Fantastic Four” (2005) was hurt by coming out five years after “X-Men” and at a time when moviegoers had seen next-level genre films like “Spider-Man 2” (2004) and “Batman Begins” (2005). It’s a safe, predictable comic-to-screen adaptation compared to its rivals. On the other hand, the “Fantastic Four” comic (1961) predated “X-Men” and “Avengers” by two years, so I’d argue the film deserves a level of respect for effectively adapting the groundbreaking source material (something the 1994 version famously failed to do).
Also, while this is a tamer movie than “X-Men,” it strikes me as believable that the populace would be wowed by the Fantastic Four’s exploits rather than terrified. Sure, “X-Men” is a metaphor for the fear of “the other,” but in reality, humans love people who can achieve amazing feats – especially if they are athletic in nature and if they are doing good things for society.
I think “Fantastic Four” gets it right in the capper of its best action sequence, where Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael Chiklis) saves a bunch of people on a bridge. The police pull their guns on the “monster” but the bystanders inform the cops that Ben is the hero, even though he looks like a walking rock pile.
Written by Mark Frost and Michael France, director Tim Story’s “Fantastic Four” is an equal mix of clever gags (Johnny Storm/The Human Torch cooking popcorn with his hands), acceptable but obvious sitcom humor (Johnny says “I’m gonna need therapy” after his sister strips naked for the sake of invisibility) and flat pseudo-crowd-pleasing moments (Ben says “I’ve been waiting to do that!” after clobbering the villain).
It makes sense that each of the quartet reacts differently to the powers they acquire from a space cloud. Cruelly rejected by his wife, Ben hates his freakish visage and doesn’t want to live. Johnny (Chris Evans, in a very different role from Captain America) is at the opposite end of the spectrum, whooping it up with his flying and fire-creation abilities. Lovebirds-to-be Sue Storm/Invisible Girl (Jessica Alba), whose superhero name explains her power, and Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), who can stretch like rubber, are somewhere in the middle.
Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon), for his part, revels in the power that comes with his metal skin and super strength. This being very much an origin story for everyone, all he aims to do here is eliminate the Fantastic Four so he can then plan bigger villainy. While there is a certain appeal to the film’s straightforward function as a comic history lesson, the stakes also seem small.
Part of the lack of tension is thanks to Johnny, who thinks this whole thing is a blast; he even has time to develop a Thing action figure prototype! While Johnny’s is only one point of view, it undercuts the other heroes’ ennui because he is, after all, correct: It’s fun to be a superhero in this world where everyone loves superheroes, where they can have successful careers doing it, and where their powers don’t have any negative side effects (except for Ben’s looks, but that’s a superficial self-judgment Ben needs to move past).
It’s easy to lapse into apologetics for “Fantastic Four” because it is so competently made; there are no big embarrassing moments, and it regularly gives us things we don’t see every day, such as Mr. Fantastic functionally turning himself into a rope and tying up The Thing to end a fight. That said, there’s no denying that it never achieves – or even tries for — that next level that superhero films were reaching at this point in time. There are no meaty themes to chew on, and the biggest questions have obvious answers: Will Sue and Reed get together, and will Ben learn to accept himself?
What amazed readers on comic pages in 1961 didn’t have the same effect on screens in 2005, and that’s understandable. Still, “Fantastic Four” introduces a likeable quartet, and I think a good movie could be made with them if more serious stakes are introduced. So I have cautious hopes for the sequel.