As a comic book fan, the Fantastic Four have never been at the top of my list. I’m not sure why, in the world of Marvel comics they’re one of the top super-hero groups. When Spider-Man developed his powers, the Fantastic Four was one of the first teams he sought out. When something goes wrong, the intellect of Mr. Fantastic can be guaranteed to help, which means a lot of super-heroes turn to the FF for help. Heck, they’ve saved the Earth numerous times against threats from outer space and other dimensions. Yet something about the team just never connected with me. I enjoyed reading summaries of their adventures, or seeing them appear in other titles, but super-hero teams have never been my forte, always preferring the lone hero types. Because of that, the idea of a Fantastic Four movie didn’t really excite me, and as the trailers poured in, my lack of excitement never grew, since what I saw looked pretty horrible compared to what I did know about the team. But before I continue that thought process, let’s pretend I know nothing about the comic books, and that Fantastic Four, the movie, is my first introduction to the super powered combo.
As seen in the movie, the story begins with Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and his pilot friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) seeking aid for a project Reed is working on, involving unlocking the secrets of life on Earth from a cosmic storm in space. Already broke and rejected by other possibilities, Reed and Ben turn to Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) for help. Vic agrees to help, at the same time tossing in the scientist’s face that Doom’s assistant in this endeavor is a former lover of Reed’s, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba). As further insult to Reed and Ben, Sue’s hothead brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) will pilot the craft that takes the science project into space. Ah, the tension runs tight as both a romantic triangle and a competition between pilots carries the five characters to Vic’s Space Station.
As you might expect, something goes wrong and the five people are hit by the cosmic radiation they originally went into space to study, with only Victor safe behind some sort of shielding. After their return to Earth the characters each find themselves transformed by their exposure. Reed has the ability to stretch his body, Sue can become invisible, Johnny can immerse himself with fire, and Ben becomes a monster encased in some sort of hardened rock armor. Even Vic finds he was only helped so much by his station’s shields, as he begins a slower transformation into an electrically charged metal being. Everyone reacts to their powers differently, from Johnny’s excitement at new found fame to Ben’s sadness and sorrow at how people react to his monstrous form. Different reactions create tension, ripping apart the potential team of the “Fantastic Four”. But nobody’s reaction is as extreme as Victor’s, who sees his powers as a chance to even the score with Reed Richards for destroying his life with a botched scientific experiment and taking away the woman he loved. Yes, he’ll get even with Reed Richards, and his little friends too! Richards!!!!
Continuing this thought process where I know nothing about comic books, Fantastic Four was a pretty good summer movie. As you might tell from the trailer, it has the requisite cheesy lines and enough explosions to qualify for “popcorn flick” status, and although it’s by no means a deep film, it is a lot of fun. The special effects are pretty cool, although at times they leave something to be desired. In particular, Ben Grimm’s “Thing” form really doesn’t allow Michael Chiklis much opportunity for acting, limiting him to maybe three facial expressions, and that’s probably being generous. Some of Reed Richard’s stretching looks really good, some of it looks extremely fake, particularly a fight between Reed and Ben where it’s painfully obvious Ioan Gruffudd just stood behind Chiklis as Michael reacted to what would eventually be CGI. Still, that’s acceptable in a popcorn flick to some degree, and realism is relative in a film about super-heroes. It’s no Batman Begins, but Fantastic Four works for a fun time, better than say Batman & Robin. But when nipples on a Batsuit are your low water mark, there’s plenty of room for betterment.
Now let’s go back to the real world, where I am quite aware of the Fantastic Four comic books, even if I’m not a huge fan. I may not read the title on a monthly basis, but I’m aware of significant moments in “FF History”. Here’s my take on the movie as a comic fan: What the hell have they done?
I understand adaptations have to alter the source material a little to convert a book to the movie screen, even a comic book, although it’s already a visual medium. But to make some changes in the interest of adapting the story for another medium is one thing. To take a well known story, toss it in a blender, and blatantly alter it for no reason whatsoever is another, and that’s exactly what happens in Fantastic Four.
First of all let me target the character who suffers the worst transgressions: Victor Von Doom. Doctor Doom, or Doom - and let’s get this straight, it is “Doom”, or maybe “Victor” at times, but never “Vic” as he’s called throughout the film - is but a shadow of his former self. Instead of being a competent competitor of Reed Richards, he is primarily a corporate CEO now. There is little, if any, references to Doom ever involving himself with science in any capacity other than as a financial backer. Doom’s supernatural studies go right out the window, and there are only two forced references to the country the comic book Doom rules over, Latveria. In the comic books Doom suffered from his own pride and originally targeted Reed Richards to prove that he, Doom, was the greater scientist. This Doom seems more upset over losing his love interest and using his new powers, powers the comic book Doom doesn’t possess, to wreak havoc on the Fantastic Four.
The title team themselves are also changed a bit. Fortunately no one saw fit to alter their trademark powers, but the reason for their powers no longer makes complete sense. Originally each of the FF ended up with powers that reflected their personality: Reed Richards’ flexibility as a scientist, Sue Storm feeling neglected as Reed paid more attention to his experiments than to her. Johnny Storm was a hothead, and Ben Grimm was a bit of a “heavy”. Johnny and Ben’s characters are probably the most faithful adaptations from the comics, so their powers still make perfect sense. Reed however, is constantly portrayed as being rigid, always having to test out every aspect of any decision - far from being flexible. By placing Reed and Sue’s relationship as something in the past, Sue carries a lot of hostility toward Reed for his neglect. Sue may have felt invisible in the past, but this character would have been more likely to have the hothead flame powers based on her personality. Essentially the movie presents the characters and then they get powers, without any sort of logic or reasoning behind where those powers might come from other than the cosmic radiation the team was exposed to.
The one thing the movie does get right is the relationships between the characters, along with the public life their team lives. The result is a kind of dynamic of interaction that you can’t get with a solo hero like Spidey, and the movie hits on that really well. Ben and Johnny are constantly at each other’s throats in a playful way, with Johnny usually the aggravator. You can tell Reed loves Sue, whether he communicates it well or not, and vice versa. Surprisingly, Jessica Alba is actually quite good in this, possibly the best, most realistic role she’s played in her career, despite being a comic book character. The true standout is Michael Chiklis who, despite being covered in uncooperative makeup, really manages to convey the sorrow of his character, a monster with a heart of gold.
Fantastic Four is not a bad movie, but it is a film likely to alienate the fan base of the comic book on which it is based. In a way, maybe that’s worse than sucking. After all, the creator of the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee, always called Marvel Comic fans “true believers”. What kind of a movie do you have when true believers refuse to believe?