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The Non-"Fantastic Four"
Comics Comments
8 July, 2005

Given its troubled production history, and what I considered a very poor choice for director, I went into Fox's long-awaited film adaptation of "Fantastic Four" with the lowest expectations with which I've ever entered a film I paid to see in a theater. It seems reasonable to assume that such low expectations mean, in practice, that a movie has nowhere to go but up in one's estimation. Even my low expectations, though, couldn't help this one. As a movie, it's really bad. As a Fantastic Four movie, it's just short of a complete disaster.

Roger Ebert correctly described the film as all buildup. It sets up and sets up and sets up, and never gets around to telling a story. Even with all this setting up, though, it incredibly never even gets around to giving us an origin of the Fantastic Four. In the film, the "group" is a press creation. They're thrown together only because of their common condition, super powers developed as a result of being clobbered by cosmic rays during a mission to space, which, with the exception of Johnny Storm (the hot-headed "Human Torch"), they treat as an affliction and spend the bulk of the film trying to reverse. At no point do they ever actually decide to form a team or dedicate themselves to any common mission. The logical extension of the film's ending is that they all go back to living their normal lives.

Super-genius Reed Richards, "afflicted" with the abiity to stretch his body to great lengths, succeeds in creating a machine which can return the four of them to normal. Ben Grimm spends the entire film angsting over having become the monstrous Thing, then, toward the end, is restored to human form by the machine, only to have to change himself back into the Thing again in order to save the others. The Reverso machine still exists, though, but at the end of the film, Ben, in a move that boldly contradicts literally everything else we see regarding the character, doesn't want to use it again to become human. In the comics, Ben has a long relationship with Alicia Masters, then, over time, begins to develop the idea that she's really in love with the Thing, rather than Ben Grimm. This makes him reluctant to attempt any reversal of his transformation. In the film, the relationship with Alicia has only just begun, and, logically, this would only add to his very deeply held desire to return to normal. Instead, he wants to remain as the Thing.

Unfortunately, this isn't even remotely the only example of the film's lack of internal consistency. Throughout the movie, Ben annoints himself matchmaker between his pal Reed and Reed's would-be girlfriend Sue, then, merely because the filmmakers wanted to arbitrarily take the movie in a different direction, Ben allows "Doom," the movie's villain, to convince him that he's still the Thing only because Reed is spending too much time playing footsie with Sue, and not enough working on a way to return Ben to normal. Ben is inexplicably sold on this notion, a completely ridiculous turn of events made even more absurd by the fact that Ben is the one who, throughout the movie, never likes "Doom," and is always warning Reed against trusting him (after "Doom's" defeat at the end, he even reminds Reed of this). Yet he takes "Doom's" comments so seriously that he returns to the Baxter building and physically attacks Reed.

In the film's favor, it can be said that, except for when the filmmakers arbitrarily (and crudely) impose this plot point on Ben, the characterization of both he and Johnny is quite good. Here, fidelity to the source material pays off. Their characters, as presented in the film, are drawn directly from the comics. Both individually and in their interactions with one another, they work, for the same reason they've worked in the book for over 40 years.[1]

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the quartet's other half. Neither Reed nor Sue are remotely recognizable as their comic counterparts. Reed Richards is certainly not the clueless idiot and perpetual foul-up he's portrayed as in the movie. He's a sharp, take-charge, think-on-his-toes leader of men who knows what he's about, and doesn't take any guff from anyone.  The film gives us, instead, Reed as an unemotional egg-head stereotype, a guy who has to have a constant boot in his ass from his best friend or from his domineering girlfriend in order to get anything done. And, of course, Sue, from the book, isn't the domineering character we see in the movie, either. One of her most significant characteristics over the years has, in fact, been an inferiority complex--it's something against which she's had to battle throughout the book's history. It's impossible to imagine the character in the movie having this problem. The filmmakers are presenting an exaggerated version of who Sue became in the book after decades of experience and development--a much older, more mature, less shy, more self-confident character--and imposing it on a much younger Sue. Through most of the film, she's much more level-headed, much more of a leader than Reed or anyone else. The result is a much stronger character, but one with much less depth--a one-dimensional one-trick pony without much room for any real growth. She's far less connected to the source material, and her strength comes at the expense of Reed's.

