Tim Story's film should have been a smash. So why did it fail in its adaptation of the groundbreaking Marvel comic book?
The year 2005 was a busy one for comic book films. First was the release of Elektra (Bowman) in January, an unsuccessful Marvel Comics film based on a character created by Frank Miller in the '80s. February saw the release of Constantine (Lawrence), a grim adaptation of the Hellblazer horror comic that began in the late '80s and featured the work of many brilliant British comic creators that were changing the face of comics. In April, Robert Rodriguez went full grindhouse with Sin City, a visually exciting, testosterone-fueled romp that was a remarkably accurate, shot-for-shot adaptation Frank Miller's series of Sin City books. Most notable, however, was the release of Batman Begins in June. Eight years after the disastrous camp of Batman & Robin (Schumacher, 1997) made comic book films laughable, Christopher Nolan returned the Dark Knight to cinemas with a dark, serious, superb film that told the first cinematic origin of the character. This story borrowed elements from many Batman stories, most notably Frank Miller's groundbreaking Batman: Year One story from 1987.
As you may have noticed, adaptations of '80s comics, particularly those written by Frank Miller, had come into vogue in 2005. This era of comics is defined by dark, violent, serious, deconstructionist comic book storylines. The main characters tended to be brooding anti-heroes with questionable morals and methods. The most revolutionary of these comics were so impactful that they began a tonal trend that continued into the '90s. By that point, however, these stories started to be misunderstood by publishers who believed that dark and violent anti-heroes were their ticket to sales success, but overlooked much of the depth and intelligence of the '80s sensations. Many long-standing comic books with lighter tones struggled during this era, when their tone seemed out of place. It is unfortunate, therefore, that one such comic, Fantastic Four, finally saw the release of its big screen adaptation right when it would seem the most out of touch with comic book films.
The Fantastic Four is arguably the most important book in the history of Marvel Comics. It not only began the most inventive, creative period in the company's history, when the majority of its popular characters were created, but the early stories in Fantastic Four represented the very best storytelling that Marvel had to offer. Tales of the creation of the book are contentious, with both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby undermining each other's contributions to bolster their own. What seems to be definite is that Lee, after two decades at Marvel, was feeling restricted and creatively unfulfilled, and was seriously considering quitting. The Fantastic Four represented a new way of doing things, however, and the freshness of the concept kept him at Marvel. The characters in the book had no costumes (at first), no secret identities, and they were on a team rather than being solo heroes.
They were also endearingly human, with flaws and realistic challenges such as paying the rent. Their powers were not necessarily seen as a blessing, but something with which they struggled. They also bickered like a family, but supported each other when threatened. In short, Fantastic Four was different than any other comic being published. Sources seem to agree that Jack Kirby drew all of the art for the book while Stan Lee provided dialogue and captions. As to who had the initial idea, and who created the plots and big ideas, that's still in dispute. Regardless, the two men collaborated to create a new book that was a sensation.
In The Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961), the brilliant Reed Richards hijacks a rocket of his own design to launch it before the competing Soviets can beat them to space. He is accompanied by pilot Ben Grimm, his girlfriend Susan Storm and her brother Johnny Storm. While in space, they are bombarded with cosmic radiation that changes them. Reed gains the ability to stretch, Susan gains the ability to turn invisible, Johnny can light on fire and fly, while Ben becomes a super-strong rock monster. Over the next 102 issues (until September 1970), Lee and Kirby created the most imaginative and elaborate science-fiction comic ever seen. The book was characterised by an endless supply of interesting characters, deep scientific concepts, and trippy ideas. Twenty-year-old character Namor the Sub-Mariner was first introduced to contemporary comics in Fantastic Four. The team frequently faced-off against Doctor Doom, considered by many to be the ultimate comics supervillain. The book introduced the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, the Kree and Skrull alien races, the alternate dimension known as the Negative Zone, and a little-known character called the Black Panther. The quintessential Lee/Kirby story was the three-issue Galactus Trilogy, when a world-devouring alien descends on Earth and the Fantastic Four must stop him before the world is destroyed.
All of these concepts and more were fresh, big and exciting, and they remain vital parts of the Marvel Comics universe to this day. The book tapped into the excitement of scientific discovery throughout the '60s, when the Space Race was in full swing. Even so, Lee and Kirby never lost their focus on characters. Reed and Susan were married and had a child, Franklin. Ben struggled with his monstrous appearance, and Reed felt guilt over not being able to cure him. Johnny often tried to lead a regular teenage life, even enrolling in college.
