Columns > Published on July 13th, 2015

Fantastic 4's Film Failures

There was a time when I had a personal policy: Support comics, see every comic book movie that comes out.

This was not a good policy.

Things might be crappy, but it's just more fun to believe they might be good, even if that belief can only last until the movie actually comes out.

Elektra. Daredevil. The third installments of X-Men and Spider-Man. Both Ghost Rider filmsPunisher. Punisher: War Zone sober. All bad policy-based decisions.

Of course, this policy also extended to two Fantastic Four movies. 2005's Fantastic Four and 2007's Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer.

Both movies featured the super team of Mr. Fantastic with his power of stretchy stretchiness, Sue Storm and her invisibility ability, Johnny Storm, the hothead with the fiery temper and flame powers, and Ben Grimm, the Thing. The Thing is a hideous rock monster whose life is stolen from him. It's actually kind of sad. There's nothing cute or funny to say about it.

Wait, Ben Grimm rocks! We did it!

In preparation for the new Fantastic Four movie (and yes, I PREPARE for movies because I'm that guy), I watched Fantastic Four and Rise of the Silver Surfer. And I watched another, lesser-known Fantastic Four movie, the unreleased Fantastic Four from 1994.

Famed director Roger Corman (Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven, A Bucket of Blood and of course, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent) took the helm for a Fantastic Four flick that was eventually purchased by Marvel executive Avi Arad, who attempted to wipe the movie from existence.

I watched all 3 of these movies over the last 24 hours. All three were failures. Here's why.

Fantastic Four (1994)

The plot of this movie concerned a film producer who wanted to retain film rights, and in order to do so he had to make a cheap movie really fast. Also, some kind of diamond-powered laser was plot-critical.

Is that enough detail? Okay, fine. I'll do it for real.

Reed Richards, along with his science friend Victor Von Doom, are studying space nonsense in a lab when Von Doom gets hit by magic lightning.

One sentence into this summary and I used the phrase "magic lightning." Oy.

Doom gets hit by the magic lighting and appears to be dead.

Cut to ten years later. I'm not skipping anything. The movie says "Ten Years Later." It's important to jam ten years into the timeline because Sue Storm was a child in the first sequence, and now she's merely 25 years younger than Reed Richards and love can bloom. "Bloom" meaning "be assisted by bad parenting boner pills".

Reed Richards decides it would be a good idea to do a space mission for some reason. He builds up a ragtag crew: the aforementioned Sue Storm, now a woman. Johnny Storm, who has grown up to be a boring Seth-Green-a-like. And Ben Grimm, a muscle guy. Because if there's one thing you need in space, it's a muscle guy. Just in case space gets pushy.

Reed designs this amazing spaceship, a design for which he recently acquired the final necessary component, a giant diamond. A giant diamond being the only thing that could dissipate space heat or something. Who cares.

Unfortunately, this giant diamond that's somehow crucial to the operation of a spaceship is stolen by a mole man named The Jeweler, who replaces the giant diamond with a look alike giant diamond. Perhaps a veiled message about trying to pass off a cubic zirconia, you cheap bastards.

The team launches into space, unaware their diamond has been replaced. As they enter some kind of space something, because of the inferior quality of their ship's diamond, the four are bathed in rays and they gain superpowers. Reed turns rubbery and can change shape, Johnny can control fire and shoot it out of his body, and Ben turns into a super strong rock man. Oh, and Sue can turn invisible, which is confused for being intangible throughout the entire movie. She may actually be dead and manifests as a ghost only in Reed's tortured mind. I'm not sure. I'd have to give it a second watch to confirm this theory.

Meanwhile, on Earth, The Jeweler has revealed that he plans to use the giant diamond as a wedding present for a blind woman he's never met before. This blind woman also just so happens to be in love with Ben Grimm based on a brief meeting where Ben smashed a piece of art she made. It's the classic romantic tale. Boy meets girl. Oafish boy smashes girl's art. Girl is blind and captured by mole people and given a giant diamond that was a crucial component in a spaceship. Fortunately, her boyfriend is a rock monster and can rescue her with punching.

