Revisiting the Reviled — Ten Years Later, the ‘Fantastic Four’ Still Isn’t Good, Competent, or Fantastic

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

The Fantastic Four started it all. Sure, Captain America, Batman, Superman, and others predated the 1961 debut of Fantastic Four, but that first book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as Timely and Atlas fully morphed into Marvel Comics, the medium was changed forever. But starting with Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman, Marvel was never really a player in terms of superhero cinema. Outside of some kitschy animated programs from the ‘60s and the ‘70s series of The Incredible Hulk, Marvel was never able to make any traction in the filmed medium. In the wake of the success of Burton’s Batman, a number of Marvel characters were optioned for the big screen. Among the most famously developed and never produced was James Cameron’s Spider-Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. The most famous produced and never released film of that era was Roger Corman’s production of the Fantastic Four.

You’re likely saying, “Sean, why aren’t you doing Corman’s Fantastic Four? And if you’re not, why are you bringing it up? That’s just cruel.” And you’re not wrong. But I feel that since Corman’s Fantastic Four was never intended to be released, unbeknownst to the cast and crew, as a ploy to retain the film rights, and it’s best to allow that laughable oddity to exist in its own realm (after all, it does make fun of itself). There’s no need to go after a Corman produced piece of schlock. I’d rather set my sights on the 2005 version of the Fantastic Four, the $100 million monstrosity directed by Tim Story. Successful enough to warrant a sequel, yet bad enough to never earn any fans, Fantastic Four is causality of the burgeoning superhero genre’s growing pains. Marvel Studios was years from becoming a reality, and 20th Century Fox tried to make Fantastic Four fit somewhere between Bryan Singer’s leather-clad and serious X-Men movies and the pop fun of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. It accomplished neither, and joined the growing pile of failed Marvel properties at Fox, including Daredevil and Elektra, and fully sealed a year later with X-Men: The Last Stand.

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Upon its release, Fantastic Four left me entirely cold. It’s an extremely broad kiddie film. Thankfully, the film is fairly brisk in its pace, though it fails to register on any level. After all, we’re not 12 here. Right? Because if you’re 12 you totally shouldn’t be reading this (unless you’re totally cool). Anyway, the film starts out with Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) meeting with Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to beg for funding for Reed’s latest potential breakthrough. Reed wants to travel into the cosmos and experiment the effects of a cosmic storm. Von Doom, a billion-dollar entrepreneur and not the mad dictator of Latveria, agrees to a cutthroat deal. Reed and Ben are set to travel to space with Victor and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Reed’s former lover, and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), Sue’s brother, the former underling of Ben, and a boastful hotshot. One of the film’s few saving graces is the fact that it gets the cosmic rays to our would-be heroes (and villain) within the first 10 minutes. That, however, is about the extent of the praises.

Once we get past the origin story snafus – Oh my god! What’s happening to us? – the film rushes to get its titular team in action. What’s lost in the entire sequences of intended heroism is the fact that it is all the result of Ben Grimm, and, even worse, it’s entirely the result of his appearance. In trying to talk a guy out of suicide, Ben accidentally leads this poor deluded sap onto the metal rafters above the highway. Of course, the sap falls and Ben drops down to rescue, dropping his shoulder and stopping a big rig in its place in order to save the suicidal man. However, this leads to a chain reaction of crashes, each requiring the varied talents of its four main characters. It speaks to the film’s larger idiocy that the Fantastic Four’s moment of triumph is inadvertently their fault and they still become media sensations because of their heroism. Following all this, the film doesn’t really challenge our heroes in the face of battle until the final fight with Doctor Doom, who only takes his famous form for the finale. Over the course of 100 minutes, there are two instances where these so-called Fantastic Four stop bickering with one another and work together as a team.

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The characters are half-written, expecting the audience’s familiarity with the characters to fill in the blanks for them. We’re repeatedly told how Reed Richards is this amazing super-genius, yet nearly every one of his calculations and experiments are failures. The extent of the character’s journey is to convince Sue Storm to marry him. Sue, meanwhile, is a woefully underwritten character who just floats around to stand beside whoever the script needs her to. Her entire relationship to Victor Von Doom is extremely baffling. We’re led to believe that they’ve been an item – Reed and Ben believe this, Johnny reiterates it, and we see Victor’s plans to propose to Sue. Then we’re later informed by Sue that there was never a relationship between her and Victor. This relationship brings up a whirlwind of questions, answers none of them, and uses the situations as a means to make Victor driven by jealousy.

Another example of the film telling and not showing is with Ben Grimm and his relationship to his wife Debbie, played by Laurie Holden in an incredibly thankless role. Early on, over and over, we’re told that Ben and Debbie just have the greatest relationship ever. We never see their bond in any way, we just have to take their word for it even though upon first sight of his transformation Debbie flees. And upon Ben’s first moment of triumph as The Thing, she meets him on the bridge, placing her wedding ring on the pavement before running away. For this supposedly wonderful relationship, Debbie wasted no time in bolting.

Then there’s Johnny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch, a.k.a. Poochie. He drops out of helicopters on a snowboard while 2004’s premiere pop punk plays in the background. He appears at the X-Games to show off his flaming motocross skills. He’s a hotshot who’s got attitude, attitude, attitude. He might’ve even been slightly rastafied about ten percent or so. Johnny Storm never comes off as an actual character with thoughts and motivations. He’s more a character that is what a bunch of old white guys thought kids wanted – “Yeah, that x-treme stuff the kids are all about. Oh, and we can do a tie-in with Burger King. They’re flame-broiled, right?”

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Finally, there’s the woeful and unthreatening Doctor Doom as played by Julian McMahon. Instead of using an ambiguous origin for the Latverian madman, they make him intrinsically tied to the origins of the Fantastic Four. I don’t care if it’s Doctor Doom or Darth Vader, wading deep into an origin story for a villain isn’t always necessary and can undercut what makes them resonate. It certainly doesn’t help that the film doesn’t turn Doctor Doom into Doctor Doom until the film’s final 20 minutes, and it never really establishes what Doom’s powers are in the film, something to do with electricity. There’s none of that calculating brilliance or his mystical powers, just kind of a B-level Electro. The character never actually takes form as a real supervillain, but merely a spiteful, jealous industrialist – and they’re everywhere.

Fantastic Four would be interesting had this film actually carried with it some commentary on celebrity, and the evolving nature of a culture obsessed with the private lives of celebrity. Instead, Fantastic Four is mega-budget blockbuster aimed at children, but fails to provide even the simple visceral thrills to bedazzle the younger crowd. It’s a film of bland writing, bland acting, and bland direction – there’s little resembling soul or personality on this shiny, soulless project. At one point in its development, Ant-Man director Peyton Reed was attached, but departed after it became apparent that Fox was not interested in making his version of the film. There’s likely an alternate dimension where Peyton Reed directed Fantastic Four and Edgar Wright made Ant-Man. Even though the upcoming Fantastic Four hasn’t exactly gained the fervent anticipation of the geek crowd, it could still be a bad movie and the best big screen adaptation of the Fantastic Four ever. The bar has been set that low.

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