FANTASTIC FOUR Fantastic Four

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
775
1,740
There's been a lot of recent talk about superhero movie fatigue and oversaturation, a trend which has continued with this past week’s disastrous release of instant camp classic Madame Web (a film which raises such compelling questions as: Is Dakota Johnson an alien who's never seen a soda can before?). So, since my semi-chronological quasi-completist exploration of Frost's works is currently in the mid-2000s era anyway, I was inspired to revisit this one, which I haven't seen since it originally came out.

I can't say that I have ever looked back on this film particularly fondly, but viewing it in 2024, through the lens of how bloated and stale all these MCU movies (and TV shows) have gotten, there is an almost refreshing quality to the unapologetically cornball, low-key approach that this movie takes. I won't go so far as to call it a "fun" movie, but it's at least fun-adjacent.

I think, from what I've read, that the script for this first film is mostly Frost. The other credited screenwriter, Michael France, was the first writer on the production back in 1995 when Chris Columbus was set to direct, and I think France's screen credit is solely a result of the WGA's extreme favoritism toward the original hired writer. France came to fame for writing Cliffhanger, and subsequently was credited on the 007 comeback Goldeneye and Ang Lee's Hulk--both films that used very little of his work but credited him, again, because he was the first writer in. After France exited Fantastic Four, several other writers and directors came and went over the next decade, and I doubt anything of France's script survived to screen. Frost has said that he more or less started from scratch when he came on, and his approach was to bring it back to the "dysfunctional family" dynamic of the 1960s Lee/Kirby comics that he grew up on. I have read that Simon Kinberg did some uncredited rewrites on Frost's script.

I think, to the extent that comic book fans are willing to give this movie any credit at all, the main thing people tend to feel it got right is exactly what Frost mentioned: the characters feel largely correct, and the bickering but loving family dynamic is there. The four main characters are introduced in ways that make the personalities and relationships instantly clear. The backstories are mostly comics-accurate, but presented in an efficient way that new viewers can easily get. There's an economy to the way the characters gain their powers, get their (comics-accurate!) suits and superhero nicknames (and even their catch-phrases), etc., that is refreshing in comparison to the way many superhero movies blue-ball the audience with pretentious buildup, and yet the early sequences also don't feel rushed. The actors are (mostly) well-cast. Michael Chiklis is a terrific Ben Grimm and Thing, and although the rubber body suit isn't perfect, I much prefer it to the kind of uncanny valley CGI creation we'll undoubtedly get in the MCU version. Apparently Chiklis was a longtime fan of the comics and the character, and lobbied for the physical suit, as unpleasant as it was for him to wear. Chris Evans is really good as a himbo take on Johnny Storm; in fact, he's so good that many fans worried when he was cast as Captain America that they couldn't see him playing such a straight boy-scout character convincingly. It's a testament to Evans's charisma that he can play two such polar opposite versions of masculinity so effectively; his Human Torch is a really fun performance, and his chemistry with Chiklis in particular is great. Ioan Gruffudd is not quite as memorable as Chiklis and Evans are, but he's a likable and believable Reed Richards, and is endearingly dorky. Frost's script nicely sets up the emotional stakes of Reed's friendship with Ben and his relationship with Sue, and Gruffudd effectively carries being the heart of the movie.

Jessica Alba does not work quite as well as Sue Storm. She's fine, but her massive success in that era was tied to a very specific type of role, in films like Sin City, that highlighted her unique combination of unearthly beauty and sex appeal, and accessible down-to-earth sweet demeanor, an irresistible combination. In a role that doesn't really utilize those strengths, she suddenly just becomes bland. There's a strength and a warmth that Sue should have that's just missing. To be fair to Alba, the script also doesn't give her a lot to work with. The characterization is mostly limited to "love interest" and "genetic scientist who never actually does anything even vaguely science-y," with repeated gags requiring her to get naked because her clothes don't turn invisible with the rest of her.

