Sunday Slugfest - Fantastic Four

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Deeley, Shawn Hill, Jason Sacks, Ray Tate
Director: Tim Story
Screenplay: Michael France, Mark Frost

Production Company: 20th Century Fox / Marvel Enterprises

Michael Deeley

Many reviewers are criticizing this movie as a dumb special-effects laden distraction.

Well, what’s wrong with that?

Fantastic Four presents the brilliant but bankrupt Reed Richards ask his former classmate Victor Von Doom for help. Doom owns a billion-dollar company and a space station Reed needs to observe a cosmic radiation storm. Doom loves making Reed beg from him. Rubbing salt into the wound, Doom has employed and is dating Susan Storm, Reed’s old girlfriend. The trio is joined on the station by Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s brother Johnny.

On the station, disaster strikes. The storm comes too quickly. Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben are exposed to cosmic radiation. They soon develop bizarre and frightening powers. Doom, thinking he was protected by the shielding in the station’s center, also transforms into something other than human. Each person deals with his or her change differently. Johnny revels in his powers and welcomes the fame they bring. Reed desperately looks for a means to reverse the changes. Ben becomes morose and depressed. And Doom seeks revenge on his enemies.

Before I get to what this movie did right, I want to tell you what it did wrong. The writers took major liberties with the character of Dr. Doom, and his story arc is the weakest plotline in the film. Making Doom a ruthless billionaire isn’t a bad idea per se. But it’s never clearly explained why Doom looses his fortune. It seems to have something to do with his company’s IPO and the space station accident, but we never get any details. It’s like they took the Green Goblin’s origin from Spider-Man, cut out everything specific to that film, but forgot to fill in the blanks.

The movie Doom also doesn’t wear armor; his body turns into metal. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is giving Doom power over electricity. There’s really no good reason for it except to create more special effects. A key part of the antagonism between Doom and the Four is the difference between their power sources. The Four are transformed by a cosmic storm that reveals their hidden natures. Doom’s power comes from his technology and his occult sorcery--unnatural power sources. In the movie, Doom has the same origin as the heroes. Victor becomes a villain because of who he is. While it works within the context of the movie, I can’t help but feel something was lost in the change.

And for a guy who came from a European country, Doom speaks with a perfect American accent.

Speaking of Spider-man, the filmmakers “pay homage” to several different films. There’s the opening sequence and Joker’s surgery from Batman; the teleporter from The Fly; the cosmic storm generator looks like the fusion device from Spider-Man 2; and the lightning attack in a parking garage from Highlander. And those are just the ones I recognize!

But despite its flaws, Fantastic Four did get one thing right. The appeal of the Fantastic Four isn’t just their powers or their adventures. It’s about who they are. The Four are a family that bickers, argues, lives together, works together, and ultimately triumph together. The relationship between Reed and Grimm in the movie is dead-on. Reed’s guilt over the accident drives the plot. Through the course of the film, he learns to trust his feelings and not be completely ruled by logic. Ben Grimm, perfectly played by Michael Chiklis, is bitter, gruff, friendly, sad, and loyal. All in a rubber suit. Not an easy task. Susan holds the team together and helps Reed find his courage. Johnny is annoying as hell, but usually funny enough to make up for it. This movie is a character-driven melodrama dressed up as an action film.

So the movie’s not perfect. It’s good enough to be entertaining, but there’s room for improvement. That can be done in the next film.

Shawn Hill

A big disappointment, a soggy script only slightly leavened by the game actors. Left with no motivation, Julian McMahon hams it up as an ever-more glistening Dr. Doom. He’s turning to metal, see (not just wearing a suit of armor) and also has electrical powers. For some reason, he funded and was caught in the cosmic storm that trapped the other four, because it took place on his space station, which is modern enough to have ablative armor but apparently not enough to have maneuvering thrusters or any ability to avoid the cosmic fireball pretty much aimed at them by God.