About "Doom," the less said, the better. The movie's version of Marvel's greatest villain is an unrecognizable travesty in every particular (though one, I suspect, that will please fans of Mark Waid's idiotic single-dimensional take on the character). He's robbed of the comic characters' wonderful backstory, scientific genius, nobility. In its place, the film gives us a dull, cloned rehash of Norman Osbourne's story from the first "Spiderman" film; the book's mighty monarch of Latveria reduced to just another smarmy, self-obsessed businessman on his way down. He accompanies the four principals into space, and, like them, is bombarded with cosmic rays, whereupon he begins to mutate into a living electrical conductor, his flesh becoming a sort of organic metal.[2]  He's presented as obsessively vain throughout the film, to the degree that it's his defining--and, for the most part, only--characteristic, but, instead of employing Reed's machine to return himself to normal (after becoming a rather unattractive metal man), he chooses to disguise his disfigurement, the excuse he has for donning the movie's variation on the familiar mask of the comic character. Reed is determined to return everyone to normal, but "Doom," rather than just letting him do so after Reed has perfected the means, chooses to confront them while they still have their powers. He wants revenge on Reed for ruining him, and there's a single vague hint that he wants "power," but he's never given any larger goal. For all intents and purposes, he ceases to exist as a character and becomes, instead, an empty thing to serve the plot, a generic Insane Villain with no internal logic or consistency and present solely to provide a big fight scene at the end of the movie.[3]

I had a lot of other major problems with the film. There are a lot of relatively minor nitpicks, as well. The reaction of Ben's wife to his condition--she sees him, screams, and runs away without further comment--is extremely silly, and begs the question of why this character was even included at all. Her second appearance, on a bridge after Ben has just saved some firefighters, is one of a number of absurd coincidences that run through the film. Of all the places in all the world, she just happens to be there on the bridge so she can use the occasion of Ben proving himself a hero to very dramatically break up their marriage (she does so by catching his eye, laying her wedding ring on the ground, and walking away, without comment). Also coincidentally on the bridge are Reed, Sue, and Johnny, who show up just in time to help Ben pull off the rescue. Then, there are the timing gaffs. Johnny appears at a motorcycle stunt show and, afterwards, talks to the press covering the event. Reed, Sue, and Ben, by another of those odd coincidences, happen to be watching the show, and, angered by Johnny's antics, set off to confront him. It apparently only takes them seconds to leave the Baxter building and get to the site of the show--they're there to meet Johnny as he comes out the door after talking to the press. Later, near the end of the film, "Doom" is battling Sue, and Reed notices the lights flickering at the Baxter building across town. This is Ben turning himself back into the Thing. He's clearly on the other side of town, but, only scant minutes later, comes bursting through the door as the Thing to battle "Doom," no explanation.

And so on. A book could be written detailing the film's shortcomings. Any movie is in trouble when its most endearing characteristic is a 20-second Stan Lee cameo. It's a horrible wasted opportunity, saved from complete disaster only by the fact that it didn't so decimate the property that future sequels of, one would hope, far superior quality are rendered impossible.


[1] The only thing missing was a strong scene in which it's established that they are, in fact, pals. Without it, Johnny--much older than his comic counterpart, who can be somewhat excused for his  behavior by virtue of being young and stupid--comes across as a bit of a prick.

[2] All, again, creations of the film. In the book, Doom is the only serious intellectual rival to Reed Richards, and has no superpowers beyond his scientific genius. Movie "Doom" is a smarmy corporate CEO cliche, and never even displays any scientific knowledge.

[3] As I said before, the logical extension of the film's story--the end toward which the entire film has built--is the group returning themselves to normal and returning to their regular lives. Were "Doom" an outside menace (as he was in the book), rather than one of the astronauts, he could have provided a counterbalance, and the rationale for the others to form a team which the film otherwise lacks. With "Doom" as one of them, however, his defeat simply amounts to a clearing up of the last bit of outstanding business from the space mission. The end of the story of the "Fantastic Four," rather than the beginning of it.

Email J.

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