Marvel Media: Fantastic Four on Film

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The year was 1994 and Marvel's first family had finally been brought to the big screen. Sort of. These were hard times for live action Marvel properties. Sure Spider-man and The Hulk were television hits (although "hits" may be an exaggeration), but Dr. Strange had failed to capture anyone's imagination in 1978; in 1979 Captain America had languished in two TV movies that had very little to do with the source materials (and in a straight-to-video feature in 1991 that was, quite frankly, hard to watch after its opening WWII scenes); Howard the Duck had made it to the theaters in 1986, only to nearly ruin Lucasfilms; and Dolph Lundgren starred as The Punisher in a 1989 film that was released around the world, but went straight-to-video in the US. There was also a 1991 Power Pack TV movie intended to be a pilot for NBC's Saturday children's lineup, but it was never released.

The time seemed right for a feature film based on one of Marvel's longest running properties, The Fantastic Four. Well, that's not really the case. As it turns out, a German company, Neue Constantin, had secured the rights to the FF for a number of years, and was going to lose those rights on December 31, 1992, if there was no production in motion. Marvel was actually anxious to regain control of the FF and had refused to renew Neue Constantin's option. So before the end of the year, Neue Constantin entered into an agreement with Concorde Pictures and the legendary Roger Corman to begin shooting a live action film of The Fantastic Four. However, unbeknownst to the cast and the crew, the film was never intended for release. The film was only produced in order to maintain the option, and when completed, was shelved, never to even see an official home video release. It is available in bootleg format from a number of places online and at comic conventions. (To read more of this story, go to Third Millennium Entertainment for an in-depth look at the production.)

It would take 1998's Blade, followed by 2000's X-Men to actually begin bringing Marvel properties to the big screen in what could legitimately be called successes. And in 2005, Fantastic Four returned to theaters with a budget of $87.5 million (compared to the paltry $1.4 million spent on the 1994 version) and grossed $329 million worldwide. This practically ensured a sequel, and in 2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer arrived (costing between $120 and 130 million to make and bringing in $288 million worldwide -- although only 132 of that was in the U.S.). Big stars, big budgets, and big time special effects, however, don't necessarily make for more satisfying end results, as we will soon see.

Fantastic Four 1994

The first Fantastic Four film is hardly what one might call successful, or even good, on most levels. Budgetary restraints, a three week shooting schedule, and a weak script cripple the film, making it hard to watch, except as an unintentional comedy. But if the film has one saving grace, it is its faithfulness to Lee's and Kirby's source materials.

The film opens with Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White), Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith), and Victor von Doom (Joseph Culp) attending college together. Reed and Victor are good friends and are working on a science project involving a passing comet. There is an accident, and Victor is seriously injured. Latverian agents claim that he has died and smuggle his body out of the country, back to Latveria. During their time in college, Reed and Ben live in a boarding house owned and run by Mrs. Storm. The Storm children, little Johnny and pre-teen Sue (played by Mercedes McNabb, who many readers might recognize as Harmony in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) live there as well, and Sue has a childhood crush on the "dreamy" Reed. Approximately 10 years later, the comet is returning and Reed, at Ben's urgings, recruits Sue and Johnny to go up in an experimental spacecraft to complete the failed experiment that cost Victor his "life." There is a mishap and the crew is bombarded with cosmic rays, crash land back on earth, and find that they've each developed powers.

While this may not be the comics version of the characters to the letter, there is at least the attempt made to stay true to the spirit of the comics. The shared pasts and the age differences, as in the comics, provide a relationship structure that plays into the original conceptions of the characters (i.e. Reed's fatherly status, Ben's protective uncle role, Sue's romantic idealizing of Reed, and Johnny's immaturity). And while the dialogue isn't great, there's something exciting about seeing the story play out the way we've read for 40 years. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, as they say.

Of course for every good thing about the film, there are more than enough bad things to drag it down. The reason for the experiment's failure the second time is due to the introduction of an original character, The Jeweler (Ian Trigger) who is, for reasons I can't fathom, made up to look like the Leprechaun. The Jeweler lives in the sewers with his outcast homeless followers, and is in love with the beautiful and blind Alicia Masters (Kat Green). He decides that the huge diamond Reed plans to use in his experiment is the perfect gift for his "queen" and after stealing and replacing it with a fake, Reed and the gang are doomed to failure. To this is added the return of the two Latverian agents who secreted von Doom away years earlier (and yet haven't aged a day), lurking about like the Russian spies in 1978's Rescue from Gilligan's Island, while a shadowy Doom gives them commands over a video screen. They are supposed to steal the diamond themselves, to sabotage the mission and aid Doom's own plans, but are ordered to stay out of the way, letting the homeless people do Doom's dirty work.

