On Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four, which features Chris Evans (Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) as Johnny Storm a.k.a. The Human Torch, is known for being just a terrible film. According to The Week‘s article, “When franchises fail: Saying goodbye to 2005’s not-so-Fantastic Four“:

Earlier this year, 2005’s little-remembered, little-loved Fantastic Four movie suddenly grabbed headlines again — but only because it had disappeared. With Josh Trank’s gritty Fantastic Four reboot on the horizon, 20th Century Fox pulled 2005’s Fantastic Fourand its 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, from all digital platforms. So even if you’re willing to pay for the old Fantastic Four movies, you can’t stream them anywhere; instead, you’ll need to hunt down a DVD copy.

Franchises sometimes fail. 2006’s Superman Returns sputtered, which led to the 2013 reboot Man of Steel. 2011’s ridiculous Green Lantern ended with a tease for a sequel that never happened. This year, the Amazing Spider-Manseries was snuffed out after just two films so a newly rebooted Spider-Man could join The Avengers.

But rarely has a franchise failed so completely that its own studio has taken active steps to prevent audiences from remembering it ever existed. It’s impossible to defend the Fantastic Four movies on their merits, because they’re both terrible. But as historical documents from a time when Hollywood was still wrapping its head around this “superhero” thing, they’re worthy of an in-depth excavation.

The first challenge for a Fantastic Four movie is introducing four distinct superheroes, and explaining their powers, without confusing or boring the audience. Most superhero movies struggle do that with one hero; The Avengers only managed it by introducing them in solo movies before the big team-up.

Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story, deals with this very real problem by throwing the characters together as quickly as possible, and saddling them with so much exposition that they might as well just turn to the camera and explain who they are and what they want. As the film begins, we meet Reed Richards and his enemy, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who once planned to work together. We know that because Reed says, “You remember, in school, we talked about working together.”

It’s clumsy, but it’s also kind of hard to blame Fantastic Four for dispensing with things like “atmosphere” or “character” in favor of what diehard fans had waited to see for more than 40 years: the Fantastic Four using their crazy powers on the big screen. By the 15-minute mark, all four main characters have already passed through the space cloud that grants them their superpowers. For the record, our heroes are:

  • Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), or Mr. Fantastic, a brilliant egghead who can stretch any part of his body to ridiculously abnormal proportions. (Yes, the movie makes the joke you just made in your head.)
  • Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), or The Thing, who has a body made of rocks, which grants him super-strength and durability, and makes it impossible for him to use chairs.
  • Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), or Invisible Woman, who can generate powerful force fields — and, you know, turn invisible.
  • Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), or Human Torch, who can light his entire body on fire, which also somehow gives him the ability to fly.

Along with the flames and the flying, Johnny Storm has an even more pronounced character trait: being completely insufferable. Poor Chris Evans — who you probably know now, much better, as Captain America — is stuck playing the single most irritating superhero I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s like someone watched Chris O’Donnell in Batman & Robin and said, “Is there any way to make a guy like that even less likable?”

To make sure we understand that he’s a radical party dude, Johnny Storm is introduced speeding down a dusty road on a motorcycle, while making out with a woman driving a convertible next to him. We never learn who she is or see her again. Velvet Revolver’s “Come On, Come In” squeals on the soundtrack. We learn, via yet another piece of blunt exposition, that he was drummed out of NASA for sneaking two Victoria’s Secret models into a zero-g simulator.

This scene sets the tone for Johnny’s utter lack of character arc over the rest of the film. He sexually harasses every female character that isn’t his sister. He jumps out of a helicopter on a snowboard. He turns his chair backward before he sits down. He says things like, “Trouble is my middle name.” He is, in short, the closest a superhero movie has ever come to Poochie.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Ioan Gruffudd — recently seen, by the seven people who watched it, in NBC’s Forever — gets stuck with a nothing character and does absolutely nothing with him. Jessica Alba is hopelessly miscast as a sexy, confident scientist who’s also a meek, passive wallflower. “It’s nice to be wanted,” says Sue in an early scene — a line delivered with no apparent irony by Alba, who was rated one of TV Guide‘s “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time” that same year.

But for someone who claims to be so overlooked and undesirable, Fantastic Four certainly goes out of its way to make the audience drool over Sue Storm. The movie makes a running gag out of Sue stripping off all her clothes in public when she wants to turn invisible, then unintentionally reappearing in her underwear. The sequel goes as far as burning her clothes off and having her land, totally nude, in front of a group of eager, camera-toting paparazzi.

