Ever hear about the family of superheroes where each member possesses a unique superpower? One of them can stretch like rubber into a variety of shapes and functions. Another is virtually indestructible with superhuman strength and endurance. Then there's this girl that can turn herself invisible and also generate protective force fields. And don't forget the hotshot youngster obsessed with speed and able to engulf himself in flames.
Sounds an awful lot like The Incredibles, right? Pixar's 2004 computer-animated smash may have been in development for several years, but that movie was clearly inspired in part by the Fantastic Four, the longest-running series in Marvel Comics' history. Though it debuted in 1961—before Spiderman, the X-Men, and the Hulk— "the superhero world's most famous dysfunctional family" has so avoided the move from page to screen. Part of this is due to visual effects technology (it's easier to fake flight or strength than it is to show elasticity). But more importantly, recent comic book films have become legitimized, thanks to smarter scriptwriting that focuses on character development and substantial storylines over stylistic art design.
Still, is the public ready for yet another superhero movie, or have audiences become oversaturated? For every hugely successful adaptation in the last five years (Spiderman, X-Men, Batman Begins), there have been at least as many flops (Hulk, Daredevil, Elektra). Fantastic Four is neither of these, though it at least delivers enough to do the genre more credit than harm.
Like any superhero debut, this is another origin movie, focusing on the relationships and developments of the four central characters. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd of 2004's King Arthur) is a brilliant scientist, recently bankrupted after losing a contract with NASA. With the help of his best friend, astronaut Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis of TV's The Shield), he hopes to observe a storm of cosmic radiation in space to unlock the secrets of genetic code and human evolution.
They find aid for the project through billionaire industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon of TV's Nip/Tuck)—no further need to label him as the villain. Von Doom, an old college rival of Reed's, offers the use of his state-of-the-art orbital satellite for research and observation, provided that he's allowed to participate in the project. Also along for the ride are Sue Storm (Jessica Alba of Sin City)—Von Doom's assistant, who happens to be Reed's ex-girlfriend—and her brother, daredevil pilot Johnny Storm (Chris Evans of Cellular).
Of course, things like this never go according to plan in comic books. (Are there any scientific experiments and demonstrations that don't go awry?) The cosmic storm irradiates the crew members, altering their genetic structures. In quarantine back on Earth, they soon discover unique side effects. Reed can alter his shape as if he was made of Silly Putty. Sue can bend the light around her to become invisible. Johnny discovers he can generate and manipulate fire while also flying, all of which he immediately uses to gain celebrity and pick up women. Ben fares the worst, gaining super strength but permanently transforming into a walking mass of craggy orange rock, and losing the love of his fiancée as a result.
Fantastic Four is the rare superhero movie that's not about saving the world (not this time, anyway). The plot is essentially how this quartet relates to their newfound powers to each other. They're relatively unique in that they become instant celebrities in New York without having to resort to secret identities. Despite their unusual abilities and appearances, the public embraces them for who they are—except the megalomaniac Victor, who eventually becomes Dr. Doom (one of Marvel Comics' most enduring villains). It's hard to say if he goes mad because he can't cope with literally transforming into a man of steel or because he loses his net worth, but he soon seeks revenge on Reed, leading to the film's major confrontation.
Fans of the comic will note that Dr. Doom is significantly changed for this film. Though he does share some history with Reed, he was never involved in the Fantastic Four's origin story. Also, his suit of armor was just that, used to cover disfigurement from another experiment-gone-bad. Here, he actually becomes a man of metal. All of this is altered in an effort to help establish the Fantastic Four's nemesis more quickly for the uninitiated. Likewise, Sue never had a romantic history with Victor, but it's used here to help build tension with Reed.
These are the sacrifices purists have to accept in adapting a comic book serial for non-fans to appreciate. For the most part, however, Fantastic Four gets it right. That's impressive, considering director Tim Story has no experience with big budget fantasies of this type, having previously helmed the enjoyable comedy Barbershop and the colossally stupid Taxi. This film isn't a breakthrough for him, but it does prove Story capable of building characters and eliciting laughs while wowing with special effects. It comes across as a lighter and more comedic version of the first X-Men movie.
