FANTASTIC FOUR is an incredibly odd duck.
Parts of the Tim Story-directed feature are incredibly good, yet other parts are incredibly awful, and the result is a film that I’m never entirely sure what to do with – sometimes, I can shut my brain off and enjoy it well enough and other times, I can’t stand the sight of it. There’s two primary areas of conflict that FANTASTIC FOUR creates for me: in the film’s story and in its acting. In both instances, the film offers heaping helpings of both, which ultimately ends up leaving me conflicted more than either appreciative or appalled with what’s here, though there’s a slight lean towards the latter.
If you’ve been around the Anxiety for a bit, you know how I feel about cinematic adaptations: I own the source material and I have an imagination, so I don’t need the current movie version of a book or a character to be an exact match of the comic, the book, the play, the cartoon, the movie, etc. What I want most out of a movie is to be entertained by the movie. If I am, great. If not … then a movie opens itself up to criticism about why what’s on the screen isn’t as good as what’s in the source material.
And that’s an area where FANTASTIC FOUR falls a bit short – what’s on the screen isn’t superior to what’s best about the source material. The FF are at their most enjoyable when they’re a fun, adventuresome family, but Story and his production staff have largely gutted that conception from these characters, replacing that core attribute with a group of people who are not all that much fun, certainly not adventuresome, and barely a family.
Instead, Story has created a group of awkward, bickering children walking around in adult bodies. It’s not an entirely ineffective idea, and as long as Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) is around to play the grown-up, there’s some value in it.
The movie opens with a broke Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) going to the uber-successful Victor von Doom (Julian McMahaon) to ask for money to fund his next project, researching a cosmic storm that he believes is the origin of life on Earth. Victor enjoys making Reed sweat, of course, and he wins on every level by agreeing to make this project happen: he gets 75% of any profits generated and he gets to show off his closeness with Reed’s ex-girlfriend, Susan Storm (Jessica Alba).
The group goes to space, something goes freak-of-nature with the cosmic storm cloud, and the group lands back on Earth, where they slowly discover their powers.
That’s where the story goes to turd.
It’s understandable, of course, that Ben Grimm would not be happy with being turned into a big piece of walking orange rock, and there’s a nice balance with Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) being absolutely thrilled with his powers. It’s the reactions to their powers from the middle three characters – Reed, Sue, and Victor – that sink this narrative.
After his powers manifest, Ben breaks out of Victor’s place (where they’ve been staying post-accident) and walks back to his fiance’s place, where she rejects him because he’s a monster. So much for love. Ben goes for a walk and ends up sitting on a bridge, where he encounters a man who’s going to jump off the bridge in a suicide leap. When this dude sees the Thing, he freaks and heads back into traffic. Ben steps in to save him, taking the full brunt of force from an oncoming rig, which causes a ridiculously huge accident, with car after car after car crashing and piling up. It’s the kind of accident that only happens in movies, which is okay, but the crowd that gathers on the walking bridge to watch everything unfold isn’t.
Why? Well, Story apparently feels that every freaking action scene in this movie (except for the one that happens in space) needs to happen in front of a crowd of New York City onlookers. It’s kind of maddening, to be honest, and makes me wonder if he wasn’t taking money on the sly from an extras casting agency. is the constant use of crowds supposed to make FANTASTIC FOUR some kind of metaphor for our celebrity-driven culture? If so, it’s incredibly clumsily handled, as there’s no investigation or examination or rumination of celebrity here – it’s just that when the FF goes outside, a crowd gathers to watch.
Reed, Sue, and Johnny show up on the bridge to help out. Everyone is freaking out over the Thing, thinking he’s the cause of all the bad stuff that’s happening, but by the end of the FF saving everyone, people love them. Well, everyone except Ben’s fiance, who shows up on the scene to put her engagement ring on the ground. It’s a stupid scene. Even if you reveal yourself to be so shallow that you don’t want to marry the person you love because they develop a problematic skin disorder, calling off that engagement by putting your ring on the ground in front of a crowd of people is pretty classless. Maybe Ben just has poor taste in women, or maybe stupid things happen in this movie just because the story is clumsily put together. The way the scene plays in the movie, it happens just because Story and Co. thought seeing Ben struggling to pick that ring up off the ground with his big rock hands would engender sympathy for him on our part.
