Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Our next item to peruse: the first (officially released) adaptation of Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four!
The Fantastic Four is the team that essentially built Marvel Comics. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, the Four came about as Timely Comics1‘ response to National Periodical Publications2‘ big break-out super-team of the Silver Age, the Justice League of America. Timely, having no superheroes of their own to band together, asked Stan Lee to fabricate a team out of whole cloth, and so he did: a quartet of adventurers mutated by cosmic radiation and transformed into heroes. But Lee’s masterstroke wasn’t in the premise, but in the execution; unlike Superman, Batman, and the rest of DC’s square-jawed heroic pantheon, the Fantastic Four were flawed… a fractured, dysfunctional family with “feet of clay”. They bickered, they fought amongst each other; they weren’t paragons of virtue so much as they were relatable people. And readers ate it UP.
The Fantastic Four would go on to have one of the most astonishing comic runs of all time as Lee and Kirby created icon after icon to populate the team’s world: Dr. Doom, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Watcher, the Black Panther, Paste-Pot Pete… the list goes on. But while the Four were powerhouses on the newsstands, they had some difficulty breaking into the mainstream… and in particular, onto the big screen. Constantin Film initially bought an option to produce a live-action film in 1983, and even got as far as SHOOTING one in 1994… but the final product of the shoot, undertaken solely to hold onto the film rights, would never see an official release (which is an interesting story unto itself). Eventually, Constantin would partner with 20th Century Fox to jump-start a big-budget Fantastic Four movie. Starting work on the project in 1995, the studio proceeded to hire Chris Columbus, Michael France, Sam Hamm, Raja Gosnell, and Peyton Reed to take cracks at either writing or directing the thing… all of whom ended up dropping out of the project at one point or another. After years spent in Development Hell, it seemed as if there was no hope of ever seeing Marvel’s First Family on the big screen.
… And then Spider-Man happened.
One could very well call the period between 2002 and 2007 the “Clone Era” of comic book films, because for those five years, studios were just DYING to copy Spider-Man3. Every studio with a superhero property immediately fast-tracked stalled projects into production, and whaddaya know: after losing Peyton Reed as director in 2003, 20th Century Fox immediately jumped into hiring comedy director Tim Story (then best known for Barbershop, whose early cut of Taxi apparently impressed the studio brass), who ended up shooting Mark Frost’s script shortly after landing the gig (after a few uncredited rewrites from Simon Kinberg, author of the forthcoming X-Men: The Last Stand).
The finished film bears clear superficial similarities to Sam Raimi’s Spidey film. The silk-screened costumes are made the same way as Spidey’s, with a similar dark blue sheen; the tone is funny and light with streaks of dramatic weight running through it; the cinematography is bright and colorful; and they fight a green-clad villain with a static metal mask at the end. The film follows scientist Reed Richards (who seems to specialize in every FIELD of science, from nuclear physics to cellular biology), his best buddy and former astronaut Ben Grimm, his biologist ex-girlfriend Susan Storm, and her cocky hotheaded pilot brother Johnny as they rocket into space to analyze a passing cloud of cosmic radiation… one which ends up slamming into their space station and granting all of them amazing powers. Suddenly Reed can stretch his body like rubber, Sue can turn invisible and create force fields, Johnny can catch fire and throw fireballs, and Ben metamorphosizes into an enormous, super-powerful rock monster. The quartet end up revealed to the world and become overnight celebrities… but while Reed works day and night to find a cure and Johnny throws himself brazenly into the spotlight, a fifth figure works in the shadows to destroy Richards and his new surrogate family. It’s everything a Fantastic Four fan could possibly want!
IN THIS ISSUE: This movie is… it’s fun. It’s harmless, simplistic fun. Broad, sure. Dumb, undoubtedly. The overall effect is a bit like an extra-sized pilot episode to a Fantastic Four sitcom.
