Film (2005). Twentieth Century Fox/Constantin Film/Marvel Enterprises. Directed by Tim Story. Written by Mark Frost, Michael France, based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cast includes Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd and Julian McMahon. 105 minutes. Colour.
While aboard a Space Station, five astronauts are caught in a cosmic storm that bombards them with radiation (see Rays). Upon their return to earth, they develop Superpowers: the ability to stretch like rubber (Gruffudd, Mr Fantastic), Invisibility and Force Fields (Alba, as the Invisible Girl), flight and power over fire (Evans as the Human Torch), super strength and a rocky carapace (Chiklis, the Thing) and finally for Victor von Doom (McMahon) metal skin and the ability to blast bolts of electricity from his fingertips. Von Doom plots revenge against the others, blaming them for the damage to his body and financial misfortunes. The rest of the group name themselves the Fantastic Four and are revealed publicly when they cause and then clean up a major traffic accident. The Fantastic Four seek a cure for their mutations, but when von Doom tries to destroy them they use their superpowers to defeat him. Victorious, the four decide to keep their powers (and the burdens that go with them), and become a crime-fighting team.
The Fantastic Four was Marvel Comic's first big Superhero success (first appearing in The Fantastic Four #1, November 1961; the title was shortened to Fantastic Four in issue #16 and the comic is still running today), and although its popularity had waned in intervening decades, it remained a flagship title for Marvel. A movie adaptation was inevitable, but Fantastic Four was not the first attempt to transfer the comics to the screen. Apparently, as early as 1992 Constantin Film planned to produce a Fantastic Four film, but the company was about to lose the rights to the property due to the lack of progress being made. Exploitation director Roger Corman was hired to oversee production of The Fantastic Four (1994) with his typical speed and minimal budget. This version, directed by Oley Sassone, was never intended to be shown publicly and was not released, although copies have been shown privately. It was simply a cost-effective way of holding onto the valuable property rights to the superhero team.
Ten years later, Tim Story's Fantastic Four has a hundred times the budget of Sassone's version, but is reportedly no better. Fantastic Four feels like a cheaper movie than it actually is, largely due to the minuscule ambitions of the script, less ambitious indeed than many (comparatively low-budget) television episodes. The Fantastic Four comic offered character balanced with spectacle. The movie devotes a lot of time to the heroes moping around inside, and much of what meagre spectacle remains is irrelevant to the plot (such as the Human Torch discovering his powers while snowboarding). Fantastic Four is arguably rather dull (the worst sin in a comics adaptation) and certainly juvenile. It therefore pales in comparison to such increasingly sophisticated movies being produced from comic books in the same period as X2 (2003) (see X-Men Films), Batman Begins (2005) (see Batman Films) or V for Vendetta (2006) – which are at once more adult and more exciting. The bar had been raised.
But even as an adaptation of the comic, Fantastic Four is unsatisfying. The super-Villain Victor von Doom is emasculated; although the Doctor Doom of the comic is a larger-than-life dictator of an eastern European country, the film portrays Doom as merely a petulant businessman. The heroes are translated with more fidelity, but suffer from flat acting (with the exception of Michael Chiklis' Thing) and hackneyed dialogue. Fantastic Four shows no signs of a love of the comics for their own lurid sake, a quality that has saved several otherwise dubious enterprises as The Crow (1994), and because of this lack it appears a more than usually cynical enterprise, aimed at divesting people generally and teenagers specifically of their money. There must have been some commercial success, to justify the sequel, 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). [JN/PN]
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