In Not Guilty, we look at movies and TV shows that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should give a second look -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time around, we highlight the high-flying superhero film that brought Marvel's First Family to the big screen: 2005's The Fantastic Four.
If there's one thing Hollywood loves, it's a reboot. And thanks to Fox Studios, we have another one coming our way next year in the form of Fantastic Four. Of course, you already know this since the nerdverse has been riddled with gossip about casting choices, canceled comic-book allegations and more in the last few months. All this chatter recalled for us a simpler time, when shared cinematic universes weren't a thing and putting superheroes on screen was a big gamble. Travel with me to the heady days of 2005, where we'll cast a forgiving eye on Tim Story's Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four hold a special place in comic-book history. The property's development came at a crucial point in Stan Lee's career; having become disenchanted with the creative restrictions he was feeling in comics, Lee was ready to quit and start over doing something entirely different when his publisher tasked him with developing a superhero team to compete with DC's new Justice League. Stan, having nothing left to lose, decided he would go out in a blaze of glory and created a dysfunctional family of imperfect, yet likable, heroes who gain their powers after being exposed to cosmic rays.
The Fantastic Four were the first superheroes that, for all intents and purposes, behaved as "regular" humans would likely behave if they suddenly became "super" humans. They lived in the limelight, celebrating their powers out in the open and reveling in their consequential fame. Their flaws were as evident, and as important as their superpowers, making them the first truly relatable heroes in comics.
It would seem to be a no-brainer for a film adaptation, but the road to getting Marvel's first family on screen was long and bumpy, even resulting in the oddity that is Roger Corman's unreleased cult curiosity. Much like the characters in the books, the Fantastic Four movie that finally did reach theaters in 2005 had its shortcomings. But despite its faults, there are elements to enjoy here … and they start with a career-launching performance.
Chris Evans had already shown his talent for comedic timing in Not Another Teen Movie, and with his genetics, it was simply a matter of time until he was tapped to play a superhero. Being eye candy is an important element of the Johnny Storm character -- he was created as a good-looking, cocky, immature smartass. Johnny (aka the Human Torch) represents the element of fire (Sue being air, Reed water and Ben earth, respectively) and is literally the hot guy with a hot head who makes brash decisions without considering the consequences.
Yet it's Johnny's enthusiastic and spontaneous childlike quality that makes him endearing to fans, and Chris Evans was enormously successful in bringing those characteristics to the role. It's not often an actor can look the way Evans does and deliver sarcastic one-liners and still make people like them instead of just thinking they're a jerk. Evans nails it, delivering Johnny's daredevil attitude, likability and ability to step up to the plate when the situation demands it. It's a performance that really put Evans on the map; it's safe to say we might not have such a great big-screen Captain America if we hadn't had this version of Johnny Storm.
Johnny's larger-than-life persona is never more apparent than when contrasted with Ben Grimm's grounded and melancholy one. Chiklis, whose performance in the drama The Shield had won him an Emmy award and two Golden Globe nominations, was the perfect straight man to Evans's funny man. Despite spending most of the movie in heavy makeup with a limited range of facial expressions (after all, the Thing is made of stone), he still managed to bring to life the Thing's emotional struggle dealing with the limitations and losses he now faced because of his transformation. But beneath Ben's gruff and pragmatic demeanor he harbors a quick wit that is an equal match for Johnny Storm. Further, Chicklis nails the raspy growl for which, next to his appearance and famous catch phrase ("It's clobbering time!"), the Thing is most known. The chemistry between the two actors makes a great double act and, in an alternate universe, would have probably made for a great buddy-cop-esque movie.
It's Not So Serious
2005 was a busy year for the superhero genre. Ten movies came out that year, including Elektra, Constantine and Batman Begins. Fantastic Four had a lot of competition. And while the overall theme and tone of the others was dark and gritty, with Batman Begins especially being praised for its more realistic approach, FF was embracing humor wholeheartedly and pulling it off without being campy or goofy. In fact, it pretty much established the precedent that Marvel movies have become praised and known for ever since: embracing the awesome ridiculousness of the heroes in the Marvelverse. It brought the comic aspect from print to film, delivering a spirit that was funny and, most importantly, fun.
Recently, director Tim Story addressed the challenge in summer blockbusters, and his comments very well could explain why the two Fantastic Four films he helmed fell short overall. Simply put, he felt he was too lax on the effects and production teams, both of which are responsible for two areas that are of utmost priority in superhero movies. The effects and set were both distracting at times, and were part of the bigger missteps in the series. We could argue, however, that mistakes like this were all part of the process of comic-book movies finding their voice, and set the stage for greater triumphs in the future.
Fantastic Four came in the beginning of the superhero genre resurgence, and was one of the earlier films Kevin Feige executive-produced. Since then, Feige's track record speaks for itself, proving he knows a thing or two about how to make a great movie. Two years after FF's release, Feige would be named president of Marvel Studios, and three years later would end up offering Johnny Storm a chance to become Captain America. While Fantastic Four was initially the source of hesitation for both Marvel's pursuit of Evans and Evans accepting the part, on some level the seed had already been planted for something fantastic to grow from that connection. Basically, had Evans never been Johnny Storm it never would have set off the chain of life events that led to him being Steve Rogers, and for that 2005's Fantastic Four gets some extra credit.
What do you think? Does Fantastic Four merit a second look, even if it's not up to modern Marvel standards? Or should it be relegated to the Negative Zone of comic-book film adaptations? Sound off in the comments!