Fantastic Four (2005)

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How? How does something like this happen? How does a movie like Fantastic Four get made?

2005, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Tim Story. Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

-2

Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up

MPAA Rating

PG-13

Caveat Spectator

Stylized violence; some sexually themed humor and innuendo; at least one instance of profanity.

How did the studio team of 20th Century Fox and Marvel Enterprises, which collaborated on the slick, exciting X-Men and X2, based on the popular Marvel super-hero team book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, turn around and convert Lee and Kirby’s first super-hero team book into such complete garbage?

For years the standard for terrible comic-book movies has been Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin starring George Clooney, the movie that almost killed the genre before X-Men gave it life again. But at least you can understand how a movie like Batman & Robin got made. You can imagine some producer at Warner Brothers, whose first idea for a Batman movie was to have Tim Burton direct Michael Keaton, thinking it might be a reasonable idea to give $125 million or so and the keys to the Batcave to an experienced, well-established Hollywood hack like Schumacher, a man with John Grisham adaptations and other big-name successes to his credit.

But who on earth at 20th Century Fox and/or Marvel Enterprises, where clearly someone has a clue how to make good super-hero movies, thought it would be a good idea to give a seven-figure budget and the keys to the Baxter building to someone like Tim Story, a fledgling director whose only feature credits to date are a pair of comedies with Queen Latifah? Who made the decision to entrust a flagship property that for nearly five decades has gotten away with calling itself "The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine" to the director of Taxi?

How bad is Fantastic Four? To call it a train wreck would be putting it politely. It hasn’t the drama, spectacle, or human interest of a train wreck. Ironically, it hits theaters at the same time as Batman returns triumphantly to the screen in the brilliant Batman Begins, Warner Bros’ first great super-hero adaptation since Superman II. That’s because somebody at Warner Bros decided it would be a good idea to turn over the keys of the Batcave to a talented director of darkly intriguing films like Insomnia and Memento. 20th Century Fox, Marvel Enterprises, are you taking notes?

How bad is Fantastic Four? So bad that in desperation execs have resorted to trying to spin it as a "funny family action film," as one studio rep put it. It’s the Kangaroo Jack strategy: When your dumb, trashy film clearly isn’t good enough for adolescents, let alone adults, reposition it as a kiddie flick. It’s an insult to family audiences. Our kids deserve better than Hollywood’s garbage.

The ironic thing is that just recently there really was a funny family action film about a quartet of super-heroes consisting of a super-stretcher, a super-heavyweight, an invisible girl with force fields, and a blazing young lad. It was called The Incredibles, and if the heroes’ powers were more than a little reminiscent of their Marvel counterparts (even Frozone is a straight knockoff of Marvel’s Iceman), their film is as fresh, funny, wholesome and heartfelt as this Fantastic Four is moronic, inept, tedious and crass. (Incidentally, if your kids absolutely must have Fantastic Four this weekend, check out the new DVD release of the 1990s FF animated series. The second season is actually pretty decent, and even the lame first season is better than this movie.)

Let’s clear up the "family film" nonsense straight off. Even though it has reaction shots from Dalmatians and whipped-cream-in-the-face gags, Fantastic Four is no more appropriate for youngsters than the dark, scary Batman Begins. The film’s relentlessly one-note portrayal of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, as a randy, insufferably egocentric tomcat and glory hound makes sure of that.

"The underwear model" is how one character succinctly describes the Torch (Chris Evans), and while he never actually models any underwear in the film, in one scene in a hospital he does slink around naked with only a lady’s pink parka wrapped delicately about his hips. This garment was acquired, offscreen, from a character who I learn from IMDb.com is credited as "Sexy Nurse," who turns on a dime from taking the Torch’s temperature to going on a quickie ski trip with him, where his flame powers first manifest and he winds up naked and in a makeshift hot tub of melted snow at Sexy Nurse’s feet. ("Care to join me?" he shakily asks her, at which invitation Sexy Nurse smiles and drops her ski poles as the camera peeks at the Torch between her wide-apart legs. Whether the parka is all she takes off, the movie leaves to the viewer’s imagination. Have I ever mentioned that real nurses hate this trashy cliché?)

Underwear modeling does happen in the film, though, from the Invisible Girl stripping to her skivvies in a completely pointless scene (the movie pretends it’s because she needs to be invisible, but next thing we know she’s getting dressed again after accomplishing nothing), to Ben Grimm’s fiancée leaving her apartment to meet Ben on a darkened New York street in a silk teddy.

Unquestionably, though, the Torch is the film’s biggest liability. He’s so totally self-absorbed, he’s actually in his own movie, complete with its own soundtrack of abrasive rock music. A guy like this couldn’t possibly ever be a part of anything called a "team," and has no business being in a team movie.

The Torch is the world’s first movie super hero to make the case that super heroes are no more worthy of our attention than any other celebrity. He’s a male Paris Hilton, without the pathos. And he never gets any better — never has a moment of growth or moral awakening, a flicker of sympathy for another human being. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve plumbed the depths of Johnny Storm’s character development.

If none of the other characters is quite as insufferable as the Torch, none of them is much more interesting either. In fact, every character has one and only one note, and nearly all of them are thoroughly miscast.

