Whatever happened to H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot?
Comic book-based movies are big bucks these days. Whether or not you’ve enjoyed any of them, there’s no denying how audiences have flocked to them as if possessed by Purple Man. After mega-blockbusters like the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises rang up some serious dollar signs, Fox set its sights on Marvel’s longest-running property, known throughout comicdom as “the world’s greatest comic magazine”—The Fantastic Four.
Three scientists and their two pilot friends head into space to study the effects of a mysterious cosmic cloud. After the cloud wreaks havoc on their space station, four of these adventurers wind up back on Earth, each with unbelievable superhuman powers. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd, Horatio Hornblower) can stretch his body to various lengths and shapes, making him Mr. Fantastic. Susan Storm (Jessica Alba, Sin City) can turn invisible and protect herself with invisible force fields, making her the Invisible Woman. Sue’s brother Johnny (Chris Evans, Cellular) is a twentysomething party animal who can generate and control fire, making him the Human Torch. And then there’s Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, The Shield), who’s been given awesome physical strength, but is trapped in a hideous new body made of orange rock. He’s now the Thing. The fifth survivor of the storm is Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, Nip/Tuck), the billionaire who funded the project. He’s developing a metallic complexion and the ability to affect electricity. He’ll go to any lengths to eliminate the competition, whether it’s a ruthless business rival, or Reed getting romantic with his girl Sue. Now, our four heroes must learn to live with their new powers, not to mention their newfound fame, all while Doom plots to tear them apart.
I’m about to compare the movie to the original comics. But don’t worry, this isn’t just fanboy ranting, there’ll be a point to it. Why has the comic been enjoyed by so many people, of varying ages and walks of life, since the 1960s? Several reasons: Great characters, big action, fun concepts, and more. But in this film, the creators have changed the basics of who these characters are. They’ve made everything smaller, and they’ve sucked the fun and excitement out of it all.
Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic
In the comics: he’s the team’s leader, the confident decision-maker who can think his way out of any crisis. He’s both an adventurer and an explorer. Whether tinkering away at gigantic devices in his lab, or taking the team on a trip to an exotic locale in pursuit of knowledge. When unable to go into space to prove his theories, he gathers his team together, sneaks onto a base, and makes it happen.
In the movie: He’s far less of a dynamic character. He gets tongue-tied around Sue, he makes critical errors in working on his science, and spends more time reacting to what’s happening than taking an active leadership role. When unable to go into space to prove his theories, he lowers himself to asking Doom for funding.
Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman
In the comics: She’s the maternal one, the heart of the group. Whenever personal conflicts threaten to threaten to drive the team apart, she’s the one you can trust to keep them all together. She can turn anything invisible, not just herself.
In the movie: She spends most of the time barking orders at other characters, snapping at them if things don’t go her way. She can only turn herself invisible, leading to a couple of gratuitous “invisible undressing” shots.
Ben Grimm, the Thing
In the comics: He longs to be human again, but until then, he’ll make the best of a bad situation. When not out beating up the bad guys, he enjoys the simple pleasures in life, like a hearty cigar or poker night with his buddies. He’s a wisecracker, and the consummate New Yorker. He’s a gentle giant, an ordinary guy trapped in a monster’s body.
In the movie: He spends almost the entire movie feeling sorry for himself, whining about his “condition.” The writers are so into making us feel sorry for him, that they forgot to make him likable.
Johnny Storm, the Human Torch
In the comics: The teenage kid, slightly rebellious at times, but good-natured at heart. He’s never the sidekick, but a full-fledged member of the team, an equal. As such, he’s just as heroic as the rest of them.
In the movie: Crude and womanizing, Johnny only thinks about himself and his search for the next big thrill. His constant mocking of the other characters comes across more mean-spirited than it does playful.
In the comics: A foreign tyrant, living in a mountaintop castle filled with all manner of technological advances and supernatural artifacts. He has his sights set on ruling the world someday, but first he wants to be rid of Reed Richards. Years ago, an accident left Doom’s face scarred beyond repair, and he feels Richards is the cause. Alone in his castle, he hides behind a metal mask and high-tech armor, plotting his next sinister scheme.
In the movie: He’s a billionaire head of multi-national corporation, college buddies with Reed and romantic rival for Sue. After they give him the boot, he goes on a petty revenge spree, and then dreams up a plan to use Reed’s technology to make himself more powerful. During a fight, he makes silly wisecracks like, “This is going to be fun!”
So by changing the basic core concepts of the characters, the filmmakers have gutted them of their appeal. Now, I’m not suggesting they should have done a panel-to-shot film like Sin City attempted. Take a look, by comparison, at the X-Men and Spider-Man films. Those films went through several cosmetic changes in the translation to the screen, but the screenwriters kept the essence of who the characters are. This Fantastic Four might look like their namesakes, but they don’t act like it.
By this point, some of you are no doubt thinking, “Hey, dork, so what if it bears almost no resemblance to the source material, how does it work as a stand-alone film?” Sorry, but the movie is riddled with enough groan-inducing, slap-on-the-forehead moments to keep anyone from enjoying it. The bridge scene in the middle of the film is the first big action set piece, and the first time the characters use their powers. There might be explosions and mass destruction galore, but the characters aren’t really being heroes here, because the whole affair starts thanks to the Thing’s clumsiness. So, instead of the Fantastic Four saving the day, they’re really just cleaning up a mess they themselves caused. Immediately following this scene, the Four become overnight media sensations. Again, this struck me as too convenient of a jump for the writers to make. The biggest offender, though, is a ludicrous scene early on when Johnny breaks out of hospital quarantine to go snowboarding with a nurse. And not just snowboarding, but “extreme” snowboarding where they jump out of a helicopter first. I could write another 1,700 words on just how stupid this scene is. Yet moments like this just keep coming at the audience, one after another after another until the credits roll.
As expected for a big-budget new release, the DVD video and audio are top-notch. During the otherwise pointless motocross scene, check out the big crane shot that sweeps through the crowd and then onto the center of the arena, just in time for a group of motorcycles and their riders to soar through the air. The detail and colors are so sharp here that the picture is almost 3-D. The DTS and Dolby soundtracks are also good, especially when John Ottman’s excellent score kicks in.
Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, and Michael Chiklis sit down for a mostly self-congratulatory commentary. While light on actual information, they do reveal that the film had a rushed schedule, the script was constantly being re-written during filming, and actors improvised some scenes entirely. Three featurettes, two which aired on the Fox Movie Channel, look behind the scenes at the casting process and the special effects work. The “Video Diary” was not made during filming, but during the actors’ press junket during the summer of 2005. Unless you’re a huge Jessica Alba fan and you’d like nothing better than 20 minutes of her being adorable, you can probably skip this one and not miss much. The “Inside Look at X3” contains no footage at all from that film, just a few sound bites from producer Avi Arad about how much he’s looking forward to it.
Hope exists. During the film’s finale and closing minutes, it almost seems as if they’ve become the characters we all know as the Fantastic Four. On the commentary, the actors all state how much they’re looking forward to a sequel. Now that the groundwork has been established, they say, this opens up numerous possibilities for bigger and better storytelling next time around. Sounds like a plan to me. Here’s hoping it’ll happen, and that all parties involved have learned from their mistakes from this go-around.