Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fantastic 4

"It's CLOBBERIN' Time!"
"This Movie!...This Monster!"

The latest Marvel superhero movie to come out is the third attempt to make a viable tent-pole of one of the comics line's most venerable titles—the first to be published by Marvel, The Fantastic Four. Four friends who, on a space mission, are turned into super-heroes by a bombardment of radiation, the four—"Mr. Fantastic" (Reed Richards), who can stretch, "The Invisible Woman" (Sue Storm) who can turn invisible, "The Human Torch" (Sue's brother Johnny), who turns into a flying human fire-ball, and "The Thing" (Ben Grimm), who is turned into a super-strong rock-like bi-ped. Together, "they fight crime" (as the cliche goes), but for this relatively human team, the challenges were more cosmic and more mind-bending as they had to contend with threats from other galaxies and other dimensions (drawn from the seemingly endless imaginative ink-well of Jack "The King" Kirby), while, at the same time, serving up the mandatory Marvel "soap opera" quotient with Reed and Sue's love story, Johnny's hipster hot-head, and Grimm's impenetrable angst over being an unlovable freak. With its combination of mind-blowing themes and (*choke*) tear-duct-blowing melodrama, it became a big hit with teens and the college-crowd.
Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben as rendered by Jack Kirby
It was self-trumpeted (a bit prematurely on the cover of issue #4) as "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" but the appeal of the FF couldn't be denied. Attempts were made in 1994 (under the producing of Roger Corman and is the ONLY film in his low-budget exploitation career that was NEVER released) and revived again in 2005 (with Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis and a flaming Chris Evans, as well as the guy who got crushed by a container on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Andreas) in two films (Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) that were a bit premature in the new wave of CGI mounted comic-book films. Those two FF movies are consigned to "The Zero Zone," along with Ben Affleck's Daredevil movie.

The 90's FF (Hyde-White, Staab, Underwood and Smith) and the 00's FF (Alba, Gruffud, Evans and Chiklis)

