Who made it?: Tim Story (Director), Mark Frost, Michael France (Screenwriters), Avi Arad, Ralph Winter, Bernd Eichinger (Producers), 20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Kerry Washington.
Tag-line: “Prepare For The Fantastic.”
IMDb rating: 5.7/10.
Marvel’s First Family hit comic book stands way back in 1961. The brainchild of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four are a quaint, decidedly old-fashioned quartet that became popular among younger readers. Despite changing times and moods, they have remained virtually the same. In an era when most of our superhero media is dark and brooding, it’s comforting to know that there’s still a light and colourful title in the Marvel Universe.
Their journey to the big screen was long and torturous, eventually landing at 20th Century Fox, who had achieved considerable success with X-Men. It isn’t the first time that someone has tried to make a movie based on the exploits of Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing. After a series of popular (but awful) cartoons, the rights fell into the hands of B-movie legend Roger Corman, who made a feature on a measly $2 million budget. The 1992 production was made with the intention of never being released. Corman’s option on the rights would have expired unless he made a film. Fox later paid Corman a considerable amount of money to acquire the license, and his version has sat on a shelf ever since. It has become a cult curiosity, with bootlegs passed around at comic conventions as a forbidden artefact.
In comparison, 2005’s Fantastic Four isn’t so bad, but that isn’t saying much. Fox are not well-known for quality control these days. Why they gave the job to Story (Barbershop, Taxi) is still a mystery. He has directed a number of music videos for acts such as 2pac and Sonique, which didn’t really prepare him for the task at hand. It’s a lacklustre superhero movie that is pretty light on action and forward momentum, but it isn’t without a few charms. Fantastic Four also manages to capture the spirit of the source material, even though it rarely taps into the potential of Lee and Kirby’s vision.
Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is a brilliant scientist seeking the funds for an experimental space mission to study cosmic radiation. With friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), he approaches powerful businessman Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who agrees to bankroll the experiment, even allowing them use of his space station. They are joined by the cocky Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and his sexy sister, Susan (Jessica Alba), who is Reed’s ex-girlfriend and Victor’s current squeeze. What would a comic book movie be without an insufferable love triangle?
Naturally, everything goes wrong. A cosmic storm engulfs the vessel, fundamentally altering their DNA. They survive, but on their return to Earth, the five discover that the event has given them new abilities. Richards’ body takes on an elastic quality, Sue is bestowed with invisibility, and Johnny literally becomes a living flame. Ben is the only one to draw the short straw, transforming into a monster, whose body is composed entirely of rock. The disaster almost bankrupts Victor, while giving him the power to harness electricity. He is consumed by a need for revenge and word domination, prompting Reed, Ben, Susan and Johnny to become “The Fantastic Four” and save the day.
Ridiculed by many critics upon its release, Fantastic Four is unashamedly juvenile in its approach, leaving very little substance for adults in the audience. It also had the rotten luck of opening in the same summer as Sin City and Batman Begins. While it shouldn’t be compared to those superior films – the FF comic books were always bright and breezy – there’s a dearth of ambition here that is galling for a studio tent pole film. Story’s movie feels more like a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon than a fully fledged feature. Pixar have proven that you can make family entertainment that satisfies a wide demographic, and Fantastic Four‘s biggest failing is a refusal to aim higher.
First and foremost, there isn’t a story to invest in. The origin, which is only partially true to the comic, is played-out at the speed of molasses and the film is almost over by the time the Four master their powers. The learning curve encountered by these new abilities, and Von Doom’s illogical hatred, is all the picture really offers in terms of a story arc. It’s a jumble of scenes that don’t really fit together and create a cohesive whole. There’s no emotional pay-off to anything. In lieu of a bigger picture, the film boils down to character beats that raise a smile but never give us a reason to care.
Character interaction is Fantastic Four‘s saving grace. They don’t have secret identities, a hallmark of the comic, so it is refreshing to see a film in the genre that doesn’t get bogged-down in alter-ego concerns. Seeing each character’s reaction to fame is possibly the most interesting aspect of the film, with their celebrity status sitting uncomfortably with their superheroics (a concept that wouldn’t be seen again until Iron Man 2). A smarter filmmaker could have made something truly memorable out of this idea, but Story squanders the plot thread with throwaway scenes; Johnny showcasing his gift at a motocross event, for example, or a naked Sue struggling to turn invisible in public. Actually, that last bit was appreciated.
The Thing is given the most to play with on this front. Unlike his cohorts, his appearance puts him at odds with the rest of the world. The tearful reunion with his wife (Laurie Holden from The Walking Dead) is the only dramatic beat that leaves an impression. He’s also given a romantic sub-plot with blind hottie Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington), who “sees” the human beneath the stone. Like everything in Story’s film, this thread is underdeveloped, but Chiklis makes the most of it.
