A Disappointing Origin Story For The 'Fantastic Four'
Fantastic Four No. 1 arrived as a comic book on newsstands exactly 54 years ago this Saturday, August 8th. Written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the comic book —priced at $0.10 — now looks hopelessly goofy. A dozen exclamation points punctuate the cover alone, which depicts a green monster bursting up through a street in "Central City," because Lee and Kirby had not yet decided to locate their super-team in the nonfictional borough of Manhattan. "I-I can't turn invisible fast enough!!" cries the half-transparent blonde struggling to escape the creature's grasp.
But in its time, Fantastic Four was revolutionary. Its heroes wore no uniforms (though they would later). They had no secret identities. They bickered among themselves like any family.
Most intriguingly, they often regarded their superpowers as a curse. Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards could stretch his body like taffy. Sue "Invisible Girl" Storm could vanish from sight, but also developed telekinesis and the ability to project force fields. Her brother Johnny turned into the The Human Torch, a flying fireball, just by saying "Flame on!" You probably wouldn't want to sit next to him on the bus, but at least Johnny could flame-off when he wanted. Poor Ben Grimm, the blue-collar kid on the team, was permanently transmogrified into giant orange rock monster. Pitifully christened "The Thing," his yearning to be made flesh again gave the early Fantastic Four stories an undercurrent of pathos.
Lee and Kirby would further refine these ideas through the mid-1960s, co-creating The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, and The Uncanny X-Men, all within a few years. (In later decades, they would differ bitterly over who contributed more to these nascent franchises, and Marvel's shoddy treatment of Kirby in particular — whose creations would continue to earn billions long after his death in 1994 — would become a cause-celebre among comics fans and pros alike.)
That is why attempts to turn The Fantastic Four into a movie franchise persist. The X-Men and the Avengers have both become cinematic empires in the 21st century. The Fantastic Four laid the groundwork for both, but at the multiplex, they can't get any respect. The Fantastic Four (1994) was a rush job that was only made so producer Bernd Eichinger's option on the rights wouldn't expire. It survives on YouTube if you're a masochist or a connoisseur of low-budget camp. Fantastic Four (2005) had a nine-figure budget and a talented cast — including future Captain America Chris Evans — but good luck trying to remember it, or its sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer.
With Fantastic Four (2015), the Magna Carta of Marvel super-teams gets its third, most disappointing strike. Even a cast of our very finest 28-to-32-year-olds who can sort of pass as adolescents — Miles Teller from Whiplash, Kate Mara from House of Cards, Michael B. Jordan from Fruitvale Station — can't save this dreary, overfamiliar origin story.
The first half, wherein high school science whiz Reed (Teller) is recruited by a mysterious technological concern headed by Franklin Baxter (Reg. E. Cathey, whose hypnotic low-frequency voice ought to count as a superpower) is slightly better than mediocre. The boyhood friendship between Reed, the reclusive tinkerer, and Ben (played as an adult by Jamie Bell), whose combative family runs a junkyard in Oyster Bay, is movingly established. Later, there's a strong scene wherein Reed — refreshingly neither a swaggering ladykiller nor a stuttering introvert — tries to chat up Mara's Sue Storm in a library. (In the comics, they eventually marry.) It's one of too few moments when the film allows Teller and Mara's natural likeability to fill up the room. Jordan, somehow, does even more with even less: He has no good scenes, and yet he still comes off well. That's star power.
Screenwriters Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Josh Trank manage to make one, one fun tweak to the mythos. In Fantastic Four No. 1, the heroes got their strange powers by being bombarded with cosmic rays during a hastily-planned spaceflight — lest "the commies beat us to it!" in the indelible words of the Invisible Girl. In the 2015 version, these kids — after learning the inter-dimensional "Quantum Gate" they've built together will be handed over to NASA — get drunk and decide they should be the first humans to venture through the gate and leave their footprints on "Planet Zero."
There are, it pains me to inform you, complications to their otherworldly itinerary. One of the team, saturnine scientist Victor Von Doom (it's in the comic, you guys), gets left behind, while the others come back... changed. The scenes of the four waking up in a secret military facility under heavy guard, trying to comprehend what has befallen them, are suitably scary. Reed uses his newly discovered super-pliability to sneak off and lam it while trying to find a way to reverse, for himself and his friends, the awful side effects of interdimensional travel.
At this point the movie falls apart. The story leaps ahead by a year, during which time Ben and Johnny have semi-willingly become superweapons in the U.S. arsenal. Meanwhile, Tim Blake Nelson, playing an undistinguished cog in the military-industrial complex, plans a return trip to Planet Zero, where it turns out that Dr. Doom has survived and now wants to eradicate life on Earth. To his credit, he is at least courteous enough to announce this ambition clearly.
What makes F4 Vol. III depressing rather than merely forgettable is that it comes from Josh Trank, a 31-year-old filmmaker whose inventive debut, 2012's found-footage superpower story Chronicle,marked him as a talent to watch. But his voice just isn't strong enough to cut through all the obligatory pageantry that attends a pricey studio franchise-launcher. Maybe we should be glad he's walked away from the Star Wars spinoff film he'd been signed to direct next. It could be the best thing for him.
Yes, despite the needlessly dour tone, The Thing does get to uncork his delightful catchphrase: "It's clobberin' time!" But for sheer, Stan Lee-level spoken-word clunkery, nothing beats the scene where Reed (who has not yet decided to call himself "Mr. Fantastic") invites his fellows to propose names for the super-team they have become.
Personally, I liked Johnny Storm's suggestion, "The Human Torch and His Torchettes." But the name "The Fantastic Four," like everything else about Fantastic Four, is preordained.
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