The script works double-time to condense and simplify the team’s origin into a concise and effective two-hour movie, but it’s also far more interested in interpersonal melodrama than it is in plot mechanics. As a result, it catapults past some big plot developments at lightning speed: the cosmic storm speeds towards the station faster than expected for completely unexplained reasons; Reed is able to manufacture a machine from scratch to RECREATE the storm… somehow; and this machine is only able to work so many times… because4. But for all its haste to get past the nuts-and-bolts of the story, Fantastic Four can’t help but make several bizarre detours: Johnny melting some drag racer’s tires, Sue escaping a mob of fans, Alicia Masters popping up more than halfway through the movie to unnecessarily bolster Ben’s arc, and BOTH of the bizarre extreme-sports sequences with Johnny. Once the Four are established in the Baxter Building, the plot stops dead so we can get nearly an hour of the team living day to day, dealing with their powers and fighting off cabin fever. It’s full of cute moments, sure, but it’s unfocused storytelling… and when the film goes for humor to keep the energy up (which it does OFTEN), it usually opts for the dumbest, lowest-common-denominator jokes possible. Johnny basically calls Reed a limp-dick. Sue has to keep getting naked to go completely invisible. A pigeon sh*ts on Ben. This is Marvel swinging for the cheap seats.
Perfectly emblematic of this approach is Ioan Gruffudd5‘s take on Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic. Ostensibly the lead character of this ensemble cast, Gruffudd’s Reed is, essentially, a capital-N “NEEEEEERD!!!”; a super-genius with minimal interpersonal skills, no self-awareness, and a crippling lack of assertiveness. That’s all well and good, even if turning Reed into a socially awkward loser is another rip-off of the Spider-Man model (Reed Richards may have been an egghead in the comics, but he NEVER lacked for confidence). No, the BIG problem is that the movie doesn’t find the “genius” part cool, either. The film and its characters are constantly disparaging Reed for thinking too much, letting his head get in the way, etc., and completely overlook or downplay the fact that he can build cosmic storm machines, that he was on the cover of Wired magazine before he became a superhero, or the fact that his apartment doubles as a super high-tech laboratory. Because the movie refuses to frame the one thing Reed can do well as a GOOD thing, the audience is left floundering for anything to CONNECT us to Reed outside of… well, pity. (And unfortunately, Ioan Gruffudd doesn’t have NEARLY enough charisma or screen presence to make up the difference.)
And then there’s Jessica Alba as Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman. While I wish that I could call Alba’s wooden, lifeless performance an affront to a rich and complex character… the fact is, Sue Storm has always been two-dimensional (no pun intended). She was created in 1961, after all– there wasn’t much more you could expect from the character than to just be “The Girl”, mother figure in a clearly sketched family dynamic6. The script tries to give her more agency by making her a confident professional from the get-go– chief genetics specialist for (ahem) Von Doom Industries. They also start her off as Reed’s EX, rather than his girlfriend, which seems like a good idea… until you realize they’re setting her up for a love-triangle romantic subplot. Reed and Sue spend nearly every moment together hashing out their differences in scenes totally bereft of romantic chemistry7; while outside of that storyline, Sue’s impact on the main plot is virtually nonexistent… which means, yes, she’s “The Girl” in this movie, too.
But while the comics may have marginalized Sue as a character, they never outright OBJECTIFIED her… and it’s here that Fantastic Four somehow beats out a Cold War-era comic book in the sexism department. Because you see, they didn’t hire Jessica Alba to play a character; they hired Jessica Alba to walk around in a spandex jump-suit with a half-unzipped neckline, and to strip down to her underwear for at least one scene. Which is a shame– because of course, Jessica Alba is a damn fine actress.
(Oh, and speaking of casual sexism…)
Johnny Storm is the movie’s big scene-stealer, and a lot of that has to do with the absolutely perfect casting of Chris Evans as the skirt-chasing hothead. Evans (post-Not Another Teen Movie, and only six years away from being Captain-freaking-America) is basically playing hormones incarnate: an egotistical, risk-taking, smirking womanizer who takes to the vapid allure of celebrity like a fish to water. He gets some of the movie’s funniest lines (“… Where are your ears?”), but there’s also a sense of the filmmakers trying too hard to make him into “Mr. Cool”– hence the completely unnecessary X-Games and snowboarding sequences, and his ridiculous introduction to the film (making out with a pretty girl in a convertable… from the MOTORCYCLE he’s riding alongside it). If it weren’t for the fact that Chris Evans is a pure embodiment of charm and charisma, this character would come off as tremendously overbearing.
