Fantastic Four (2005)

[12 December 2005]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Pretending

A self-identified Marvel Comics fan, Michael Chiklis says that playing Ben Grimm was something of a dream fulfilled. It shows in the film, Fantastic Four, in that he’s about as convincing as anyone could be in his oppressive latex fake-stone-thing suit, and quite frankly more convincing than anyone else in the cast, in any capacity.

He also shows himself to be a generous, charming guy during the commentary for the Fantastic Four DVD, along with costars Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd. Watching the mostly silly-explosive scene where the titular four characters are blasted by a space cloud, Chiklis—whose Ben has to hang out in space against green screens—makes an unusually upbeat observation. While many actors describe working with this technology as tedious, he suggests, “It really calls on your child inside, to play, to pretend, ‘cause, heck, there’s nothing there.” All right, you think, he’s hinting at a deeper conversation concerning the future of filmmaking. At which point Alba breaks in, “Running in those boots was such a pain in my booty.” So much for discussion of craft and imagination.

The explosion leaves the primary characters genetically altered according to their emotional sensibilities. So, wishy-washy Reed (Gruffudd) turns elastic, his feeling-ignored girlfriend Susan (Alba) turns invisible, her hotheaded brother Johnny (Chris Evans) becomes the “human torch,” and Ben, Reed’s best friend and crew enforcer, 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 loses him billions. Victor bullies his employees even before he turns metallic and literally cold, assuming he’ll win the competition over Susan (Reed being so indefinite and all) and scheming to destroy them once they’re freaks.

The plot is what it is, comic-bookishly familiar. The superpowers bring trauma, anger, and confusion, and eventually a sense of responsibility, as the crew decides to do good with what they’ve got. While their routes to this end aren’t precisely inventive, Chiklis gives the Thing thing a run for its money. Ben’s story begins in the first scene, as he’s standing around getting ready to enforce for Reed, gazing up at a huge statue of Victor. Oh-so-wily Reed explains 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 do look small, but Ben’s demeanor suggests he’s going to be fighting such designation.

Ben’s own interests are mundane and romantic. He’s devoted to “Debs” (Laurie Holden), whose photo he keeps close at all times. The future he imagines, however, is quite undone by his post-cloud transformation: he groans and smashes furniture during the process, while the others just sort of marvel at the cool new stunts they can manage. He’s also stuck with his super body: the Thing does not turn back and forth to Ben. Still, he wants to be loved, to be seen as the same cuddly Ben he was before. So his first stop as the Thing is home, where he stands on the corner outside the apartment he shares with Debs (next to the Big and Tall Men’s shop), inexplicably calls her to the street. She appears in a flimsy nightie; Alba, bless her, opines, “I’m a little mad that she came out in her slip in the middle of New York.” Chiklis agrees, “I questioned it on the day… It’s a little kitschy, no doubt.”

Ben is flummoxed when Debs takes a look at his gargantuan, scary new self, complete with trench coat and fedora, and rejects him outright. (And Chiklis admits that he stole the bit where Ben looks up to reveal his face, from Spencer Tracy.) Also inexplicably, Debs shows up at the site of the crew’s first joint superheroic stunt, so his friends can witness his humiliation and horror. While regular folks cheer the Thing, Debs looks distressed and leaves her ring on the pavement, where he can’t pick it up with his colossal three fingers. As Chiklis observes, this set piece falls into the “‘You know you’re in a huge Hollywood movie when…’ category.” Contrived and prolonged, the scene took five weeks to shoot and included the services of a pigeon wrangler to poop on the Thing. (The DVD includes “Fantastic Four: Making a Scene” is the eight-minute piece on the Brooklyn Bridge scene that ran repeatedly on Fox Movie Channel at the time of the film’s release.)

This scene grants Ben a chance to show his “feelings,” and also starts with the inconsistencies—as when Ben’s abilities to feel anything on his rock surface change, or when 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 move he makes, and the ways that the terms genetic “alteration” and “disease” are traded off depending on the moment. (Alba notes of the invisible girl bra and panties shot that turns into an Alba in her bra and panties shot, “They wrote this in after they hired me and right before we shot it… It was the worst day of my life, I hated it so much.” (And then she made Into the Blue.)

Whatever Susan’s costume issues may be, Ben’s stuck with a condition that seems a disease, making him fearsome and less inclined to participate in the superhero campaigning that his regular-looking buddies take up with gusto. 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 montages—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, who strains his face and watches his arm extend into some extraordinary position—under a door, off a bridge—while looking quite removed from his body. His confusion concerning Susan “extends” throughout the film. He looks appropriately embarrassed when someone asks whether every part can be elongated, but his most erotic moment comes when he has to hold down Ben from running off. Reed’s 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. Saved from a homoerotic clinch!

The fact that Ben finally finds love with a blind girl, Alicia (Kerry Washington), is a little disturbing. The problem is not that she likes him, but that the film presumes only a blind girl could. Alba says Alicia will be “a lot more in the next one, too… as a surprise,” though the guys insist she shush about particulars. There’s a case to be made that they bond as characters who feel isolated from the mainstream, even as they’re being sucked up into it as emblems of tolerance and diversity. Perhaps the surprise has to do with how they manage this trick.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/fantastic-four-dvd/