After Kirby left Fantastic Four, soon followed by Lee, it began to decline. Subsequent writers and artists failed to capture the boundary-pushing inventiveness of the early years, opting to instead endlessly trot out well-worn villains and concepts for derivative stories. There were bright spots, such as John Byrne's five-year run in the '80s when he updated many of the outdated elements, but the title mostly stagnated. What used to represent the bleeding edge of Marvel's creativity was now mostly relegated to nostalgia, with creators often looking upon the book with too much reverence. It further struggled as comics grew darker and grittier. The Fantastic Four always worked best as a light-hearted, bright, optimistic book, and the grim, violent anti-heroes of the late-'80s and early-'90s were quite the opposite. Despite this, the Fantastic Four themselves were always a staple of the Marvel Comics line. So, when the comic book film craze began in the early '00s it was not a question of if there would be a Fantastic Four film, but when.
The rights to a Fantastic Four film were originally sold to producer Bernd Eichinger in the mid-'80s. By 1992, with the rights about to expire, Eichinger hired notorious B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman to direct an extremely low-budget adaptation to retain them. The film was never officially released, although copies exist online. By 1995, 20th Century Fox was serious about making Fantastic Four and acquired the rights. Numerous directors and writers were attached over the next decade while the project stalled, missing out on the initial wave of comic book films. Ultimately Tim Story, best known at the time for Barbershop (2002), emerged as director and the film was released in July 2005. Story and the screenwriters smartly kept the tone of the film light and familial, the Fantastic Four's sweet spot. It could have served as nice counter-programming to the grimness of Constantine, Sin City and Batman Begins had it been a stronger film. Unfortunately, Fantastic Four failed to live up to its name. The film wastes a promising beginning by dwelling too long on the origin, failing to develop its characters, completely mishandles the villain and, ultimately, devolves into a bland studio blockbuster that would be more at home in an earlier era of comic book films.
Most of the promise early in the film comes from the thrill of seeing such an iconic origin story finally adapted to the big screen. Fantastic Four opens with the brilliant but bankrupt Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and his best friend, pilot Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), approaching wealthy businessman, and former classmate, Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon) for help. Reed wants to use Victor's space station to study an approaching cloud of cosmic radiation that could have unique effects on biology. Victor, amused by Reed's business failings despite his enviable intellect, agrees in exchange for the majority of the profits from any discoveries. They are joined by Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Reed's ex-girlfriend who is now working for and dating Victor. These character traits are all established even more bluntly than I have just written them. The dialogue in the opening scenes is certainly not subtle, with characters telling each other their motivations with little realism or nuance, but at least it moves quickly. The blunt exposition is forgivable because the film intends to skip the formalities and get right to the good stuff
Chris Evans as Johnny (IMDB)
At the launch, the group is joined by Sue's brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), a hotshot, juvenile fighter pilot. Before we know it, all five are aboard Victor's space station. Unfortunately, the storm arrives more quickly than anticipated and they are all caught in its radiation. Ben gets the worst of it, as he was doing a spacewalk when it hit, whereas Victor was partially protected behind the station's shields. They all wake up on Earth, seemingly unchanged. There's a fun moment with a first-person scene of Ben awakening. Johnny implies that he has been horribly disfigured, and Ben reluctantly looks in a mirror only to find his face unchanged. The audience, of course, expects him to be transformed into the Thing, so the filmmakers cleverly play with audience expectations. If only the rest of the film demonstrated such knowing wit.
Eventually, the group's powers manifest themselves. Johnny becomes engulfed in flames while snowboarding, in a nice juxtaposition between fire and ice. Reed first stretches and Sue becomes invisible while they are talking about their former relationship. Ben transforms alone in his room and runs off to see his wife. The four converge on the Brooklyn Bridge when they save bystanders from a terrible collision caused by Ben. It always seems odd when a superhero is lauded for preventing a disaster that he or she caused, but I will accept it as a trope. This public display of their powers makes them a sensation, and they are dubbed the Fantastic Four in the media. On Reed's orders, the group retreats to his laboratory in the Baxter Building on Manhattan for study. Meanwhile, Victor slowly begins to turn to metal and manifest control over electricity. The disaster on the space station caused enough bad publicity to seriously damage his company's image, and he is pushed out. Even worse, Sue spending time with Reed sparks his jealousy. So, Victor suddenly becomes a scheming, murderous, one-liner spouting supervillain. And basically that's about it for the plot.