Even worse is Victor Von Doom, who is just poorly conceived from the ground up: writing, casting, everything. I see where Frost (or Fox, Marvel, whoever) was coming from with the decision to tie Doom's origin more closely to the Four (especially Reed and Sue), adding some emotional stakes; but in the way that these superhero movies so often do, it feels like they're just taking the character's name and abandoning everything that made him special on the page. Julian McMahon plays him as a generic American-accented smug businessman, and then the script makes the strange decision to have him be made of metal (?). Once he finally puts on his mask and cowl and becomes Dr. Doom, the voice is especially jarring; it's like if Darth Vader sounded like your accountant. It's a really underwhelming and baffling screen debut for one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time.

If superhero movie fatigue is a thing, "origin-based superhero movie" fatigue must REALLY be a thing. As I said, the actual origin section of this film is actually handled economically and fairly effectively, but the problem is, the characters then spend the rest of the film mired down in trying to STOP being superheroes and return to their prior lives. I know, Reed trying to cure Ben is a recurring storyline in the comics, and it's a logical reaction to their situation. But it's kind of a buzzkill when the main characters spend most of the movie fighting against the genre instead of embracing it.

I mentioned above that the campy low-stakes quality of the film is a bit refreshing these days. Back in 2005, Batman Begins had just been released three weeks earlier. Christopher Nolan had just showed the world the potential for superhero movies to be serious cinema that simultaneously honors the spirit of the original work. Coming off the high of Batman Begins, the popcorn approach of Fantastic Four felt so juvenile and complacent to me back then. It's hard to imagine worse timing. But compared to the pretentiousness of so many recent overwrought, self-important, CGI-infested Marvel movies, it's sort of fun to watch a superhero movie that for much of its runtime almost feels more like a sitcom, with the characters bantering and learning to use their powers. Frost's dialogue hits every single possible pun related to the Four's powers at least once (Reed stretches himself! Johnny is hot!); and again, while I found this pretty stupid and annoying in 2005, these days, the unashamed corniness is just sort of quaint and fun. It's not trying to create memes or big artificial cultural moments; it's just being a dumb movie. It really feels strange (and horrifying) to realize what a distant era 2005 was from our present.

Still, the downside to this is: nothing freaking happens in this movie. It's fun spending time with the characters, but once they get their powers, there is like zero plot. The big action sequence, aside from the ending fight of course, is the Brooklyn Bridge scene. This is the part of the movie I remembered most, and I remembered really hating it. Throughout the movie, there's not a single conflict that can't be traced back to the Fantastic Four themselves causing the initial problem, which is one thing that really pissed me off on my initial viewing (and from reading some stuff online, I'm not the only one). This is a big part of what makes the movie feel so small and unrewarding. Granted, the bridge sequence starts off in earnest with Thing trying to prevent a suicide, which is noble...but it immediately escalates into a ridiculous chain reaction of events that plays as comical, where Ben and then the other three who arrive on the scene fuck things up in escalating fashion, leading to massive property damage and (I have to imagine) civilian deaths. When they eventually "save the day" and are applauded as heroes by the public, it just plays as damage control of them cleaning up their own mess as best as they can. I remember thinking at the time that this sequence was the epitome of these stupid superhero action scenes that ignore the collateral consequences, almost rising to the level of parody (again, what a much simpler time, in retrospect...eight years later, Zack Snyder would take this phenomenon of ancillary violent damage to a whole other level in Man of Steel).

Also, why did Ben's fiancee decide to show up at that exact moment to throw his engagement ring back at him?! Was she just in the area or what? What a jerk.

The final fight is just really underwhelming. I've read that director Tim Story (best known for comedies like Barbershop and Taxi) changed some elements of the script, particularly the final fight, because Pixar's The Incredibles had just effectively covered and/or made fun of many of the gags that the script called for. Whereas that final fight should be a really fun moment of all the team members working together, using their powers in unison, it just feels forced. It feels like the filmmakers viewed showcasing the team members' powers as an obligation, and it just feels like going through the motions, when it should be fun and dynamic. A real waste of potential.

