The Four (Fantastic Four, 2005)

Fantastic_4_PosterOh…the controversy.  The first Fantastic Four film was coming up after the successes of X2 and Spider-Man.  The time seemed ripe to bring forth Marvel’s first family.  This is not the first attempt.  Roger Corman made an absolutely terrible film simply to retain the film rights in the early 90’s.  The film was available on the convention circuit, but was never officially released.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four ushered in the age of Marvel comics.  Spider-Man and the X-Men may have gotten to the big screen first, but the First Family?  Well…they were…uh…first.  Lee and Kirby produced 102 issues of grand cosmic adventures.

The 2000’s seemed like an ideal time to adapt the film, because effects allowed the possibility of the characters not looking quite so ridiculous.  And both X2 and Spider-Man 2 had proven what you could do with a comic book movie.

Marvel hired Tim Story, who at that time had Barbershop and Taxi as the big films under his belt. Writers Mark Frost and Michael France had long histories (Frost wrote for Twin Peaks and a lot of television since then, while France contributed to several Marvel films).  The announcement of Story was surprising, as this was a big event movie.  But one of the reasons Marvel brought him on board was to have the focus be on the family dynamic of the Fantastic Four.  This is important, because it is that family dynamic that makes the Fantastic Four work.   They are not simply four team members.  They are a family unit and operate as such.

The first big controversy was the announcement of Jessica Alba.  Specifically, former Fantastic Four writer/artist John Byrne declared Hispanic women who dye their hair blonde look like prostitutes.  He’s all class.

The film begins with Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) making a pitch to Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), Science Based Industrialist.  He has the money, while Reed is on hard times.  Agreeing to do a test involving a cosmic cloud that will pass by Earth, the crew-comprised of Reed, Ben, Victor, Sue Storm (Alba) and hot Hamish Linklatershot pilot (and Sue’s Brother) Johnny Storm (Chris Evans).

Due to a miscalculation, the storm hits earlier than expected.  When the crew comes to on back on earth, they find themselves quarantined in a very fancy mountaintop chalet.  They start to notice changes.  Sue starts to fade, Reed can stretch like rubber, Johnny can generate fire and Ben?  He gains weight. Well, that and turns into an orange rock monster.

In a moment of desperation, Ben unintentionally causes an accident, and then goes about trying to save people.  The other three jump in and help.  After successfully averting a fatal disaster, they find themselves to be celebrities.  Reed discovers that their space suits now work in conjunction with their powers.  Reed begins a search to cure the four.  However, Johnny is enjoying his powers.  While showing off, he gives them all code names-The Invisible Girl (to which Sue bristles), Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch and the Thing.

Meanwhile, Doom is having troubles of his own.  He is apparently mutating, and his board of directors is taking him company out from under him.  Doom is growing more and more paranoid.  He soon discovers he can manipulate electricity.  He starts exacting his revenge.

Ben meets a young woman named Alicia (Kerry Washington) who is a blind sculptor.  She is instantly smitten, while Ben cannot understand why she would be interested in a monster.

Johnny continues to revel in his popularity, while Reed works to solve the riddle of returning them to normal and re-kindling his romance with Sue.  Victor sees his opportunity.  Victor helps Ben reverse his condition, but Ben realizes this is  mistake, as the Fantastic Four is a family and a team who all bring something to the table with their powers.  After Ben gets his powers restored, they have an all out battle with Doom, learning to work together as a team and taking Dr. Doom down.

To be blunt…the film is just not that great.  Oh, it has it’s moments.  The sequence where they save people on the bridge is thrilling.  The resolution of their fight with Doctor Doom is solid.  There is a lot of humor and nice touches (Johnny walking along popping popcorn with his hand).  But so much of the problem lies in the villain’s motivation.  Why is he so keen to kill our heroes?  Sure, he’s jealous, and he becomes paranoid…but it feels like there is no real solid reason for Victor getting his hate on.

The casting is troubling as well.  Now don’t get me wrong, Chiklis was inspired casting.  He plays a perfect Ben Grimm.  And Chris Evans is terrific as Johnny Storm.  He is brash and excited, loving his powers.  He uses his powers for fun as well as heroics.  The chemistry between Chiklis and Evans is pretty great, they really capture that spirit of the adversarial friendship from the comics.  The adversarial part is played up a little more, but it still makes for some enjoyable exchanges.  And Julian McMahon does make a good Doom.  He portrays the arrogant pride very well.

But then there is Ioan Gruffud.  He has been good in other roles, but for some reason, his Reed Richards is pretty dull.  And JessicaAlba.  Oh, I get the idea of casting her.  At the time she was more of a draw, giving them star power.  And they took advantage of the casting (a gag wear Sue disrobes in public and suddenly becomes visible was apparently added after she had read the script).  I get it, she’s pretty.  But the problem is, Alba comes across as so much younger than everyone else-including her younger brother Johnny.  It becomes hard to buy that she and Reed have some sort of broken past that needs mending.

Another big problem is some of the story choices.  Specifically as this was meant to kick off a franchise.  Curing Ben, albeit temporarily, in the first film is a poor choice.  This is a franchise…build on that.  Save it for down the road.  Let it mean some something to the fans.  Let it breathe, rather than be a five minute bit in the film.

This could have been a fun film, and the extended cut they released is a definite improvement.  But this film does not rise to the levels of even the first X-Men and Spider-Man films.

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