Fantastic Four is one of those films that suffers from being judged, not by its own merits or failings, but by the merits or failings of another. In this case, the favored first son is Batman Begins. An unqualified critical and box office success, Batman set a benchmark that the finished product of Mssrs. Story, France Kinberg, Frost, and Columbus cannot hope to surpass.
But it’s not a bad film. Far from it, Fantastic Four is one of the best action movies to come out from Hollywood this year. But therein lies the problem: It’s an action movie. Batman was an intense psychological character study, as were the Spider-Man films before it. X-Men and its sequel cast themselves on the grand world stage, becoming passion plays of dueling philosophies and future history. Fantastic Four cannot boast such a pedigree. It plays with the notions of celebrity and family unity, the famous subtext of those old Lee-Kirby adventure yarns (and make no mistake, adventure yarns is what they primarily were; anything else was an extra dipping of chocolate and cherries on the sundae), but it mostly concerns itself with entertaining the audience. It doesn’t innovate, it doesn’t bend genres, and it doesn’t reveal a grand humanist secret. It isn’t camp, it isn’t high art. It’s “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show!” writ large.
Such a slap in the face to the aesthetic zeitgeist will not sit well with the critics, or the young and hip, or those who loudly demand that comics catch up with their own maturation process, unaware that comics have, in fact, surpassed them, like the tortoise overtaking the hare. Those people will not like the Fantastic Four movie at all.
But I’m not any of those people, and I quite enjoyed it, thank you.
FF is by no means a perfect film, but it does the job, and it does it well. Of course, the effects are the linchpin of the film. I’ll discuss specifics as I cover each of the principal characters, but for now let me say that not an effects shot that I saw failed.
Ioan Gruffudd has the most thankless job in this film, the role of Reed Richards. Reed is an unapologetic nerd, a stuffed shirt, and the least visually interesting of the main cast. He also has the least realized character arc in the film; much of his actions and decisions are externally motivated, as he reacts to the characters and situations around him. But that fits Reed, and his elemental avatar. He’s water; he flows into and around his container, filling the empty space. And as a filler of empty space, Gruffudd works. He’ll no doubt suffer the same criticisms of wooden acting that James Marsden’s Cyclops did, but as in that situation, that’s sort of the point. And I will say that by the end of the film, Reed truly has come into his own, a proper leader for this team and family of adventurers. In terms of effects, the CGI geeks got a lot of chances to play around, as Reed’s pragmatic uses of his powers lend themselves to several (almost too many, really) entertaining sequences. There’s also a pair of battle scenes, a brief skirmish with a rampaging Thing and the climactic battle with Doom, where they – pardon the pun – stretch the technology to show the scope and breadth of Reed’s abilities in several shots that echo Jack Kirby’s best work.
Moving on to the more interesting characters, Jessica Alba fills the role of Sue Storm almost as well as she fills the uniform. I was disappointed to see that my favorite Sue line from the trailer (not “No, let’s;” that one’s still in there), but she still gets several moments to show Sue’s fire and heart. The romantic scenes fall a little flat (particularly the last, which contains one of the worst lines of dialogue since “What happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?”), but when things run tense, then she brings out her “A” game. Heaven forefend I ever stoop to legitimizing stereotypes, but Alba’s Latina anger serves her well in these scenes. She’s got a future as a solid female action star, if she can avoid the pitfall of picking bad scripts. The invisibility effects are a far cry from the dotted lines of the 1960s; even invisible or translucent, Sue has form and weight, and her force fields as well. The computer imagery certainly isn’t realistic, because who’s ever seen an invisible force field in person, but it looks like it fits in the world of the film. And, contrary to how some armchair effects wizards believe, that’s more important and effective.
There’s no other way to put it: Both the screenwriters and Chris Evans nailed Johnny Storm. The daredevil hothead got most of the laughs and applause from the audience at the screening I saw, and with good reason. Johnny’s character brings the fun of the superhero concept to the fore, and that’s what we get from Evans’ portrayal. There is the danger of him coming off as something of a selfish prat, but that’s leavened by a couple scenes where we see him show his compassion for the rest of the team and for humanity at large. He’s a good guy, and he does what’s right, but he also doesn’t see why that should stop him from enjoying himself. In that way, he’s the film in microcosm. I suspect that many of the negative reviews of this film that miss the point will focus on Johnny as a symbol of everything wrong with the movie. I, of course, take the exact opposite view: he’s the symbol of everything it gets right.
