I’ll be honest with you: I never gave a toss about the Fantastic Four. I know that’s heresy to a certain number of nerds and I don’t care. Their family comradeship, good natured bickering, and overriding message of wholesomeness never sat well with me. Like Pizza Hut pizza, its initial beguiling flavor disguises stomach-churning ookiness. Leave it to Hollywood to pick out the Four’s most nausea-inducing elements and assemble them into an annoyingly bland film.
Credit where it’s due: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionized the superhero team back in the 1960s, elevating the genre to a new era of psychological realism…even as they stuffed it with alien invasions, world-conquering dictators, and evil siblings/parents/college roommates inexplicably returned from the dead. For my money, Lee and Kirby did a much better job of dysfunctional superhero family-creation two years later, when they used what two years of churning out comics had taught them to create the original X-Men…
But that’s a tale for another time. For now, let’s just say that with tonight’s characters, and Spider-Man, leading the charge, Lee and Kirby set the tone and created a key number of trends, the elaboration and permutation of which would go on to make up what we now call the Silver Age of Comic Books.
With that, let’s get to 2005’s Fantastic Four. Ten years in the writing, decades in the making, it dropped on the American film scene in early July and promptly sank, like an adamantium-laced Canadian, into the cool waters of Lethe. And now I know why.
We meet Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Benjamin J. Grimm (Michael Chiklis) on their way to see an old college friend-cum-billionaire CEO, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). Reed’s discovered a cosmic storm set to pass through the solar system post haste. The last time it hit, several billion years ago, it just might’ve triggered the development of organic life on Earth. Detailed observation of the storm – like, say, from Victor’s Von Doom Co. space station – might yield a Hoxne hoard of scientific breakthroughs. If, that is, Victor will let Reed onto his private Star Trek homage.
All of which is so silly it made the cover of Wired Magazine, along with Reed’s financial difficulties. The first five minutes of this film are a monument to ham-handed exposition and “ironic” foreshadowing. (“Same old Reed,” Doom says, “always reaching.”) In one sense, the entire film is little more than a prolonged piece of exposition, a transparent set-up for its sequels and their inevitable, diminishing returns.
That said, the story is more streamlined here than it is in the comics. Rather than being a college drop out/ruler of a small, central European nation, I’m glad Victor got the full Lex Luthor Upgrade, complete with imposing skyscraper, giant statue of himself, and a hot blond PA named Susan Storm (Jessica Alba). All of this, incidentally, is available now for only 30,000,000 Microsoft Points on Xbox Live. Too bad the elimination of a prologue set during the Fantastic Four’s college years necessitated all this standing around, informing the audience how everyone’s related to everyone else. Too bad Julian McMahon does nothing with his role as The Villain besides retrace Norman Osborn’s trajectory from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Too bad McMahon is no William Defoe, though he does ape the old Goblin throughout the film, attempting to disguise his prime time soap opera origins.
And of course Sue and Reed had a thing back in the day, and of course it went poorly. Probably due to the fact that Reed is the one of the most despised characters in all of Hollywood: the Awkward Scientist, mad progeny of Jeff Golblum and the housefly who loved him. Gruffudd’s constant eying of Sue is our only sign Reed possesses some libidinal energy. And since he is the hero (one of them, anyway), the rise of those baser urges will be the closest thing he has to a character arc. Get used to it fast.
Sue’s inclusion in the project (via Von Doom fiat) is just gravy as far as ol Egghead’s concerned. On the elevator ride down, Reed tries to get Ben into the mission’s pilot’s seat, only to be shot down. “We already have a pilot,” Sue informs the by-now-thoroughly emasculated pair. “You remember my brother, Johnny?”
Ah yes. Johnny (Chris Evans). More on him after the synopsis. Despite the size of this film’s menagerie there genuinely isn’t that much more to go. Reed’s calculations were disastrously off and his cosmic storm hits the station before Our Heroes (and Victor) can say “Open the pod bay doors, Hal,”…and, not so coincidentally, before Victor can wave the giant emerald ring in his pocket under Sue’s nose as he asks her to be his dearly beloved.