I suppose there are some superficial similarities between The Jeweler and The Mole Man. If intended, without a substantial budget there was really no way to even begin to translate the Mole Man to the screen faithfully, so this is where we really see for the first time the underlying problem with every live action interpretation of the FF: the lack of vision. Instead of underworld creatures, we get ugly homeless people. This inability to go large comes into play again when Doom finally makes his appearance on screen, but not in the way one might expect.

Doom's costume is an almost perfect recreation of the comic character (as are the FF's costumes, especially Ben's) and is one of the things that I love about the film overall. But with the lack of a budget, extremely under-imagined set and technology designs, and the lack of any noticeable directorial style, the end result is a bit jarring. The imagination that went into the character's look isn't reflected in the rest of the film in any way, especially in Doom's own grand plan for destroying New York. If there's a motivation for the attempt, it was so slight that I can't even remember it after just watching the film a couple of days previous. Doom needed the diamond to power his super laser, you see, that when fired into the sky in Latveria, will somehow (contrary to physics) curve around and arch downward at New York, destroying the city in some unexplained manner.

The FF's responses to the nonsensical threat are equally ridiculous. Johnny flames on and is somehow able to chase the laser beam across Europe and across the ocean, catching up in time to get in front and blast it with his flames. In an animated sequence. Huh? For that matter, Sue's powers are particularly useless, as she does things like get between two of Doom's soldiers and disappear as they fire their rifles at her, killing each other, since when she reappears we see she has ducked. Reed is also mostly useless as he uses his super stretching leg to trip a group of soldiers as they run through the doorway. Ben is the only character who is utilized effectively, but that's only because he simply shouts "It's clobberin' time!" and punches lots and lots of soldiers.

There's also a kidnapping plot involving Alicia that, as with the fight choreography, seems as if it was written by a child. In fact, I'd say that this is part of the reason the film ultimately fails: it seems to, as an afterthought, have been made for children, or at least written as though the audience would be satisfied with childish motivations and relationships. As a children's film, one might give it more leeway, but then it's still not imaginative enough to really appeal to that audience and is rather boring at times.

The film ends with Reed and Sue's marriage and as the wedded couple drives away, a long, bendy, fake arm is stuck out the sun roof of their car -- Reed waving goodbye to everyone. It's embarrassing. I find it hard to believe that anyone working on this film could have been surprised when it was shelved instead of being released. And yet, it is still more satisfying on some levels than the newer films.

Fantastic Four 2005

This time around, there are a number of alterations to both the characters' histories and to the origin story itself. Part of this is due to the variety of source materials used. Not only are Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's traditional origin incorporated into this story, but we also have the newer Ultimate Fantastic Four origin being utilized. The characters are all much closer to the same age with this adaptation, Sue is now a scientist as well, Victor is along for the space test that gives them their powers, and he is also transformed by the cosmic storm.

The changes to Doom's character are the most drastic, and unnecessary, changes in the film. Although Victor (played by Julian McMahon, from television's Nip/Tuck) maintains his Latverian heritage, it is only mentioned in passing, playing no real role in the character's personality or development. He speaks with an American accent and runs an American corporation. He is an evil businessman. There is a passing reference to the fact that Doom, Reed, and Ben went to college together, but it only serves to establish that Victor resented Reed's intelligence. Unfortunately, Reed hasn't been able to translate those smarts into success, and the film opens with him and Ben approaching Victor to ask for funding and the use of Victor's space station. That's how rich and powerful he is. He has a space station. We also discover that Reed's ex-girlfriend, Sue now works for Victor, further emasculating Reed in the audiences' eyes.

From the opening scene, I felt cut off from the source materials and wondered if there was any point to the changes. And then it hit me. It's the same fundamental flaw that the 1994 film had: lack of vision. Only this time it manifests as a failure by the filmmakers to trust the source materials and trying to make it into something that more people could relate to. Like uber-rich villains, personal failure, and broken relationships, of course.

