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This Week in Genre History: Fantastic Four came out 15 years ago, and it was fine — really! It's fine!
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
There may be no more cursed movie franchise in all of comic book land than Fantastic Four. There have been three separate Fantastic Four incarnations in the movies — with a fourth about to be folded into the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and none of them have gone well. About the best thing you can say about the most successful of the Fantastic Four films, 2005’s Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story, is that no one in it actively pretends they weren’t a part of it. Baby steps.
In many ways, Fantastic Four, as a franchise, has always fallen just out of step with the comic book movie boom. Originally optioned from Stan Lee in 1986, before comic book movies were what they are now (or anyone had even considered that a possibility), a German producer, before the rights ran out, made a cheap Roger Corman-produced version just so he wouldn’t lose those rights, one that was never actually released to the public. (And was memorably satirized by Arrested Development.) Director after director passed through the project after that, from Chris Columbus to Raja Gosnell to Peyton Reed to Twin Peaks’ Mark Frost. Fox, now holding the rights and eager to get this followed through, hired Tim Story, who had directed the good Barbershop and the not-good Taxi, to get everything settled down and a movie made.
Thus, this week, we look at 2005’s Fantastic Four, which came out on July 8, 2005, 15 years ago. Whatever you want to say about it... it was definitely a movie that was made.
Why was it a big deal at the time? It wasn’t, but, again, that’s not entirely the film’s fault. The movie lost its release date, right before the July 4th weekend, because Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds landed there. But it was also released just three years before Iron Man. While that film’s success certainly showed what comic book movies could do, and how popular they could be (and arguably laid down the template for the next 15 years at your local multiplex), it also set the bar a wee bit too high for a project as modestly conceived as Fantastic Four.
This meant that, just a few years down the line, everything Fox was trying to do — set up a franchise, but don’t do anything other than make an average, accessible superhero tentpole movie — felt sort of silly, even pointless, in a post-Iron Man universe. All the safe choices they made looked empty with Jon Favreau’s light shone on them. Story and the producers might have wanted to play it safe, but all it did was make everything look bland.
Here’s the best way to put it: Chris Evans sort of got the role of his life, as it seemed at the time, when he played the Human Torch here... and there isn’t a single thing you can remember about him in this, is there? You are forgiven if you forgot he was even in this at all.
What was the impact? The movie did fine. It really did! Story brought a studious, careful professionalism to the project, and while it didn’t add up to anything particularly exciting, it isn’t embarrassing either. There are a couple of decent set pieces, the actors don’t look too ridiculous, the movie has a logical, linear narrative that isn’t hard to follow. That might sound like faint praise, but, well, you should see the other Fantastic Four films.
Heck, it even did well enough to earn a sequel, also directed by Story, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, which came out two years later. Like the first film, it’s dull and uninspiring and perfectly unremarkable. But that makes it the second-best Fantastic Four film of all time. When it comes to this franchise — which Fox was so eager to reboot again eight years later — with Story at the helm, they didn’t know how good they had it.
Has it held up? If you don’t remember anything about this film 15 years later, don’t worry: I just watched it yesterday and I’m having a hard time recalling much of it myself. It is cheesy and inoffensive and looks small and plodding compared to the Marvel world that would follow in its footsteps.
But compared to that Roger Corman movie and, more to the point, the total nightmare that was Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four — which was a massive flop and not only lost a ton of money but may have turned the entire industry against Trank who, coming in, was one of the hottest young filmmakers in Hollywood — Story’s film looks like a blast of cool air in the middle of your brain. It feels fresh and original. It isn’t, of course. But, thus is the state of this franchise.
Fifteen years later, frankly, this looks like the best of all the Fantastic Four movies, by a long shot. The second is its sequel. Honestly: Third place might go to the Arrested Development parody.