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MARVEL AT THE MOVIES – FILMS FEATURING “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”

Andy Ross launches his new series Marvel at the Movies by taking a look at Marvel’s first family, The Fantastic Four.

With its colourfully costumed heroes and larger-than-life villains, the comic-book universe of Marvel has served to entertain and engage audiences for over 70 years. Innumerable tales involving a plethora of characters (many intertwined through cross-overs and team-ups), Marvel’s very distinctive style of story-telling – their intoxicating mix of science-fiction and swashbuckling adventure -came to fruition via the début appearance of The Fantastic Four (#1 November, 1961).

Marvel Comic featuring The Fantastic Four

Marvel Comic featuring The Fantastic Four

Although Captain America, The Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch had already been established under the Timely Comics banner in the 1940’s, The Fantastic Four  provided writer Stan Lee with a rare opportunity to produce something altogether new. Illustrated by the legendary Jack ‘King’ Kirby, The Fantastic Four featured the on-going adventures of Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and siblings Sue and Johnny Storm. Adversely affected when their spaceship is bombarded by cosmic rays, the quartet develop some rather unique and altogether unearthly capabilities.

A brilliant scientist in his own right, the amiable Reed Richards discovers he has the ability to elongate his body beyond its natural limits. With Sue gleaning the power to turn herself invisible and Johnny the ability to transform himself into a human fireball, the unfortunate Ben receives the rough end of the super skills stick. Imbued with incredible strength and near indestructibility, Ben is tragically transformed into a rock-skinned monstrosity. Adopting the monikers Mr Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing, the group learn to overcome personal differences and sibling rivalry and take on the mantle of the Fantastic Four.

As a comic-series that embraced the core elements of science-fiction (space travel, alien insurgence and otherworldly dimensions) The Fantastic Four proved an immediate hit with the space-race generation. Writing precisely the type of stories that would have appealed to him as a reader, Stan Lee fleshed out his pivotal quartet by allocating strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Exchanging masked anonymity for public profile, The Fantastic Four were not afraid to let their true personas be known. As a superhuman line of defence against the likes of The Skrull, The Mole Man, Impossible Man and the nefarious Doctor Doom, the team achieved a massive celebrity status. Whilst Reed was prone to mood swings and Ben periodically indulged in self-loathing, the matriarch of the team, Sue, very rapidly became the calming influence of the group. In creating Sue Storm, who orchestrates reconciliations between Reed and his long-time friend Ben, and reins in the activities of her hot-headed younger brother Johnny, Lee realised the first of Marvel’s strong and rather unique leading ladies.

Cover art for Roger Corman's ill-fated 1994 Fantastic Four film.

Cover art for Roger Corman’s ill-fated 1994 Fantastic Four film.

In a last ditch attempt to make something of the property before the rights expired completely, ‘King of the B’s’ Roger Corman was the first film-maker to proffer a live-action version of The Fantastic Four in 1994. A dual origin story, Corman’s version, besides detailing the beginnings of the team, was the first to introduce viewers to Dr Doom. Or at least it would have been if it had seen general distribution. The ‘Lost Ark’ of the comic-book adaptation (which, unlike the Ark, didn’t have the decency to remain lost), Corman’s film never reached a commercial audience but, through the magic of the internet,  can be found and viewed in its entirety for those of you who feel you have to see it. Corman’s production is not a pleasurable one to watch. Production-wise it is very evidently in the domain of 80’s kitsch, whilst the below-par special effects and dead-pan delivery do little to dent the reputation of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby phenomenon. It left fans wondering if a faithful rendition was ever going to see the light of day.

At the turn of the millennium, the  unprecedented success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) opened the floodgates on a slew of comic-book titles. As a film that took its cues from Steven Norrington’s Blade (1998), X-Men (temporarily) consigned skin-tight Spandex to the scrap-heap, but it justly retained the back-stories of its myriad mutant ensemble. Proving that super-heroes could remain commercially viable and retain creative ties with their original source material, X-Men provided the benchmark for the contemporary comic-book adaptation. With Spider-Man (2002), Daredevil, (2003) Hulk (2003), and X2 (2003) all released to varying degrees of critical acclaim in the wake of X-Men, the Marvel super-hero quickly came to dominate the medium.

With Roger Corman’s entry now nothing more than a far-flung memory, and 20th Century Fox securing ownership of the  property, the responsibility for delivering a crowd-pleasing Fantastic Four movie landed in the lap of Tim Story, a director with very few screen credits to his name. Whilst critics (unsurprisingly) panned the film, The Fantastic Four (2005) was enough of a commercial success to guarantee a further helping from the Fox/Story pairing.

Pretty much adhering to Stan Lee’s original vision (albeit updating the technology), the film witnesses the group (on this occasion joined by Victor Von Doom) gearing up to study space borne clouds of cosmic energy. A former class-mate of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Victor Von Doom (Julian MacMahon) allows the team the freedom of his private space-station to test the effects of cosmic radiation on biological specimens. Rounding out the team with astronauts Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and geneticist Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), Reed’s miscalculations of the cloud’s spacial orientation places the mission and its crew in terrible jeopardy. With cosmic energy blasting their bodies, effectively altering their physical make-up at a cellular level, it is only once the group return to Earth that their abilities become manifest. In a similar vein to the comic series, the team embark on a spell of in-fighting before combining their abilities to defeat the power-crazed villain.

The Fantastic Four lined up for action.