Frost doesn't appear to have had much involvement in the sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer. He receives co-story credit with John Turman (co-screenwriter of Ang Lee's Hulk), and co-screenwriter credit with Don Payne. Frost has called Silver Surfer a mess and a "hodgepodge" that he didn't have much to do with, a film that was just designed to hit a release date. Don Payne claimed in an interview that when he came on board the film, all he received was a one-and-one-quarter-page outline, and he wasn't even told that Frost had been previously involved until much later. Presumably, Frost submitted a draft at some point, but it doesn't appear that anything from it was used. Payne said that once he came on board, he was the only writer. While a big fan of the comics, Payne was best known for his sitcom work, particularly on the American version of Men Behaving Badly and on The Simpsons starting in season 11 (i.e., when the show really started to go downhill). Payne went on to cowrite the MCU's Thor and Thor: The Dark World, before passing away tragically young in 2013. Despite Frost's opinion of the film, Rise of the Silver Surfer is generally regarded as being a marginally better movie than the original (both by dedicated comic book fans and general critics), although that's not saying much. The first half-hour (which is a third of the very short 90-minute runtime!) is preoccupied with sitcom shenanigans: Sue being obsessed with getting married and having kids, and wanting her and Reed to stop being heroes (a lame and out of character gender stereotype); a stupid bachelor party subplot, etc. It's a really poorly-paced movie, and I agree with Frost calling it a mess, although it does eventually get a bit of momentum going. There is one small bit I really love, though, that comedically addresses my complaint about the casual carnage in these movies that left a bad taste in my mouth in the first film: Sue walks into Reed's office and nonchalantly tells him the City is billing them for three destroyed squad cars from a recent battle, but she can only recall destroying two.

BTW, Kenneth Welsh is featured in the opening credits for Silver Surfer, but I couldn't find him anywhere in the movie. His character (as billed in the end credits), Dr. Jeff Wagner, is mentioned by Reed at one point in the film, but does he actually appear anywhere onscreen, or was he completely cut?
 
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Dom

White Lodge
Jul 10, 2022
693
690
It's interesting how the team actually talked about hewing reasonably closely to the comics. There's a video doing the rounds at the moment of a compilation of clips of present writers of superhero films and TV shows proudly stating they didn't read the original comics and/or were explicitly told not to read the comics.

When I was growing up, I used to be really frustrated at how movies about superheroes changed things for no good reason - as if adult viewers of superhero films had never read a comicbook when they were younger - and the cartoons on TV toned them down. At eight in 1983, I was reading 2000AD and there was plenty of 'grown up stuff' in the various Marvel comics. In GI Joe comics (renamed Action Force here in the UK) characters used machine guns and pistols and people died. The whole series was built on the tragedy of the Vietnam War. The cartoons gave us overt pulp sci-fi plots and zap guns that bounced harmlessly off vehicles, along with the incompetent, buffoonish Cobra Commander, voiced by Starscream himself: Chris Latta!

The Fantastic Four films were peculiar ones. DC was aiming for the 'prestige' branding and it coloured people's view of comicbook movies. God knows, Batman needed reworking after the screwups of the 1990s. I've yet to see a good Batman movie other than Mask of the Phantasm, though. There have been good (or at least interesting) movies with Batman in them - Batman Returns, The Dark Knight, Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder's Justice League - but never a straightforward, really good Batman movie.

I agree about the obsession with origin stories being very wearing. When I was a child, early 1980s cartoon series such as The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, The New Fantastic Four and so on told you all you needed to know in the opening titles and got on with telling the stories. Sometimes, mid-series, they might do an origin flashback episode. Origin movies are generally a waste of time, though. Although he's enmeshed in the MCU and I think they're the worst Spider-Man films - it was very refreshing to see Tom Holland's Spider-Man show up already superpowered. A Star Wars-mad friend remarked to me in the early 2000s that The Phantom Menace was a waste of a prequel film and that they should have opened with a Clone Wars film. Childhood-era Anakin could have been seen in flashbacks at most.

A fundamental problem with many superhero films is that they're obsessed with the transformation and the ending of the superhero's previous life. While the comicbooks are about heroes having adventures, origin-obsessed movie writers are fixating on trauma, because writing trauma is easy, compared with writing exciting romps. Look at Daniel Craig's James Bond: he never had a 'normal' Bond adventure where he went on a standalone mission: it was a two-part origin film, an anniversary movie featuring his ancestral home, and two SPECTRE-related films dealing with his adoption after his parents' death and his 'retirement'.

