He has this hard exterior but at the same time you know he’s a teddy bear, and that’s kind of how Ben Grimm is.
—Tim Story, AP (3 July 2005)
As Marvel comics fans already know, being zapped by a radioactive cloud in outer space alters your DNA according to your sense of self. Just so, romantically wishy-washy Reed (Ioan Gruffudd) turns elastic, his feeling-ignored girlfriend Susan (Jessica Alba) turns invisible, her hotheaded brother Johnny (Chris Evans) becomes the “human torch,” and Reed’s best friend and crew enforcer, Ben (Michael Chiklis), gets hard. Also along for the ride (and the zapping) is their mission financier, the egotistical and fatefully named Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), whose body slowly changes to a human-metallic alloy; as he also loses control of his corporation, he determines to take his revenge on his four former employees when their mucked up mission appears to lose him billions. Yeah, yeah, and what else is new?
Fantastic Four is all about what’s familiar. Word leaked early that the makers were concerned that a little family-friendly blockbuster called The Incredibles had stolen some wind from its potential sails, by essentially lifting the superpowers listed above and assigning them to a cute-as-can-be animated father-mother-and-kids. And honestly, looking at the fleshly embodiments of the characters, you can see why everyone’s so worried. But even as it should be accelerating with spiffy action and smart repartee, Tim Story’s movie becomes jumbled. No one of the four is terrifically convincing—granted, being invisible/throwing invisible force fields around is a hard superpower to act out in any interesting way—and the effects are pretty cheesy, considering the film’s estimated coast, and really, none of the heroes gets much of a story to tell. Except Ben. He has a little too much story, and not much of it makes sense. And still, Chiklis is the only reason even to think about seeing this movie.
Ben’s story begins in the first scene, as he’s standing around getting ready to enforce for Reed, gazing up at a statue of Victor and noting just how huge he is. Reed is the wily one, explaining that the statue is intended to create “feelings of smallness” and “inadequacy.” The camera looks down on the pair from over the statue’s giant shoulder: they might look small, though Ben is hard to call that. They also look cute. Together.
Fantastic Four is not about to get into homoerotic attractions, of course, except as they provide grist for phobo jokes. And so the guys enter directly into a meeting with Victor, where it’s clear that Reed and he are competing for Susan (and she’s competing with all of them), and Ben is attached to the best girl ever, “Debs” (Laurie Holden), whose photo he keeps close at all times… until he doesn’t. Following their run-in with the cloud, Ben is the one to undergo the most traumatic transformation: he groans and smashes furniture during the process, while the others just sort of marvel at the cool new shit they can do. He’s also feeling stuck with his super body: the Thing does not turn back and forth to Ben. He’s just rock hard and huge. Always.
But Ben doesn’t mean to make anyone else feel small. He wants to be loved, to be seen as the same cuddly Ben he was before. So his first stop post-transformation is home, where he stands on the corner outside the apartment he shares with Debs, inexplicably calls her to the street in her flimsy little nightie, and presents his gargantuan new self to her—complete with trench coat and fedora, as if these items might hide him even slightly (did he run all the way home from the lab where they had him sequestered? Did he take a bus that he would have been too heavy to take?). Debs does the bad girlfriend thing, screams at the monster and runs away. She even goes so far as to show up at the site of superheroic stunt, so all the gang can watch his humiliation and horror. While regular folks cheer the Thing, Debs looks distressed, leaving her ring on the pavement, where he can’t pick it up with his colossal three fingers. Boo hoo!
Contrivances and inconsistencies pepper the movie, including the convenient changes in Ben’s ability to feel anything on his rock surface, and the fact that Susan’s clothes remain visible when she fades out, meaning that she needs to strip to be invisible, while Reed’s clothes stretch to accommodate any movie he makes, and the ways that the terms genetic “alteration” and “disease” are traded off depending on the moment.
For Ben, at first, it’s all disease. This makes him less inclined to participate in the superhero campaigning that his regular-looking buddies take up. Especially thrilled by his new hot form is Johnny, who is actually called “hot” more than once by a nurse in snow-bunny drag, who looks like she might have walked off a soft porn set. He returns from their tryst with her pink parka wrapped around his waist. His most intense joy is reserved for self-celebration, however, revealed in a couple of extreme sports montagey scenes—snowboarding and motocrossing—where he gets to show off his new gifts of speed and flight, as well as the team’s specially zapped costumes (a.k.a. “second skins”).
Johnny likes to surround himself with girls in bikinis and pose for photos after he saves a citizen, a preference that grants the movie another dimension (aside from Ben’s odd melodrama), which is: the complicated relationship between superheroes and celebrity. Because his sister, Reed, and Ben are all more stay-at-home types, Johnny’s desire for the spotlight situates him as cocky and immature, that is, designed to draw a specific demographic for the FF box office. That he has a tendency to shout “Flame on!” while leaping off buildings and wearing that sharp blue body suit does make him seem slightly less uncomfortable with the whole gay-inclination thing than his stuffy elders. You could say that he seems comfortable in his second skin.
The same cannot be said for Reed, especially when he’s stretching to get some mundane job done. He strains his face and watches his arm extend into some extraordinary position—under a door, off a bridge—but his remove from his performance makes him look odd too. Romantically linked to Susan—whose mediation of the boys’ frequent squabbles can only be tiring—he’s too shy (or slow, or uninterested) to make his move. Though he looks appropriately embarrassed when someone asks whether every part can be elongated, his most erotic moment comes when he has to hold down Ben from running off to do a wrong thing. His face strains again, his upper body not so well effected (that is, looking stiff and removed) as his rubber arms wrap around and around his best friend. At last, Ben relents, and Reed can unwrap.
They better hurry too, because they have to figure out how to combat Victor’s nefarious plans to kill the Fantastic Four. He hopes to eliminate them one by one, beginning, so he thinks, with the emotionally insecure and physically unstoppable Ben. The fact that he finally finds love with a blind girl, Alicia (Kerry Washington), is not a little disturbing; the problem is not that she likes him, but that the film presumes only a blind girl could. That, and, any sexual activity with this gigantic rock man can only be frightening.