But, it seems there must be a "Fantastic Four" movie attempted every decade from now on. The latest, Fantastic 4, is no improvement on the others. The cast is younger, more diverse (despite fan-boy grumbling—the most conservative of critics), the effects improved, and an attempt has been made to update the story and make it more hi-tech for the 21st century. That it ultimately fails leads one to question if it's one of those properties that just doesn't work in any other medium than the four-color comic. Or it makes one question if any other studio than one working in tandem with Marvel can produce anything decent. The director of this one, Josh Trank (who made the interesting Chronicle) has gone public, grousing that studio interference messed up his vision of Lee and Kirby's vision.
The origin story does need some updating, however, now that we're out of the 1960's of the Four's re-birth and into the 21st century. Instead of doing some experimental space-travel, the four and their co-worker Victor Von Doom (an eye-rolling name that, if anything needed to be changed, should have been a priority), instead, are exploring matter transference—a working "transporter" being a dream project of Richards' (in this case, Miles Teller) since he was a boy. At a science fair where he demonstrates a break-through, he's invited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, in a performance that is quite...well, "restrained" would be a nice way of putting it) to join a team involving his son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), and banished upstart Von Doom (Toby Kebbel) to see the project through to completion. But before a NASA administrator (Tim Blake Nelson) can start trials, Reed, Johnny, Victor and Reed's boy-hood chum Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell—remember him as Tintin in Steven Spielberg's film?  Of course you don't—you won't remember him in this, either, as his part is mostly motion-capture) who's there for some inexplicable reason, decide they're going to test it on themselves first. The mission does not go well, affecting the travelers in variant and horrific ways—it also alters Sue Storm, who is left back at the control room for some reason, but suffers the consequences, anyway.
Sue, Johnny, Dr. Storm and "Vic" von Doom.
Von Doom is left on the "Zero Planet" (as it's called), while Reed's body is turned malleable, Johnny erupts in flames, Sue turns invisible, and Ben is changed into a rock-like monster. It is horrific for all, but the NASA suits see them as an opportunity for weaponization (after some experimentation), but Reed slithers out of his shackles and escapes the complex they're being held in against their will, vowing he will free the others and turn them back to normal. For those left behind, Reed is simply a turncoat and to the government he's a threat. This takes a good hour to set up and less than that to resolve, including a return to the Hell-Planet, where the four confront Von Doom who is constructing one of those Marvel movie things that throw off an energy stream that shoots up into the sky, but you have no idea why.*
A lot of it looks good—there's a subdued color palette and a tendency to dimly light things that give it the look of a good old fashioned horror movie, which when you have people disappearing, disfigured and on fire isn't much of a stretch (hey, I just described everybody's powers in one sentence!). But, there is an awful lot wrong with it. One could nit-pick over dialogue and acting and failures in logic and potential throughout this movie. But, simply put, there are four key errors in this Fantastic 4 that makes it unique among bad super-hero movies.
1.  Consider the Source: The Fantastic 4 are superheroes at their most puerile, designed to impose a family structure on disaffected little boys. They are instantly recognizable as Mom and Dad (Reed and Sue) and the bickering kids (Ben and Johnny). Whatever conflicts they go through (and they go through a lot internally and externally), the family dynamic pulls them through. That's one thing that's consistent about the Fantastic Four and part of its basic DNA. In this film, however, "family" is given lip service. The group is quarantined after the accident and restrained by the NASA industrialists and the four turn into factions—Johnny and Sue against Ben and everybody against Reed, "the turncoat," who has escaped and seemingly abandoned the other three. Nobody trusts anybody and its every man and woman for themselves until Dr. Doom (Bwa-ha-HA!) serves as an over-arching threat that unites them. Up until the last few minutes of the film, they're not even a team at all and are actually pissed at each other. This is so fundamentally opposed to the appeal of the original concept, it may be the biggest mistake of the film. If you're going to make a superhero film about a creation that's 55 years old, at least realize what it is that's made it last so long.
2. Did You Know That You're My Hero?: That's the thing about super-heroes. They are us but better. Smarter, faster, stronger, and certainly more altruistic to the point where the whole genre might be considered science-fiction, given the proclivities of the populace. They train themselves to make use of their gifts in the service of others, and if something should befall them—a spider-bite, a lightning strike, or a birthright—they seek its use for the betterment of their neighbors. Sure, the Fantastic Four may have turned into embodiments of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and..Rubber, but rather than grieving, drinking and saying "how do I fix this?" they use their new handicaps, and in that very tendency they are heroes. That's not what you get here. You don't get heroes, you get victims. The explosion of the transporter makes everybody helpless and easy prey for the militarists hoping to exploit the four by "helping" them. And Reed is so beset by guilt, he wants to "fix it."** So he runs away to become a super-genius Ted Kaczynski in the woods. The victimization of the Fantastic Four here aligns them with most of the other Marvel heroes—and not just the Marvels, but others of the sub-genus—making the origins part and parcel of the cause they fight for. But that was never the Fantastic Four in the comics. There was not too much brooding to be done over their conditions (except for Ben), not when there were whatzit's to invent and cosmic crises to insert themselves into. The 4, for the most part, accepted what happened and moved on, making the most of the situation.  It would be nice to see more of that.
3. Sometimes Origin Stories Don't Matter: The origin of The Fantastic Four is completely unremarkable and gives no purpose to their being—an accident that changes them and inspires them to make lemonade out of lemons. In the comics, they are all gifted in some way (even Ben Grimm is a test-pilot, which is why he's on board the doomed space-ship) and their instincts are to use those gifts for some greater purpose. That origin does not make a mission—to find the person responsible, to prevent the same thing from happening to others or such. And yet the "How-They-Came-To-Be" story is trotted out like that's the thing to do. Unfortunately, that story (which provides no "hook" to a franchise) takes up more than half the movie, time that could have been better spent on anything else. Like story or character or "Something Big." It would have been far better to start in media res—assume the group simply is and concentrate on something world-shaking that they have to overcome. As it is, the movie is extraordinarily lop-sided, the majority of it being Origin Story followed by 15 Minutes of Action, and rather negligible action at that. Really, all they do at the end is beat Dr. Doom up and turn his "Whatever-It-Is" against him. If you're going to make a superhero movie...
4. Make it ABOUT Something, Damn It!:  There isn't much of a story here besides the origin, a quick confrontation with the motivation-less villain, and then the movie ends without the group having a purpose...merely a headquarters. Maybe that's to make the whole thing seem more in line with The Avengers, but that group has a goal before they decide to move in together, and without that there is certainly no triumph to the ending, merely a mortgage. There is no reason for the team to exist. They beat up Dr. Doom and that's it. What's the point to continuing the series—to find a cure for the mutations, to perfect the errant experiment that caused them, to block it from happening again (as it appears to be a bad place), to establish a support group for Zero Planet victims—what's the job? Hopefully, that HQ has a meeting room with a white-board or something so they can figure it out before the next movie (despite the poor box-office, Fox is already talking one up...for now).

In the end, it's all false advertising—it's not the comics and only resembles it in name and powers—and right down to the name: Not so fantastic.  And if you're into rating movies, only 1 out of 4. 
Reed Richards can make himself look like anything with that stretch-power.
So why does he choose to look so dumpy?

* Marvel Comics was always soft on science—there always seemed to be a scene where the four were looking up at some huge cosmic something-or-other with dialogue that summarized "I don't know what it is, but it sure is BIG!" 

The Marvel movie equivalent seems to be "I don't know what it does, but it sure spits out a lot of sparks!"
"I don't know what it is, but it sure is BIG!"
** Reed does want to help Ben Grimm in the comics, as that character is his friend and the most traumatized by the "accident." Everybody else is fine with their powers and set about how to use them and improving them.

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