Click to enlargeI wasn’t asking for much, I just didn’t want this movie to suck. A few years ago, there was this cinematic travesty that I bore witness to: the Roger Corman adaptation of the Fantastic Four. There was a battle going back and forth over the rights for the comic book (and Chris Columbus was interesting in making a big budget version). Made for a few million dollars, the movie was a quickie release made solely to force the studio to buy back the rights, because they’d never want a stinker of a movie to be floating around while trying to put together a big budget production (though a few copies ended up in circulation).

Do you remember how enjoyable a movie The Incredibles was? It was basically an animated version of the Fantastic Four, with the members being a family. In fact, an early script draft of the Fantastic Four portrayed the members as a family, to the cries of protests from the purists. Instead, what we get is an ersatz family, that puts the ‘F’ in dysfunction.

Click to enlargeYou’ll have to excuse the muddled tirade of my thoughts. I have collected the Fantastic Four comic book on and off for years. Though it was the book that essentially launched Marvel Comics, it has languished in the shadows, not getting the attention of Spider-man, the Hulk, or the X-men. Part of my frustration lies in the fact that in the right hands, there is potential for a breezy action adventure movie centered around the chemistry of four compatriots. In the wrong hands–and as I feared, these were those hands–it would be a lackluster, uninspired exercise in cinematic mediocrity.

There were changes from the comic book which is to be expected in any translation from one medium to another. Victor Von Doom is a smarmy businessman originally from Latveria but now thoroughly enmeshed in American capitalism. In fact, he and Reed Richards seem to be more business rivals than scientific ones. There are interesting role reversals, as Susan Storm starts off working for Victor and is his love interest while Reed is a bankrupt scientist looking for another chance. Speaking of reversals, Johnny Storm apparently started off as the junior officer trained by Ben Grimm who ends up his commanding officer.

Thin is the word that best describes this movie. The acting is thin. Jessica Alba (fresh from Sin City) demonstrates why her physique is the best part of her acting repertoire as she veers between nag and object to be ogled. Nothing about her character or her portrayal says lead geneticist. Julian McMahon plays a variation of Christian Troy, his character from Nip/Tuck, attempting to chew scenery but not being able to convey anything close to charismatic arch-villain. Michael Chiklis (The Shield) is a marvel as The Thing. Despite being under layers of latex, he brings out Ben Grimm’s humanity. But Chris Evans’ one-note performances of the Human Torch matches Ioan Gruffudd’s one-note performance of Mr. Fantastic. Basically, we’re told about the characters and we’re supposed to accept that and move on.

Click to enlargeThe dialogue is thin, the spouted lines ending up sounding more corny than anything else. That is, when the dialogue wasn’t tipping its heavy hand trying to foreshadow future (lack of) action. The fun is thin. The movie tries too hard to have a sense of whimsey which then comes across a little forced. The direction of the movie made me long for the intensity of The Incredibles. The Fantastic Four is fairly slow-moving. Well, maybe not slow, but a lot of time seems to be wasted in the audience getting to know the characters, even for an origins film. Plus the movie seems impressed with its CGI budget and wanting the audience to revel in every instance of the movie-makers’ use of effects.

“What if we got this power for a higher calling?” Johnny Storm (The Human Torch)

This movie is about perceptions: who we are and our need to fill certain roles in life. The quartet of heroes gains its powers due to an accident of hubris as they were in pursuit of learning the origins of life. Each of them gains powers based on personality: Reed Richards was always stretching, reaching for new possibilities; Johnny Storm was a bit of a hothead, impetuous and often unthinking; Ben Grimm did the heavy lifting of the group; Sue Storm simply wanted to be seen and no longer ignored.

“Being different isn’t always a bad thing.” Alicia Masters

However, they all have trouble seeing themselves. Johnny enjoys celebrity and the trappings of popularity, seeing himself through the adulation of others. Reed is not able to see himself for who he is, a hero, a leader. Ben sees himself as a monster, though a new acquaintance (Alicia Masters, portrayed by Kerry Washington) sees the man inside. Susan i
sn’t seen by the man that she loves.

“If there’s a God, he hates me.” Ben Grimm (The Thing)

13.jpg (70 K)It’s like they were all trapped by these false ideas of themselves. These false selves, these false ways that we see ourselves, start developing when we’re young. How our family shape us, how we let our friends define us. We derive our self-worth from what we do, we’re of value because of how we behave or what we have. And yet some part of us is miserable under this definition of who we are and longs to find a way out from under it.

“This is what a man looks like who embraces his destiny.” Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom)

“I’m good as is.” Ben Grimm (The Thing)

02.jpg (228 K)So we need a better definition, a new identity, one that we can find in God. A true self, coming as a result of loving and being loved by God. Once we have our identity in Him and in loving others, we can start building this true self. Understanding and living this truth is what brings true freedom. Once the Four refused to define themselves by what they had (or didn’t have) or what people said about them, they were on the road to being the heroes they were called to be.

Aimed at the PG-13 crowd, the Fantastic Four is a weak and wildly uneven movie at worst, a light hearted romp not meant to be taken too seriously, at best. You can see the diamond in the rough of something that could be great, which is essentially what we all are. But only if it, like us, pursues what it was created to be.

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