The other night, the movie Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer played on TV; I decided to watch, and as I did, I was reminded of how close the first two Fantastic Four movies in 2005 and 2007 came to being big successes, with critics and audiences. I mean, both movies did do some things wrong, but they also did some things right. And in hindsight, it’s really a shame things did not work out for those movies.
First, the things they did right: The biggest single thing was picking a great team for the Fantastic Four themselves. Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba and Chris Evans not only looked the parts of Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, but they had a chemistry as a group that had you believing they were the mildly-dysfunctional family and effective team that the FF is supposed to be. In both the first and second FF movies, this chemistry shone through in the ways the family interacted… it felt genuine to the source material, and believably depicted as well.
I think, in a lot of ways, Michael Chiklis was hired to sound more than look like Ben Grimm, based on the voices we generally heard in cartoons as children; but he is also a good enough actor to emote underneath all that costume makeup and have his personality shine through. Considering the handicap he had to deal with, he did a great job, plus he shared that family chemistry that fit him into the group.
There was also the production in general, which looked great, though sometimes small and sparse in physical sets. The FF’s uniforms (I always thought they were supposed to look more like a scientist’s encounter suit than anything else; and at heart, the FF are scientist-explorers) looked good on all the actors, and not just Jessica Alba. Let’s face it, male superhero uniforms have always been harder to pull off than female uniforms, since the audience is a lot more used to seeing skintight outfits on women. However, Gruffudd and Evans were in top shape when they did the movies, and the uniforms showed it off. (Chris Evans would eventually take his musculature to Captain America: The First Avenger, robbing us of the chance to ever see those characters together.)
The production’s special effects were also top-notch, being well-integrated into the live action and never (well, rarely) looking overlaid or badly-comped. Most notable here were the stretching effects for Reed; I think those effects were harder to pull off and achieve a “feel” that would work for the audience, but I think they managed it, with only the caveat that Reed’s stretch effects tended to be slow, not as liquid as I think he was generally depicted. In comparison, Johnny’s flames and Sue’s invisibility were relatively easy to accomplish, and Sue’s force fields were serviceable.
And finally, the depiction of the team as scientist-explorers, not just muscle-bound superheroes: The FF have always been best at exploring the unknown and using science to defeat the unknown and the bad guys; often, their powers were used as delaying tactics while Reed whipped up some gizmo to defeat the bad guys. Science was their theme as well as their modus opperandi. Even their powers were based on the four classic elements, and tied to their personalities—air (Sue, who often felt invisible around Reed), fire (Johnny, the reckless hothead), earth (Ben, down-to-Earth guy) and water (Reed, the genius with the fluid imagination). The science-based theme was what made them unique; true science fiction superheroes.
Okay, that’s the good. Here’s the bad:
Hands down, the biggest bad was the overt elements of both movies’ stories. The depiction of how the FF gained their powers was simultaneously too close to the original source material (mysterious “cosmic rays”) and too over-the-top sci-fi (being on a Star Trek-like space station, artificial gravity included) to sit well with audiences.
Also, the hackneyed movie tactic of using the same event to create their supervillian, Doctor Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) was convenient, but not as effective in tying the characters together. The comics depicted Victor’s creation as being directly related to his obnoxious ego and rivalry with Reed resulting in his futzing with one of Reed’s experiments, causing an explosion that almost killed Doom, ruined his good looks and drove him back to his homeland. He encased himself permanently in an armored suit to hide his disfigurement, and returned to use his scientific knowledge specifically to get back at Reed (for disfiguring him and robbing him of the chance to be adored, apparently).
The movie Victor gained his own super-powers from the same “cosmic rays” incident that created the FF (a sort of element absorbing ability), but he wasn’t immediately disfigured or humiliated, and so never really had a strong reason to hate Reed. Later, he lost his company, due to the finances lost when the space station was destroyed; and instead of seeing the glass-half-full potential (yo, I got cool powers), decided to blame Reed for his misfortune (becoming a millionaire instead of a billionaire… boo-frikkin’-hoo, dude).
The movie Victor, his abilities and his drives, should have been created around an element, like the rest of the FF, to balance him against the themed powers of the FF; perhaps plasma, something that scientists were not really aware of when the FF was created in the 1960s, but is now considered a natural element alongside air, earth, fire and water. Plasma also fits Victor’s chaotic, hard-to-control persona. A plasma power could have led to a life-threatening and disfiguring accident for Victor, forcing him to withdraw from the world, wear a protective suit to keep himself alive, lose the chance at love and adoration (and physical contact), and then have a real reason to be mad at Reed. It could also be a source of controlled plasma bolts fired from Victor’s hands, which would emulate the energy bolts he regularly used in the comics.
The first movie was all about the four’s gaining their powers, then trying to deal with their new powers and status as celebrities, plus Reed and Victor’s hate-rivalry, causing Victor to strike out against the FF; on the surface, that was fine, but it suffered in the execution when Doom’s plan hinged on managing to cure Ben Grimm of his Thing-ness, something Reed hadn’t managed to do in the comics for decades of trying, but which Doom figured out in the first movie. The “cosmic rays” bit should have been updated to be more like the Negative Zone experiment Reed attempted in the Ultimates versions of their comic book characters, which Victor manipulated out of a false sense of superiority over Reed, thus creating the accident, and which gave Victor his disfigurement and the impetus to hate Reed and the others.
The second movie’s overall plot about an Earth-threatening crisis worked (though the crisis itself should have been something better than a big cloud of dirt), but it really wasted Victor an a man who just wanted the Surfer’s board for ultimate power, blithely ignoring the fact that he was going to be the most powerful being on the planet for a few hours, before Earth and everything on it would be consumed. A better movie would have been about his reluctantly working with the FF to stop the oncoming force, perhaps using the board to help save the day, and then stealing the board afterward and having to be reined in by the FF.
The second big bad was the one element that production apparently couldn’t handle: The Thing. I get how the production wanted to allow Michael Chiklis to appear physically in the movie, and they did a lot of work to create his Thing costume for live action scenes. Nothing against Chiklis, but the Thing is depicted in the comics to be much bigger than a normal human; Chiklis’ Thing was small, barely taller than Jessica Alba and shorter than Evans and Gruffudd. And he really didn’t look “rocky” the way the Thing is supposed to look; it was a good-looking suit, but it still looked like a rubber suit.
The Thing should have been handled as pure CGI, the way it was done in the more recent FF movie, using the same motion capture technology and care used to create the Hulk in the Hulk and Avengers movies. If that meant the movies should have been delayed to wait for the technology to catch up… then they should have waited. A less-than-convincing Thing only lessened the look of the team to audiences, lost both movies major points, and contributed to their criticism and less-than-stellar box office numbers.
So: A rubber-looking Thing and badly-constructed stories led to the failure of the first two FF movies. But the well-conceived and depicted characters were its strengths. It seems the most recent 2015 FF movie even tried to correct some of the obvious flaws; but the dark style, lack of character chemistry and (again) failed storyline only dug the franchise an even deeper hole.
Will these errors ever be corrected? Unfortunately, Marvel Comics and Fox Studios have been fighting over the franchise, and its future is in limbo for the foreseeable future. But considering Marvel’s movie studios have shown a better ability to bring its characters to the silver screen in the last decade—and now there is talk of Disney possibly buying Fox’s entertainment division (movie and recorded TV studios), bringing the FF franchise back to Marvel—maybe someday we’ll see a Fantastic Four movie that actually works.