The Fantastic Four, I agree, is wonderfully unselfconscious now. The casting is mostly excellent. I love Jessica Alba - possibly one of the most beautiful women who has ever lived and a pretty decent actress - but she's not right for Susan Storm. I think it was Harry Knowles who said she looked like a stripper version of Susan. Nowadays, someone like (admittedly Australian!) Margot Robbie would be better in the role, because Susan's meant to be the classic all-American blonde, soccer mom type. I just wish they'd introduced the team with their powers in place and fully established in the Baxter Building.

The sequel did the thing I hate: gave us a mangled version of the Silver Surfer - an iconic character who should have been cast using a major actor in order to give him a solo movie immediately afterwards - and an utterly transformed Galactus, bearing no resemblance to the iconic design.

The Fantastic Four films were a wasted opportunity to do something fun that was utterly different from the prevailing style of comicbook films, which was increasingly gloomy. Iron Man was the tipping point where, for a while, the MCU got things right.

Ultimately, I blame The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen for the problems superhero films have. They are utterly brilliant comicbooks, superbly written and thoughtful interpretations of masked heroes and what they stand for. However, as Alan Moore remarked, he wrote Watchmen to expand the scope of what comicbooks could do, but it's become almost a psychological barrier that modern comicbook writers have struggled to work around. It's become so iconic that modern writers live in its shadow: whether mimicking it or reacting against it, it's always in their minds. And The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are anathema to something like The Fantastic Four, hence the disastrous failure of Fan4stic, which tried to 'go dark'. You could say the same is the case with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and its impact on the rest of the Star Trek movies.

I'm dubious about the recently-announced latest incarnation of The Fantastic Four. The casting seems iffy and I no longer trust any screenwriters to be faithful the source material. Judging by leaked images of pen-boards from Disney writers' rooms they're putting ideology first and adapting their stories to fit the ideology, which is extremely lazy writing.
 
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Cappy

White Lodge
Aug 4, 2022
559
550
Fantastic Four is a bit of a weird property — like DC‘s Legion of Superheroes, it is very much a product of 50’s/60’s “science is fascinating!” sci-fi, and the more popular culture assumes a cynical and mistrusting view of scientific progress, the more out of place the characters of Legion and F4 seem to feel.

That being said — I really enjoy Byrne’s F4 run from the 80’s (and Legion almost anytime from 81 to about 2006 or whenever Waid left the Threeboot run). That one issue where Reed has to save Galactus’ life is one of my all time faves!

I don’t expect the new F4 film to be faithful to the property per se, but I just hope that the filmmakers find a way to take the essence of the Richards clan and translate it into something that clicks with viewers today. Personally I think that the F4 concept might lend itself better to a weekly tv series — each week a new weird monster born out of Reed’s scientific discoveries, with lots of interpersonal family hi jinx to boot. Maybe like X-Files with a dash of Arrested Development, although I fear what we end up with will be closer to Snyder Cut Justice League meets Party of Five.
 

Dom

White Lodge
Jul 10, 2022
693
690
Fantastic Four is a bit of a weird property — like DC‘s Legion of Superheroes, it is very much a product of 50’s/60’s “science is fascinating!” sci-fi, and the more popular culture assumes a cynical and mistrusting view of scientific progress, the more out of place the characters of Legion and F4 seem to feel.

That being said — I really enjoy Byrne’s F4 run from the 80’s (and Legion almost anytime from 81 to about 2006 or whenever Waid left the Threeboot run). That one issue where Reed has to save Galactus’ life is one of my all time faves!

I don’t expect the new F4 film to be faithful to the property per se, but I just hope that the filmmakers find a way to take the essence of the Richards clan and translate it into something that clicks with viewers today. Personally I think that the F4 concept might lend itself better to a weekly tv series — each week a new weird monster born out of Reed’s scientific discoveries, with lots of interpersonal family hi jinx to boot. Maybe like X-Files with a dash of Arrested Development, although I fear what we end up with will be closer to Snyder Cut Justice League meets Party of Five.
Supposedly, the film is going to focus on Susan Richards as the lead. Then again, with Sony's Silk being reworked to target a male audience, because studios are starting to wake up to the fact that the majority of superhero audiences are made up of men and no amount of putting female leads behaving like men them will make them appeal more to women. I doubt FF will be anything like the Snyder films. The fear will be that it'll end up being 'girl bosses' Susan and Alicia Masters rolling their eyes a lot while ordering their dopey male castmates around.