The Fantastic Four lined up for action.

A pretty routine entry, elevated above the level of mundane purely through its faithful representations of the heroes, The Fantastic Four is too child-friendly to make much of an impact on the die-hards. By no means perfect, The Fantastic Four at the very least attempts to mirror both the look and ‘feel’ of the comic-book series. The Shield ‘s Michael Chiklis (under a heavy body-suit) delivers a suitably grumpy performance as Ben Grimm, Evans comes across cocky but endearing as Human Torch, but Jessica Alba is far too sexy to pull off a convincing Susan Storm. Besides being the matriarch of the FF, Susan Storm was also the matriarch of the Marvel comic-book universe, and as such lusting after her seems like a cardinal sin. The weakest link here (notwithstanding the uninspired plot) is the rather watered down interpretation of Doctor Doom. As the most ingenious and remorseless villain in The Fantastic Four’s pantheon of bad guys, the film’s version of Doom is pitifully second-rate. With Von Doom’s fall from grace mirroring the decline of Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, one really has to question the level of research that was (or maybe wasn’t) put into MacMahon’s interpretation.

Whereas the return appearance of Doctor Doom in Fantastic Four – Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) is hardly something to get hot under the collar about, the arrival of the Silver Surfer very much is. Enslaved by the ‘devourer of worlds’, the Herald of Galactus, the Silver Surfer (aka Norin Radd) is destined to traverse the spaceways in search of ripe new planets to be consumed by his master. Realised by means of CGI and voiced by Laurence Fishburne, the inclusion of the Silver Surfer makes for a far more action-driven entry in the series. Having spent much of the first film’s running time establishing the characters, Fantastic Four – Rise of the Silver Surfer provides a prime opportunity to explore further aspects of the comic-book universe. Bigger, brasher and far better than its predecessor, what disappointed the comic-book faithful about this film was its rather vague interpretation of Galactus himself. In the comics he is a helmeted behemoth whose fashion sense leaves an awful lot to be desired, but his on-screen persona (a massive formless cloud) is, frankly, insulting.

Human Torch vs Silver Surfer.

Human Torch vs Silver Surfer.

A globe-trotting adventure that takes in the sights of London, New York, and Shanghai en-route, Fantastic Four – Rise of the Silver Surfer awards a sense of global significance to what (in essence) was primarily a Stateside reserve. As The Avengers – Age of Ultron explores in much greater detail, the super-hero is very much an arguable necessity in an age where terror has become a worldwide concern. Despite being a much better film than the 2005 offering, the combined box-office gross of $289 million against a budget of $130 meant Fox’s Fantastic Four franchise had effectively stumbled at the second hurdle. Maintaining the rights to the series, but consigning it to mothballs for the foreseeable future, the studio concentrated its efforts instead on the significantly more popular X-Men series.

As the afore-mentioned X-Men underwent a massive re-imagining following the disastrous X-Men  -The Last Stand (2006), so too The Fantastic Four received the ‘re-boot’ treatment via Josh Trank’s Fantastic 4 (2015). A film that even during the early days of production seemed destined to fail, the finished product has an almost dejected and forlorn feel about it. Trank’s earlier work, Chronicle (2012), was very much a character-driven piece and he applies largely the same formula to Fantastic 4. Again a more personalized piece of work, Trank’s film dedicates a fair amount of time to developing the relationship between the young genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his unlikely best buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). Observing an unconventional story-line involving ‘quantum gate’ technology and alternate universes, the group are once again transformed on a molecular-genetic level.

Susan Storm comes face to face with the Silver Surfer.

Susan Storm comes face to face with the Silver Surfer.

One of several aspects that attracted adverse criticism (much of it unfair) is the film’s portrayal of super-powers as an impediment rather than a gift. Whilst it’s safe to assume that many of us would love to be in possession of some type of enhanced ability, would we really relish the thought of being transformed into a walking lump of rock? Further controversy raised its ugly head over the casting of an African American in the role of the group’s loose cannon, Johnny Storm. An extremely capable actor, Michael B. Jordan’s interpretation of the character (as with the core ensemble) is more grounded than the one proffered by Evans.

A much darker take on the tale and (from a personal perspective) all the better for it, the main weakness of Fantastic 4  is its distinct lack of Avengers-style set-pieces (which are an absolute essential for a comic-book movie). With the studio concerned about the daily rushes they were seeing, and the hard-to-please comic-book faithful mocking pre-release glimpses of the Thing and Doctor Doom, the final product (released to abandoned negativity) provided a perfect example of why studio execs should never become involved in the creative process.

Theatrical poster for Fantastic 4 (2015)

Theatrical poster for Fantastic 4 (2015)

Whilst each film (with the obvious exception of the Corman entry) brought something positive to the table, the definitive Fantastic Four movie (i.e. a true adaptation of the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby masterpiece) continues to elude us. If there is indeed a future for The Fantastic Four, then that future belongs squarely in the hands of Marvel if their admirable track record is anything to go by.

Of course, whether 20th Century Fox would be willing to relinquish the rights to what potentially could be a lucrative franchise is, frankly, anyone’s guess.

Thing by Andy Ross

Thing by Andy Ross (Click to enlarge)

MoM Ratings:

Fantastic Four (1994) – 2 out of 10

Fantastic Four (2005) – 4 out of 10

Fantastic Four – Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007) – 6 out of 10

Fantastic 4 (2015) – 7 out of 10

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