Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantastic Four

As one of those literary types who also enjoys and admires comic books, I was pleased and excited when the first Fantastic Four movie came out, and went to see it on its opening weekend. Sadly, Fantastic Four was by far the most disappointing superhero movie I've ever seen. Many critics cited plenty of legitimate problems with the movie, such as the generally weak acting and the plot that goes nowhere (the characters spend half the movie just hanging around the Baxter Building for crying out loud!) but I think the real failure of Fantastic Four was the way it utterly betrayed its source material.

I do not demand that film adaptations of books or comics be 100% faithful to their sources; I understand that movies are a different medium with a broader audience and that it's reasonable to expect changes. But in this case the filmmakers cut the heart and soul right out of the Royal Family of the Marvel universe.

Here's the key to the Fantastic Four: they are not really superheroes. At least they are not superheroes in the ordinary sense. They don't solve crimes. They don't patrol rooftops at night, foiling bank robberies and muggings. Sure, if Galactus tries to eat the planet they'll fight him off, but that sort of thing isn't where their real interests lie. The Fantastic Four are a family. And, what's more, they are adventurers and explorers! Led by the endlessly inquisitive Reed Richards, they are constantly seeking new knowledge and new experiences, for the good of science and humanity. No one understood this better than John Byrne, who worked on the title, writing and illustrating, for six years (issues 232-293). It was during this period, for instance, that the Fantastic Four made their unforgettable journey into the Negative Zone. One story involves them encountering an enormous spacecraft, many tens of thousands of years old, in which thousands of beings sleep in cryogenic preservation, guarded by a handful of custodians. These few search endlessly for a new world for their people, passing the responsibility on to their children for generation after generation, floating alone in space. How the Fantastic Four respond to this situation, and the way the story develops towards its terrible climactic revelation and sublime denouement, resembles nothing quite so closely as the classic stories from the Golden Age of science fiction.

In contrast, the protagonists of the Fantastic Four movie seem like aimless idiots. Reed Richards, whose boundless enthusiasm for scientific enquiry should be infectious and endearing, becomes onscreen nothing more than a feckless nerd with an implausibly attractive girlfriend. The characters dawdle around, dismally incurious about their amazing experience and newfound capabilities, before trundling on dutifully to the inevitable fight with Dr. Doom. Here we leave the Golden Age of science fiction behind, for the modern blockbuster sci-fi formula, where characters travel to strange and amazing worlds but, once there, can't think of anything better to do than run around shooting at one another.

What made the original Fantastic Four special is that they were more than just another gang of square-jawed dipshits in tights, punching each other through brick walls. The first film forgot this - or never knew it in the first place. Although there is a chance that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is better, I seriously doubt it. This is one superhero movie I think I'll be sitting out.


Artful Badger said...

I generally hold superhero movies in low regard. The word "superhero" essentially forces the storyline into a cliche.

Conrad Zaar said...

Although it's true that superhero movies seem to be falling into a standard formula, the phenomenon is hardly unique to the superhero genre. We can see the same trend in romantic comedies, buddy-cop action movies, slasher films, and so on. I don't blame superheroes (or the word "superhero") but the timid Hollywood executives who don't like to try new things. (Admittedly, that complaint is itself a cliché.)

Aishwarya said...

I don't see that having superhero movies follow a set pattern/formula is necessarily a bad thing...or they wouldn't be "superhero movies". It's what you do within the formula that makes a movie interesting to me.

Having said which, I'm likely to see the new Fantastic Four movie because it's the holidays and I'm bored.

KingSlayer said...

Batman Begins came pretty close to being the best ever comic book movie, in my opinion. I also like Spiderman 1 and 2 with all its "superhero going through internal torment" schtick. But lets face it, a great movie based on a great comic book? It wont happen.

I shudder the day some Hollywood exec may decide to get that guy Sandman on to the wide screen. And as for the fantastic four, though I have never been an ardent fan, I loved Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602 which had the four as a part of the storyline. Now thats one great comic!