FF is indeed very much born of the 'gee whiz' aspects of the 'lunar decade'. It would be nice to see some of that in a film instead of the usual nihilism we face in movies.
 

Jordan Cole

White Lodge
Sep 22, 2022
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I'm already disappointed in the casting of the new F4 movie. I love Pedro Pascal but in no way, shape or form can I imagine him as Reed Richards. Insane casting. Maybe he'll surprise me.
 

Dom

White Lodge
Jul 10, 2022
693
690
I'm already disappointed in the casting of the new F4 movie. I love Pedro Pascal but in no way, shape or form can I imagine him as Reed Richards. Insane casting. Maybe he'll surprise me.
Pascal's not a cinematic leading man by any stretch of the imagination. Vanessa Kirby has a history of playing vamps and criminal masterminds, which gives credence to the rumour that Susan will be front and centre in the new film. She's not how I ever imagined Susan. Margot Robbie would make more sense as Susan. She and Henry Cavill (playing Reed) would have made a killer combination as the 'mother and father' of the team. If they don't do an origin story, they'd be better off bringing back Michael Chiklis as Ben.

I can't get excited about anything MCU-related these days. I miss the era of Phases One and Two, Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Daredevil and Jessica Jones. That seemed like a golden age. Now it's like hearing about a clapped old bus that you're surprised to hear is still running.
 

Cappy

White Lodge
Aug 4, 2022
559
550
Michael Chiklis as The Thing was very inspired casting, but I think Ebon-Moss Bachrach has the potential to be very good in the role as well. The “Forks” episode of The Bear (in which Ebon stars) feels very much like a Ben Grimm story, but just set in the world of fine dining as opposed to the world of superheroes and science-fiction.
 

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
775
1,740
Pascal's not a cinematic leading man by any stretch of the imagination. Vanessa Kirby has a history of playing vamps and criminal masterminds, which gives credence to the rumour that Susan will be front and centre in the new film. She's not how I ever imagined Susan. Margot Robbie would make more sense as Susan. She and Henry Cavill (playing Reed) would have made a killer combination as the 'mother and father' of the team. If they don't do an origin story, they'd be better off bringing back Michael Chiklis as Ben.

I can't get excited about anything MCU-related these days. I miss the era of Phases One and Two, Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Daredevil and Jessica Jones. That seemed like a golden age. Now it's like hearing about a clapped old bus that you're surprised to hear is still running.
I think Pascal absolutely has leading man potential. The guy exudes charm. That being said, it's still bafflingly difficult for TV actors to break through into becoming movie stars (Jon Hamm is a great example of someone I can't believe didn't become a movie star). But my issue with Pascal is that he's the "it" guy right now and seems to get cast in every big franchise. He's overexposed. It annoys me when roles keep going to the same person, when there are equally talented and deserving people. I'd generally prefer that these roles go to a lesser-known "discovery," so I'm seeing the character and not the celebrity (with some obvious exceptions--Robert Downey certainly proved that casting an extremely recognizable actor in the right comic book role can have massive value). My other issues are that Pascal feels a bit old to be starting out in the role, he has the wrong body type, and just doesn't strike me as a dorky scientist type. Brooding stoic loner, yes, but that's not who Reed is. Obviously Pascal is an actor, which involves, you know, acting...it could be interesting to see him playing against type if he pulls it off, so I am cautiously hoping he surprises me. But the casting has all the earmarks of casting someone who's insanely hot at the moment, and not necessarily the best fit for the role.

Where did you hear this rumor about the film being centered on Sue? I'm not sure I'd put too much stock in those kinds of rumors this early on. I also don't think we can judge the characterization of Sue just based on the casting. Kirby is a talented and versatile stage actress who's played all sorts of different roles. For instance, she gave a critically acclaimed performance in the film Pieces of a Woman as a grieving mother who loses her baby that is completely different from, say, her character in Mission: Impossible.
 
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