Also meanwhile, also on Earth, Von Doom reveals he's still alive, and he decides to take the diamond from The Jeweler in order to power a laser that can destroy New York City.

And from there it's pretty much a poorly-choreographed fight scene that ends in a special effects spectacular. "Spectacular" being a VERY strong word for this:

Perhaps the best part, Doom falls off the edge of his evil fortress lair castle place, and Reed reaches down and catches him with stretch power. As Doom dangles below, he continues to taunt Reed, telling Reed he's too gutless to drop someone to their death. Doom makes no pretense about changing his life as Reed struggles to pull him up, and Doom seems to expend a lot of energy explaining just what a jerk he's going to be if Reed would just hurry the hell up and save him. Then Doom's glove comes off and he falls to his doo...demise.

Sue and Reed get married. The end.

Most Fantastic Failure: The Stretch

Let's put aside the effects and the acting and the nonsense plot and the look of the movie and, honestly, let's put a lot aside.

This movie does a really annoying thing that a lot of superhero movies still do today, even with bigger budgets and better effects options.

People in movies get powers, and then they just sort of bumble into being superheroes. We waste a half hour getting to the superpower, which we all know are coming because the movie is based on a comic book property and there's a FIRE GUY ON THE POSTER. We wait a half hour to see anything remotely super, but we can't spend five minutes on the all-important second origin?

A second origin is what I call it when a superhero story has an explanation for the way a person got powers, and then a second, separate explanation of why the person decides to fight crime.

Spider-Man is bitten by a radioactive spider. And then his uncle is killed, spurring him to fight crime and save others from the same heartbreak.

Batman is the same, but in reverse. His parents are killed, he decides to fight crime, and then the origin of his powers follows, usually represented in comics by a splash page that shows Bruce Wayne in a dojo, lifting weights, and mixing stuff in a test tube while he wears a lab coat.

The Fantastic Four get powers and then...then they fight evil.

Honestly, Marvel Comics tend to have weak power origins. Gamma radiation, spider radiation, really rad steroids, toxic waste in the face. It's the second origin, the Why, that makes these characters great. And it's this second origin that's sorely missed in Fantastic Four.

 Fantastic Four (2005)

Okay, I'll give this summary a shot too.

The movie opens with Reed Richards and Ben Grimm staring up at a giant, black, metal statue of Victor Von Doom, captain of industry. Just in case you didn't know who is going to end up as the bad guy, one of the characters is named Von Doom and erects enormous, terrifying statues of himself.

Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Sue Storm and Johnny Storm go into space with Victor Von Doom in order to study some kind of energy thing. Unfortunately, Reed miscalculates the timing on the energy thing, seeming to confuse minutes for hours, and because of this miscalculation the group is bathed in cosmic radiation. Which is why the movie was originally called Fantastic Four: Reed Richards' Whoopsiswoodle.

Back on Earth, the team, seemingly okay, retreats to Von Doom's secret medical base, which is in the Alps and the rainforest and also within walking distance of Brooklyn. I'm not an East Coast guy, so maybe this is what the Hamptons are(?).

Everyone's powers manifest. Johnny Storm uses his powers to be fire and snowboard and ride a dirt bike. Sue uses her invisibility to strip naked and then be a mostly-naked Jessica Alba. Reed uses his stretching to reach really far away on a chalkboard and also to get toilet paper from another room, presumably while he's taking a dump. Ben uses his rock monster form to cause a traffic jam on a bridge, smash a dozen cars, and repulse his wife, who decides to show up moments after Ben's first heroic act and divorce him in front of everyone based solely on his looks. Von Doom has also manifested the power to be made of metal and shoot electricity and be the evil jerk we all knew was deep down inside.

Reed Richards makes a machine that turns Ben Grimm back into human form, but Ben ends up deciding to turn back into a rock man in order to punch Dr. Doom and redirect a fire hydrant, defeating him.

Oh, and Kerrie Washington plays a very likable, blind, magical black person. The end.

