The Spandex Retrospective: Fantastic Four (2005)

2005 was a year of contrast for superhero movies. Christopher Nolan had made a major statement with the dark, plausible, and beautiful to look at reboot of the Batman franchise, not only scrubbing Schumacher's ghost from the genre for good but making a strong point towards the continued relevance of cape movies. However, it saw its mirror image in 'Elektra', a muddled and bizarrely unnecessary semi-sequel to the already shifty 'Daredevil' and one of the genre's most forgettable and worthless additions. Stuck in the middle was 'Fantastic Four', which also languished pretty severely at the critic's hands. Did it suffer by comparison to the confident 'Batman Begins' or does it really deserve its place on the shelf next to 'Elektra'? Fantastic Four (1)

The film begins, like many superhero movies, with some genuinely good ideas. The difficulty in adapting any iconic superhero franchise is taking a story that is both extremely familiar and was written in a different time with different motivations and updating it to conform to modern sensibilities. Cut to Reed Richards, broke genius, visiting Victor Von Doom for funding for his ambitious space project to study 'evolution-triggering cosmic rays'. Sue Storm works for Victor. Ben Grimm hangs out with Reed. Johnny flies the ship and knows Ben from NASA. Immediately the dynamics are established, creating the reasons for these characters to not only be together but stay together, a far cry better than the randomness I decried 'Daredevil' for.

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There's a lot of ridiculousness in relation to logic and plot holes. Apparently, the expensive space-station used to study the rays is left unmanned most of the time as no crew is onboard to get smacked by the power-granting radiation other than Four plus Doom. In a later scene, Ben Grimm walks from some place that looks like the Alps to New York City just so he can have some scenes apart from the other cast members. However, tonally the film seems to allow for these gaps by adhering to the same tone that 'Spider-Man' latched onto successfully; by adopting the broadness of 60's comic books as influence.

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Director Tim Story was a long-term fan of the Fantastic Four and it shows. The dynamic of the Lee/Kirby run was more or less brought unchanged into the modern era. He clearly understood the team as they were in the 60's, and his efforts in that regard were admirable. However, had the film been a period superhero film, say actually set in the 60's, perhaps the broadness would have come off better. The tone isn't that wildly different than a lot of 'Captain America: The First Avenger', but since it seems the average moviegoer actually thinks the 1940's were like a pulp adventure anyway, that goofiness is practically invisible.

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Story's love for the comics was plainly visible with the Thing, easily the best part of the movie. Played wonderfully by Micheal Chiklis, his trial as a social outcast was played with an old-school pathos and given proper screen time. Also, in a daring choice, the Thing was a product of old fashioned makeup design rather than motion capture. The prosthetic suit sculpt was excellent, with little touches like a bit of a hump back and rock creases to allow for enough facial movement for Chiklis to emote under the mountains of rubber. Story even dressed his Thing in a giant outdated Jack Kirby trenchcoat and fedora, paying homage to the oldest and greatest stories even if it meant being anachronistic.

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His relationship with Johnny was also spot on, the Human Torch played to perfection by Chris Evans who can't seem to escape being in movies based on comic books ('The Losers', 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World', 'The Avengers'...). Exercising his sense of comic timing with a breezy obnoxiousness, Evans was entirely unrecognizable as the man who would later be the starched shirt Steve Rodgers a few years later, a man of talent we've barely scratched the surface of. His chemistry with Chiklis was undeniable and their verbal sparring felt just as ripped from the pages as any of the visual replication attempted in 'Sin City'or '300'.

On the subject of chemistry we finally reach the point of the review where I stop singing praises and get to why people didn't like this film.

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The director and the screenwriter's best impulse was to make the film about relationships rather than grandeur. This was loyal to the comic, which always about ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. As a result the romance of Reed and Sue was dead center. To be fair their relationship probably got as much screen-time as Ben's loneliness or Von Doom's transformation, but it felt far more prominent simply by way of awfulness.

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No beating around the bush, Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba were not only miscast but violently terrible in the movie. The dynamic of the comic was preserved, with Reed's cold intelligence getting in the way of his relationship with Sue, but an update was required as Stan Lee's Richards was wincingly sexist and emotionally abusive. Instead, Reed is reimagined as the Absent-Minded Professor, more interested in the new molecularly unstable uniforms than the way Alba's Storm has the zipper of hers left open for his ogling. This is honestly a good take on the idea, and a required change, but Gruffund and Alba's relationship have the shrill lack of depth of a Katherine Heigl movie. They banter/argue about their previously failed relationship and are prodded to be together by everyone around them in the miserable mode of cutesy romantic comedies. It's also never apparent why, besides the insistence of other characters in the film, they are perfect together. Sue is a successful and intelligent business woman and scientist, making her bizarre obsession with trying to trick the emotionally sequestered and distracted Reed into noticing her feel desperate and small. She looks like Jessica Alba, she could go out and find anyone else and leave Reed to copulate with H.E.R.B.I.E. and be better for it.

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However, in a shocking first for me, I'm not going to sell the script down river on this one. It's often hard to tell in scenes if the lines are actually bad or if Gruffudd and Alba are just cheese-grater-to-the-ears awful. The dialogue is hoakey, but it was for Chiklis and Evans too and they worked wonders with it. I was left pondering, perhaps to distract myself from the agony of huffy Alba, if the two had been played by more capable actors we'd have had a tolerable superhero romance? The impulses of their relationship were right, and 'Spider-Man' proved romance wasn't a death knell for superhero films, so what is left is actors and a director with a romantic comedy picture of what love looks like. It's just a bad sign when the antagonistic romance is far less compelling than the antagonistic bromance.

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Let's not however forget Victor Von Doom. Again, good impulses are dragged wretched by acting and directing. I'm a Doom fan, but I'm also aware that you can't tell the story of Doom the same way in a movie that you can do in a comic, unless you start somewhere in the middle (something I am generally in favor of by the way). Doom is rewritten as a vain financial and sexual opponent to Reed, rivals since school. They also see fit to give him electrical superpowers and have his skin turn into his iconic armor. This seems to draw influence from the first few “Ultimate Fantastic-Four' runs, penned by Mark Millar and Warren Ellis, a book which showed how these seemingly blasphemous ideas actually could work quite well. Instead, they took 'Nip/Tuck's Julian MacMahon and had him play one of the Marvel universe's most iconic villains as a jealous, snarky douche. His arc and slow reveal of his powers was predictable and formulaic, ripping most of it straight from Norman Osborne's story in 'Spider-Man', in some places almost word-for-word. When he finally dons the mask in the brief and anti-climactic finale it aches the inner geek to hear MacMahon's chiding sarcasm leaking out of Doom's otherwise authentic mask.

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As a brief aside, Kerry Washington's Alicia Masters is one of the worst performances in superhero film post-'Batman and Robin'. That's all I really have to say about it, it was just dreadful enough to earn a footnote.

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I came away from 'Fantastic Four' having had a much better time than I expected, but wishing it had been better. So much of it was perfect, or at least avoiding the problems that seem endemic to the genre, but it was spoiled by the rotten elements. There was a lot of traditional effects work, but it was marred by the uniformly ugly CGI. Johnny and Ben were great and Sue and Reed were awful. Like the year it came out, a product of contrast, both the best and the worst of what superhero films can be. However, it had a fan's heart. When Ben Grimm's scrapes his big rock fingers against the concrete, trying desperately to pick up the abandoned wedding ring of his distraught wife, there's an authentic humanity present that one is hard pressed to find even attempted in most superhero films. 'Fantastic Four' wasn't cool, but it wasn't trying to be, and I for one can applaud that even for its faults.