Sunday, August 2, 2015

SUPERHERO SATURDAY (SUNDAY EDITION): FFucked Over: The Cinematic Misfortunes of Marvel's First Family

This Friday, 20th Century Fox will release Fantastic Four (2015), directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle) and starring Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, and Michael B. Jordan as the title heroes. The Fantastic Four was the comic book that made Marvel as we know it today. It made superheroes relatable. People with super powers yet still have very human problems. Without it, there would be no Hulk, no Spider-Man, no X-Men, and no Iron Man. Even though Spidey would become Marvel's flagship character (the Mickey Mouse of Marvel, as one said recently), the team of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, The Thing, and Human Torch should have been the first Marvel heroes in line to get the big-budget treatment the same way DC's first superhero, Superman, got in 1978. Sadly though, as of right now, The Fantastic Four have been cursed on the big screen. Before we see if this latest reboot can somehow break that dark spell, let us take a look back at the bad luck that has befallen Marvel's First Family so far.

The Fantastic Four (1994)

Directed by Oley Sassone, starring: Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp

I remember reading about a Fantastic Four movie that was in the can all the way back circa 1994. It was in one of those sci-fi magazines I would sometimes pick up at the local Thrifty's (now Rite Aid). I don't remember the article at all, but the image of Doctor Doom was forever burned in my memory. I learned from the Captain America and The Punisher pictures before it not to set my hopes up too high, but I was ready for it. I got pretty stoked at the prospect of seeing the FF and one of the most iconic villains in pop-culture come to life on screen, no matter how wonky it was going to turn out. But the film never came. It just vanished.

Many years later, I discovered why. Produced by Constantin Films and the legendary Roger Corman, The Fantastic Four was never intended to be seen by the public. It was made solely so that Constantin could retain the movie rights to the property. The rights were just about to expire, so they enlisted Corman to rush a FF film into production on a meager $1 million budget before the deadline. The movie has since been bootlegged on video and later on the internet, becoming something of a cult classic. I put off viewing it for a long time, fearing it would be completely unwatchable. Growing annoyed with the dark, serious, no-fun-at-all approach to some of today's superhero flicks, and gathering that's what's in store for the new FF reboot, I was ready to let go of expectations- or lack of any- and finally check out this lost film. Despite shortcomings from every possible angle, The Fantastic Four somehow manages to be a worthwhile watch for the curious.

College students Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) are conducting a science experiment involving a passing comet. Something goes awry, and the two are caught in an explosion. Reed's best friend, Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith), manages to rescue Reed, but Victor appears to have perished. Ten years later, Reed and Ben, along with old friends Sue Storm (Rebecca Staab) and her brother, Johnny (Jay Underwood), decided to finish the experiment in Victor's memory, this time going into space. Unbeknownst to them, Victor has survived. Horribly scarred and donning a suit of armor, he becomes an evil dictator named Dr. Doom, and is out for revenge against Reed and his pals. Doom sabotages the experiment, and the foursome's spaceship is hit by cosmic rays. The group crash lands on Earth and discover that they are not only alive, but they also have gained super powers. Reed can stretch any part of his body (or any the budget will allow), Sue can disappear and reappear, Johnny can control and become fire, and Ben... Well, he turns into a rubbery rock monster.

Our newly enhanced heroes soon discover Doom and his vendetta, so they band together as The Fantastic Four to combat their old friend and save the world. There's also a strange subplot involving an underground-dwelling freak called The Jeweller, his weird infatuation with a blind girl whom Ben falls for, and Ben coming to grips with his new appearance.

Yes, The Fantastic Four is a cheap movie. It resembles more of a pilot for a show on The Sci-Fi Channel- yeah, remember when it was spelled correctly?- than a theatrical feature. The costumes look goofy, the acting is hammy, some of the sets are claustrophobic, and the effects are howlingly awful. Also providing unintentional humor is Dr. Doom's inaudible dialogue. I had an easier time trying to figure out what Bane was saying in The Dark Knight Rises. And The Jeweller is a piss-poor substitute for the FF's first foe, The Mole Man.

Rrv untrfrrd mrf mu plrnz fr thr rst ime. Ha-ha!

Shockingly, however, there is a tremendous amount of heart that shines through, making The Fantastic Four somewhat of a win. There is a strong belief and a sense of fun in director Oley Sassone and the cast in what they're doing that they make the most out of what little that was given to them. The result is a film that makes for an agreeable delight for the kids, and at least that's something. It's still a missed opportunity, though. If Constantin Films had just a little bit of that same belief, The Fantastic Four could have had been a piece of kitschy awesomeness alongside the likes of Barbarella and Flash Gordon.