Ioan Gruffudd (of King Arthur, also terrible) is bland and boring as Reed Richards, the elastic Mr. Fantastic. His one note is that he’s serious, diffident, and indecisive. Also, he doesn’t know how to talk to women. Not that his romantic rival, Victor von Doom, the villainous Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), is any great shakes in the sweet-talking department either. Fantastic Four may be the first movie this year with more cringeworthy romantic dialogue than Revenge of the Sith.

Reed and von Doom vie for Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl (or Invisible Woman), played by Jessica Alba (TV’s "Dark Angel") in glasses meant to make her seem intellectual. Her one note is that she’s serious and boring, and undresses a lot.

As Ben Grimm, the Thing, Michael Chiklis comes the closest to retaining any shred of dignity — which, to give credit where it’s due, is quite a feat when you’re wearing fifty pounds of somewhat lame latex costume. (The costume actually looks pretty decent as these things go, but the Thing, like the Hulk, is just too huge to be done this way, and needed to be CGI.)

The Thing’s one note is that he’s gruff and tragic. He also indicates a couple of times that he’s angry with God, such as when a pigeon mistakes him for a statue. Later he declares that God, if He exists, must hate him. Here is the profound response of another character: "She is not so into hate." This is Alicia, in the comics a major supporting character, here reduced to a funky blind lady who has about 60 seconds of screentime to help Ben Grimm get his groove back.

For three-quarters of its running length the movie saddles the Thing with being the voice of common sense — until it needs him to suddenly trust the one man he least trusts in the world and turn on his lifelong best friend, which he readily does. Not that this stops him from later chiding his teammates for ever having thought the bad guy might not be so bad.

That would be Dr. Doom. In the comic books, Dr. Doom is a towering iconic figure in armor and a cape, like Darth Vader — in fact, he may be one of the inspirations for Darth Vader. Here he’s reduced to the stature of a younger, duller version of Donald Trump, with ill-defined super powers. If you want some idea of how ridiculous he is as the masked Dr. Doom, imagine Hayden Christiansen putting on Darth Vader’s mask and then talking, not in the bass-enhanced tones of James Earl Jones, but in his normal voice. (Or, say, in Kevin Spacey’s normal voice. McMahon sounds a little like Spacey.)

The storytelling is so inept, you’d hardly notice there’s a plot at all, if the plot didn’t keep tripping over itself to remind you of its existence. Otherwise, it’s just a series of banal vignettes. See Reed Richards stretch for a new roll of toilet paper without leaving the bathroom! See Sue turn invisible and grab for a towel when Reed walks in on her after a shower! See Johnny Storm pop popcorn with his hand! (Actually, this kind of gag can work, if the filmmaker is smart enough to have the onscreen characters know how to react. The filmmakers are directed to X2 for further instruction.)

In the first of the film’s two (count ’em, two) paltry action scenes, the FF make their public debut on a bridge surrounded by the debris of a dozen or more totaled vehicles, including a fire truck that nearly skidded off the bridge. Everywhere there are bystanders applauding them. Soon all New York has caught FF fever, and crowds line the sidewalk in front of the Baxter building, cheering as their heroes come and go.

And what did our heroes do to earn this adultation? Who was responsible for the wreckage on the bridge? Was it Dr. Doom? Did super-villains attack? No, the Thing tried to talk a suicidal exec from jumping off the bridge. And then, when the startled exec fell in the path of an oncoming semi, the Thing leaped in front of the exec and took the semi on the shoulder, like a lineman blocking for a running back. (Incidentally, this is the first time the Thing has ever tried anything remotely like this; the only other thing he’s done is punch through a wall. Does he know he can stop the semi, or does he just not care if he dies? I doubt the filmmakers even stopped to ask the question. Of course he can stop the truck — he’s the Thing, isn’t he?)

So, basically, the FF’s first big public accomplishment is to prevent a multi-vehicle accident that they themselves inadvertently caused from spiraling into loss of life. If that isn’t inspiring enough to make cheering New Yorkers want to line up in droves outside the Baxter building, I can’t imagine what would be.

Incidentally, it’s a good thing the bystanders know to applaud the FF, since the police can’t think of anything to do but draw guns on them and shout orders while looking helplessly confused. Later, when Dr. Doom appears, there’s more police looking helplessly confused and shouting orders. I wonder whether the director related.

Had the filmmakers deliberately set out to insult, demean, and trample upon Lee and Kirby’s legacy, they could hardly have done a more efficient job. And there are warning signs that the tide could be turning further. In the comic-book movie coup of the decade, Warner Bros has wooed X-Men director Bryan Singer, along with two of his three screenwriters, over to Superman Returns — another long-delayed project that, like Batman Begins, has been stymied for so long it’s become a joke, except that this time it looks like Warner Bros has finally gotten its act together.

And who has Fox tapped to replace Singer on X-Men 3? Brett Ratner, hack director of Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2. The X-Men franchise had a real chance to be the first really good super-hero trilogy, but at the moment I’m no longer sanguine about its prospects.

What’s especially weird about this sudden rush to mediocrity is that Marvel Comics already tried the comic-book equivalent of the same approach about ten years ago, after it was bought out by a Doom-like entrepreneur whose working theory was that the characters themselves sell the books so you don’t need talent.

Guess what? The company went bankrupt. 20th Century Fox, Marvel Enterprises, are you taking notes?

Action, Adventure, Coyote Ugly Family Fare, Make Mine Marvel, Superheroes & Comic Book Movies

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