And then there’s Michael Chiklis, wearing what looks like an insanely uncomfortable full-body prosthesis as The Thing. Critics generally cited Chiklis’ performance as the best thing about Fantastic Four, and they’re not wrong. But being the best thing about Fantastic Four is like being the best thing about a punch to the gut.

With the exception of Evans, the most successful actor to survive Fantastic Four is barely in Fantastic Four at all. Poor Kerry Washington is given the thankless role of Alicia Masters, the blind woman who serves as the love interest for Ben Grimm. The entirety of their romantic subplot ended up on the cutting-room floor, which means she has two measly scenes: one where she and Ben meet in a bar, and one at the end, when they’re suddenly, inexplicably a happy couple. The movie never bothers to explain why Alicia has fallen head over heels for a cranky rock-man who’s at least a decade older than her.

Allow me to briefly summarize the plot: The Fantastic Four get their superpowers, freeze Doctor Doom, and settle into their new lives as famous superheroes. The movie takes place in a strange parallel universe where a businessman will turn off a special TV news bulletin announcing the existence of real-life superheroes to deliver a sneering speech about pulling money out of a corporation. The movie spends almost no time showing the main characters coming to terms with their crazy superpowers, but finds seemingly endless time for the dull, angsty love triangle between Reed and Sue.

I hadn’t seen Fantastic Four since it first arrived in theaters, so rewatching it for this article was like watching it for the first time. If you saw it, you probably don’t remember it either. But here’s the other thing no one remembers about 2005’s Fantastic Four: It was a hit. Produced for $100 million, it grossed $330 million worldwide. That’s more than the first X-Men movie, and more than enough to ensure that the sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, was greenlit for a prime summer blockbuster slot in June 2007.

The original Fantastic Four may have been a financial success, but it hadn’t exactly scored with critics. So Rise of the Silver Surfer was a second chance at a first impression. It does not rise to the challenge.

Once again, the primary flaw comes down to the characters. Reed Richards somehow makes even less of an impression — a black hole of charisma at the center of the movie. Johnny is still a smug jerk, capitalizing on his fame by recruiting corporate sponsors and selling his sister’s wedding photos to the highest bidder. Sue has “evolved” from a wallflower to a nagging shrew, crashing Reed’s bachelor party and complaining about how she just wants to stop all this “saving the world” nonsense and start a family. Doctor Doom is as menacing as a newborn kitten. And the sequel’s primary innovation — the titular Silver Surfer — adds the kind of gravitas you can only get by paying Laurence Fishburne for a week or two of voiceover work. But in the end, it’s still a silver alien dude flying around the galaxy on a surfboard. Is gravitas really the right approach?

Rise of the Silver Surfer arrived in the midst of a key turning point for superhero movies. Spider-Man and X-Men had shown Hollywood that superheroes could be big business — and their sequels, which had grossed even more, proved that a launching a superhero franchise could continue to pay huge dividends for years and years. But Rise of the Silver Surfer cost$30 million more to produce than the original, and earned $40 million less.

In the intervening years, the most fascinating part has been following each member of the cast, all of whom, with varying degrees of candor and diplomacy, have acknowledged how bad it is. “I wanted to stop acting. I hated it. I really hated it,” said Alba in a 2014 interview with Elle. When asked if he’d make a third Fantastic Four, Evans sounded genuinely horrified at the possibility: “They got me if they want me, we are all contractually obligated, and so I’m shit out of luck there.”

Fortunately for Evans, they didn’t want him. They didn’t want any of them.Rise of the Silver Surfer didn’t do poorly enough to be declared an outright flop, but it was enough for everyone involved to conclude that the hypothetical third Fantastic Four was a gamble not worth taking — particularly when the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knightarrived just a year later, setting the standards for the modern superhero blockbuster.

And that brings us to 2015, with a darker, grittier Fantastic Four reboot less than a month away. Time will tell whether Josh Trank can succeed where Tim Story failed, but despite rumblings of on-set problems, 20th Century Fox is confident enough that a Fantastic Four sequel has already been scheduled for June 9, 2017.

For all intents and purposes, the old Fantastic Four movies are dead — but it’s cruel to throw a funeral and spend the whole time taking shots at the casket, so let me end on a positive note. For all its flaws, 2005’s Fantastic Four does deserve praise for one decision: refusing to take its superheroes too seriously.

As superhero movies have become Hollywood’s primary stock-in-trade, they’ve also lost their sense of playfulness. The stakes in Fantastic Four are nonexistent, but the idea that having superpowers can actually be fun — grabbing toilet paper from across the hall with your stretchy arms, or showing off at a motocross rally by lighting yourself on fire as you fly off a huge ramp — has been totally lost. It’s dumb, but it’s fun — the kind of Silver Age wackiness that has basically been extinguished from the genre.