At the same time, however, the changes in Sue's character are probably the most welcome additions to the film, as are her force-field powers being utilized right from the start. By giving her an offensive use for her powers, she immediately becomes an active member of the team, rather than the passive, hiding and ducking member of the team. Unfortunately, she also is subjected to light-hearted scenes of sexual humiliation as she is forced to strip in public more than once to utilize her powers or escape from crowds. The worst part about the first stripping scene on the bridge is that she is told to strip by Reed in order to get past a police barricade. Then, after she is embarrassed in front of a huge crowd of people, Reed and Johnny slip through the barricade on their own without her help and without using her public humiliation as a distraction.

Aside from these problems, the film does have a stronger screenplay, better effects, and a more talented cast than the 1994 version. Michael Chiklis captures Ben Grimm's character almost perfectly, and Chris Evans plays Johnny Storm as an egomaniacal extreme sports star rather than the traditional hot-headed teen. Ioan Gruffudd's Reed Richards and Jessica Alba's Sue Storm are weaker characters, suffering more from script problems than from lack of talent. As with the older film, their relationship is treated sophomorically with dialogue that sounds like it came from a teenage girl's diary. The director, Tim Story (director of Barbershop and Taxi), falls into the same narrative trap that helped cripple the Corman-produced version, and it becomes even more obvious with the sequel.

What occurs is the inevitable deterioration of the story into comedic fluff capped with a generic superhero fight with no purpose other than to be a special effects showpiece and appeal to the cliché comic book fan. All we really want to see is good guys punching bad guys, right? The Fantastic Four doesn't work like that, though. The focus of the FF has always been on the family structure and the over-the-top science fiction concepts, and while there's always been some humor involved, it was only a part of the whole picture. In the first six issues of the comic, the FF had dealt with giant monsters, alien invasions, time travel, and the rulers of two sovereign kingdoms. In the first film, the FF dealt with a fistfight in the street that was eerily reminiscent of the big fight from Superman II.

This is all the more disappointing because the special effects are magnificent. In the hands of a director with a history of making visually spectacular films (instead of a comedy director), this could have been amazing. I can only imagine what Terry Gilliam could have done with the property. But instead, the most imaginative design that we get is of Victor's space station. The scene of the cosmic storm hitting the station and bombarding each of the characters with radiation is very well done, and there is a physicality to the effects and the performances that make it one of the most visually satisfying moments in the film.

It is worth noting that the film does use some of Kirby's original art for inspiration in a few scenes: for example, when Ben is slammed into by the semi, it echoes the scene in Fantastic Four #1 where Ben rises from a man hole and is plowed into by a car. Johnny also is forced to flee from a heat-seeking missile, which is reminiscent of another scene in that first issue. Beyond these brief nods to the comics, there really isn't anything else larger than life in the film. Even Victor's motivations in the end are trivial and petty. Because his company has fired him, he wants revenge on the board members, and then, after discovering that he has electricity-based powers to go along with his now super strong metal skin, he just wants to become more and more powerful in order to kill the Fantastic Four. Why? No reason. He just wants to be powerful and, I guess, rule the world or something. Isn't that what comic book villains all want?

In the end it's all a waste of time. The film is very nice to look at, but is no smarter or innovative than the 1994 version.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer 2007

Set two years later and opening with a focus on Reed and Sue's impending marriage, Rise of the Silver Surfer has a lot more going for it than the previous film. In the first place, the director (Tim Story, again) and the writers acknowledged specific comics as inspirations for the story; in this case we have Fantastic Four #48-50 (the introduction of the Silver Surfer and Galactus), FF #57-60 (where Doom steals the Surfer's powers), and Ultimate Extinction from the Ultimate Galactus Trilogy, although this last source is more for the Surfer's new morphing powers than any plot elements. Unlike the previous attempts, this movie presents a serious, world-threatening, cosmic threat that needs to be dealt with, while dealing with the family drama of getting the wedding together after a number of postponements. This should be a no-brainer.

And yet, it fails on an even greater scale than either of the previous films. Again, I blame the lack of vision on the part of the director and the writers. By setting this story so firmly in a realistic setting, the filmmakers end up crippling all of the brilliantly imaginative elements that made the comics work so well. Again, we have Victor von Doom behaving like Lex Luthor (take your pick of either the Gene Hackman or the Kevin Spacey versions) instead of behaving like Doctor Doom. Luthor and Doom should not have interchangeable personalities. Then we have an American military that can apparently mount huge operations in downtown London, in Germany, and maintain a secret Siberian base without ruffling any diplomatic feathers. As in the 1994 film, the distances between America, Europe, and in this case, Asia, are all easily traveled in no time with very little effort.