Most Fantastic Failure: They Didn't Start The Fire

Charisma. Charisma can make all the difference in a superhero movie. It's hard to imagine, for instance, Iron Man working without Robert Downey Jr. A lot of actors would have made Tony Stark an unwatchable jerk. Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark is definitely a jerk, but damn is he a watchable one.

Can we run through the charismometer for Fantastic Four?

Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic

While not a horrible actor by any stretch (HA!), boy was this dude boring. You can give the movie reality points for portraying a science genius as someone who may not be electrifying as a personality. But overall, the character was flat. (Ha!? Also a joke because he can flatten himself as well as stretching, and...never mind. No one cares. I don't even care.)

Jessica Alba as Sue Storm

With Jessica Alba, it's hard to separate whether she's awful or has pursued exclusively awful projects. She's supposed to be a scientist in this movie, and I would have enjoyed if she'd done one science thing. That's a low standard. One science thing. Other than starring as the least scientific scientist in FF, Alba's probably best known for her role as the abdomen from Sin City or the person who is confused in my mind with Jessica Biel, who is best known for her role where she fights a sentient jet plane. I don't want to just talk shit, but let's put it this way: There are people who I see on a cast list and I fist-pump. And there are people who, eh, not so much.

Chris Evans as Johnny Storm

I'm a Chris Evans convert. I was not so much sold on the guy based on his frattish bro of a Human Torch. He's since turned in some good performances in Scott Pilgrim and Snowpiercer, and his Captain America is a bit bland, although that's certainly the idea. But man, this guy has the most fun in Fantastic Four, and still he's kinda unwatchable. I guess I just don't care much about a space captain/X-Games Winner/snowboarder/superhero/guy with awesome sports car/motorcyclist who makes out with a girl in a convertible while he motorcycles alongside her on what appears to be a private dirt road that leads to a spaceship. Something about that is a tad difficult to relate to...

Michael Chiklis as The Thing

Oh. This one hurts. This is the real missed opportunity. Because Michael Chiklis is a pretty watchable dude. When he's not buried by Nerf and a script that pulls punches, anyway.

There's a point in this movie where they almost, ALMOST get there with The Thing. He can't pick up a glass without destroying it, he can't take a bite of food without taking a bite of his fork too, and when he smashes a bar stool and falls flat on his back, he hits a complete low in terms of dignity.

This is one of the only superhero movies where I actually feel that terrible burden. Spider-Man, I don't buy it. Spider-Man has a tragic back story, but swinging all around New York City looks pretty damn fun. And god forbid the Man of Steel cracks a smile while he's flying around the Earth. Batman's a dour dude, but c'mon. Sweet car? Your own airplane? Michael Caine? Substitute grandpa Michael Caine? Michael Caine can be my substitute grandpa any time. That sounds sexual. That's mostly non-sexual, I assure you. Mostly.

The Thing, he had to give up a lot, and this movie almost got across the idea that with great power comes great suckiness of being a lump of orange rocks.

But. The movie just couldn't live in the pathos. They kept pulling their punches. It seems like every time we're on the cusp of something real, someone shits on the moment. Or a pigeon does, anyway.

Fantastic Four just doesn't deliver anyone I want to watch on screen. I get excited when Hulk shows up in the Avengers movies. I'm happy to see J.K. Simmons kill it as J. Jonah Jameson. But there's just nobody in Fantastic Four that brings me joy to see on screen. Your characters don't have to be heroic or even nice. Just make them people I want to watch.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Phew. One more.

Now, I have to level. I hadn't seen this one for a couple years, and although I found it streaming, it was not in a language I understood. Nor was it a language I could identify.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that the English dialog would have improved the movie a lot.

It's a true sequel, so we have our same characters, same actors.

The Silver Surfer arrives on Earth, and he flies around on a chrome surfboard and disturbs the environment in some weird way, also accidentally re-awakening Victor Von Doom.

