Directed by Tim Story
Go to the Source… Read the Source Material. I don’t think the people who made this movie took the time to actually sit down and read the Marvel comic books on which it’s supposedly based. At a minimum, the folks who made all of the crucial decisions never read the source material. The comic book has been published monthly since 1961 --- and, I might add, it’s been hugely successful from the start – so I don’t expect them to have read every issue. It’s a shame, however, that they didn’t pick up on two of the qualities that made the comic a hit: (a) a strong science fiction story line – intelligent sci-fi, not silly or campy; (b) camaraderie among the team members. The movie makes a complete mess of the sci-fi angle by dumbing it down… and I believe that the producers of the film miscalculated. The legions of [comic book] Fantastic Four fans do not like their science fiction to look or sound like it comes across in this film. Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic, played by Ioan Gruffudd) is supposed to be a brilliant scientist and leader of the group –the other three look up to him with respect. But Ioan Gruffudd is too young – more on that below – and the part is written in an abbreviated, simplified style that, combined with the hokey production design, gives the sci-fi element a very cheap, phony appearance.
Like Mr. Fantastic, the Dr. Doom character (Julian McMahon in the movie) is terribly written, given how interesting Doom is in the comic. To be true to the source, he should be a brilliant, but diabolical scientist. The filmmakers made him a greedy tycoon – a cliché these days. The conflict between Dr. Doom and Reed Richards should be an action-packed but high-tech extravaganza. This film doesn’t realize even 1% of the potential of Dr. Doom as a super-villain… it’s such a shame, a lost opportunity. If that had been done well – given the possibilities of modern special effects -- Fantastic Four would knock War of the Worlds right out of the box office. This movie could have been another Spiderman… instead we got another Elektra.
Let me be clear about how to do this right – I’m not arguing for another Hulk -- a very good movie, in my opinion but, for an action movie, there’s too much of the sad, brooding, bummer stuff. That’s ok in a drama but there wasn’t any action in Hulk for long stretches while Bruce Banner sat around contemplating how rough his childhood had been. Fantastic Four should have been made as a full-bore action movie… but with the main characters true to their comic-book roots. The source material is a rich vein of interesting character development – and one that millions of comic book fans starting with baby boomers and all the way down to current teens are familiar with.
I think the trouble with this film probably started with the casting of Jessica Alba as Sue Storm (aka The Invisible Woman). She has the by far most name recognition of all the cast members and I suspect that her casting was presented as a “given” by the folks with the real power – the ones who gave the green-light to the production – the ones who can write the big checks. Sue Storm should be at least in her mid-thirties – in the comic, she and Reed are a happily married couple (radical concept). She is a crack scientist in her own right. Jessica Alba is beautiful and charismatic – she was just fine in Sin City but casting her as Sue Storm would be unthinkable to anyone with any respect for the source material. Not only that, but I think her casting had a cascading effect – since Sue is now so young, they had to make Reed much younger as well. So the guy who should be the main character is not only dumbed-down as a scientist but much younger… totally different. Changing those two crucial characters did irreparable harm to a key strength of the source material. And Sue is supposed to be quite a bit older than her brother, Johnny (aka The Human Torch, played by Chris Evans -- who looks older that Jessica Alba). But how can Johnny be much younger than Sue – without making Johnny into a pre-teen? It’s all screwed up… tragic miscasting.
There is a bit of good news in the casting department. Michael Chiklis got it right as Ben Grimm (aka The Thing). The costuming for the part was well done too – you can see his eyes and mouth inside the costume and the “skin” moved just enough to be plausible. For the uninitiated, the Thing is a man whose DNA was altered so his skin is rock-hard (making him almost invulnerable). The Thing can also press over 100 tons. Some of the best action sequences in Fantastic Four involve The Thing busting other, lesser, things – like tractor trailers, buildings, roads – nice, highly visual fun in a summer-movie sort of way.
Even given that the filmmakers were bound by ham-fisted casting constraints, they still made a less than spectacular action movie. There is a climatic showdown at the end: Dr. Doom vs The Fantastic Four… and it’s a pretty cool spectacle – super-heroes going at it on a street corner in NYC. But most of the sequences are just so-so. I doubt that the fans of straight-up action – the ones who aren’t Fantastic Four comic fans – will get too excited about this movie. It’s luke-warm action compared to Batman Begins or War of the Worlds. And I’m pretty sure that the true-blue comic fans aren’t going to happy at all… to put it mildly.
I think the moral of the story (the case study of what went wrong and how to avoid similar debacles) is to be faithful to original-source main characters if you’re adapting something with a fan base as huge as The Fantastic Four. If they had done this right, the movie could easily do $700 million (worldwide box office.) As it is, while they thought they were being clever by sticking in Jessica Alba to triangulate her fans with the comic book fans, what they ended up with is a muddled mess because the main characters are disconnected from the source material. The few and far between cool action scenes won’t be enough to please today’s action fans. The few well-executed comic scenes (which is director Tim Story’s forte – his best works are the two very funny Barbershop movies) won’t save the film either. The Fantastic Four is one of the greatest comic book series ever written and it deserves much better than this – I hope that Marvel Comics and whoever owns the movie rights will get together and figure out where they went wrong and, starting with a clean slate, make a film that does justice to its source.
Photographs are copyright 20th Century Fox.
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