One thing I’ve noticed from reviewing some of these Marvel films, is that the casting is usually strong, and this film is no different. The screenplay, credited to Mark Frost and The Punisher‘s Michael France, is light on memorable dialogue, but the stars inhabit their roles with a knowing charm. Especially Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic, who manages to be dorky and earnest in equal measure. It’s just a shame that the writers never convey his vast intellect. We’re told repeatedly that he has a brilliant mind, but there’s never a moment or line to actually convince us. Gruffud is above material like this, but he does a credible job of carrying the film.
Alba, on the other hand, is miscast as Sue. She looks amazing in skin-tight spandex, of course, but she’s one of the least convincing scientists in the history of cinema. A lack of chemistry with Gruffudd doesn’t help, making the romance inert, but Alba’s beauty goes a long way to ignoring her faults as an actress.
The film is stolen from under their noses by Evans and Chiklis. The pair is clearly having a blast. Evans nails Johnny’s reckless immaturity, and his wide-eyed amazement at his powers is wonderful. Yet, he also displays an underlying goodness that served him well in Captain America. Chiklis manages to project the horror of his disfigurement, allowing for several moments of pathos. The effects boffins were planning to render The Thing as a CGI creation, but it was Chiklis who decided to perform the role under mountains of latex. I’m glad that the producers agreed, since the actor is able to emote under the make-up and make the audience care for his plight – would we be bothered if he was composed entirely of pixels?
Unfortunately, the final member of the cast, McMahon, is sorely wasted. Von Doom’s origin is altered (he didn’t receive his powers from the cosmic rays, like the FF), and he is ridiculously underused as a villain. His power of controlling electricity is a little sketchy, and his decision to turn evil comes out of nowhere – his motive for wanting to destroy the Four is flimsy, and he only becomes “Dr. Doom” during the climax. At least his costume is faithful to the strip, looking cooler than the Four’s blue jumpsuits.
Overall, Fantastic Four is one of Marvel’s weakest films, with long periods of screen time that feel directionless. In their bid to establish a franchise, Fox forgot about finer points like narrative and emotion, with too much set-up for the inevitable sequel (which would come two years later, with Rise of the Silver Surfer). The last act is devoted to a smack down in the centre of New York that should be spectacular, but fails to truly excite. That pretty much sums up the film; amusing, occasionally entertaining, yet never compelling. Children will lap this up. Everyone else should stick to the comics. Let’s hope that the rumoured reboot finally gives Marvel’s First Family the film they deserve.
Best Heroic Moment: The Brooklyn Bridge scene. After saving a man about to commit suicide, The Thing inadvertently causes a massive pile-up, which results in an explosion that leaves a fire truck in a very precarious position. The Four combine their abilities to rescue the firefighters, and finally reveal themselves to the world.
Best Villainous Moment: It has to be the scene when Von Doom dons his trademark mask and cape. He looks pretty much the same as the comic book version, which leaves more of an impression than his silly plot for world domination. How sad.
Most Bad-Ass Moment: The only moment that may be classed as bad ass is when Von Doom fires a heat-seeking missile after Johnny in an attempt to kill him.
Worst Romantic Moment: You’d think that any of the scenes between Reed and Sue would bag the prize, but you’d be wrong. Just after returning from space, Johnny goes skiing with a brunette when his power kicks-in. We see that Johnny has melted a cavern into the snow and turned it into a little hot tub. The scene finishes with her dropping her skis and we can only assume what happens next. It seems a little out-of-place in a kid’s flick.
Cheesiest Moment: Johnny making a fiery 4 in the night sky.
Best Self-Mocking Pun: A reporter asks Johnny about Reed: “Is it true what they say about him? That he can expand any part of his anatomy?”
The Obligatory Stan Lee Cameo: For the first and last time, Stan plays a character from the source material. He shows up as Willie Lumpkin, the post man who welcomes the Four on their return home to the Baxter Building.
The aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge sequence is not only the best heroic moment, but the best set piece in the entire movie. Watch it here.
- George Clooney and Brendan Fraser were considered for Reed.
- The film has nearly 900 visual effects shots.
- A 1-minute sequence showing Johnny in flame mode over Manhattan took four months to create. The background was an entirely digitized rendering of New York City.
- The film contains over 25 cameos by employees of Fox television.
- Alba’s underwear scene was added to the script after the actress had agreed to appear in the film.
- Evans improvised most of his dialogue.
- A replica of part of the Brooklyn Bridge was constructed on-set in Canada.
- When Johnny holds up a Thing toy (which says the “clobberin’ time” catchphrase), it’s a figure from Toy Biz’s 2002 line of Marvel Legends action figures, a line of highly detailed toys based on various characters from Marvel Comics. The particular figure shown is from the second wave released, and was packaged with a reprint of Fantastic Four (Vol. 1) #263.