Thursday, June 09, 2005

Not so Fantastic Four...

If there’s one film I should be excited about this summer, it’s Fantastic Four. I’m a Marvel kid from way back, and I’ve always gravitated to the team books more than the individual stars. (Aside from later off-brand characters like Luke Cage and Ghost Rider.)

I loved the Spider-Man movies, but if I saw a Fantastic Four movie made as well as those, well, my supreme pleasure could only be topped by an equally brilliant Avengers movie, one featuring the ‘real’ Avengers roster: Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America. And yeah, any of the Henry Pym superhero identities and the Wasp, or Scarlet Witch, or whoever else. But definitely the big four.

However, the rights to the various classic Avengers are all owned by different studios, so that ain’t going to happen. Therefore, a great Fantastic Four movie is about as bee’s knees as it would get for me. We’re talking Great-American-Godzilla-Movie good, had there been such a thing.

However, the FF film has train wreck written all over it. It says something that the superhero movie I’m fervently awaiting is the DC universe’s Batman Begins.

If past comic book movies had taught us anything—and they apparently haven’t taught Hollywood much—it’s to get good directors who take the material seriously to make the movies. More than any other factor, the right director makes or breaks this kind of movie. This is also proved by non-comic book movies in the fantasy fields, as with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Let’s put it this way… Batman Returns, Tim Burton. Spider-Man & Spider-Man II, Sam Raimi. X-Men & X-Men 2, Bryan Singer. Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro.

Now this: Batman Forever, Joel Schumacher. Catwoman, Pitof. Daredevil, Mark Steven Johnson. Fantastic Four, Tim Story....

Who? Oh, the guy’s who’s biggest budgeted film prior to this $100 million plus production was Taxi with Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon.

That Tim Story.

Of course, the real red flag about Story wasn’t that he hadn’t handled so large a budget before. Neither had any of the other, successful comic book directors I’ve listed. No, the actual concern is that all of the successful directors cited are, well, auteurs, if we’re to use that phrase. Each had made extremely good and, more importantly, idiosyncratic little movies before being handed the reins of their major buck superhero movies. Moreover, each had success in the horror and/or fantasy realm.

Story, meanwhile, has one decent if generic film (Barbershop) under his belt, and one roundly attacked action comedy (Taxi). Since Fantastic Four aims to be a lot more like the latter film—and many statements have been issued during the production process that a good deal of humor will be on display, although they retreated from them when fans got grumpy—well, there are reasons for trepidation.

The real warning sign, though, is the casting. Michael Chiklis, I admit, is a perfect actor to play Ben Grimm/The Thing. No problems there.

The problem is the rest of the foursome. Now, the reason you want a good director, as well as one that respects the material, is so they’ll know what they can change (because changes will occur when translating material from one medium to another), and more importantly, what not to change.

Take Spider-Man. Raimi went with the idea of making Spidey’s webs organic rather than technological, and that was fine. Moreover, instead of meeting Mary Jane Watson when they were both approaching twenty, they were next-door neighbors and best friends as kids. That worked too, and was justified in terms of telescoping some of the backstory stuff—whipped up over thousands of comics—to fit in a movie. The important thing is that the details were psychological right for the characters. That’s why they worked.

So the Cold War origin, which the four heading out into space in an unshielded spaceship in order to beat the Ruskies, obviously had to go. (Tying Dr. Doom’s origin directly to theirs, however, is too cute by half.)

The Fantastic Four, it is often noted, is the family as superhero team. That means that the character dynamics between the titular four characters are the single most important thing to get right. And…its pretty clear they won’t be.

Criticism erupted when Jessica Alba was announced to have been signed to play Sue. The most facile, albeit still understandable, complaint was that she wasn’t a blonde. (After all, the character has been around for forty years, and in a visual medium that has established her appearance. And it’s not like there are no blond actresses in Hollywood.) That problem was been solved, more or less, by dying Alba’s hair.

More problematic is what triggered my concerns. Alba has a history of playing sexpot, riot grrrrl-type ass kickers. That’s not Sue. In this day and age, she’s not going to be the flighty young thing who spends hours trying on wigs, as she was in the early comic books. However, I will cry if they turn her into yet another Xena/Dark Angel/Alias clone. Sue is…a girl. Maybe that’s unfashionable these days, and I don’t mean the character has to be weak and shriek at the sight of mice, but I just don’t want her to be someone who trash talks deadly supervillains and then takes delight in laying the smackdown on them. And given the trailer, and her featured confrontation with Dr. Doom, that seems to be where they are going.

What really concerns me that the ages of the characters are all wrong. Again, the character relationships are clearly established, and are the most important thing to respect. Therefore:

1) Reed (Mr. Fantastic) and Ben should be significantly older than Sue and Johnny, and have known each other since they were college roommates. Ben and Reed, functionally, are brothers. They should be somewhere in the 35-40 year-old range.

