Monday, July 11, 2005

My Fantastic Four thoughts

So, the Fantastic Four. This is where having been around comic books for literally every moment that I can remember becomes an anchor: It is very difficult to talk about the film and not think of the comic book. However, I came of age when the Super Friends and Captain Marvel (or as you probably better know the character, Shazam!) were being first run on Saturday morning; unlike what appears to be most of my comic-reading brethren, see, e.g., the comments at Ain’t It Cool News, I am more than willing to accept variations from the comic.

Even though many comic fans think comic books are nothing more than ready-made storyboards, the truth is that they are different and that there has to be some changes for the story to translate better for the screen. Do I want there to be changes? Given a choice, I’d say, “No,” mainly because the changes aren’t made in a valid attempt to explain some an otherwise illogical convention of a series (such as Spider-Man’s web-shooters being a part of him rather than an invention of Peter Parker), but rather made because someone is embarrassed by some aspect (such as Bryan Singer refusing to have the X-Men dress in their traditional, more “super heroey” costumes in favor of the black leather Matrix look). My hope is always that the changes are minimal and those things inherently important to the comic book do move to the screen, allowing a broader audience to see why a comic book is deserving of a movie. Very few comic book movies succeed in doing that. Until Sin City, where Robert Rodreiquez literally made live-action recreations of scenes from the movie (if you check out the previous link, click on “behind the scenes” and you’ll see what I mean), only The Rocketeer, in my opinion, was the only comic book truly transformed into a movie and even that film took liberties from the original source, thought that had to have been because of licensing issues over the use of Doc Savage.

The only honest way to look at Fantastic Four is to divorce myself from all that I know of the comic. Difficult, but possible, I think.

The honest-to-God truth is that this isn’t a bad movie. It is an average movie made on a moderate budget with a B-list cast. I knew that this was not going to be the movie to open on the Fourth of July weekend, as it was originally scheduled, because the turnaround was too fast: An effects heavy movie, to generate summer excitement, I think needs a year of post-production to do the effects justice. FF wrapped principle filming just before Christmas 2004 and reshoots ended in April. With that schedule, I think it is safe to say that FF could never be this year’s Spider-Man.

(As an aside, I am also very forgiving of effects work, especially after growing up watching Star Trek (the original). Unlike, I think, 99.98 % of the human population, when I read a book or watch a movie, I am always aware that I am doing those things; I never am swept into the world I am reading or watching. For me, effects are only crude approximations of the fantastic and suspension of disbelief is required. No one is more fat and passive than I am when it comes to entertainment, but using your imagination to fill in the shaky bits is not necessarily a bad thing. It is evocative of the laziness and cynicism of the modern audience that any little defect makes the whole movie unpalatable. If a story and dialogue are good enough, I am willing to ignore a green-screen superimposition line around an actor.)

Within the parameters of what the people making the movie were given with regard to money and material, this is a fun movie. No new ground was broken; as presented in the movie Dr. Doom is derivative of Norman Osborn in Spider-Man; but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy myself. There are continuity holes, but, in my opinion in recent memory, only The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense don’t overtly suffer that problem; most movies do. In the end, though, at its core, FF is just an old-fashioned adventure movie and on that level, it succeeds.

Too much has been made of its director, Tim Story, having a background of directing only comedy films, but I think he handled the dramatic and comedic aspects fine. Probably because he has worked in ensemble comedy films, like Barbershop, Story showed an ability to bring out the long-standing connections between the four main characters whereas a director known for action films might not have been as been capable. Like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four may have super powers, but they still are human and the movie should be credited for allowing the bickering and care between them that has always been present in the comic book to be present on the screen.

The cast is fine. Ioan Gruffudd has been knocked around in the fan press for being too young, but I don’t agree; at thirty-one he feels just about the right age for the character. To slip into comic book fan mode for a moment, Reed Richards is the smartest human alive in the Marvel Universe. He whipped through graduate school at an early age and by thirty-one he would have had time to amass the fortune that funds the FF, the fortune that the cinematic Reed has lost in the beginning of the movie. Jessica Alba has also been kicked around for what comes down to being too good looking to be a geneticist. In concept, I could understand that complaint if Alba’s Susan Storm were given Next Generation techno-babble to spout, but she wasn’t required to explain gene splicing, all she had to do was “hit her mark and tell the truth.” I think she did that.

I was leery of Michael Chiklis as the Thing not that he couldn’t play the part, but the fact that he played it in a suit. Well, screw the pictures and my perceptions there from. If everything worked properly, you can see that the movie Thing does resemble Jack Kirby's orignal version of the character.

It worked so much better than I thought it possible and Chiklis deserves credit for staying in the suit. In my opinion, the suit resembles the earliest look of the character. The breakout star from FF is going to be Chris Evans as Johnny Storm, the X-Games Generation’s super hero and every twelve-year-old boy's idol for coolness. The effect of the Human Torch was interesting, Johnny shown to be more of a man on fire rather than a man of fire. The pictures below show you what I mean. From the top down, the first is the first presentation of the Human Torch in 1939, the second is of the Torch from the movie, and the final shows a typical presentation of the character today, along with a more modern rendering of the Thing.

Most important of all, however, the audience enjoyed itself, breaking into applause when the movie ended. The last time I remember that happening was when I saw Saving Private Ryan; not that FF is that caliber of a movie, of course, but that the paying audience enjoyed themselves more than the paid critics really should carry more weight. A quick check of Box Office Mojo shows that the FF has made fifty-six million dollars so far. Assuming that the drop off next weekend is less than fifty percent, there is absolutely no reason that there shouldn’t be a sequel.

In fact, if I were to just consider the opinions of the critics, FF committed the unforgivable sin of coming out after The Incredibles, thus making FF appear inferiorly unoriginal. Personally, I think it is improper to make such comparisons because each movie should be reviewed as an individual work when it is released while comparisons should be left for genre reviews, such as the best super-hero movies ever. In that case, a FF to Incredibles discussion is appropriate, but I digress.

Now that that is taken care of, let the comic book fan in me step up. My biggest complaint is not giving the film audience a truer version of Dr. Doom. There is absolutely no reason to tie Doom’s antagonistic character into the event that creates the FF. There is also no reason to change Doom so to give him super powers. He could have stayed a brilliant man, Salieri to Reed’s Mozart. He could have continued to be the ruler of Latveria. Hell, he could have at least had an eastern European accent. However, all of that would have be forgotten if the movie had ended with a report of a monster bursting out of a Manhattan street and the final image of the movie would have been a recreation of the cover that began this post.

How would I have done a Fantastic Four movie? I would have kept the same cast and director, upped the budget, and increased the pre- and post-production time. I would have changed the story though into almost three discrete acts. In the first, I would have taken the FF’s adventure straight out of their first comic book. Just like in that comic, the audience would have had a mystery: Who were these four and how did they get these powers. The second act would have presented the team’s origin beginning with Reed and Ben meeting in college where they cross paths with Victor Von Doom and his story would be presented. Finally, the team would battle Dr. Doom.

Go see Fantastic Four. Trust me: If you see it at a matinee you won't be disappointed and may even find yourself wishing for more.

All images ™ and © the respective owners.