughout the country in an attempt to coax gifted alchemists into searching for the Philosopher's Stone. To perform this task, she begins to gather humonculi that she finds to do her bidding.
Father's goals in Brotherhood, however, are somewhat different. Created by some form of alchemy using blood from Hohenheim (or as he was known then, Slave 23), he started life as just Homunculus, a black puff cloud or 'dwarf in the flask'. He longed to be free of this imprisonment, as well as all other restrictions of a 'mortal' life, and so he deceived Hohenheim and the king of Xerces into trying to create a Philosopher's Stone with which to make the king immortal. It was Hohenheim, who held the dwarf's flask, that stood at the center of the circle however, and thus they that were imbued with the souls of the entire kingdom and granted immortality. That wasn't enough however, and over the centuries he (now going by the name of 'Father' from his homunculi children) worked tirelessly in creating the nation of Amestris on the location he discovered was the center of the planet. In activating the circle along with five 'Sacrifices' - humans who had seen the Gate of Truth in attempting Human Transmutation, which became Ed, Al, Hohenheim, Izumi, and Roy - he was able to open the planet Earth itself's gate, and took the power of 'God' for himself.
The aspirations of these two villains are completely different in scope, as are the characters themselves different in attitude. Dante is a woman spurned and turned bitter by the harshness of the world around her, blaming the human race for her own personal tragedies and deeming them worthless and herself worthy of standing above the rest. Despite her ego however, Dante is a desperate character, at the end of her ropes by the end of the series. When we first meet her, it's in the form of an old woman, but she quickly abandons that form to possess the body of a young woman named Lyra. And yet, in just a short amount of time after that, her new body is already starting to decay. If it weren't for her ego and her desperation, Dante would surely be smart enough to realize that at this increasing pace, her next body would probably begin to rot the very instant her soul entered it, and there would be no escaping that form once assumed - but being in the face of death would tend to make one a little less level-headed than usual.
Father however starts out simultaneously with both more and less than Dante does. While on the one hand he already has a form possibly 'superior' to a human's - there's no indication that he's not already immortal in some sense prior to the fall of Xerces - he also is cursed with a form that cannot continue to live outside of the safety of his flask. It's perfectly understandable why he would want to be able to leave the flask, as that wouldn't be much of a life at all. In his arrogance however, he's not only willing to sacrifice countless human lives to achieve this, he's willing to sacrifice even more to gain the power of 'God' and put himself firmly above all of humanity. While both Dante and Father are definitely arrogant, as villains tend to be, Dante is in a desperate struggle to keep on living, whereas Father just wants to achieve more and more power. It is these differences that, for me at least, make Dante both the more relateable and the more loathsome of the pair. She's human herself and thus should be more than able to feel what a human life is worth, at least more so than the inhuman Father, and yet, who hasn't at least once thought about the concept of immortality?
On a cosmetic level too, Dante has one more advantage in my opinion. Father is just one of many male final villains in the realm of shonen anime and manga, though he is a particularly well-written one. Dante however stands out being a woman that's behind it all rather than just playing a supporting role, a rarity in stories aimed primarily at younger males. It's a bit of a silly reason to have a preference one way or the other, I'll admit, but I can't help but feel that it does add something to the series, and is a bit ironic that the series gets it's female final villain from the first anime's male director, whereas Brotherhood gets it's male final villain from it's female author.