Everyone miraculously survives and, even more miraculously, makes it back to Earth, awakening at the Von Doom Ski Resort and Albert Speer-Inspired HMO. Soon, all five begin to manifest the extraordinary powers we’ve been waiting to see for the past fourteen minutes. Reed becomes a human rubber band. Sue can turn invisible. Johnny burst into flames and could probably fly if he ever ceased being a douche long enough to figure out how. Ben’s skin turns to orange rock and he acquires a five-pack-a-day voice along with attendant super strength and neigh-invulnerability. Victor’s company takes a stock hit (for some reason), his hair begins to fall out, and electromagnetism becomes his newest BFF. There’s an opening in the position, since Sue’s chosen to spend all her post-space time with Reed and the other three, searching for a cure to their “mutation.” Or “disease.” Those mean the same thing, right?
Naturally, everyone but Victor and Johnny the Douche longs to be normal again, but fate (and a cliched plot contrivance) intervene, drawing the Fantastic Four into the public eye. Victor takes serious umbrage at their prancing about on TV while his company circles the drain, and soon Our Heroes have their first vengeful Arch Nemesis to battle, complete with his own cape and giant metal mask (a giant metal humanitarian award, no less…and I could not make that up if I tried).
And if you can’t plot all this out from the first scene in Victor’s office then you probably shouldn’t be here. You should go watch Spider-Man again, think back to 2002, and marvel at how far Marvel’s come in so short a span. The rest of us will hang out here and be perpetually disappointed. The more things change, the more they rely on hackneyed cliches and other examples of lazy writing. Early on, Reed even asks Ben, “What could possibly go wrong?” making all of this really, truly All His Fault. You’d think there might be some blame to go around…perhaps some super-powered recriminations. Two scenes worth of that survived into this film’s theatrical cut, but I suspect there’s much more going on here than the Family Moments that pop up near the end would have us believe.
I can’t speak of cutting without speaking on the real problem with this film in particular and superhero “team” films in general: too many damn characters, never enough time. I noticed the trend way back in the original X-Men film, and by the time X2 rolled around things were quickly barreling toward incoherent stupidity. This film completely tears it, degenerating into an extended special effects montage once Our Heroes are transformed. This solid hour of gratuitous eye candy is meant to pass for characterization, since it (and a few tortured bits of dialogue between Reed and Sue, as they work their “romance” toward its inevitable conclusion) are all we have to work with between shots of Johnny flaming (and oh what a flammer he is, Lawd, Lawd), Ben moping, or Victor glowering.
Really we have three supposedly parallel stories here, coming together in the usual Metahuman Big Battle on the streets of New York City. (Will New Yorkers of this universe ever tire of turning out en mass to celebrate popular superheroes?) On Track A, Reed and Victor compete for Sue’s affection…except they never really compete in any meaningful way. After the fourteen minute mark, Sue makes her choice plain. Reed Richards may not have his own space station, but he’s got Stan Lee for a mailman and a painfully earnest love of Science(!), the only thing vaguely-attractive about him. Not that Sue appreciates it. She even chastises him for being “such a dork.” Halfway through she says what I’ve been waiting for her to say this whole time: “You never got it. And you never will. Unless it’s explained to you in Quantum physics…at least [Victor’s] not afraid to fight for what he wants, Reed.”
That’s right, ladies and germs: anti-intellectualism on parade, alive and well in the twenty-first century American Superhero Film. And you thought it was safe to be an “egghead.” You thought you could spend hours locked up in your Jessica Alba-free Lab trying to push human evolution ahead a few million years. Then along comes a hot blond girl with no respect for the very thing you’ve dedicated your entire frickin’ life to, and no respect for you, either. You’re supposed to sacrifice your wants, desires and dreams on the alter of heteronormative relationships. Stop trying to do any stupid old thing like “working for the betterment of mankind.” Because unless you’re fucking Jessica Alba you’re obviously half a man. Where do you get off trying to help people? Can’t you read our alien overlords subliminal messages? Marry and Reproduce, dork. Dweeb. Nerd! Because if you don’t, trust me, you’ll die alone and angry.