This is not the story of the FF; this is the story of a mediocre What If? Why make changes that only work for one film, leaving subsequent films motivation-less or villain-less? This isn’t just making Spidey’s webshooters organic; this is completely screwing with the mythological family that is actually unique among group super-teams. No attempt is made to tie their fates to their personalities (which was a pretty good What If? idea from years ago), and in fact motivation is all over the place. It may seem like an improvement to make Sue Storm an executive in Doom’s company rather than Reed’s hanger-on, but it reduces her in this tale to being fought over by a dense despot and a milque-toast scientist. Sue deserves a better fate than that, oh like say the lord of Atlantis catapulting out of the ocean and into her heart?

The story is rudimentary at best, the set-pieces overwrought and not very inspirational. Clichéd scenes like Doom killing his allies don’t up the sense of dread, and most of the players come off as disconnected from normal motivations and certainly from anything like familial attachment. The original FF really started cooking once Sue got pregnant, and once they’d met other family groups (the Frightful Four, the Inhumans) as allies and enemies. Making Doom a cross between Colossus and Electro isn’t an improvement; if he’s as much of a scientist as Reed, he wouldn’t be as confused by his transformation as he is here, and losing the royalty and the arcane mystical mom as primary motivators leaves a big gap that isn’t filled by a lame Enron parody.

Jessica Alba tries her best as the sexy and good-hearted Sue, but like McMahon the script abandons her. Gruffudd is a non-starter as Reed (he’s just too young, and since when did cosmic rays cause gray temples?). That leaves Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis to enliven the proceedings, and they’re really the only sparks of life in the movie (aside from the special effects, which aren’t bad). Martin captures Johnny’s vanity and Young Turk energy (coming off as smarter than the original, actually), while Chiklis provides the only sense of humanity and believable emotion in the film. His makeup (not too
impressive in the dark action scenes in trailers) is surprisingly expressive, and his dilemma as Ben could have (and should have) been the heart of the film. He and Johnny represent polar opposites, as one feels blessed and the other cursed by their accident in space.

But even this obvious conflict is left undeveloped. One can only wonder what a visionary like Burton or Cronenberg or even a competent journeyman like Chris Columbus might have done with this material. There’s nary a trace of Twin Peaks quirkiness to the Mark Frost/Michael France script, though there is some of the tortured wrong-headedness of Hulk.

Jason Sacks

What the hell was that? Coming just a couple of short weeks after the wonderful Batman Begins, where the legend and spirit of a super-hero was brought to life on screen, we get this odd, sort of half-baked take on the Fantastic Four.

One of the things about Batman Begins is that the movie flowed beautifully from one scene to the next. The movie had an energy, a spirit and a style that helped bring it above the norm. FF is just the opposite: the movie to me lacked energy and just seemed to amble from scene to scene rather than flowing. There just seemed to be too many unanswered questions in the FF movie, too many events that happen just because they're necessary for the plot rather than because they're logical for the characters.

Take the revised origin as an example. It has a somewhat logical feel - obviously, the old origin couldn't work, and this revision felt rather interesting. But in that scene were as many questions as there were answers. How could Reed, who, in the comments of Victor Von Doom was "always right", be so badly wrong about the cosmic storm? Did his walk through space have anything to do with Ben turning into the Thing? Did Doom have any idea that these
events would happen? Why did the accident cause investors to suddenly lose faith in a billion dollar business like Von Doom Industries?

Yeah, I know, this is just a summer popcorn movie. The problem is that so many recent super-hero movies have been great because they really nailed the details. The changes to Spider-Man's origin in the first Spider-Man movie amplified the character and made his story more interesting. Similarly, the X-Men movies kind of augmented the characters' arcs in a way that made them even more interesting to comic fans and non-comic fans alike. The stakes have been raised.

There are some nice individual scenes and moments in the movie. The actor who played Johnny Storm was fun, and the crowd where I saw the movie really seemed to come to life when he came on the screen. Johnny was a fun, cool, partying sort of guy, and the movie nailed his character. And Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm was also terrific. I had trouble thinking of him as anyone other than Vic Mackey, his character on The Shield, but there's no denying that he's a fine actor, and that he brought some wonderful pathos to the character. Having him wear a suit instead of a CGI model was a good choice, as he looked appropriately awkward in his suit. My only real complaint is that he seems rather short for the Thing.