It should come as no surprise that given these completely different villains and reasons for events to happen, as well as an abundance of characters unique to Brotherhood (and a few unique to the first series) that the resolutions of the story end up being quite different too. The ending to the first series is expanded upon by the follow-up film, but for the moment let's focus on the series' ending. By the end of the 2003 series, Al's armor body has itself become a Philosopher's Stone as a result of a transmutation circle created by Scar's final actions. While the boys try their best to keep it under wraps while fending off both the Homunculi and the corrupted factions of the military, they end up drawn into a final gambit with Dante. Throughout the course of fighting, the Homunculi are dwindled down to just Gluttony, his mind destroyed by Dante and left with nothing but his hunger; Envy, who captures the Philosopher Stone transformed Al; and Wrath who has his human limbs (originally Ed's) taken back to the Gate. Sloth, the Homunculi Ed and Al created trying to revive their mother, has since been killed by the boys, and the Fuhrer is defeated by Roy at much risk to his own life. The truth of the Gate and how alchemy works is revealed when Dante sends Ed through it, only for him to wind up in World War 1 London, in our world. Hohenheim, who was also sent through the Gate by Dante, reveals that not only does everyone from Ed's world have a doppelganger in this one, the deaths of people on this side become the energy required for alchemy to work as well. Ed's doppelganger is killed by a downed plane, sending Ed back to his world, where he ends up dying in a fight with Envy. Enraged and filled with sorrow, Al uses his Philosopher's Stone before Dante can to bring Edward back to life. Envy is caught up in the transmutation as well, and willingly goes to the other side in pursuit of Hohenheim, leaving Dante with no Philosopher's Stone and no more henchmen, save for the hunger-crazed Gluttony who promptly turns on her, and (by implication) devouring her. Ed, now with his fully natural body restored, transmutes himself to bring Al back. The result of this lands Ed back in our world, with his automail limbs intact, and no way back. In his world however, Al is restored to life in his real body, at the same age he was when it was taken from him, and with no memories of anything since the night they tried to revive their mother. Separated but still determined, the boys head down separate paths but vow to one day meet again.
The end of the 2003 series leaves much to be desired for fans wishing for a more conclusive or happy ending. This led to the film 'Conqueror of Shamballa' to be released in 2005, giving a new, additional ending to the series. The film shows us that Ed has been hard at work on our side of the gate, learning about rocketry in Germany alongside Alfons Heiderich, the doppelganger of his brother. Unbeknownst to him, events that would eventually lead to World War II are being set in motion, and the Thule Society is obsessed with finding a way to 'Shamballa', a world said to have weapons greater than any the world has ever seen. Shamballa however is actually Ed's home world, and on the other side of the Gate, Al has also been hard at work trying to find a way to bring Ed back. With the help of an automail equipped Wrath, Al ends up being able to create a more stable Gate to our world by transmuting Wrath and Gluttony. At the same time in our world, Dietlinde Eckhart, the leader of the Thule Society, at last manages to create a stable Gate of her own by using Envy, who had become trapped in the form of a dragonic serpent, and the sacrificial blood of Hohenheim. The Gates become one, and Eckhart is able to storm into Ed's world with her soldiers, intending to raid and destroy it for their weapons. It is only through the combined efforts of Ed and Al, with help from Mustang and many others, that Eckhart is stopped. Ed takes the surviving soldiers and their warship back through the Gate intending to destroy it once back in our world to prevent anything like this from happening again, even though it will leave him stranded in our world. He tells Al to stay behind and destroy the Gate on their side, but Al leaves that task to Mustang and instead stows away on the ship, wanting to stay with his brother. Going through the Gate restores Al's memories of the years they spent searching for a Philosopher's Stone, and the brothers are at last reunited, albeit stuck in our world where alchemy doesn't traditionally work, with the task of destroying their Gate. With this new challenge ahead of them, the crisis averted gives way to the tension in the air before the coming of World War II...
This additional ending, while more conclusive than the ending the series had, still didn't sit well with every fan. While we were allowed to see a little more of where everyone ended up at the end of the series, very few if any character fates were what we could really call 'happy'. Ed and Al ended up together, but only by leaving the world they called home behind, and Ed never did get his non-prosthetic limbs back. Despite much shipping, Ed and Winry didn't end up together nor did they ever confess their feelings to each other. Roy lost an eye, it's unclear if he regained a higher standing in the military after the events of Shamballa, and he and Hawkeye never became a couple either. The ending was still far too bittersweet for some fans to really get behind.
