A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 105 mins.
Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic: Ioan Gruffudd / Ben Grimm/Thing: Michael Chiklis
Sue Storm/Invisible Woman: Jessica Alba / Johnny Storm/Human Torch: Chris Evans
/ Victor Von Doom/Dr. Doom: Julian McMahon / Alicia Masters: Kerry Washington
Anyone that knows me with a respectable degree of clarity will readily understand my love of comic books. I guess that those same people would be able to guess correctly that out of all of the major super heroes that have graced the pages over the years, the Fantastic Four has always seemed to have flown in under my radar. Respectfully speaking, I surmise that the key to my full appreciation of a super hero comes from their abilities, and for my money the Fantastic Four has always been a dull bunch. One can ignite on fire (okay, that’s sort of cool), but the other can stretch his limbs like elastic, one can become invisible, and the other is just a strong man made of rock. I am the only one to find these abilities slightly unexciting?
Yet, as an adult, my perceptions have changed somewhat about this group of super heroes. I think that my childhood awe and lack of keen foresight somewhat diluted my more analytical powers. If I look at the heroes with my eyes now, then surely Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm do not get the type of respect that they deserve in the annals of comic book fiction. Well, for starters, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby released Fantastic Four # 1 way back in 1961, it’s so deceptively easy to forget that they came before many of the most beloved comic book characters (like The Hulk, Spider-Man, and even the X-Men). People who often mistakenly say that they are pale in comparison to those heroes miss the point altogether. The Fantastic Four put the modern Marvel Comics on the map and helped pave the way for the future heroes that would rise in popularity. It was the first super hero comic that really broke all of the rules of the genre and turned over all of the super hero clichés.
Firstly, this team did not have any secret identities – the world pretty much knew who they were. Actually, the four were more of a family than a crime fighting team. Sue and Reed would be the first hero couple in comics and also were the first to wed. Before Spider-Man became the most revered teen hero, Johnny Storm was the first tumultuous teenager with enough power to be a hero on his own and not someone’s sidekick like, say, Robin. Moreover, Ben “The Thing” Grimm may have represented the first reluctant hero in the comic’s world, who felt that his powers were more curses than gifts. Not only that, but the Fantastic Four were maybe more fleshed-out and real than the other previous heroes. They did not always get along and fought bitterly at times, oftentimes about things that you and I could with our loved ones on a daily basis. They were humanized heroes, despite their superhuman talents.
Their comics became a phenomenon and their success and influence allowed for the perseverance of all of the Marvel heroes that came after. The Fantastic Four comic may have had a not-so-modest tagline of being “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”, but hindsight sort of reflects their relative worth. Obviously, the future mutants that populated the comic pages were more intrinsically interesting than the Fantastic Four, but they rode in on their wave of success.
Having said all of that, it is now time to talk about the much delayed, big budget film version of this landmark comic, and it’s kind of startling how long it has truly taken for this team to see the light of day on the silver screen. They have seen their spot in the limelight in other ways, such as two popular animated series and, most dubious of all, in an ultra-low budget film adaptation made in 1994 that was so bad it was never released. In other words, the Fantastic Four never got the type of good publicity that many other comic books have had. Because of this, and being that we are in a Golden Age of super hero cinema, I felt that this team with their own large scale feature film would be done justice.
When I left the theatre after watching this new $100 million dollar super hero opus, I was more than ready to give it a marginal recommendation. It was fun, free spirited, and it captured the overall tone and mood of the original Kirby and Lee comics rather well. I also found the film refreshing in the sense that it embraced more kinder and gentler super heroes and was not the dark, gritty, and nihilistic noirs that many comic films are today. The Fantastic Four came out at a time when super heroes embodied a sort of gee-wiz innocence about themselves and never took themselves too seriously. For that, the film version of Fantastic Four also plays a lot like that, and it has fun with itself and its heroes.
However, the more I time I spent thinking about the film afterwards, my initial positive vibes were soon overcome with more negative ones. The film, for the most part, has no real connective narrative that generates any real interest. It is ostensibly an origin story, but is basically fairly routine with its approach and does not find more fascinating ways to tell it the way BATMAN BEGINS did with its hero. Also, the villain in FANTASTIC FOUR was given little in the way of motivation and is not developed fully into the antagonistic and malevolent presence that he could have been. More than anything, the film felt like one big, long first act without a second or a third, and it so neatly wraps itself up so quickly in the end that I was left wanting more.
FANTASTIC FOUR, in essence, feels more like one 100-minute prologue and not a fully endearing and exciting super hero film that, deep down, it wanted to be in the first place. It wants to be sprawling and epic and as exhilarating as many of the other recent comic adaptations, but FANTASTIC FOUR simply does not have enough gas to go the distance. Considering that it is an adaptation of one of the most important and influential comic creations ever, this film should have played big but instead comes across as mostly small.
The movie opens in familiar and safe ground in terms of the super hero origin film (which, considering how saturated the market has become with hero films, this is almost a genre in itself). We are quickly introduced to Reed Richards (the adequate Ioan Gruffudd) and his best friend Ben Grimm (the great Michael Chiklis). The two are trying to seek out the fiduciary aid of billionaire industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) about financing a secret project. Why is Doom a huge industrialist? Maybe because he has erected a giant metal statue of himself at his corporate head offices, but never mind.