What’s probably the most disconcerting about Johnny, though, is that he’s an unapologetic creep. He hits on every single attractive woman that comes into his orbit, and he’s often not terribly subtle about it. Furthermore, none of the women that he shows an interest in ever register beyond the one scene in which he woos them– most of them don’t even have LINES. Johnny sure as hell never mentions them again. Granted, a lot of this is an issue with the pervasive male gaze director Tim Story brings to the movie; there isn’t a single unattractive woman in the whole film, and many of them end up in skimpy outfits or front-and-center for the camera to ogle. Sue gets this treatment the worst, but that’s just because she’s the only major female character in the movie8. All the other women in the film are basically props for Johnny to mack on. And did I mention that there’s a deleted scene (restored in the Extended Cut) in which Johnny uses his powers to heat up an elevator to get women to take off their clothes?
But if the other members of the Four have there issues, there’s really not a bad thing I can say about Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing. Chiklis is the heart and soul of this movie. All the emotional stake of the story come from him: his transformation costs him his fiancée, strains his friendship with Reed, builds up his sibling-rivalry antagonism with Johnny (the one member of the team who sees his powers as a blessing), and ultimately divorces him from society and walls him off from other people. He’s the ONLY MEMBER of the team who has to deal with feeling like an outcast. And man… Michael Chiklis just sells it with all the sincerity he can muster. Even acting through what must have been forty pounds of silicone and foam rubber, you can feel the heartache and frustration coursing through Ben for the entire movie. But that’s not to say he’s ALWAYS a downer. The film builds a couple of neat visual gags around him, and when he has to hop into action… well, he moves a little bit like a Ninja Turtle, and you don’t buy for a second that he’s made of rock. But his voice (which Chiklis did HIMSELF– it’s not digitally altered) still sounds like crumbling granite, and when he stands tall, you feel like he might just be able to crush a Mack truck with a shoulder-check.
Since Ben is, of course, the best thing this movie has going for it, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that a big chunk of his subplot was cut out of the theatrical film. You remember how I mentioned Alicia Masters earlier? In the theatrical cut, she shows up for a single scene near the end of act two, solely to deliver the platitudinous message of Ben’s arc (“Bein’ different isn’t always a bad thing“). Then, for some reason, she’s there at the END of the movie, hanging on to Ben’s arm as if they were an item. In the far superior EXTENDED Cut, however, we see why: there are two new scenes included that build up Alicia and Ben’s connection as he meets her again at her art gallery, and they head out together to an art show (showcasing scuptures she created based on Ben). Not only do these scenes give us a stronger connection to Kerry Washington’s charming take on Alicia, AND an important moment where Ben feels freakish and ostracized at the art show… but it also includes what has to be the greatest moment in the entire film: the SENSUAL DUSTING SEQUENCE.
In the end, though, the backwards, derivative thought process that hobbles this movie can be summed up in a single, bizarre, truly awful character: DOCTOR DOOM.
Movie studio logic has always held that the first movie featuring any given character has to throw them up against their greatest, most iconic nemesis: Superman: The Movie featured Lex Luthor, Batman has the Joker, X-Men went with Magneto, Spider-Man featured the Green Goblin, and so on. So for the Fantastic Four movie, they went with Doom– not just the most iconic foe of Marvel’s First Family, but easily one of the greatest comic book villains EVER CREATED. But the issue with using Dr. Doom for a Fantastic Four movie is two-fold: 1.) he’s an ostentatiously theatrical villain, bordering on camp, who refers to himself in the third person, looks like the love child of Iron Man and Darth Vader, and lives in a castle in a foreign country that he rules over with an iron fist… and 2.) his origins are MASSIVELY complicated, and are in no way connected to the origin story of the Fantastic Four itself (which this movie was, of course, going to be covering). So to SOLVE this particular issue, screenwriter Mark Frost went with one of the oldest tricks in the book: he threw out Dr. Doom and created a completely different character with the same name.