Fantastic Four takes a similar approach to Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1978), Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002) and Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) in that it takes its time with the origin. After a fast-paced opening, when the characters are very superficially introduced and the accident occurs quickly, the film spends a long time on the characters discovering their new abilities and bickering with each other in a sitcom fashion. Had this time been spent developing the characters in interesting ways or making us care about them at all the film might have been stronger. The characters remain very one-note, thus the origin grows tiresome as the film seemingly refuses to move on to the actual plot of the film. Eventually it becomes apparent that Fantastic Four has no plot beyond the origin. In the third act, Victor attacks them and he is defeated. That's it. The films I mentioned above had extended origins, about half the film, but they were entertaining and involving. Then they moved into the second half that told a conventional hero-vs-villain story that paid off the earlier character beats. Fantastic Four fails to live up to these stellar examples because it seems to be missing half a film. What does occur besides the origin feels extremely low stakes and small scale, which is exactly the opposite one would expect from a film about the Fantastic Four, Marvel's resident cosmic adventurers.
Julian McMahon as Victor von Doom (IMDB)
The film may have been saved by great, lovable characters and an effective villain, but it lacks in these elements as well. In fact, they never quite develop past the character sketches we are given in the early moments. Victor von Doom is perhaps the most mishandled character seen in a comic book film up to this point. Doctor Doom, despite the silly name, is thought by many to be the quintessential comic book supervillain. He is brilliant, megalomaniacal, vain, overconfident, and ruthless. He is like the greatest Bond villain crossed with an evil dictator. Add to that an armor as advanced as Iron Man's combined with dark magic straight out of Voldemort's playbook. Doctor Doom has it all, and nothing but arrogant contempt for anyone who stands in his way.
I understand the impulse of the screenwriters to minimize some of the more campy, over-the-top elements of Doom's persona for the film, but Victor in Fantastic Four shares almost nothing in common with the comic book villain. Doom is the ruthless, blindly-revered dictator of the Eastern European nation of Latveria. Victor is the sleazy, petulant CEO of a large corporation. Doom uses his brilliant mind to develop highly advanced weaponry and armour, and concoct twisted plans to defeat the Fantastic Four. Victor's skin turns metal, he seems to have no great intellect to speak of, and his big plan includes freezing Reed and firing a heat-seeking missile at Johnny. Doom acts as if he is above everyone and everything. Victor is a brat, beset by jealousy and easily muscled out of his company by a group of stuffy bankers.
Furthermore, the love triangle between Reed, Sue and Victor is the worst kind of melodrama, particularly because Sue shows absolutely no interest in Victor. That it becomes a primary motivator for Victor's descent into villainy compounds his bratty ineffectiveness. Late in the film, Victor tricks Ben into becoming human again and captures Reed. At that point, he begins throwing out one-liners that would make Mr. Freeze proud. When Victor finally goes full Doctor Doom in the third act of Fantastic Four, he embodies every bad cliché of an over-the-top, cartoonish villain, and demonstrates no strong motivation or plan. And thus, perhaps the greatest Marvel supervillain is completely wasted.
Sue doesn't fare much better. Initially in the comics, Sue Storm was introduced solely as "the girlfriend", then later "the wife" and "the mother" in the group. She was defined by her relationships to the male characters and given very little agency. It was years before writers began giving her more to do. For example, it was over 25 years before John Byrne finally changed her nickname from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman in the late '80s. With this history, it's perhaps unsurprising that Sue is a very thin character in Fantastic Four, but one hoped that the screenwriters would have tried a bit harder. Jessica Alba, who received a lot of irrational criticism when she was first cast, seems game. The writers fail to come up with anything interesting besides her being the object of affection for Reed and Victor, and someone who has to take her clothes off a lot. The first stripping scene is completely nonsensical and gratuitous. On the bridge, Reed tells Sue that she must become invisible to slip by a police barricade. Her clothes remain visible, however, and she struggles to stay invisible as she disrobes. Ultimately, she succeeds and slips past the barricade, while Reed and Johnny do so without being naked or invisible. The whole scene was clearly concocted to show off Alba in her underwear, which indicates how seriously the filmmakers took Sue's character.
Reed fares better, with Ioan Gruffudd doing a fine job of conveying the character's intellect and social awkwardness. Reed Richards always works best as a character so wrapped up in his ideas and work that he fails to connect to the people around him, and the film does a good enough job of establishing those aspects of his character. Unfortunately, Reed as becomes mired in the endless origin plot and pointless love triangle, he grows less interesting with each passing minute.