Track Two drops us into the trails and tribulations of Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing. He is and ever shall be the heart of the Fantastic Four‘s saga: the good man trapped inside a monster’s body. His rejection by one girl (who even makes it to the Four’s first public showing-off, despite the gigantic traffic jam they inadvertently cause, for the specific purpose of rejecting him again – in public) and infatuation with the blind-but-beautiful Alicia (Kerry Washington) are meant to add heart to this film. And while it does distract us from Reed and Sue’s offensive excuse for romance, Ben’s tale has to disappear every five minutes to make way for the other characters.
Track Three is the most fascinating of all the film’s stories, and arguably the most influential element in the entire Fantastic Four saga: the relationship between metahuman vigilantism and celebrity. The Fantastic Four were some of the first heroes to operate entirely in the public eye sans secret identities, inspiring generations of both regular and anti-heroes to follow their example. (I still fondly remember Karl Kesel’s and Tom Grummett’s run with this baton during the first thirty-odd issues of the mid-90s Superboy book, though Mark Millar’s Ultimates books are by far the champion of this.) And because I am so fascinated, God punished me by making sure it’s also the least-developed of Fantastic Four‘s three tracks, hobbled by the film’s massive Attention Deficit disorder and personified by Johnny Storm. Here, Johnny’s reconstituted as an Extreme! Douche in the manner of Vin Diesel’s Xander Cage: a snowboarding, motocross-racing, misogynistic, posturing poster-boy, sure to annoy me and please all the naughty thirteen-year-olds he’s obviously meant to inspire. Not only is Mr. “I don’t do well with rules” overjoyed at his new superpowers, it’s implied he immediately moves to cash in on them through the path of least resistance: licensing his (and the Team’s) image to the highest bidder.
I say “implied” because the film never shows Johnny’s no-doubt-Odiously Comic meetings with the various Ad Men, nor follows them as they sell the Four back to the public. That could be a movie in itself, and has certainly made for wonderful comics these last few years. We’re left to infer all that took place while we were stuck watching Sue browbeat Reed into being the man she wants him to be (or, at the very least, believes she wants him to be). And while I’m grateful the film saved us from any more of Chris Evans’ ad-libing his way onto my Shit List I’m sad to see this part of the film fall away in deference to more hit-and-miss special effects shots (over 900 in all). Hancock made the same mistake, but at least its refreshingly-realist opening mitigated my eventual disappointment. Here, no such luck. Like Reed, my head keeps getting in the way of enjoying this film, even on an ironic, so-bad-it’s-good level. Because it’s really not.
Good, I mean. Or bad in the laugh-out-loud sense of 1994’s no-longer-legendary Fantastic Four movie. That film suffered from lack of attention and lack of real talent behind the camera. This film is its precursor’s negative image. Reading up on its production, I find there were so many cooks in this kitchen its no surprise the film falls. Too many people opened up the damn oven.
First, the credited screenwriters. Michael France we know from Ang Lee’s Hulk and John Ravolta’s The Punisher. I can see shadows of Hulk‘s psychodrama in Ben Grimm’s tragic tale…and who knows? Maybe that story provided an emotional anchor to France’s draft of the script. We’ll never know. Nor will we know what our other screenwriter, Mark Frost, made of this piece. I’ll admit a part of me drooled in anticipation of seeing a Twin Peak‘s alum’s take on the Marvel Universe. Too bad no one at 20th Century Fox experienced a comparable reaction. Instead, they brought in Simon Kinberg to punch things up. That is, excise everything in the story that might confuse that hypothetical naughty tweenager, isolating all the “drama” within Reed, Sue and Victor’s clockwork love triangle. Rumor has it Kinberg worked the script right up until the moment his words were shot, sign of a film that’s become its own runaway train wreck. Between this, xXx: State of the Union and X-Men: The Last Stand, Kinberg’s bucking to replace Akiva Goldsman as my new number-one Arch Nemesis…so get your hooded cloak ready, Psi-Man: I’m comin’ for ya. Before that Untitled J.J. Abrams Project the IMDb says you’re working on becomes another horrible faux-Star Trek film.
