Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four (2005)

 One of these things is not like the others.

One of these things is not like the others.

Fantastic Four (2005) is another superhero movie I'd long ago dismissed as forgettable. It was one more in a long line of disposable cinematic junk food from the wilderness years before Marvel Studios seemingly revolutionized the comic book film. Yet, emboldened by my recent Batman Forever re-watch, I decided to tempt fate and revisit Fantastic Four.

Were the results similar to my experience with Batman Forever? Slightly, but not quite.

The film was a dud in 2005 and, surprise, it's still mostly a dud in 2017. That doesn't mean it has nothing going for it, though. It's suitably entertaining (at times), held my attention (for the most part), stars Jessica Alba as Susan Storm doing what she does best (more on that later), and features an assured and magnetic performance from a pre-Captain America Chris Evans as Johnny Storm (more on Evans later, too).

The plot is quite basic: Reed Richards (Iaon Gruffudd), Susan Storm (Alba), Johnny Storm (Evans), and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) collide with some comic book style radiation in space, which transforms them into Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing, respectively. Thus, the Fantastic Four are born. Then they spend some time adjusting to their altered selves and new powers. Eventually they fight the similarly transformed evil scientist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). That about sums it up.

 Lips like sugar: lip gloss is key to the Unified Theory of  Jessica Alba .

Lips like sugar: lip gloss is key to the Unified Theory of Jessica Alba.

How does it compare to the comics that inspired it? Like a lot of these films, the framework for the original concepts is there, but lacks most of the substance. The origin is altered a bit and not really for the better. Similarly Reed and Sue's relationship doesn't get from point A to point B in quite the same way as in the comics. The team-as-family concept—both the family you are born into and the family you choose—makes the Fantastic Four special. That family dynamic is at the core of the film, but with less substantive results than in the comics.

Another aspect I always loved about the Fantastic Four was that so many of their adventures took place in the far reaches of the galaxy or in other universes altogether, like the Negative Zone. Instead, the film stays grounded on earth for most of the running time. Ultimately it's a serviceable but disappointing adaptation. Hey, at least Stan Lee makes his usual cameo, so there's that.

How are the costumes? This is a superhero movie, after all. Like their comic book inspiration, they're suitably tight and form fitting, which is glaringly obvious when Alba, Gruffudd, and Evans are suited up (hint: they're all in very good shape). The outfits are blue, which is essential as its been the Fantastic Four's primary color scheme since their inception.

What about the score, or the special effects, or the makeup? The music is often distracting in its intrusiveness, the special effects range from decent to perfunctory to lame, and the makeup is underwhelming. The Thing's design isn't quite exaggerated enough for my taste. It could have used more craggy, jagged, sharp lines.

 "Being the Human Torch is rad, but I've got my eye on the shield!"

"Being the Human Torch is rad, but I've got my eye on the shield!"

What about the actors hired to bringing Marvel's first family to life? My opinion on that has shifted dramatically since my first viewing. In 2005 I was unimpressed with all of them, except Evans. Now I feel that all four actors do their best with subpar writing and at times acquit themselves well in the roles.

Gruffudd's nutty professor scientist Reed is appropriately nerdy, with a genius-level intellect, yet utterly clueless when it comes to understanding Sue. Gruffudd certainly bears a resemblance to the illustrated Reed from the comics.

Chiklis seems ideally suited to play Ben Grimm, but the characterization is a bit too muted throughout. Ben is an over the top personality, so it would have been fun to see him let loose a little more. Still, Chiklis adequately conveys Ben's anguish after transforming into an orange monster.

Alba and Evans both surprised me this time. In Alba's case she was much better than I'd remembered or given her credit for before, while Evans was even better than I'd remembered. More on them in a bit, but let's not forget to mention McMahon as Victor Von Doom (best supervillain name ever?). McMahon is suitably smarmy and arrogant, yet never seems quite as megalomaniacal as Doom should be.

Jessica Alba would not have been my first choice to play Sue, the film's chief genetic researcher. Then, now, and forever, I choose Naomi Watts (admit it, she's perfect). While Alba catches a lot of flak from comic book nerds she does fine with what little she's given to work with. In a scene where she's invisible and Reed attempts to kiss her, she utters one of the movie's only truly memorable lines: "That's my nose, genius. These are my lips." Now, I have a theory. It's one I just made up, but hear me out. We'll call it the Unified Theory of Jessica Alba, where her singular aspects merge to form something more potent. There seem to be five essential elements involved and this film has them all: she's pleasantly likable enough, if also a little bland at times; she's game for almost anything; her clothing choices allow for maximum decolletage; her permanently pouty, well-moisturized lips are damn-near hypnotic; and of course she appears in her underwear at least once. Here, that scene is played for laughs but mostly feels shoehorned in to exploit Alba's hotness. Alba makes it work, though. After all, she was probably familiar with her namesake Unified Theory by that point in her career.

 Oops. Awkward. #InvisibleWomanProblems

Oops. Awkward. #InvisibleWomanProblems

Speaking of hot, Chris Evans is on fire as the Human Torch (the puns write themselves, folks). Together with Alba, he forms the extremely easy-on-the-eyes half of the Fantastic Four (those Storms have good genes, huh?). Evans gives the most natural and relaxed performance in the movie, by far. In hindsight it's fascinating to watch him as Johnny, given how he's come to own the role of another Marvel mainstay, Steve Rogers. Evans is so strongly identified with Cap because, in my estimation, he's the best cinematic personification of a comic book character since Christopher Reeves donned Superman's cape and tights. Yet seeing Evans in this film, playing a flashier and more comedic role, only further establishes what a wonderfully charming and underrated actor he truly is. The man has range. As is tradition in the comics, Johnny is always pulling pranks on and generally messing with Ben, and Evans plays these scenes with a notable glimmer of mischief in his eyes. The film can certainly be dull at times, but Evans livens things up considerably when he's on screen.

If this review seems a bit too positive for a film with a 27% critics rating at Rotten Tomatoes, then maybe it is. In 2005 I didn't think this was a good film; I still feel that way today. Yet I found more to appreciate this time. Does it deserve its lousy reputation? At least a bit, but not entirely. Part of the allure of watching films like this again with a fresh eye, years later, is to find any small yet entertaining nuggets you might have missed before. I found a few with this viewing—it had just enough of the goofy sci-fi, comic book vibe to be passably interesting; Evans reminded me that he was a star even before playing Cap, and Alba altered my opinion of her performance for the better. While Fantastic Four is by no means a great, or even good, superhero film, it's at least a mildly entertaining way to spend a few hours.

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