The press is super interested in all of this arm-stretching, invisible-turning, fire-starting group activity, but three out of the four of them don’t want any press, so while Reed and Sue act like the very idea of them talking to the press is tantamount to selling their newborn to US Weekly for a dollar. Johnny, of course, goes off and yaps away to the gathered press, infuriating the rest of them, and resulting in Reed telling everyone they’re grounded at his lab until he can figure out a way to reverse the process.
Ugh. I hate, hate, hate movies about people with amazing powers who don’t want those powers. Why do people keep making these stories? I’m not plunking down money to watch people with awesome powers be total tools about it. It’s the equivalent of hearing someone complain about their parents buying them the wrong kind of car. Your parents bought you a car! You’re really going to whine about how they bought you a BMW instead of a Merc? Or because they bought you a silver Fusion instead of a black Fusion?
We get this protracted middle section with the FF couped up at Reed’s place. Johnny constantly complains about being trapped and I’m totally on his side. Reed is trying to get his machine working for Ben, but I don’t want to watch all of this mopiness and constrained behavior. This is the FF! I want to see them out adventuring. If this whole middle section was working, then fine, but it doesn’t work, and Johnny’s antics and agitation clearly demonstrate that it doesn’t.
Victor’s not much help, either. He’s been altered by the cosmic storm, too, and his flesh is slowly peeling away to reveal metal skin beneath. I just do not understand what they’ve done to Doom in this movie, turning him into this ego-maniacal, narcissistic tool with organic metal skin and the ability to fire lightning out of his hands. How is this cool? When Victor finally dons his metal mask (which he gets by stealing it from a storefront window, an act that is probably the single-dumbest thing in this entire movie) and puts on his green cloak, it looks like the kind of costume you’d see on a mediocre cosplayer. And when Victor tells Reed, “Call me Doom,” it’s laughably bad, not fear-inducing. Here we have one of the absolute greatest villains of all-time and Story has reduced him to being a complete tool.
Reed and Sue fair no better than Victor, unfortunately. Sue has been working at Von Doom Industries as Victor’s head of Genetics Research, which plays about a 1% role in the film. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it – Jessica Alba seems like a perfectly nice person but her acting range is severely limited. She had to be cast here because Fox wanted a name star somewhere in the mix, and that’s fine, but if you cast a star who can’t convincingly play the role you hire them to play, either find someone else or tailor the role to meet their strengths.
Sue is a mess of a character. She’s like this spoiled little girl throughout most of the movie, upset with Reed’s communication skills the way a 16-year old girl is upset with her older boyfriend for wanting to hang out with the guys instead of staying in with her. When she’s not pouting, she’s playing the mother hen, and Alba has no more ability to make that aspect believable.
Reed is perhaps the single worst superhero in any of these modern movies. He’s just incredibly boring to watch, and the character seems pieced together by random attributes rather than by a solid idea of who they wanted Reed Richards to be. There’s never a sense that he’s all that smart, either, as all of his experiments seem to fail. He sucks the life out of this movie, and when Gruffudd and Alba are on the screen together, it’s incredibly painful to watch.
Luckily, we’ve got Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis around to keep things moving. Evans is perfect as Johnny Storm, cracking wise, pulling pranks on Ben, and hitting on every female in his path. Chiklis is great at being the grounded center of the movie. The lovable animosity between them is the best part of the film, and I would have preferred to see a movie built around Evans and Chiklis instead of around Reed and Sue.
The final battle takes place in the middle of a parted crowd and the FF win. Hooray. It’s a bit of a letdown of an ending (four heroes vs. one bad guy!), just like FANTASTIC FOUR is a bit of a letdown as a movie.