Unfortunately, Fantastic Four falls short in its storytelling. There are far too many plot conveniences, with characters improbably (if not impossibly) showing up at the right place at the right time in an effort to speed things along. Ben's final rejection by his fiancée is utterly ridiculous, missing an opportunity for more drama and emotion. And it's odd that money is so important to both Reed and Victor early on, but becomes irrelevant and forgotten in the film's second half.
Then there are the few stupid parts, again included either for plot conveniences or cheap laughs. Shortly after returning from the satellite, Johnny casually breaks quarantine and leaves the hospital with no incident, picks up the nurse overseeing him, charters a helicopter, and goes snowboarding with her on a nearby mountain. It's clumsy storytelling and completely preposterous. But it also quickly accomplishes three things: it establishes character, it provides a setting where he can discover his power by melting something, and it provides us with an amusing punchline to the incident.
Which goes to show why Fantastic Four succeeds in spite of its faults. It's often silly, but it's still somehow all palatable and acceptable. Spiderman, Batman, and X-Men are all great films, but they tend to rely on heavier drama and angst. Fantastic Four plays more like a television program that's both sitcom and soap, mixing comedy with action and drama. Of course, anyone who's seen The Incredibles has an idea of what to expect, but even that animated film carried more weight and emotional resonance than this.
That's not to say that there's no one or no Thing to care about in this film. Indeed, for all of its exciting visuals, Fantastic Four hinges on its treatment of the characters. Gruffudd plays Reed as a little too insecure, but it also helps the audience care more for the man who's ironically a little too stiff. It also plays sharp contrast to Alba, who gives her character more strength and swagger than the comic does. (Perhaps too much so, since she seems to alternate between hot and cold extremes in the romantic relationship—I wonder if people will empathize more with Reed, often unsure what to make of Sue's emotions.) Better still is Evans, who gives The Torch plenty of cockiness and immaturity to the point where he's suave and charming despite his hotheaded behavior and decisions.
Then there's Chiklis, who was born to play The Thing, not so much because he looks the part, but because he's got the right blend of blue-collar gruffness, tenderness, and humor. There was a time when Bruce Willis might have been right for the role, but Chiklis is the perfect choice today, appropriately making Ben Grimm the sympathetic and lovable character that will resonate most with audiences. As for his transformation, the filmmakers were wise to avoid making him a CGI creation. Chiklis's wounded eyes penetrate the layers of latex prosthetics, and though he occasionally looks spongy, more often than not he does come off as a stone behemoth with clever use of sound and visuals.
Audiences will tirelessly flock to superhero films that show real and believable characters doing extraordinary things—not cornball crusaders delivering dopey lines and cheesy special effects. This summer popcorn flick is a reminder that not all comic-book films have to be as weighty and angst-filled as a graphic novel. Fantastic Four is certainly neither fantastic nor incredible, but it's entertaining and credible nonetheless.Discussion starters
- Consider each member of the Fantastic Four. How does each respond to their unique condition? Do they consider themselves gifted or freaks? Do they rely more on their own self-esteem or on the affirmation of others? How are they examples of finding strength in weakness?
- Though only two members are blood related, the Fantastic Four are often referred to as a family. In what ways do they function like a typical family? Aside from the superpowers, how are they different? How do they resolve their family squabbles?
- The Fantastic Four are somewhat unique in that they don't have secret identities and are well known by the public. What are the advantages and disadvantages to this? What does it say about the price of fame and the responsibilities of being in the spotlight?
- Some say that Reed's fault is that he overanalyzes everything, whereas Johnny recklessly acts without thinking. Is there a time for either course of action, or should we generally try for a balance of the two in life?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Fantastic Four could have easily been a PG film, as most of the action is bloodless, kid-friendly fare with lots of things simply crashing into each other and exploding. There's very little in the way of bad language, despite a couple irreverent references to God. But once again the studio has favored adults over children by pursuing a PG-13 rating, albeit a light one. The "intense action" refers to a man who literally has a hole burned through his chest, while the "suggestive content" involves fixation on Jessica Alba's cleavage and some sexual innuendo. Apart from those few things, the film is generally lighthearted and family friendly.