Doom agrees to what he sees as a fair economic split for the mission (he gets 75 per cent of all possible future proceeds that the mission’s research could generate). Rather soon, Richards, Grimm, and Doom are all aboard his orbiting space station that will be used to study the effects of cosmic rays on living material. The trio will also have some company on the mission. Along for the ride are Victor’s assistant, Sue Storm (the gorgeous Jessica Alba) and her hotheaded brother Johnny, played very well by Chris Evans.
Just when you think things could not go well for all of them in space, things go disastrously. All of them are accidentally exposed to the cosmic rays and the experience “fundamentally alters” their DNA and gives them all “fantastic” abilities. Reed’s body becomes elastic (which makes shaving much easier, as demonstrated in one sly scene). Sue can turn invisible at will, which is not a desirable gift for her, seeing that she is remarkably easy on the eyes. Johnny can become a living and breathing “human torch” and can alter his body to be the equivalent of a match head. Ben, most regrettably, becomes a massive monster that is completely, from inside out, made of rock. Victor, on the other hand, learns how to manipulate electricity and becomes vile and evil, as if his gigantic statue of himself was not foreshadowing enough. Rather than joining the others and becoming the Fantastic Five, he adopts a mask and becomes Doctor Doom and wages a war on the four and humanity as a whole.
As I have stated, there was a lot that I admired in FANTASTIC FOUR. The aspects that I did appreciate the most were the performances of the leads, especially Chiklis, who probably has the most thankless job of any of the actors by emoting the most while under pounds of latex rubber. The Thing has always been reflective of the motif of the classic Marvel “unwilling” hero who realizes what good his powers can do for others but still can’t stand to look at himself in the mirror. The Thing may not be a CGI creation like the Hulk, but Chiklis gives us a wonderfully humanistic performance and makes us care for the man under the rock.
I also liked Evans as the Human Torch, who perfectly encapsulates the character’s narcissistic and ego-driven manners. He also rightfully responds to his gifts not with contempt, but with equal parts astonishment and euphoria. To him, his gifts are not curse, but rather a way to seek fame, fortune, and a lot of babes (seems logical to me). Rounding out the cast is Gruffudd as Reed, who probably is the least charismatic of the group (he’s always been the nerdy dweeb of the team) and he underplays it appropriately. Alba may be the least convincing scientist to be on screen since Denise Richards played a nuclear physicist in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, but she seems equal to the task here and sure looks good in spandex, which is three quarters of her character’s appeal anyhow.
As much as I liked the Fantastic Four themselves and the decent chemistry all of the actors had, these types of films can only be as good as there respective villains, and McMahon seems very miscast as Doom. Doctor Doom (perhaps right behind The Joker) is arguably the greatest villain in the history of comics, but he never seems to be given the amount of weight and attention that he deserves. Doom was always presented as a Phantom of the Opera-esque monster who was spiteful, resentful, and scarred, both emotionally and physically. I think the film missed real opportunities to explore his psyche more and create a really enthralling and frightening villain. McMahon is so good looking and suave that once he dons the mask and starts wreaking havoc, it’s painfully hard to really fear him. Doctor Doom lacked some serious edge in the film, and exited the film as fast as he appeared in full form.
The film, as a whole, also felt mournfully rushed. They writers have got the basics of the hero’s and villain’s origins down right, but they never are able to allow them to become engrossed in a story that creates much interest at all. Nothing really compelling happens in FANTASTIC FOUR. Basically - heroes get powers; villain gets power; villain plots revenge and heroes save the day – that’s about it. Furthermore, attempts at civilizing the story are largely inconsistent. The love triangle that is written for Reed, Sue, and Doom reeks of the emotional wallop and weight of a Freddie Prinze Jr. romantic comedy. Maybe it's just me, but doesn’t it seem that not getting the girl is a lame reason to become a super villain and destroy the world? There is also a nice little subplot that is introduced well and goes nowhere. Grimm meets a kind blind woman who likes him despite his outer appearance. The dramatic possibilities of this intriguing subplot are too quickly disposed of.
FANTASTIC FOUR does have moments of great action and terrific visual effects. I liked the scene where Grimm stops a semi-truck without breaking much of a sweat (or should I say pebbles?). I also thought the Invisible Girl and Torch effects were competently handled. If anything, Richard’s elastic powers seem to be the least convincingly realized visuals of the film. Funny, but modern CGI technology can fully create believable characters (i.e. – Gollum, Yoda), but they can't make a man stretch his arms and other parts of his body with equal conviction. The film still has fun with the groups’ powers. The Torch never needs an oven to make Jiffy-Pop when his hand would suffice. Sue can easily escape the paparazzi rather effortlessly. Reed never needs to get up off of the toilet to get more paper when his arms can get them in elongated form in the next room. And as for The Thing…well…he is made into a cool toy by the marketing people and, darn it, kids think he looks neat.
There is no doubt that the Fantastic Four launched the modern super hero comic book that is still largely felt to this day. I guess that it’s somewhat disheartening to say that the film adaptation did not truly do this influential creation justice. Surely, the “World’s Greatest” heroes deserved an equally “great” film treatment. I smiled through much of the film, laughed many times, and appreciated the fact that it was light in tone and managed to be playful with its subject matter in spite of how many dark, anti-hero comic films that dominate the medium now. FANTASTIC FOUR correctly remembers a time when being a super hero was sort of nifty and carried with it a sense of joy and exuberance. When all is said and done, I truly liked the Fantastic Four, but did not like the film that they populated. The resulting film is a great one trapped in a mediocre shell, and I for one cannot in good conscious wholeheartedly recommend it. These four heroes deserved a more fantastic film treatment.