2) Sue should much younger, around 21. She should be drawn to Reed by his intelligence, maturity and gentle nature, while Reed, who is a classic techno-nerd who never has had much time for or success with women should be flabbergasted to learn that the young beauty is attracted to him.

3) Sue is also drawn to Reed because she and Johnny have had a touch childhood together, one more or less sans parents. (Another reason for her attraction to father figure Reed.) Johnny should be 16, (as he was in the comics, but at least still in his teens. He’s an often bratty kid, a typical adolescent. Sue has been forced to act more or less as his mother, a role she has thrust upon her before she was ready.

4) Johnny and Ben should have a bratty younger brother/gruff older brother or uncle relationship. Johnny is, figuratively as well as literally, a hothead, while the quick tempered Ben is easily provoked into lashing back. In the context of this, Reed has to act as a father annoyed by the antics of his ‘kids.’

The casting indicates that much, perhaps most, of this is going out the window. Chiklis is 42, so he’s fine. Reed’s portrayer, however, is Ioan Gruffodd, who’s ten years younger than Chiklis. That throws their whole relationship dynamic off. I’m not much for star casting, to the extent that this would be star casting, but Tim Robbins would have been a perfect Reed Richards.

Alba is 23, who she’s about right. However, actor Chris Evens (Johnny) is also 23 (and also not a blonde—and they aren’t even dying his hair). Even if he plays younger, he’s too old to be the sometimes bratty character Johnny should be and get away from it. Instead of being a often obnoxious kid, he’ll just be a juvenile dickwad. And again, his lack of an age differential with Sue is a major, major miscue.

The buzz on the film is increasingly dire, and indicates my central fear—that the movie is being directed by someone who doesn’t really ‘get’ the characters—is all to justified. Believe me, I would love to be proved wrong and to leave the theater with a silly grin on my face. But I really doubt it.


At 1:40 PM, Blogger nshumate said...

Know who shoulda been Reed Richards? George Clooney.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I don't know. I'm not saying he's a bad choice, but Tim Robbins has an icy, elitist mien that would work well for Richards. He also has a lot of practice pretending to be very smart. I'm sure he could carry that over into his work.

At 9:09 PM, Anonymous Zev said...

Me personally, I'd go for Gary Sinise.

At 11:45 PM, Anonymous Flint Paper said...

I was just looking at the _Making of the Fantastic Four Movie_ book that we got in our store today, turned to the section regarding Sue and noticed, much to my surprise, that Alba has been quoted as saying, basically, "Sue is very different than Max -- Max was an asskicker and very in-your-face about everything, Sue's very maternal and not eager to get into combat." So perhaps there is some hope still...?

At 4:38 AM, Anonymous Governor Breck said...

I'm kind of glad I never got into comics as a kid (I built model airplanes; that's how I completed my nerd trifecta). That way I can enjoy comic book movies without worrying about the damned canon.
Re: Directors. What was Peter Jackson's biggest budget movie prior to LOTR? The Frighteners? I liked it but it was a total dud at the box office. But I did make smug comments about how the director of Bad Taste couldn't possible do justice to Tolkien.

Re: Casting. Who thought Michael Keaton was a good idea when they announced him for Batman? I sure didn't! As I recall, I said, "Mr Mom as Batman?!"

In both the cases of Peter Jackson and Michael Keaton, I was was very happy to be wrong when I saw the finished pictures and glad I didn't make up my mind to hate them in advance.

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I haven't made my mind up to hate the movie, I've just lowered my expectations to lesson the pain that in all probability will be delivered unto me. Basically, it's the mindset that I brought (thankfully) to the Deanzilla movie.

So if the film is actually good, I'll be more than happy.

For the record, I thought Keaton was a pretty good choice, and was more than willing to trust Burton. As for Jackson, again, he made films that really nobody else would make. Story is a generic director, and the best we can probably hope for is a generic movie.

At 8:15 AM, Blogger Zack Handlen said...

I don't have the same age concerns as you do, Ken, but the trailers for this have just looked horrid. And I'm appalled at what they seem to being doing to Dr. Doom...

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Well, if you screw with the central stuff, than the incidentals are really going to go out the window.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

The problem is that Marvel characters have had a good few years, with some pretty big movies (the X-Men and Spiderman series are the obvious ones). I think the studios are starting to get the idea that people will just go to them no matter what, so they don't have to worry about making them right.

Hulk and Daredevil were probably the first cracks in the Marvel movie edifice, and note how they weren't the last.

I'm hoping the film will be good; the FF were always my favorites, and if this doesn't work, I'm getting too old to wait for the next go-round.

There's always the fact that "origin stories" seem more designed to jump start a franchise than be good films...maybe it'll do well enough that we'll get the Galactus saga.

I agree with Nathan that George Clooney has the perfect look for Reed Richards. (I just don't think Clooney can act well enough.)

At 12:42 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

Of course, now that I think about it, there was already a terrific version of the Fantastic Four. It was called The Incredibles.

They even had nicely updated Doctor Doom type villain.


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