Julian McMahon’s Victor Von Doom is a generic evil businessman, a Lex Luthor-meets-Norman Osborn character who funds Reed’s expedition into space and actually goes along with them, making him the FIFTH person to be affected by the cosmic storm (SOMEONE’S been reading Save the Cat!; this is narrative economy at its laziest). He’s also romantically connected to Sue at the start of the movie, giving us that third party to the Hollywood-hack love triangle (even though Sue actually has no interest in him, he spends the first half of the movie trying to PROPOSE to her, suggesting that she think of marriage as “a promotion”). Once the space mission goes sideways and his company’s stocks fall in the toilet, Victor starts manifesting his OWN powers: his flesh begins turning into metal, and he learns that he can generate lightning blasts (so, basically, the powers of Electro and Colossus). He kills off the bank manager threatening to ruin his company (a subplot lifted shamelessly from Spider-Man) and plans an elaborate revenge on the Four from the shadows… that mostly just consists of freezing Reed with liquid nitrogen, blowing up Johnny with a rocket, and, uh… firing Sue.
For the first half of the movie, Victor is just a slimy scuzz-ball in slick suits who trolls Reed for being such a loser. When he finally kills his personal physician and the bank manager halfway through the movie, it kind of comes out of nowhere– nothing about Doom at any point before that suggested that he was anything more than a dickhead. And when he finally turns full-on evil, he starts making quips and jokes. You really don’t get any concrete sense of what’s actually driving this guy; he’s supposed to be consumed with vindictiveness and revenge, but he also apparently “want[s] power”. In the end, it doesn’t really matter; it’s all just an excuse to get him to put on a metal mask and a green cloak for the climax, so he can give the Four someone to hit to solidify them as a team of superheroes. Ultimately, Doctor Doom is almost an afterthought in the movie… and considering how interesting a character the ACTUAL Doctor Doom is, that’s more than a little disappointing.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: While it’s certainly a breed of (mostly) harmless, (very) dumb fun, Fantastic Four is a definite let-down as an adaptation of Marvel’s First Family. It represents the biggest growing pains in developing Marvel’s storytelling formula after Spider-Man… it’s close, but no cigar.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.50
- Dr. Doom shows up, finally: Yes, at the start of act three, Victor finally puts on that cool helmet and a green cloak (or rather, a hooded, button-up trenchcoat) and starts acting like a guy named “Victor Von Doom” REALLY should. And while he doesn’t have the armor, or the accent, or the penchant for spitting out the word “Richards”… he LOOKS pretty cool. And the movie picks up in a big way once the team has a clear antagonist to face.
- The little things: One thing I’ll credit this movie with is exploring tiny moments of the day-to-day effects of the characters’ powers. Johnny pops Jiffy Pop in the palm of his hand. The Thing is constantly crushing glasses, rattling floors, and at one point bites the tines off of a fork. Reed can reach into other rooms to grab things he needs (like toilet paper… ugh), and Sue… gets naked a lot, then goes transparent from embarassment. It’s, uh… it’s not all gold.
- Stan the Mail-Man: Behold, Stan Lee’s first AND ONLY cameo appearance as a canonical character from the Marvel Universe: Willie Lumpkin, the mail carrier to the Baxter Building! Willie had actually been created by Lee for a daily newspaper strip in 1959, and later appeared in the Fantastic Four comics starting with issue #11; this was one of the first major speaking parts Stan would land in a Marvel movie, but it sure as heck wouldn’t be the last…
- The S.S. Stinger: Moments after the film cuts to black (with a title card helpfully telling us it’s “The End”), the film fades back up for Marvel’s second-ever stinger: Dr. Doom’s solidified body getting loaded onto a cargo ship, which pulls away to reveal its port of call as “LATVERIA”. Now, if the Doom in this movie had been anything LIKE the Doctor Doom of the comics, this might have been an exciting development… but as it stands, it’s an insulting bit of fan-service, suggesting that yes, the filmmakers HAVE read the comics– they just didn’t care enough to adapt them well.
- … Why?: So in the theatrical cut, when Reed and Sue are chatting on the pier and Reed suggests that he thought she wanted “a stronger man…”, he uses his powers to jut out his jaw into an heroic caricature. It’s a cute moment. But for some reason, in the EXTENDED cut, Reed uses his powers to morph his face into a cartoonish approximation of… Hugh Jackman as Wolverine?!? What does that mean? Do they have X-Men movies in the world of the movie? How does he manage to morph his hair? Who the hell thought this was a good idea?!
NEXT TIME: Speaking of transparent Spider-Man rip-offs, next week we’ll be taking a look at…
… Oh, no. Oh God. PLEASE not that. Anything, ANYthing but…
… the 2004 Halle Berry star vehicle, CATWOMAN.