And if people (myself included) were upset by the re-imagining of Doctor Doom, than what they did with Galactus in this film is maybe even worse. But to be fair, with the world that Story has set up in these two films, there is no way a traditional Galactus could be incorporated and maintain believability. A giant humanoid in a purple skirt and huge hat would just be ridiculous. But only because there is nothing else in this film world that resonates with the absurd. If we had been dealing with larger than life threats played out with insanely designed technologies, then there could have been a stylistic way in. Just look at the Galactus cut scenes in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance video game for proof. Instead the filmmakers take the Galactus concept from Ultimate Extinction, but water it down from the hive mind of machines that devour planets to what is, for all intents and purposes, a giant space cloud.

A ridiculous giant space cloud.

Another change made for the sake of limiting the scale of the story to the limited imagination of the creators has to do with the Surfer. He gets his powers from his board. Without the board he becomes just a gray man, losing his shiny silver look and becoming another boring visual effect. When this is combined with the lackluster, at best, voiceover work by Laurence Fishburne, the Silver Surfer loses most of the spark that makes him such a great character. He's not cosmic; he just has a cosmic tool, which can of course then be stolen and flown around on by Doom, who again has no motivation beyond wanting to rule the world, whatever that means.

We have a number of setpiece action sequences that are livened up by having the characters swap powers whenever Johnny touches someone. This builds up to the big Doom/FF fight where Johnny grabs everyone's powers and beats the crap out of Doom as though he were the Super Skrull. The power switching only seems included to allow Michael Chiklis to be seen without his Thing suit and to provide for another moment of humiliating Sue by making her appear naked before a crowd of strangers (she swaps powers with Johnny and when she bursts into flames her clothes burn up, leaving her naked on the street when she changes back).

All of this is a distraction from what should be the main focus of the film: the coming of Galactus. You remember. The big scary cloud. To give the visual effects team some credit, there are intimations that whatever is at the heart of the cloud might have a shape similar to Galactus' helmet. We see the outline in shadows and in flames, but that's it. And rather than rely on any of the skills or plans of the FF, in the end, Galactus is defeated when the Silver Surfer, his herald and servant, who is given his power through the grace and will of Galactus, suddenly has enough power to destroy his master. Something he apparently could have done at any time in the past, but because Sue is hot and nice, he chooses to do it here. The Fantastic Four are useless. Oh yeah, did I mention that Sue dies? Yeah, Doom kills her. But don't worry, the Surfer is apparently cosmic Jesus and brings her back to life before going off to blow up the big cloud.

Then Reed and Sue get married. The end.

Final Thoughts

I would hesitate to recommend any of these films, unless you have children you want to distract for an afternoon and even then there are far better choices. Any of the animated versions of the FF are more interesting and entertaining when taken as a whole. And while the 1994 film is by no means good, when compared to newest interpretations, it has a lot of idealistic charm. 2005's Fantastic Four is a big, shiny spectacle that can be fun if you don't think about it too much, but it lacks a fundamental respect for the source material, and dumbs down the entire concept. Rise of the Silver Surfer really isn't worth anyone's time, and the drop-off in box office returns can be seen as a sign that maybe viewers are getting bored with unimaginative, derivative, simplistic fistfights. The only person I know who really enjoyed this film was five years old and liked the Silver Surfer because he was shiny and flew around really fast.

The Fantastic Four are larger than life characters. When mundane elements are made the central focus of the stories, the stories suffer. Without a sense of the absurd and an embrace of their inherent melodrama, there's no way to make a truly successful film with this property. Regardless of the amount of money that is thrown at the screen, or the quality of the actors, if the script, the design, and the direction aren't able to conceive of a science fiction world that goes beyond what we can see outside our window (or have seen in other, better films), then this property will never be utilized properly. Unless a director and writer can be found who want to bring something of higher quality than the Saturday morning cartoon to life on the big screen, there isn't any reason to make any more of these films. And to be quite honest, I think the same can be said for the comics.

There is a rumor going around that if another sequel is going to be made, the villain for the piece could either be the Puppetmaster (Alicia's stepfather) or The Mole Man. If the current creative team is in charge, my money is on it being the Puppetmaster. It's easy to think of stupid scenarios and silly one-liners for that character, and it requires very little imagination to write about mind-controlled people. The Mole Man demands underground kingdoms, destruction on a massive scale, and giant monsters. None of these things fit into the limited imaginations in charge of the property at the moment.

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