Fantastic Four-ensic Files
This year marks 15 years since 2005’s Fantastic Four, starring: Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, Julian McMahon, and Ioan Gruffudd. This was the first released “Fantastic Four” film adaptation (a 1994 Roger Corman directed version never officially hitting theaters, but exists out there underground on VHS tapes and the like). This movie hit at a time when superhero movies were in a slump. Just a year later, both X-Men: the Last Stand and Superman Returns would hit theaters generating mediocre reviews. For anyone who was interested in superheroes, there was a “take what you can get” mentality. I watched this movie more times than I care to admit. I was a starved audience!
The creation of the Fantastic Four is a historical marker for the beginning of a new time in comic books. It was the beginning of the Silver Age (predominantly the 1960’s) and the team signified the birth of Marvel Comics. In movies, well, let’s just say... they have been fairly underserved, a footnote to the grand modern era of the Superhero Movie. The biggest blockbusters every year have “Avengers” in their titles, or something to do with the Avengers, and neither hide nor hair has really been seen of poor Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben.
The Fantastic Four seem tailor-made for movie adaptation; they solve all of the usual problems that adapting a superhero team sets up. A team like the Avengers or the Justice League is made up of many members of varying origins and backgrounds. You have a god-like Thor standing next to a gamma-powered monster like the Hulk, standing next to a radioactive spider-bitten Spider-Man. The amount of work needed to set everything up takes hours of every viewer’s life, demands them to remember stuff they learned years and movies ago, and is really -effing hard to pull off. It is by sheer miracle and healthy planning that the Disney-owned Marvel movies have been able to make their nearly twenty-film empire. We’ve seen DC flail at it, we’ve seen the Dark Universe die quicker than a fruit fly, and surprisingly, we’ve seen the Fast and the Furious movies do it really well.
But the Fantastic Four (and also the X-Men) have one thing that makes every movie executive breathe a sigh of relief: a shared origin. You only need one origin movie and you get the whole team. The four of them go into space, get bombarded with cosmic rays, and voila: you have your Fantastic Four. They share a uniform, they don’t really use superhero names very much, -- all things every movie studio wants. One of the biggest hurdles these companies face when it comes to adaptation is fighting an overwhelming sense of insecurity and self-consciousness over its source material. They view superhero names, secret identities, and colorful costumes as childish and ridiculous. It is why so many of the Avengers movies feature characters who are spies or wear armor and almost never use their superhero names.
So why didn’t this movie hit it big and become a huge juggernaut? (Not The Juggernaut, that’s an X-Men character). When it comes to casting, the movie has some whiplash. Jessica Alba, bless her heart, never had the power to make it as an A-List actress. Like her contemporary, Jessica Simpson, studios kept trying to find the right vehicle to make her a star. The role of Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four is team mom. She would be more like a celebrity mom pushing organic apple sauce on her website. The movie tries to push her on her sex appeal, and it just doesn’t fit.
Julian McMahon as Doctor Doom, the main villain, is also a little underwhelming and miscast. In the comics, Doctor Doom is a despot, a world leader. He is smart and strategic, almost like if Josef Stalin wore Iron Man armor and had Doctor Strange-level magic. But then you get to Michael Chiklis as the Thing and Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic, and you hit the nail on the head. The practical effects for Ben Grimm still work really well all these years later, and remind us why special effects are not always better (*cough 2015’s Fantastic 4 *cough*). Chris Evans is a national treasure, and it took way too long for us all to see it. He had made his bones being the frat boy in so many movies that it was a shock when he was later cast as Captain America. Here he is doing the best he can with the material, and the role of Johnny Storm seems squarely in his wheelhouse circa 2005.
Then there’s the issue of the humor, which isn’t exactly hilarious. They attempt to do a “she’s invisible so that means she has to get naked!” joke that really pushes the Jessica-Alba-as sex-symbol-narrative. The biggest mistake of this movie is just narrowly missing out by three years on the superhero movie boom brought on by 2008’s Iron Man. Like I mentioned, the late aughts is suh-weaty when it comes to finding quality superhero fare. That’s where the studio rights to the intellectual property of the Fantastic Four and X-Men come in. Every single time a new Fantastic Four or X-Men movie comes out, this topic gets brought back up. It is hard to remember a time before Disney and Warner Brothers owned their respective cash cows in the Marvel and DC Universes, but there was a time when comic book companies didn’t have a giant studio to call home.
The X-Men were the most popular franchise in comics for nearly 30 years, and they were viewed as a hot commodity. Fox was smart enough to snatch them up and added the Fantastic Four for good measure. When Disney bought Marvel, they were left with the table scraps. The also-rans. Nobody really cared about or knew any of the Avengers characters, and the real money was in the X-Men. The Fantastic Four, counting their blessings, were glad they jumped on board the Fox train. Now, many years later, this is absolutely dripping with irony, as the Disney Marvel movies have broken every single record, both critically and financially, and every man, woman, and child in probably the whole world knows or knows someone who has seen them.
2005’s Fantastic Four did well enough to foster a sequel: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The sequel is actually rated higher on Rotten Tomatoes than the original, and it generally improves what this movie set out. Sadly, it suffers from just being a little bit forgettable. Again, timing...it was ONE year pre-Iron Man. Another sequel and a Silver Surfer spinoff movie never came to fruition, and then the comics were rebooted in 2015 to universal disdain (including by its own director) as Fantastic 4.
To the relief of many, the franchise, along with the X-Men, are now owned by Disney after they bought Fox. Now all of the Marvel properties sit under the same roof. Well, Spider-Man is still owned by Sony, but he’s allowed to stop by and say hi from time to time. The future of the Fantastic Four remains uncertain as comic book movies enter into a second decade as the de rigueur of the film industry. However, given the amount of money Endgame made, I doubt this is the last we will see of Marvel’s first family.
Marco is a comedian, writer, and underemployed New Yorker trying to make it in this damn world. He enjoys fruitlessly pursuing love on dating apps and keeping track of all of the movies he’s seen on Letterboxd.