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Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 07/14/05
If you're looking for a fast-paced, entertaining, effects-filled spectacle, but you don't want the angst and artistic aspirations of Batman Begins, or the dispiriting devastation of War of the Worlds, then Fantastic Four may be the summer movie for you.
But those who prefer comic book movies with substantial storytelling, fully-realized characters, thematic depth, and respect for the source material—something along the lines of Spider-Man 2, the X-Men films, or Christopher Nolan's bat-blockbuster—seem disappointed by this rather frivolous feature. One critic in particular, a die-hard fan of the phenomenal foursome's colorful comic book history, is outraged by what he considers to be an insult to the legacy of the Fantastic Four's creators.
Regardless of the reviews, Tim Story's adaptation of one of the most beloved Marvel Comics series has opened to big box office numbers, almost guaranteeing that a sequel will be made. Newcomers Ioan Gruffudd, Chris Evans, and Julian McMahon, and TV stars Jessica Alba ("Dark Angel") and Michael Chiklis ("The Shield") may not have seemed like big enough names to topple Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds from the top spot, but fans of the comic turned out in large numbers across the nation this week, surprising the studio and reportedly ending the box office slump.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) feels differently … to say the least. "To call it a train wreck would be putting it politely. It hasn't the drama, spectacle, or human interest of a train wreck." There's more. He finds fault with every single central characterization, and ultimately concludes, "Had the filmmakers deliberately set out to insult, demean, and trample upon [Stan] Lee and [Jack] Kirby's legacy, they could hardly have done a more efficient job."
He's not the only one giving the movie a 'thumbs down' vote. "Fantastic Four … is anything but fantastic," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "At times it borders on schlock, though it's not a complete failure as summer popcorn entertainment. There have been far better comic-book adaptations such as Spiderman and Batman Begins." He specifically criticizes "ham-fisted dialogue, bad acting, chintzy sets and, at times, cheesy special effects."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "For older teens and adults … it's a fun summer popcorn movie with positive things to say about family, calling, self-sacrifice and teamwork."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Tim Story … gives us most of the requisites that we demand of a superhero flick: interesting but conflicted heroes; a dastardly villain; and amazing visuals. But he doesn't tie them all together sufficiently to transport us to the Marvel-ous world of comic book fantasy."
Kenneth Morefield (Christian Spotlight) agrees with many of the criticisms. "The characters are one dimensional and often act for no discernible (or contradictory) motives, the dialogue is wincingly bad (though no more than Revenge of the Sith's), the adult characters act like adolescents … and the crowds have often been shot separately from the principles, creating the typical disconnect that can occur when actors aren't sharing the same space." But he "couldn't quite raise myself to the level of indignation and outrage held by many of my friends and peers towards this film." He argues that it shouldn't be faulted for failing to elevate the series to something superior, the way Batman Begins does.
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) calls it "a fun, campy science fiction flick that not only entertains, but also asks some good questions." But she is bothered by one aspect of the story. "The scientists got their power not from a loving Creator who had a divine purpose for them, but from a random, freak accident. And when the Fantastic Four did prevail, the glory and accolades seemed to fall short when it was just about them, and not about honoring a supreme ruler or advancing a Kingdom in power and divine order." (For the record, you're not likely to find any Fantastic Four comic books where the heroes suddenly start praising God either.)
Mainstream critics rate it as a disappointment, but spare it the ridicule that they hurled at stinkers like Catwoman and Elektra.from Film Forum, 07/21/05
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The dynamic between the characters, mostly played for laughs, keeps the film moving briskly over copious narrative holes and gaps in logic. Unlike the recent Batman Begins, we're not really meant to buy into what's happening on screen—just to go along for the ride."
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