The Somewhat Fantastic Four

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By now, everyone probably knows about the troubled infancy of the Fantastic Four movie. I was personally looking forward to the movie all summer… in 1994. I remember eagerly speculating about the movie with some buddies when an adult came by and said, “what, the Fantastic Four movie? They canned it. It’s apparently terrible.”

The most lethal nemesis of our beloved heroes has proven time and time again to be a movie adaptation.

So let’s flash forward to the nowtimes. Over the 4th of July weekend, skywriters in Los Angeles inscribed the circled “4” logo in the sky over our heads. I can’t buy groceries, check email, or watch my episode of House without seeing an ad for this movie. What a reversal. From quietly snuffing out the 1994 Roger Corman version to the most in-your-face marketing campaign I’ve ever seen for a comic book movie. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were scared the flick was bad and were overcompensating.

And the surprise is it’s not bad. Well, not totally. If you’re a fan of the FF, there’s a lot here to love. Cute little asides and references only True Believers are going to get are sprinkled throughout the movie. Director Tim Story’s been very public about his desire to make this a movie about characters and not just big action, and that attempt is apparent, even if the success of that attempt is dubious at times.

The Four themselves are surprisingly good. Though he’s been vocal in complaining about the suit, Michael Chiklis is an awesome Thing, down to the voice and everything, and he’s remarkably expressive in all that makeup. Given that the Thing makeup and the depth of emotion he’s required to carry as the most deeply troubled by his transformation were major stumbling blocks in past attempts to make the leap to the screen, this was a welcome relief. At times, I can’t help but be reminded of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rubber suits, but by and large it’s pretty believable, which is nice.

And then there’s Chris Evans, who is such a dead-on Johnny Storm and whose chemistry with Chiklis is so terrific that the Thing/Torch moments are the highlights of the entire film. What’s always been such a terrific character dynamic gets translated brilliantly here, so again, another big sigh of relief.

From a story perspective, the screenwriters also chose an interesting take on Reed and Sue, beginning with their relationship on the rocks bordering on nonexistent. Taking the one couple in the Marvel U whose stability we mostly take for granted and flipping it around was a unique idea and certainly helped inject a little more character drama. Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba work well with the material they have, but it never reaches critical mass. They go through the motions of working through that drama and drop all the usual clichés (Reed, you’re weak and inflexible. If only you were strong and flexible. Then Sue would love you. Oh. Wait. That was lucky. That didn’t even require any effort, huh? Lucky for you she’s bound to confess that she’s always loved you anyway. Yup. There it is. Ha-ha.) but the romance is not remarkable in any way. Certainly it’s not on the same Radar O’Passion with Peter/MJ in Spider-Man or even the tragedy of Scott and Jean in X2. It’s amazing that they did such a good job with Ben and Johnny and phoned it in on Reed and Sue.

That said, if the movie was half an hour longer, I think we would have had a satisfying version of the family of heroes we love as the Fantastic Four. The effects are a little too CGI at times, but it’s still a thrill to see them living and breathing on the screen, and the first half has a lot of really funny and exciting moments.

Two characters are critically mishandled, though. Jessica Alba’s Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman, is not really ever invisible for any good reason, other than to feed the pervish fantasies of the sizable audience that has never heard of the comic but went to see if Alba possibly gets naked. Note to the idiots who sat behind me: I hate you. I hate you a lot.

Where were we? Oh yes. Susan Storm’s invisibility. The fact that we have the “Sue’s ditching her street clothes to be totally invisible but oop! – she can’t control her powers and now she’s visible in her underwear!” moment is sort of sad. The fact that that stunt gets repeated but without getting to see Alba in her underwear that second time (Idiots Behind Me, I hate you even more) is a crime. The fact that this is really the best use of her power in the whole movie is… something awful.

Still, Alba did almost convince me that even though it’s kind of freakish to see her as a blonde, she might just be a Susan Storm that just needed better stuff to do. I like you, Jessica Alba. If they bring the FF back, fight for a better role in the next one.

The same can not be said for Julian McMahon, who is disastrously miscast as Victor Von Doom and mishandled throughout the film. This is giving nothing away to say that Dr. Doom, the ultimate nemesis of the Fantastic Four and one of the most despicably evil men in the Marvel Universe’s grand plan for evil, the one that will require true heroes to rise is… murdering one jerk banker and… drum roll… kill the Fantastic Four because he’s jealous. With, like, a rocket launcher. That’s it. That’s his whole plan.

Innocents directly threatened by this man’s evil: 1 – the doctor he kills in the trailer. For comparison, innocents directly threatened by the Thing’s accidental incident on the bridge: 20+ including a company of firemen. Seriously, dudes, Skeletor’s plans were more elaborate and evil. And that’s saying something.

And as for the costume… Marvel producers, STOP letting them put the villains in plastic masks that don’t move!!! It looks silly! It causes one to snigger, even. It’s not good when the audience sniggers at the villain.

Forgetting that in fact, Doom’s face receives like two tiny scars before he puts the mask on and that his incredible vanity is like a footnote that’s glossed over, the whole device of the mask is the corniest part of the whole movie. You mean to tell me that the Doom mask is a gift from the people of Latveria? And that it’s been sitting on his desk the whole time? Just in case? This is a traditional mask of the Latverians?!! What? He’s from Latveria? He sounds vaguely British!

Screenwriters, this is the most contrived attempt to cram a mandatory element of the comic book into the film since… well, twenty minutes ago, when you decided that the Thing gets his trademark “It’s clobberin’ time!” catchphrase from his action figure.

And the mask, I repeat, does not move. Silly, I repeat. Silly. Never mind that he doesn’t even do a scary voice as Doom. Tim Story, for shame! Directing 101: fearsome villains in scary masks don’t sound like, at worst, your high school math teacher dressed up for Halloween. As ludicrous as Willem Dafoe’s plastic Green Goblin outfit looked when he was chillin’ on the roof with Spidey, someone at least had the sense to have him talk scary underneath it. Kids in the theater audibly afraid of Doctor Doom: none. Kids in the theater audibly afraid of Alex the Lion going feral when I saw Madagascar: five or six.

So the movie has its problems. But it’s not a bad flick and it’s summer and it’s fun for the family, so go ahead and see it. I have a lot of stock in this movie over at the Hollywood Stock Exchange, so by all means go. I’m trying to win a t-shirt. But as jaded comic fans, I think it’s fair to warn you that there’s a lot of stuff in this movie that’s going to tick you off or disappoint you. But, I guess, if you’re a jaded comic book nerd, you’re genetically hardwired to enjoy ranting about just these disappointments and inaccuracies. So go! This movie is perfect for you! Huzzah! Another victory!

Now who wants to go see Sky High?

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