Friday, July 22, 2005

The Kind of Allright Four

I know that I kick-started this weblog so that I could have a place to write about comic books, for the most part. So please forgive me this indulgence, dear reader, as I post my thoughts on the latest comic-to-screen adaptation, The Fantastic Four.

This has been a great summer for comic book adaptations. I know that other than FF, there’s only been one, but it was probably the best comic book film I’ve seen hit the screen since Donner’s original Superman. That film is Batman Begins. I saw it in the theaters three times, and while this may not seem like an epic number, given the amount of films on my list of “need to see”, repeat showings of anything is quite a commitment on my part. So in my mind, no matter what came on screen for Fantastic Four, comic fans made out like bandits this year.

Luckily that was my mind set, since so much of this film is either boring, terrible, or frustrating. Frustrating for the most part because the filmmakers got so many things dead-on. The movie became a roller coaster of “That’s brilliant!” and “Oh, GOD… that sucks!”

What’s good? They absolutely nailed so many relationships in a movie that should have been, in the end, about family relationships. The questionable hiring of Tim Story was sworn up and down by Avi Arad to be based on his views of family. So I was pleased as punch that Ben would do anything for Reed, and Reed was racked with guilt after the quartet are exposed to cosmic rays. Reed was totally oblivious and accidentally romantic when it came to his feelings for Sue, and Sue was always trying to keep Johnny in check. I was excited that they managed to capture these interactions on screen, but whenever all four characters were together, it lost something. They never seemed to gel as a group; they never seemed to really care for each other as a whole.

A big part of that, I feel, comes from the mishandling of Invisible Woman. There were many complaints about Jessica Alba in the role, but the problem was not so much the casting. I think the casting sprung from this new version of the character, which was nothing more than the "prize" for Reed to win from Doom. Unfortunately by putting her at a standoffish position with Reed, she comes off less matronly and protective and more just kind of, for lack of a better word, bitchy. I think that threw the dynamic way off.

For a movie with only one real female character, you'd think they'd have handled her in a better way. Not only was she reduced to the aforementioned trophy for Reed and Doom to fight over, but also over the course of 90 minutes, how many times did she get half-naked on screen? Twice in public, one shot of her in nothing but a towel when Reed walks into the bathroom, and then the super-ridiculous shot of her when they introduce the space-suits, with the zipper half-way down to her naval. Another female character was Ben Grimm’s wife, who not only came off as superficial when she shuns him after his transformation, but when Ben calls his wife who is waiting for him at home in lingerie, she leaves her apartment, in New York, late at night, without putting a robe on! It was all a bit shameless... There was no real need for Alicia Masters to be there at all, and the actress playing her did an abominable job. I was relieved that I went with one of my guy friends instead of my girlfriend, as she would have been fuming.

And Doom, poor, poor Dr. Doom... while I didn't really mind his general design that much (I've heard a lot of "GQ" comments and quips from people about his new trench-coat instead of a cloak), it seemed absolutely no thought was put into him after the first act. The very first shot of the movie is Ben and Reed staring up at a statue of Doom being erected in front of his building. The fact that it was 20 feet tall and in front of an already massive building was unbelievably hard-core Dr. Doom. When the pair reaches his office, he's shrouded in darkness listening, sitting above the two of them... note perfect! I loved, loved, loved the design of his office, and thought they did a good job setting up his vanity and from that his jealousy of Reed... I pretty much did flips for the entirety of this movie before they get onto the space station.

Once there, logic takes a complete field day (SPOILER WARNING)... why was Doom in space with them? Why were they the only five people there, for that matter? How does Torch just walk out of the Doom complex when they’re quarantined, don't they have security? Where does he get a helicopter for snowboarding? When the Thing causes the huge pile-up and accident, the rest of the team just HAPPEN to be on the bridge, and able to get to him in moments?

The big introduction of the four using their powers was The Bridge Scene, and oh how I hated it. The whole thing was shoddy. After the Thing and Reed save some firemen, they're celebrated as heroes, despite the fact that the Thing was the cause of the mess to begin with. People don’t seem afraid of the giant orange rock monster at all. Johnny and Sue didn't really do anything terribly visible or big that would have gotten them the same attention of Reed and Ben, but they're labeled the Fantastic Four by the press immediately. Doom continues to spiral into madness by the fact that they get all the press, and their appearance sends his company’s stock into a windfall. Why wouldn't the fact that they were heroes and public media darlings bolster Doom's stock instead of dropping it?

More things that skipped logic were to come: If you're going to change Dr. Doom to the point of giving him electricity powers and making his skin metal, why put him behind a mask? My friend James actually yelled out reflexively "NO IT ISN'T!" when they said the temperature of the Sun was 4000 degrees.

For what was one of the most original comics of its time, they stole way too much from other movies for me to let it pass. The Human Torch "Going Nova" was "crossing the streams" from Ghostbusters, to the point where the lines "but that's bad" were taken right from the latter. The power chamber taking away the Thing’s powers was from Superman 2. While I can understand giving the Thing the heroic sacrifice of going back to a rock-monster, they took all the pathos out of the character at the end when he declines Reed’s offer to change him back to human. Doom’s arc was stolen almost completely from Spider-Man, but unlike Norman Osborne, Doom had no rhyme or reason to his actions. Green Goblin was well developed, and was crazy but attacked Spider-Man for a real reason. Doom seemed to become a super-villain just because. He did things because if he didn't, there would be no big fight at the end. Seeing one of the greatest villains in comics history reduced to this saddened me.

These are all script problems, and can be overlooked if the general craft of the movie is well done, if the action is compelling, and the special effects are shiny. But I was bored for a lot of this movie. I think Tim Story doesn't know how to pace action. He hasn't directed action before, so maybe he was a poor choice to direct. I can't really forgive the fact that I was bored during a movie with a guy who was on fire.

Damn if he didn't look good on fire. The torch effect was beautiful, as was the invisible girl's look. The Thing’s rubber suit looked too much like, well, a rubber suit for me, and I didn't like the CGI for Reed as much as I liked the way they used it. The image of him writing on the chalkboard six feet away was so perfectly Reed Richards to me. There were more iconic character bits they got right through the movie, the Thing crushing Johnny's car up really got a smile out of me. I think all the actors did as best they could within the limitations of what I felt to be a sub-par screenplay. Because when the page got the characters right, the actors seemed to run with it. Iaon Guffard doing Reed exceeded my expectations on every level.

In the end, what frustrated me was that they got so many things right that I loved, and still managed to muck a few, key things up so badly it ruined the experience for me. It was like if someone had edited Spider-Man and Elektra together, where one minute I'm completely into what's going on, and the next I'm either bored or appalled. Luckily it did well it's opening weekend, and still managed to hold on behind two huge movies (New Wonka and Wedding Crashers), so maybe we'll get a sequel? Generally Superhero sequels seem to be better than the first film, mostly because they can skip a lot of exposition and focus on characters. And past the flames, the stretchiness, and the rock-monsters, character is really what the Fantastic Four is about.


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