Fantastic Four (2005)

Directed by Tim Story, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, Jessica Alba, and Julian McMahon

After the debacle of the 1994 picture, 20th Century Fox released the first legitimate Fantastic Four film in the summer of 2005. Directed by Tim Story, Fantastic Four co-stars Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, and Jessica Alba as astronauts who go up into space for a little science experiment, get hit by some cosmic cloud, and come back to Earth with superpowers. The rest of the movie finds the group dealing with powers, celebrity, and each other. At the same time, an old college rival who was on that same mission is adjusting to his newfound powers in a less healthy fashion. By the end, there's a big showdown between the four mass-market-ready superheroes and the big baddie.

That's pretty much all you get. Fox didn't make a superhero film, they made a product. Thanks to the massive box-office success of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002, superheroes became a hot commodity. However, unlike those pictures, the debut of Marvel's First Family is rather formulaic: there's the introduction, the transformation, the heroes' journey, and finally the explode-y finale. It's so cookie-cutter you could almost guess what happens next as you are watching it. More egregious is that it tries really hard to make The Fantastic Four cool: Johnny Storm is into extreme sports, there's mainstream rock music, and it goes for the laziest of humorous dialogue. Also, they hired Jessica Alba. She wasn't cast to portray Sue Storm; she was picked because she was "hot".

"Like, I'm a scientist, and stuff."

The only things I actually got a kick out of while watching this movie are (future Captain America) Chris Evans as Human Torch, Michael Chiklis as The Thing, and the two of them together. Evans did a great job at making Johnny Storm a likeable guy despite his over-inflated ego. Bruce Willis was probably not available, or wisely said no, but Chiklis still perfectly captures The Thing's gruff but good-natured spirit. Not only do these two resemble their comic book counterparts in performance, but they make a great comedic duo.

Watching the film now, it's clear at this point in time the superhero genre was already in trouble of looking old. Fantastic Four, despite being based on a groundbreaking comic book, did absolutely nothing to redefine superheroes on the silver screen. Fox had a formula and they were going to stick with it no matter what. The Fantastic Four finally flew onto film, and then fell flat on their faces. Fuck.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

Directed by Tim Story, starring Ioan Grufford, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, and Laurence Fishurne

Flame out!

Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, and (ugh) Jessica Alba return as the Fantastic Four, celebrity do-gooders. Mr. Fantastic (Grufford) and Sue Storm (an even more plastic-looking Alba) are trying to tie the knot, but their day job always seems to be getting in the way of the nuptials. This time, a mysterious alien drops down to Earth causing weird things to happen, and it's up to our heroes to investigate. And Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) is back, too

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, released in the summer of 2007, would have been a pretty good movie. No longer bogged down by the origin story, this film gets right into it, with the superheroes in their element. Plus, there is an ample about of comedy this time around, usually revolved around either our heroes trying to maintain some sense of normalcy or when they-thanks to the mysterious alien- suddenly swap abilities back and forth. Plus, the visual effects are a vast improvement over the first picture.

I did say would have, right? So what's wrong this time? Rise of the Silver Surfer is awfully short, and in more ways than one. The movie doesn't have the time to be bothered with too much depth. Things are said, but not a lot is being felt. And just as things really start to ramp up, that's when things start to wrap up. Rather conveniently. Like in a we-ran-out-of-money kind of way.

Which leads us to this: this is a FF movie made by wimps. The more cosmic elements of the comic book have been translated very poorly, no doubt in an effort to keep things- and I'm shuttering as I'm saying this- "grounded". As an VFX, the Silver Surfer is looks great. As a character, voiced by Laurence Fishburne, he's just Morpheus from The Matrix spouting off doomsday prophecies. But that's nothing compared to the trashing the villians get. Instead of the classic Doctor Doom of the comics, we get a boring, barely frightening billionaire played by a TV actor who doesn't want his face covered up too long. And Galactus, one of the most powerful enemies in the Marvel Universe, The Devourer of Worlds, is reduced to a fucking cloud. A cloud! In space, no less!

Yes, that was a typical fanboy rant there, but the climax was the culmination of everything that is wrong about this movie. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer seems to be conceived and executed with the same cut-rate manner as the 1994 film. This movie feels more like a Police Academy 4 than a second installment of a major studio franchise. It looked as if 20th Century Fox were burned-out on the Fantastic Four brand before the audience got a chance to be.

Got any thoughts on the Fantastic Four movies we've got thus far? Do you think the new movie will turn things around? Sound off on the comments below. And be sure to follow me on Twitter: @DoctorSplatter

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