Of all the films featuring characters from the Marvel Comics universe, it doesn’t get much more frustrating than Fantastic Four.
Sure, there are some outright awful films like Elektra, Hulk and X-Men: The Last Stand, but Fantastic Four is a trying experience because it’s halfway to being a stellar entry in the Marvel movie catalog.
Watching the film in 2015 provides a greater appreciation for Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, who understands the characters to the core and how to best translate what makes them special to longtime comic book readers and mainstream audiences alike. Without that guiding presence, we get a film that gets it right only about 50 percent of the time.
The film kicks off with a group of astronauts — team leader Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd, Justice League: War), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba, Machete Kills), her brother/pilot Johnny Storm (Chris Evans, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), co-pilot Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and mission financier Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). During the mission, the team gets exposed to cosmic rays, which grants them all tremendous abilities.
As far as origin sequences go, this is one of the quicker and most efficient in terms of skipping the long build up and just getting to the heroes exploring their powers. The major problem with the sequence and arguably the entire film is the handling of Doom.
Dr. Doom is the preeminent villain in Marvel Comics with a serious mad-on for Reed dating back to their college days. Doom blames him for an accident that disfigured him and while he doesn’t have powers, his considerable genius and suit of armor more than make him the equal to Reed and his friends.
McMahon is miscast, but he doesn’t really have a chance with this poorly written role, which turns him into a pun-spewing joke. It’s telling that The Incredibles captured the spirit of Dr. Doom with Syndrome far better than any Fantastic Four movie thus far.
Reluctantly using their powers to help their fellow New Yorkers and prompted by Johnny’s marketing savvy, Reed is dubbed Mr. Fantastic, Sue becomes the Invisible Girl, Johnny is The Human Torch and Ben is called The Thing and the group is named The Fantastic Four.
Tim Story — who disappointingly 10 years later remains the only black director of a mainstream comic book film — was hired thanks to his comedic background (Taxi, Barbershop), but he smartly gets that the best humor from the source material comes from the team’s family dynamic.
The humor doesn’t always work specifically when it’s used for goofy uses of the team’s powers like shamelessly having Alba strip down to lingerie. More annoyingly it makes Reed a bumbling scientist instead of the smartest character in the Marvel universe.
Chalk up the film’s inconsistent tone in part to the numerous issues with the script. Michael France handled one draft, which was reworked by Mark Frost before Simon Kinberg also did uncredited final rewrites.
The rewrites do little favors for the handling of the Sue/Reed subplot as Gruffudd and Alba have terrible chemistry. George Clooney was considered for the role of Reed Richards and despite the Batman & Robin stench, he would have been ideal for the role as his natural charm could have worked through some of the bad lines.
Alba isn’t bad, but it’s hard to buy Sue pining for Reed while working and in some manner dating Doom. The script dumps the Doom/Sue/Reed love triangle midway through, but it would have been better skipped altogether.
Despite a $100 million budget, the special effects frequently look poorly animated and cheap even back in 2005. For perspective, Sony Pictures spent $139 million back in 2002 on Spider-Man, which only featured two powered up characters while Warner Bros. spent $100 million on the awful live-action Catwoman film.
The budget meant the action scenes largely had to be scaled down to character gets hit and pushed awkwardly to a wall, but Story does find some creative uses to display the team’s powers.
John Ottman’s (X2, Superman Returns) score is too light and works against the film at time in making scenes that would benefit from a more serious musical accompaniment too goofy.
Emerging largely unscathed is the portrayals of Johnny Storm and The Thing. Evans and Chiklis are easily the best part of the film and have the best handle on their characters. Evans has Johnny’s playful, attention-grabbing nature so perfect it was amazing he would go on to master another Marvel character in Captain America.
Chiklis is tremendous in making The Thing sympathetic without making him a whiny, unlikable character.
Besides the costume missing the signature brow, the decision to go without CGI is daring and allows Chiklis to emote more even if it doesn’t ever make you forget it’s a costume.
This is one of the better comic book to big screen adaptations we’ve seen yet. The film awkwardly establishes his relationship with Alicia (Kerry Washington, Django Unchained), but their interactions seem more natural than the love triangle.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby built the Marvel Comics universe on the foundation of the Fantastic Four and it’s not a stretch to say this franchise could still be going strong a decade later with a better opening act.
As is, the Fantastic Twosome of Evans and Chiklis make this a fun watch despite its issues, but you can see just how much better it could have been with a few changes.
Rating: 6 out of 10
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