In the meantime, we have the Fantastic Four…a hollow, vain, and ultimately pitiful attempt to cash in on the current superhero wave. Whatever artistic impetus drove Chris Columbus (who rates a producer credit, ten years after his Cold War with Bernd Eichinger led to the last Fantastic Four movie) to fight for the rights to this film obviously exhausted itself in the decade since. The film shares Columbus’ love of empty special effects (expressed by the Harry Potter series) but lacks Columbus’ awe-filled directorial touch. Tim Story, the actual director, keeps his heroes budget-consciously stage bound for the most part and his directing reflects this. It’s honesty-to-God boring…sign of a production that was anything but. I gotta ask, though: Who hires the director of Barbershop for a superhero film? I mean, were they fucking kidding? The man can point a camera out of a helicopter but not much else. Don’t expect any creative directorial flourishes to distract you from the unmitigated blandness.
Everyone involved in this film was deathly serious…about its marketing tie-in potential, its eventual toy sales, and its creation of a new franchise. As a result, this is one of those films where sitting around speculating about what might’ve been is more interesting than actually watching what’s on offer.
I’ve gone all this way without mentioning the actors…because there’s really no need. They (apart from Evans) seem to know this and appear content to inhabit space and wait for their checks to clear. Only Michael Chiklis stands out…not for acting through 60 pounds of Thing make-up as some idiots would have it…but for imbuing Ben Grimm with the gruff-but-caring humanity that’s made The Thing an icon. I didn’t need IMDb to tell me Chiklis was the only member of the cast who actually bothered to read Fantastic Four comics…I can see that for myself, and applaud him for it…while sighing at the rest of them. None of them out and out suck…they don’t have the material for that.
If, say, Steven Soderbergh or Sean Astin had directed things…if George Clooney or (god help us) Brendan Fraser had played Reed Richards…if anyone other than Chris Evans had played Johnny Storm…if another draft, by a writer who isn’t Simon Kinberg, had exploited the possibilities of these characters…if they were characters at all, beyond their various superpowers…if their powers were anything more than handy identifiers…if all that occurred, this movie might’ve saved itself from ponderous mediocrity. But you could say the same thing about the X-Men series.
Which brings me back to the problem of superhero teams, a problem that transcends genre to hobble any given number of pictures centered around ensemble casts. It’s a problem of focus. Good superhero team films (and they are out there…assuming you can find them) center around a central theme or character, packing that with a supporting cast just characterized enough to break through the two-dimensional barrier without being annoying (like Johnny) or contrived (like Dr. Doom). I’m thinking of the Gen 13 film, several episodes Justice League, and the short-lived but well-remembered Fantastic Four cartoon, which played on a double bill with Iron Man on my local Fox affiliate oh so long ago…at 6 a.m. On Sunday morning.
That I dragged myself out of bed to watch that little bit of fluff is a testament to its quality, and a signpost for other artists out to make a name for themselves in superhero dramas. The seeds of the future lie burred in the past and those too lazy to excavate them are condemned to make horrible films.
We’ll see this once Fox reboots the Fantastic Four series…I hear Akiva Goldsman’s already attached himself to the project like an Oscar-winning, franchise-ruining leech. We’ll see what horrors that brings us after we get through the Captain America movie…set to star Chris Evans as Steve “Don’t call me fascist” Rogers. All I can say to that is, God help us all. And we’ll meet back here to consider the Silver Surfer.