Superhero movies have gotten better, but they’ve also, by and large, lost the idea that being a superhero can be fun. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the failed Fantastic Four franchise, it’s that superhero movies would do well to lighten up a little.

 

Because the film did so well at the Box Office, it actually got a sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

According to Roger Ebert:

So you get in a spaceship, and you venture into orbit to research a mysterious star storm hurtling toward Earth. There’s a theory it may involve properties of use to man. The spaceship is equipped with a shield to protect its passengers from harmful effects, but the storm arrives ahead of schedule and saturates everybody on board with unexplained but powerful energy that creates radical molecular changes in their bodies.

They return safety to Earth, only to discover that Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), the leader of the group, has a body that can take any form or stretch to unimaginable lengths. Call him Mr. Fantastic. Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) develops superhuman powers in a vast and bulky body that seems made of stone. Call him the Thing. Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) can become invisible at will and generate force fields that can contain propane explosions, in case you have a propane explosion that needs containing but want the option of being invisible. Call her Invisible Woman. And her brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) has a body that can burn at supernova temperatures. Call him the Human Torch.

I almost forgot the villain, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who becomes Dr. Doom and wants to use the properties of the star storm and the powers of the Fantastic Four for his own purposes. He eventually becomes metallic.

By this point in the review, are you growing a little restless? What am I gonna do, list names and actors and superpowers and nicknames forever? That’s how the movie feels.

It’s all setup and demonstration, and naming and discussing and demonstrating, and it never digests the complications of the Fantastic Four and gets on to telling a compelling story. Sure, there’s a nice sequence where the Thing keeps a fire truck from falling off a bridge, but you see one fire truck saved from falling off a bridge, you’ve seen them all.

The Fantastic Four are, in short, underwhelming. The edges kind of blur between them and other superhero teams. That’s understandable. How many people could pass a test right now on who the X-Men are and what their powers are? Or would want to? I wasn’t watching “Fantastic Four” to study it, but to be entertained by it, but how could I be amazed by a movie that makes its own characters so indifferent about themselves?

The Human Torch, to repeat, can burn at supernova temperatures! He can become so hot, indeed, that he couldthreaten the very existence of the Earth itself! This is absolutely stupendously amazing, wouldn’t you agree? If you could burn at supernova temperatures, would you be able to stop talking about it? I know people who won’t shut up about winning 50 bucks in the lottery.

But after Johnny Storm finds out he has become the Human Torch, he takes it pretty much in stride, showing off a little by setting his thumb on fire. Later he saves the Earth, while Invisible Woman simultaneously contains his supernova so he doesn’t destroy it. That means Invisible Woman could maybe create a force field to contain the sun, which would be a big deal, but she’s too distracted to explore the possibilities; she gets uptight because she will have to be naked to be invisible, because otherwise people could see her empty clothes; it is no consolation to her that invisible nudity is more of a metaphysical concept than a condition.

Are these people complete idiots? The entire nature of their existence has radically changed, and they’re about as excited as if they got a makeover on “Oprah.” The exception is Ben Grimm, as the Thing, who gets depressed when he looks in the mirror. Unlike the others, who look normal except when actually exhibiting superpowers, he looks like – well, he looks like his suits would fit The Hulk, just as the Human Torch looks like The Flash, and the Invisible Woman reminds me of Storm in “X-Men.”

Is this the road company? Thing clomps around on his Size 18 boulders and feels like an outcast until he meets a blind woman named Alicia (Kerry Washington) who loves him, in part because she can’t see him. But the Thing looks like Don Rickles crossed with Mt. Rushmore; he has a body that feels like a driveway and a face with crevices you could hide a toothbrush in. Alicia tenderly feels his face with her fingers, like blind people often do while falling in love in the movies, and I guess she likes what she feels. Maybe she’s extrapolating.

The story involves Dr. Doom’s plot to … but perhaps we need not concern ourselves with the plot of the movie, since it is undermined at every moment by the unwieldy need to involve a screenful of characters, who, despite the most astonishing powers, have not been made exciting or even interesting. The X-Men are major league compared to them.

And the really good superhero movies, like “Superman,” “SpiderMan 2” and “Batman Begins,” leave “Fantastic Four” so far behind that the movie should almost be ashamed to show itself in the same theaters.

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One thought on “On Fantastic Four

  1. Pingback: On Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer | The Progressive Democrat

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