Speaking of getting things right, Michael Chiklis runs away with the movie as Ben Grimm and The Thing. There was a lot of complaining about Chiklis choosing to wear a suit instead of using computer graphics, but I think it was the right choice, maybe the only choice. Certainly the suit allows Chiklis to use a semblance of body and facial language to create an emotive quality that I don’t think a computer could have pulled off. The triumph and tragedy of Ben Grimm carries the film, and we have to feel for him for it to work. And we do. Ben takes the worst physical and emotional beating the script has to dish out, but he never steps back, he never shrinks away, he never fails. If Reed is water, then Ben is its complement, stone, strong, unmoving, reliant. Art theorists talk about the spine of a narrative work, but another analogy is that of a foundation. Wise men that Lee and Kirby were, they built their House upon a man of rock; the filmmakers have demonstrated equal wisdom by following suit.
That takes care of the good guys; what about the villain? The Internet was ablaze at all the changes grafted onto Victor Von Doom for the movie: electric powers, metal skin, no European country at his feet (yet, anyway; there are strong hints that the next time we see Doom, things will be different in that regard), and worst of all, an entrepreneur, and Reed’s business partner. Well, the cultists can put down their knives of sacrifice, because I’m happy to say that the movie version of Dr. Doom is still a megalomaniacal dick. He’s conniving, egotistical, never able to admit that Reed is the smarter or better man, and not above playing the “divide and conquer” card in his plots against the Four. In his final robed and masked form, Doom actually looks rather stylish, a sort of “Evil, by Christian Dior” look. Once the mask goes on, he has to emote mostly through the eyes, but the hate is there, and we see enough of his spiteful looks prior to that to get an idea. And he carries himself like a villain, which helps a great deal. I’ve always thought that Danny DeVito’s undignified waddle as the Penguin did him the most harm in Batman Returns. (See how everything comes back to Batman? I would not want to be Avi Arad this summer.) As for the changes, think of them more as alterations, like on a suit: it’s still the same suit, it just fits the new body better. And hey, you can’t beat Doom blasting a hole right through a guy’s chest.
Overall, the script works. It’s an origin story, showing not just how the team came together, but how they decided to become a team. That they’re almost thrown into it by the combination of a media spotlight and Johnny’s fame-whoring works; it allows the movie to go right to the meaty material that Lee and Kirby took several issues to work up to. I’m disappointed that we never saw the “corny hand thing,” as the Thing has called it in the comics, but I’ll live. The story revolves around the characters, as it should, and it’s refreshing that the villain’s plot is far from the grandiose dreams of Magneto or Doctor Octopus. There’s something refreshing about a bad guy who just wants revenge. Wanna get cosmic? Wait for the sequel; Galactus is a shoe-in.
The movie does have its flaws, however. Kerry Washington’s Alicia Masters is shoehorned into her two scenes, and almost not worth the effort; she would have been better of left for the very end, or another movie. The film’s about ten to fifteen minutes too long; I think some of the “in the lab” montages -- yes, there’s more than one – could have been cut, as could some of the scenes with Doom and the bankers. The “glowing lights in the penthouse mean the machine is on” thing was way overstated; one showing for setup would have done the trick, but we got four, which just got annoying. There are a few unclear plot moments, usually revolving around the movement and placing of the characters. The writers took too many shortcuts to get people where they needed to be, and it showed. Finally, the casting director goofed when casting very similar actors as Doom’s assistant and as his physician, especially since the latter gets brutally and definitively killed in his only scene. When the assistant shows up later, it looks like a continuity error, when it’s really just two actors who look too much alike. It jarred my friend, and several other people in the theater, so I have to call the filmmakers on that account.
So it’s got its flaws, but overall, Fantastic Four is a solid action movie that will please audiences who don’t mind that sort of thing. I saw cheering, clapping, and honest exclamations of “Oh no!” The audience I saw liked the movie, cared about the characters, and had a good time. No, it’s not on the level of Batman, but as I hope I’ve pointed out, it doesn’t have to be. Much like its characters, the film embraces what it is, and even enjoys itself. It’s fun, and this time, for this movie, that’s enough.
Grade: B+, or three out of four unstable molecules