But overall the bad just outweighed the good for me. This felt like another Daredevil, unfortunately: a nice movie with some decent ideas and scenes, but overall it just didn't hang together at all.

Ray Tate

Marvel has another winner. Some have called them adventurers and explorers. Others have termed them a super-powered family. All of these descriptions past and present are valid, but in this time in which not just Hollywood but the very comic books that provide the source material attempt to downplay the term super-hero, Fantastic Four embraces the title as a badge of honor.

The Fantastic Four are super-heroes. The filmmakers knew this, and they are not embarrassed to emblazon their affection across the screen. The cast composed of Ioan Gruffudd (known for his standout role as Horatio Hornblower), Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans and Julian McMahon become their characters. There’s not one moment in the story where you feel that these are just actors playing parts because the actors simply aren’t there. You see instead on the screen Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm and Victor Von Doom. Each character also does more than provide the viewer with one dimension or one quirk. Each of the team is a fully realized persona, and in a surprising sense more real than their two-dimensional counterparts. What writers Mark Frost and Michael France have done is to germinate about forty years of seed into two hour vivid blooms of characterization and plotting.

Everything about the movie accurately captures the spirit of the Fantastic Four. The group gains their powers in a cosmic storm but not through the literal procedure of a comic book origin that has almost become a cliche. It is within this engrossing cinematic origin that the viewer can easily see without ever having to read the comic books who will become the heroes and who will devolve into the villain; while those such as myself who already love the Fantastic Four will appreciate the way in which the team's heroism and humanity are reinforced even when they lack powers. The contrast is also true. The film introduces Victor Von Doom as a somewhat classy normal businessman who has a brilliant acumen in science, yet something about him simply screams villain. Even his past connections with Reed and Sue seem real-world harmless, yet there is something about McMahon's performance that is absolutely unctuous, and his decision during the cosmic storm simply confirms your belief. Doom is intellect without ethics. Reed is science with responsibility.

Jack Kirby panels come alive in big budget effects, amazing stuntwork, convincing CGI and spectacular set pieces brilliantly directed by Tim Story that accord the audience thrills and chills, but this is not action without rationale nor disconnected plays within plays. The scenes naturally emerge from the story, and these scenes convey a sense of the stupendous, a sense of wonder, a sense of--well that would be obvious now, wouldn't it? Within these scenes, you never ask why these heroes do what they do to keep others safe. They have no motives such as guilt or vengeance. It's simply the right thing to do, and it’s who they are. They react instinctively to protect others, and that’s something this movie conveys extremely well: the instinctual difference between good and evil. No character is left out. Even the genuinely hilarious Johnny Storm risks his life to save others, and it’s not because he’s thinking that these actions will score him fame, babes and/or fortune. As the script shows, the lad doesn’t think that far ahead. He does this because he’s a hero, and he has the power to save lives. This theme is recapitulated throughout the film. Reed risks everything for Ben. Ben takes an action on behalf of Reed that we know he will make because that’s the way he is. Sue sheds blood on behalf of the others and indeed on behalf of the world because this Dr. Doom is just as much of a threat as the bona fide Dr. Doom in the comic books.

Changes in lore often earn the bile and venom of critics. I’ll be the first to admit that change in comic books usually makes me nauseous. Movies are different. You should not go into a movie expecting a literal translation of the source material. If you do, if you act like some fundamentalist Bible-thumper; you only set yourself up for disappointment. Movies must establish a world within an eyeblink. They don’t have the luxury of time that comic books have. So, early press and pundits who hadn’t even seen the film derided Fantastic Four mainly for the departure from the source material. You know what? Fantastic Four is one-hundred percent faithful and must be seen on the big screen to appreciate the scope of cosmic rays that far outshine their “tac-tac-tac” simple cousins, the disasters prevented, the lives saved, the battles waged against the embodiment of evil and the dynamic teamwork of a group of characters who are just… well, you know.

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