In defence of Fantastic Four

My appreciation of the 2005 and 2007 Fantastic Four films comes from a single scene in Silver Surfer, where Mr. Fantastic has begrudgingly gone to his own bachelor party, and we cut to him being a big nerd, surrounded by attractive twentysomething women and talking about something scientific. “…it expanded exponentially into what became the universe we know,” he explains. “Wow, you’re really smart!” replies one of the women. “Thanks, Candy. That means a lot to me.”

Here’s the thing; while the film could have made this a joke at Candy’s expense, at the notion that Mr. Fantastic would care even the slightest about some dancing girl’s opinion of his intellect, it doesn’t, and Ioan Gruffudd plays it straight. Candy’s impressed validation really does mean a lot to Mr. Fantastic, and you just don’t see that sort of earnest, comic book sincerity in superhero films much these days.

The pair of Fantastic Four films — 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer — aren’t great films. They’re barely even good films. The stories are forgettable. I don’t remember any action sequence with particular fondness or awe and as for the antagonists, Doctor Doom isn’t much to speak of — more disgruntled tech leader than power-crazed dictator — and Galactus infamously only appears as a vague suggestion in the centre of a planet-sized cloud. The Silver Surfer comes across fine thanks to Laurence Fishburne’s great voice but he isn’t really a character as much as he is a plot point. The dialogue in both films tends to skew toward the awkward and trite.

But there’s enjoyment to be found, in between the action and the typical comic book film beats and tropes. These are films where superpowers are put to the most banal of uses — Mr. Fantastic using his stretchy limbs to get a roll of toilet paper; Susan Storm turning invisible because someone’s walked in on her showering; Thing accidentally eating a fork. The best moments in both films are light-hearted slapstick, stupid family arguments or eye-rolling dad jokes. While fans fumed over Galactus being portrayed as a cloud, they overlooked the reasonably solid portrayal of the group’s most important characteristic, that of being a dorky, bickering, close-knit family.

Not that it’s a perfect presentation; there’s not much depth or nuance. Gruffudd plays the Candy scene straight, but he plays every scene straight, wide-eyed and innocent. Jessica Alba and her character Sue Storm are treated about as well as can be expected from a Hollywood comic book film, which is to say, generally terribly. This is no fault of Alba’s, who’s always been a bright, charming screen presence and has since taken revenge on Hollywood’s poor use of her by creating a billion dollar business empire. In Fantastic Four however, her character’s chief concern seems to be that — despite being a high-powered executive with powers of invisibility and forcefield manipulation at the age of just 23 — she might not get the marriage of her dreams to the inattentive Mr. Fantastic. The films also do their best to get her as undressed as is possible in a kid’s film, with the flimsiest narrative justification. It’s all pretty tawdry.

Michael Chiklis as Thing looks unavoidably like a high-end Power Rangers villain in his chunky latex suit, but at least he’s also clearly present, right there on set interacting with the rest of the cast and emoting as best as his foam face allows. No, he doesn’t look or feel like a man made of rock, but he’s got far more charm than his CGI counterpart in Josh Trank’s miserablist effort. There’s some gloom here — Thing’s wife dumps him in an instant and he ends up moping in a cafe, Nighthawks-style — but it’s not oppressive, and it’s not a permanent sulk either. Maybe it ought to be, but these aren’t those sort of films.

So, Chiklis gamely delivers rubbery pathos, and Gruffudd is the straight man, and Alba is the one who deserved better, but it’s Chris Evans who really lights things up; with his portrayal of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, he’s simultaneously the shallowest and most fun of the whole ensemble. That welcome physicality that I mentioned Thing had? That, combined with Evans hyperactive determination to enjoy what’s going on, leads to the dumb brilliance of scenes like this:

It’s a testament to Evans’ natural likability that his Johnny Storm — one of the douchiest men in existence — manages to come across as well as he does. Apparently only interested in his new powers as a means to getting more sex and fame, he’s also the only one who appears to be enjoying himself, undercutting Thing’s moping and snarking his way through every scene. He is absolutely the sort of person I’d leap from buildings to avoid in real life, but here, he’s clearly the star.

We’re either going really fast, or not at all

The films sit in an odd space, compared to other comic films. 2005 was too soon for these films to be influenced by the gritty realism of Nolan’s Batman Begins, released in the same year, but it also avoids the muted, serious tone of Bryan Singer’s X-Men from 2000. If anything they’re a vestigial offshoot of Raimi’s Spider-Man, in so far as they’re colourful and fun and not all that interested in taking themselves seriously. You could slot them comfortably next to 1994’s The Shadow and 1996’s The Phantom: decent, cartoonish films but all evolutionary dead-ends in the face of what came next.

Neither of the two Fantastic Four films feel like they’re aimed specifically at comics fans, who evidently didn’t care for the familial hijinks and bickering. Perhaps 2005 was just a little before superhero films had to be grovelingly presented to sweltering Comic-Con crowds, before the marketing had to be so heavily tailored towards fandom’s most conservative, reactionary elements, or perhaps the film makers just didn’t care; either way, the films have a lightness of touch and a flexibility about their source material that speaks of trying to find a wider audience. Even the most fun of today’s comic adaptations — say, Guardians of the Galaxy — feel like they’ve had half their potential charm focus-tested into oblivion out of a misguided fear of upsetting a particular fanbase.

Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer aren’t great films, but they’re not that bad either. If you’re looking for something bright and dumb to stick on on a Saturday morning between cartoons, you could do worse. Like Evans’ Johnny Storm, they’re shallow and broadly-drawn, but kind of fun to be around.