The MVPs of Fantastic Four, however, are Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis. Chiklis' Ben Grimm is the only character actually given an arc in the film. As the only member of the Fantastic Four visibly altered by the accident, Ben has a harder time accepting the change. His wife leaves him immediately, in an epic show of shallowness, and he demands Reed change him back as soon as possible. When Victor uses Reed's machine to make Ben human again, and to eliminate the threat of the Thing, Ben must decide whether to remain human or change back into the Thing to help his friends. Chiklis is perfect casting for the role, and he really sells Ben's isolation. Unfortunately, his arc seems almost out-of-place in a film where all the other characters are completely one-note.
Which brings us to Chris Evans' Johnny Storm. Given Evans' excellent portrayal of the ultimate boy scout superhero, Captain America, years later it is easy to forget that his early career was full of roles like Johnny Storm. His speciality seemed to be fast-talking, juvenile, womanizing douchebags, which made him the perfect fit for the character. Johnny begins as a bit of an overconfident jackass who needs to grow up and learn responsibility. When he discovers his powers, he is the only one who seems excited by them and wants to use them openly. He is reckless, however, and does not take Reed and Sue's cautions seriously, even when they explain the dangers of the upper limits of his flame powers. By the end of the film, having learned nothing, he gets to use his powers openly as much as he likes. In the climax, he is even encouraged to use the upper limits of his powers. Johnny has no character growth, but Evans' charisma still carries him through. He is by far the most likable character by virtue of being the only one that is having any fun.
But Johnny Storm's character is also the clearest example of the soullessness and superficiality of Fantastic Four as a film. Johnny's extreme sports escapades feel like hollow attempts to reach the youth demographic by out of touch studio executives. First Johnny snowboards on a mountain from a helicopter while blaring radio rock plays as a plug for the film's soundtrack. Later, he sneaks out of the Baxter Building to compete in a motocross event for no apparent reason other than showing off the overwhelming product placement at the event. Nothing about these scenes feel fresh or necessary. They merely feel like the focus-grouped idea of "cool" in the mid-'00s.
At this point in the comic book film boom, 20th Century Fox had become the go-to studio for many Marvel films (with five already released, and many more to come). Although the studio had great success with the first two X-Men films, their meddling ruined Daredevil (Johnson, 2003), and Elektra (Bowman, 2005) did not have a strong reason to exist. Fantastic Four is better than those latter two films, but it still feels like a cookie-cutter studio blockbuster. There is no clear point of view, style or character to the film. Much of it feels designed to sell advertising and action figures. It is a quintessential mid-'00s inoffensive, bland, homogenized studio blockbuster.
It also represents a troubling trend that had begun to emerge in comic book films as they became more standardized in the wake of massive commercial success. If comic book films had the potential to be successful on the scale of Spider-Man, then studios were going to become increasingly involved in shepherding them to the big screen. In a weird way, it's a testament to the widespread success of comic book films that they were now being put through the full studio process, but it meant that they were starting to lose some of the depth that defined the best comic book films in the first half of the decade. In Fantastic Four, the Reed-Sue-Victor love triangle feels shoehorned in for some romantic drama. Victor's change to a sleazy CEO seems like a safer, more palatable choice compared to the Eastern European despot from the comics. And again, Johnny seems like a safe, market-researched version of a cool guy. The next several Marvel Films would demonstrate very similar issues, and franchises would be damaged or ended due largely to studio meddling.
Despite these issues, however, Fantastic Four was a moderate success upon its release. Although not as successful as the X-Men films, let alone the Spider-Man films, it was a welcome win for Marvel after Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher and Elektra failed to launch new franchises. I, for one, have a hard time hating this film. It's so bland and homogenized that it is hard to feel any passion towards it. I'm disappointed that it failed to adapt the characters faithfully, or tap into the wild inventiveness of the early run of the comics. I was hopeful about the sequel once it was announced. Perhaps, after Fantastic Four spent too long on the origin story, and failed to tell a satisfying plot or develop the characters, the sequel would be free to take them to interesting places. New planets, new dimensions, bigger challenges. It would take the sequel and, years later, a failed reboot to completely ruin the idea of a Fantastic Four film in my mind.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: In a first for Stan Lee, he plays an actual character from the comics: Willy Lumpkin, the mailman for the Baxter Building. That's six cameos in 12 films.
Chris Evans makes his first appearance in a Marvel Film. He would, of course, go on to portray Steve Rogers/Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Next Time: In my angriest article yet, Fox continues to lay waste to its comic book properties, crippling the X-Men franchise with X-Men: The Last Stand.