Perhaps because of this, or as part of the original plan all along, Brotherhood received a much happier ending - though the characters had to fight just as hard to achieve it. Ed, Al, Hohenheim, Izumi, and Roy all had to fight tooth and nail alongside Scar, Ling Yao (a prince of Xing who came to Amestris in search of immortality, and somewhat found it by becoming the second Greed for a time) and his assistants Lan Fan and Fu, Mei Chang (a princess also from Xing who came looking for immortality as well), Alex Louis Armstrong and his sister Olivier Mira Armstrong, and the remainder of Roy and Olivier's soldiers in a mass attempt to stop the machinations of Father. Having achieved 'God' at long last but becoming the last person on his side standing, Father is almost too much for our heroes to handle, even weakened by a plan of Hohenheim's and struggling to contain all of his power. Through the fight, Greed is pulled out of Ling's body, Al's armor body is wrecked, and Ed's automail arm is destroyed with his good arm pierced through by a construction bolt, holding him in place for Father's next attack. Seizing their only chance, Al transmutes his soul back to the Gate where his body is waiting, to give Ed his real arm back. With his powers of alchemy restored, Ed is able to pummel away at Father until the power of 'God' consumes him, taking him back to the Gate from whence he came. With humanity saved, Ed quickly begins to think hard on how to get Al back, and it's only when he realizes how many people are waiting for them that he figures out at long last how to win against Equivalent Exchange. Transmuting himself to arrive at the Gate, Ed trades away his own inner Gate which had been steadily growing with every new friend and encounter he had made on their journey. Ed loses his ability to use alchemy forever, but in exchange he is able to take Alphonse - now back in his original body - back home. While Roy and the rest of the soldiers that worked with them begin work to rebuild the government of Amestris without corruption, and the travelers from Xing head back home, Ed and Al head home, complete and whole at last (though Ed did and forever will have an automail leg). Time passes, and the brothers decide to go their separate ways, Al heading to Xing and other eastern countries to learn more about their styles of alchemy, while Ed heads west to learn what they have to teach. Together they hope to combine their learnings to prove a new theory they have that can replace Equivalent Exchange, and make the world a better place. Before Ed leaves however, he and Winry finally confess their feelings for each other, and while we're left in the cold as to whether the brothers' theory works out the way they want, a photograph reveals that at the very least, they have finally achieved happiness, as Al is seemingly with Mei, and Ed and Winry have married and have two kids.
This ending, straight from the pages of the manga, is a much happier one and much more in tune with what a lot of fans wanted for the characters. While there are certainly still some sad fates, such as the earlier demises of Nina and Hughes, or later ones such as Buccaneer (one of Olivier's soldiers), Fu, and Hohenheim, even some of them are portrayed in a more positive light in the end. Buccaneer went out like a true soldier and hero for his cause, as did old man Fu. Hohenheim managed to save the world that he had unwittingly put in peril, and finally passes away in front of his wife's grave to join her in the afterlife. Ed also remains stuck with an automail leg, but all things considered there are far worse fates - he and Al even joke that it's probably Winry's preference that he keep it anyway. After everything the boys went through from such a young age, it's easy to see why this would be the ending that people would want for them, even the ending that they deserve.
But is it really the best ending?
The Gate of Truth
The biggest difference between the two versions of the story has always seemed to me to be their tones. It's been said by many fans that while the original Fullmetal Alchemist is an incredibly dark series, the manga and Brotherhood is even darker. Honestly, though? I believe the opposite to be true. There are certainly some dark elements that appear in Brotherhood that didn't appear in the first series, but that's due to the events in question not even being in the first series. For the events that do appear in both, Brotherhood doesn't seem to make them any darker. If anything, I would argue that it tends to make them lighter. There's humor in the first series, but the second relies upon even more jokes at the expense of Ed's height, super-deformed antics, and gags in general. Not that this is a bad thing as they're all well done and enjoyable, but it does make the overall feel less dark to my eyes than it does others it seems.