The Surfer makes a giant hole in the ground right next to that Ferris wheel in London, the London Eye. You know, that big Ferris wheel that they call "the Eye" because that's the creepiest name ever for a ride? The Silver Surfer almost knocks that thing over, sort of on accident, and then the Fantastic Four show up and save London with America's greatest export, grit. Wait, no. In this movie, America's greatest export is orange rock men. My mistake.

The Fantastic Four capture the Silver Surfer with the help of Von Doom (they somehow let him help, don't ask me why) and the military (who help by shooting a missile when they shouldn't, and then correct that error by shooting a dozen more useless missiles).

After capturing the Surfer, the Four immediately decide they shouldn't have done so. It turns out the Surfer is just a herald for Galactus, a giant space cloud that eats planets. If you're unfamiliar with the concept and duties of heraldry, think of the Surfer as a super powered warm-up act. He comes out, tells a few jokes, bores holes in the Earth, and then the crowd is ready for the main event.

In the meantime, the evil asshole WHOSE NAME IS DOOM AND HOW DOES NO ONE PICK UP ON THIS takes the Surfer's board and uses it to fly around and break stuff and be generally powerful and evil.

Johnny Storm absorbs the powers of all the members of the Fantastic Four, negating the entire point of the group dynamic, and beats Doom by himself. The Surfer's board is returned, and then Galactus arrives to eat the Earth. Luckily, the Surfer has decided to betray Galactus and kill him, mostly because Sue Storm looks like someone the Surfer loved on his alien home planet. So the good news here is that alien ladies look like Jessica Alba. The bad news is that they look like Jessica Alba with a bad wig and weird blue contact lenses and like they're sleepwalking through a script about chrome aliens or whatever.

Most Fantastic Failure: The Invisible Movie

This movie has an uncanny ability to NOT show viewers what they want to see.

I want to see The Thing clobber something. I want Mr. Fantastic to stretch. I want to see the Torch light stuff on fire, and the Invisible Woman...I don't want to see her at all, I guess. I want her to be invisible and using her powers, is the point.

The Torch chases the Silver Surfer. The four save some foreign Ferris wheel. The Thing yells at a bear and drives a crane. And then we get to Galactus, who, instead of being a giant purple guy like in the comics, is a swirly cloud of nothing. Just a big dustball of nothing.

I guess we don't have time for all the fights in the world. But you know what we DO have time for? We have time for some of the most shameless product placement of all time. Reed Richards makes a Fantasticar, a flying car that splits into four separate flying cars. He unveils it, and it has a Dodge emblem on the front, presumably because it was made from an old truck? Because he made a hovercar from a Dodge truck? Somehow? And if that wasn't enough, Johnny asks if it has a Hemi.

Arguments about the efficiency and power provided by combustion chambers with domed cylinder heads aside, especially when a vehicle is performing at moderate power levels as opposed to full throttle, goddamn was that product placement hard to swallow.

I want to see superheroes do super stuff. I don't want to see them attend two separate weddings. I want to see a giant guy come from outer space to eat the planet, not a dust swirl. Basically, I want some stuff to happen, and I'd like to SEE that stuff.

I guess what I'm asking for here is a motion picture of sorts.

Fantastic Four (2015): The Rock-Hard Sell

What will become of the newest entry in the Fantastic Four movie collection? What can we expect?

I like the casting of Michael B. Jordan. And Billy Elliott as The Thing is pretty different, but it's worked in the past. Hugh Jackman was a Broadway dude before his turn as Wolverine. Heath Ledger was a pretty boy from that knight movie that had a Queen song in it.

Really, the movie is going to be what it's going to be. And my choice comes down to how I react to it as a fan.

I can let bitter experience be my guide. This is definitely the smart choice. Fantastic Four's have been anything but.

But I choose to be the kind of fan that imagines possibility. Things might be crappy, but it's just more fun to believe they might be good, even if that belief can only last until the movie actually comes out.

Let's put it this way. In a couple weeks we'll know if the new movie is good or terrible. I've got my entire life to confirm that something terrible is, in fact, terrible. But I've only got a couple weeks to hope that it'll be (I'm doing it) fantastic.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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