First, understand this: I love the Fantastic Four. I love superhero comics, and the FF is my overall favorite superhero team. Aside from being a tremendous innovation in the history of costumed crimefighters, they’re also just good characters, each with intriguing nuances that have been well-developed over the years. Tons of great stories have been told about them, stories that are lodged deep in my psyche. There was no way I was going to miss a Fantastic Four movie. I even arranged it special with Laura to do the baby care and everything so that I could see it on opening day. Nevertheless, I approached the movie with dread.
See, I love superhero movies, but there are some I approach with eagerness, and some I approach with dread. The ones with well-established, highly-regarded directors and actors, I’m eager for, and the ones with no-name directors and B-list/TV actors, I dread. Bryan Singer, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen? Eagerness. Mark Steven Johnson, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner? Dread. Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst? Eagerness. Tim Story, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis? Dread. I mean really, whose dumb idea was it to entrust my beloved FF to the guy who brought us TAXI and BARBERSHOP? My presentiments are almost always right, too. The ones I can’t wait for turn out to be great, and the ones I dread turn out to suck. Sadly, that was once again the case here.
Actually, the one time my predictive system misled me was Ang Lee’s Hulk movie. I was eager for that one, but while it had lots of nifty directorial flourishes, there were serious problems with the script. It felt like a bunch of cool and dramatic scenes strung together without enough logical connective tissue. That script is co-credited to Michael France, who, lo and behold, also co-wrote the script for this movie. The difference is that the poorly-strung scenes in Fantastic Four are bland and annoying rather than cool and dramatic. This makes it harder to ignore the rather obvious questions that crop up every few minutes. (If Reed’s broke, how is it that he lives in a gigantic scientific wonderland? Also, why does said wonderland seem to lack basic door-locking technology, as evidenced by the fact that Doom can wander in whenever he pleases? Also, how does somebody who’s been quarantined obtain a sports car with vanity plates? Also… ah, you get the idea.)
Part of the reason that superhero movies need a director with a vision and a strong voice is that they have become studio “tentpoles” — big-budget effects pictures upon whose shoulders a studio’s summer fortunes rise or fall. Consequently, they are major targets for interference from the suits, and without a staunch director to block these changes, the movie turns into Poochie — creativity by executive committee, which is to say, crap. Evidence of this is all over the Fantastic Four movie. Take, for instance, the scene where Johnny Storm discovers his Human Torch powers. This was pretty much wide-open territory for the movie, with lots of great opportunities for drama and emotion. What do we get? A scene of Johnny and a beautiful girl snowboarding and skiing (respectively) down a mountain to a pounding hard rock soundtrack. He starts to catch on fire during the run. She says, “You’re on fire!” He says… oh, you know what he says. Then he ignites fully, loses control, plows into the snow. She schusses over to him to find him naked, immersed to the waist in a melted-snow hot-tub. He says, “Care to join me?” End scene. I could practically hear the demographics and marketing notes that resulted in this travesty. (Yeah, I’m giving France & co. a big benefit of the doubt here.)
It’s always a bad sign when one has to hold back from groaning out loud during a movie, and I was biting my tongue several times during this one. Product placement is incessant. Tons of changes are made to the source material, almost none of them for the better. Look, I understand it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to present the original FF origin story, since it’s a story rooted in the concerns of 1961 — the Cold War, the space race, fear of radiation. That origin has been reworked and modernized a number of times, most recently in Bendis and Millar’s initial arc on Ultimate Fantastic Four. This movie chooses to ignore most of the good ideas put forth in the comics, and instead crafts an origin which undercuts several fundamental things about the FF as characters, sapping the humanity of each one in exchange for a stultifying banality. For instance, the team’s fateful accident is no longer the result of Reed’s arrogance and impatience. Instead, it is the result of a free-floating plot hole. Doctor Doom (who is never actually called Doctor Doom) is no longer a proud, alienated Eastern European gypsy who begins handsome and ends up hideously deformed. He is now a dull American CEO who starts out a pretty-boy and ends up a pretty-boy with a few scars; he’s played by an Australian former model and soap opera star who can’t even manage to keep his American accent in place, let alone manage a Slavic one. Rather than putting on armor to block out the world, he’s now a part of the cosmic storm accident whose flesh turns metallic a la Colossus. Rather than constantly trying to one-up Reed in the gizmo department, he now just has some rather blah electrical powers, also courtesy of the cosmic storm. Speaking of storms, Sue Storm is no longer a conflicted, loyal albeit vaguely dissatisfied wife and mother, but is instead a shallow, cheesy girl-power stereotype upon whose tightly-clad breasts the camera loves to linger.
The story itself is so slight that when the movie ended, I thought, “That’s it?” I thought there had to be at least a twist or two coming in the plot, but nope. I just kept waiting for something interesting, something human to happen between the characters, but I had a long wait. Even the Reed/Sue love story is somehow made exceedingly limp. Ben has a random girlfriend who leaves him, and then he meets Alicia (who is black and sexed-up for some reason, presumably to Poochify the character a bit), but the relationship reveals none of the anguish or devotion present in the comics. Instead of a self-pitying wreck who bemoans having a mug only a blind girl can love, he’s a guy who loses a girl, is sad, then gets another girl, and is happy.
Okay, enough kvetching. There were some things I liked about Fantastic Four. Most of the effects did an excellent job at bringing the comicbook imagery to life. Reed and Johnny’s powers were just right, and Sue’s forcefields were good too, right down to the obligatory nosebleed. Her invisibility power was call for a couple of stripping scenes, because males age 13-34 really need to see Jessica Alba strip. (By the way, does anybody else find it odd that a Chicana and a white guy are somehow brother and sister? I mean, yeah, they put a blond wig on her, but she’s still clearly Chicana.) The Thing was the biggest effects miss. There were moments where the movie really captured his combination of grotesque and lovable, but too often he just looked like a guy in a foam-rubber suit. Chiklis did the best acting job, though, showing more heart and depth than everybody else put together. Evans also pretty much nailed his character, and the scenes between Ben and Johnny were some of the most fun in the movie, evoking the playful spirit of the comics.
That’s one of the rare instances in which this film actually didn’t miss an opportunity. Most of the rest of the time, it feels like a music video starring super-powered action figures rather than an involving story about real people whose lives are altered by metahuman powers. How sad. That probably means there will never be a good Fantastic Four movie, or at least not anytime soon. Oh well — back to the comics. And maybe that new Batman movie…