Live-action success for Marvel’s original superhero team, the Fantastic Four, was a long time coming. They were featured in cartoon series over the years, from Hanna Barbera in the 60’s to DePatie/Freleng in the 70’s (in which the Human Torch was famously replaced by a talking robot named Herbie). But the team was passed over when Universal was doing their TV adaptations of the various characters in the late 70’s, and no one else even attempted to put real people in those famous blue jumpsuits until the 90’s, when Roger Corman’s New World Studios threw together a cheap version which went unreleased.
I thought about covering that version here first, but did not for two reasons: number one, it was never released in theaters, and number two, the versions I can find on-line are very low quality, so I could not pull good screen captures.
The story goes that Chris Columbus had 20th Century Fox buy the rights to the cheapie and withhold it from release so it would not cheapen his big-budget Fantastic Four movie then in development. And considering that one of the executive producers on the New World film has a producer credit on the 2005 20th Century Fox release, I’d say I have to give the story some credence. [ETA: A more accurate version I’ve heard is that the cheapie was made specifically so that Bernd Eichinger of Constantin Film, the aforementioned exec producer, could maintain the rights to the characters]
The point is that it was over 40 years before the Fantastic Four got proper feature film treatment, although the project was saddled with delays and rewrites for years. So let’s take a look at it and see what they finally came up with.
The film opens with Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), famous but broke scientist, pitching an idea for a space-based experiment to corporate big-wig (and former college-mate) Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). Reed wants to expose plants to a cosmic radiation cloud to see the effects on their DNA. With the support of ex-girlfriend Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), a genetics researcher working for Doom, and best bud Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), former NASA pilot, Reed convinces Doom to host the experiment on his space station.
The four, accompanied by Sue’s younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans), fly up to the space station just in time to be blind-sided by the storm when it arrives early. And when the storm hits, it hits hard.
I don’t have a problem with the changes to the FF’s origin, since the original version was obviously written before manned space flight rendered exaggerated fears of cosmic rays pretty baseless. That being said, what we’re given here, while more “plausible,” is pretty bland. In the original, the four were pioneers, braving the unknown. In this one, they’re on an existing space platform, not really pioneering at all, and only get their powers because Reed screws up. As Johnny calls him in one scene, Reed is “the world’s dumbest smart guy.”
Everyone is brought back down to Earth to undergo testing, but at first, nothing seems to be wrong, except that Susan and Reed seem to be rekindling their lost romance while Victor, who had been interrupted literally in mid-proposal, is left to stew alone. But then Johnny sneaks out to go skiing and ends up catching fire and melting his own hot tub in the snow.
While Reed and Sue have an ex-lovers’ quarrel that ends up with Sue and her disturbingly blue contact lenses turning invisible and Reed stretching his arm to impossible lengths.
Realizing that something has gone wrong, they rush to Ben’s room to check on him. Reed stretches his arm under the door to unlock it from the inside.
But by the time they get in, Ben is gone, having smashed through the wall. He goes back home to New York, pausing along the way to steal a hat and oversized overcoat (echoing the Thing’s very first appearance in FF#1). He calls his fiance, hoping for comfort, but she runs screaming from him. Ben ends up sitting alone on the Brookyn Bridge.
And at this point, let me address one thing this film did really well–casting. Chiklis perfectly embodies Ben, both in his beefy build and gruff personality, but also in his vulnerability and sense of humor. Evans is great as the Human Torch as well, capturing the character’s youthful daring and quick temper. Gruffudd as Reed is a mixed bag, because he really captures the character as written–brilliant, but absent-minded–but I don’t really love this screw-up, comedy relief Reed. Alba also does her best, but between the blue contacts and the rewrite of the character into a brilliant geneticist, I have trouble buying the character.
Another thing I have a little trouble buying–the coincidence that leads to their public debut. Ben is sitting on the bridge when he stops a guy from jumping to his death by scaring the dude to death, which leads to Ben having the save the guy from getting run over on the bridge. The resulting pile-up stops traffic, including the rest of the gang, coming to Manhattan to search for Ben. And when a fire truck responding to the accident almost runs off the bridge, it takes all four members to prevent tragedy, which puts them on the evening news.
Their new notoriety is not helpful to Doom, facing pressure from his board of directors to turn around falling share prices in the wake of the debacle in space. Also irksome: a tiny scar on his face.
This recalls a concept I’ve seen attributed to John Byrne. Let me backtrack: in the comics, Doctor Doom was always seen with a mask covering his face. In his origin story, it was revealed that his face was scarred in an experiment gone wrong, one which left him angry and with a grudge against Reed Richards. It was always assumed that his face was hideous under the mask, like the Phantom of the Opera.
But during John Byrne’s tenure on the book, he put forth the idea in interviews (although I don’t think he ever actually put it in a story) that Doom’s disfigurement was actually just one tiny scar, a slight imperfection that most people wouldn’t even notice. It was only Doom’s colossal vanity that led him to wear a mask to cover up his “disfigurement.”
And just let me add that I don’t love Byrne for the other change to Doom’s character, that of making him into a corporate mogul. Byrne didn’t actually do this to Doom; he did it to Lex Luthor in his reboot of Superman in the late 80’s. But the concept has carried over from Luthor to the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man to here. And though I can appreciate the concept that leads a writer to have pressure from the board of directors lead the villain to snap, I don’t think it makes for an especially memorable villain. It makes him look weak and small to be pushed around and bullied like this.
Anyway, the Fantastic Four all move into Reed’s quarters in the Baxter Building to seek a cure for their condition (except Johnny, who doesn’t think he needs a cure), where they are greeted by mailman Willy Lumpkin.
Yeah, that’s the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, but this time, he’s actually playing a character from the comics.
Which leads into a fun montage as the characters learn to master and live with their powers, such as Reed using his stretching to grab toilet paper from the other room while he’s, um, occupied. But he is also working on a cure to turn Ben normal again.
Meanwhile, Doom (whom no one has worried about because he was in the shielded part of the base when the storm hit, and therefore supposedly unaffected) is also mutating. His bones appear to be turning into a sort of indestructible organic metal. And he seems to generate electricity. Which is bad in terms of being a perfect CEO, but good in terms of getting revenge.
See you next week for Part 2.