This extends to some of the character's as well. Take Barry the Chopper for instance. In Brotherhood we're only introduced to him after his soul has been bonded with a suit of armor. His actions after the fact are mostly played for laughs. Even when he's trying to kill someone, or actually has killed someone, it's almost too easy to shrug off with an 'Oh, that Barry!'. Somehow his personality, which is just dripping with sadistic, and yet humorous, love of killing - a'la Freddy Krueger - just comes off as humorous. In the first series however, we're treated to seeing Barry as he was before Lab 5. A thin, somewhat feminine - considering he tricks at least two people into thinking he actually is female - man, hiding in plain sight in the middle of Central and chopping people up left and right. He's taken seriously as a threat, even coming close to killing Ed and almost forcing Ed to kill him in self defense. Even when he's captured by the authorities he simply gives up with a shrug and a grin, as if it doesn't even matter after all the fun he's had. True, both versions of the character end up getting beaten rather easily by Alphonse, and resort to messing with his head in a ploy to gain the upper hand - but in 2003 Barry's case, it feels like another way for a truly screwed up individual to assault someone, whereas for Brotherhood Barry it feels as if it's the only way he's ever had much of a chance of victory.
The animation and character designs play a major factor in this as well. The Brotherhood designs stay closer to Arakawa's original artwork, which is amazing and fits very well with what Brotherhood is opting to do - it really shouldn't have been done any other way. Everyone is far more round however, and the lighting schemes chosen for everything, even the darker scenes, just seem to be rather bright at times. Not unfittingly so, but compared to the dark, often moody, lighting of the original anime, it definitely feels as everything isn't near as dire as it was in the first series. Considering that the worst threat of the original was the death of many humans for the sake of one living forever, versus Brotherhood's threat of an in-human being killing all humans to become a God, that's definitely a bit surprising when you step back and notice it.
The scores reflect this difference in mood as well. While I'm not as familiar with Brotherhood's score as I am the 2003 versions, I still can't help but notice that it's pieces - while still fitting for every scene and sounding good as well - doesn't carry as much weight as some of the theatrical quality pieces in the previous series. The lack of 'Brothers', an insert song used to great effect in the 2003 anime, about the brothers' guilt for what they've done, is sorely felt.
It should be noted that I'm not trying to say that Brotherhood ISN'T a dark series at times, or that this lighter feel is a bad thing in any way. I'm just pointing out how I personally find the argument that Brotherhood is the darker of the two tales to be somewhat faulty, as well as pointing out the difference in tone. When all is said and done, Brotherhood just feels like a shonen title to me - a very, very well written one, that is one of the most enjoyable tales I've ever experienced from the genre, but a shonen title none the less. I've nothing against the shonen genre either, as most of my favorite titles are shonen; it's where my anime and manga fandom found it's start. When I come to Fullmetal Alchemist however - and I admit to full bias in saying this - I just expect more somehow. I expect this grand feeling of an epic that defies it's genre and medium of story telling, and for me at least, I find that in the 2003 version.
That's what it comes down to in the end I think - what it is you want out of Fullmetal Alchemist. I can't say for sure if what you want out of it is or isn't colored by which version you encounter first, or if it has more to do with any pre-conceptions you might have about what the series is, but irregardless of what it is, everyone is still entitled to their preference. And while I might prefer the 2003 version in the end, some of my favorite things still happen in Brotherhood alone. I love the character of Ling Yao, I like seeing the characters get the happy ending they deserve, and I love having an animated version of the manga to enjoy - but I just find myself longing for that bittersweet, 'you have to make the best out of a bad situation' feel of the first anime.
When all is said and done, we're all Fullmetal Alchemist fans, and we all love the franchise and the characters for many of the same reasons that are universal to both series. Perhaps, even though that's in opposition to much of what this has been written about, we should focus more on the similarities between the two series rather than how they're different? Maybe, just maybe, that's Equivalent Exchange.