Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Fantastic Four by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of 20th Century Fox's Fantastic Four was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Fantastic Four
Produced by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Josh Trank
Main Street Cinemas
72-66 Main Street
Flushing, New York 11367
Reviewed 8/9/15 

Fantastic Four is a contemporary re-imagining of Marvel's original and longest-running superhero series, first unveiled in November, 1961 by writer/editor Stan Lee, and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby, for their launch of Marvel Comics. Although, at the time, I was a big Walt Disney fan and was a regular reader of DC Comics' superheroes Batman and Superman, I did like reading the debut issue of Marvel Comics and occasionally read subsequent issues. As I recall it, the art had a chisel-like feeling that somehow made it more realistic and energetic than the contemporary DC Comics.

The original Fantastic Four consisted of Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), who had the ability to stretch his body into incredible lengths and shapes; the Invisible Girl (now Invisible Woman to be Politically Correct) (Sue Storm), who can render herself invisible and project powerful force fields; the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), who can generate flames, surround himself with them and fly; and The Thing (Ben Grimm), who possesses superhuman strength and endurance due to the nature of his stone-like flesh, that originally looked more like dinosaur skin before further transforming into his trademark rocky appearance.

In the original story as I remember reading it in the comic Fantastic Four #1, Reed Richards' spaceship was specifically referred to as a rocket and it was implied he and his friends went up in it in order to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Fantastic Four #2 states he was trying to reach Mars. Twenty years later in Fantastic Four #236, it was stated that Reed's experimental ship was intended to travel to the edge of the solar system and while it needed a rocket booster to reach escape velocity from Earth's atmosphere, it relied on a Star Drive to reach its destination. This tale also goes on to expand on how the quartet were mutated and gifted with their superpowers. While Fantastic Four #1 merely states they were hit with "cosmic rays," Fantastic Four #236 goes further to explain that these rays passed through the Van Allen Belts that are held around the Earth by its magnetic field. Fantastic Four #358, published in 1991, states that their Star Drive was intended to bring the Fantastic Four into hyperspace in order to visit other solar systems, and that unusual sunspot activity from the Earth's sun also played a role in boosting the strength of the cosmic rays that mutated them. In the movie version, the classic rocket-based origin of Marvel's First Family is dropped in favor of one involving interdimensional teleportation and an undefined, conscious mystic energy, which was the same origin story first reported in 2004 in a comic book reboot entitled Ultimate Fantastic Four

In the movie version, the origins of The Fantastic Four are less heroic; in fact, they are stupid and foolish. Richards and the Strong siblings, along with Victor Von Doom, are disappointed when they are told by Dr. Allen, the Baxter Foundation's Supervisor, that NASA astronauts are going to be brought in and that they will be given the honor of being the first humans to venture to Planet Zero. (Professor Franklin Strong had promised them that they were going to be permitted to be the first to go). This was an entirely reasonable decision made by Dr. Allen given the seriousness of this scientific exploration and the millions of dollars that were expended to achieve these results. What is their reaction? The guys get drunk and decide to go first to get their names into the history books so they will be remembered. Reed Richards refuses to go unless his childhood buddy, Ben Grimm, is permitted to go too, but they all completely forget to invite Sue Strong, who was an essential part of their research team. Under the influence of alcohol, they explore Planet Zero at their peril and suffer the consequences. Left unexplained is how they dodged government security in order to take off. For the rest of the movie, we are expected to take the side of drunken teenagers over trained, experienced, adult, explorers. The assumption is that those corporate types, whether private or governmental, must possess selfish motives and that they want to hog all the glory for themselves.

In the comic book universe, I recall The Fantastic Four discover their new found powers very quickly over a brief period of time without suffering too much pain in the process. In the movie relaunch, each of the Fantastic Four takes over a year to recover in a special government facility, "Area 57," which might be better described as a prison. Dr. Allen's character is now transformed into an evil, power-hungry scientist who has gone over to the dark side. He promises the Fantastic Four that if they undertake covert, military missions for the government, that they will get help returning to normal once the mysterious, conscious energy on Planet Zero is fully understood. In fact, Dr. Allen intends to use the energy to take over both Planet Zero and the Earth. The second mission to Planet Zero finds Victor Von Doom (now just Doom) alive and brings him back to Earth, where he performs a useful public service by killing Dr. Allen. Unfortunately, he goes a little too far and decides the Earth itself must be destroyed to protect Planet Zero and the rest of the universe. The Fantastic Four becomes the team to stop him. In the end, it appears they have killed Doom, but it is highly unlikely they did since this would leave no room for sequels and future plot lines. 

In the original comic book launch of The Fantastic Four, Reed Richards, a very rich man who is a scientific genius, a father figure, and the unofficial head of the team, and his childhood friend Ben Grimm, are the "older generation" while Sue and Johnny Strong, brother and sister, are the "younger generation." Richards' trademark gray temples disappear in the relaunch. Despite their age differences, Reed and Sue eventually marry. Sue is presented as a pioneer female superhero who is the equal of everyone else, which was quite a modern notion in 1961. 

In the comic book series, Reed Richards, who has oodles of money, provides the team with its own building complete with laboratory, research facility, and space launch pad in the middle of Manhattan. This made The Fantastic Four more real to me than Superman who lived in Metropolis (which really seemed to be more like a fictional version of Chicago than New York City), or Batman, who lived in the fictional Gotham (which seemed to be a more factual version of New York City), or the Disney characters who lived in far distant California. Just like Ed Koch in Greenwich Village, or Robert DeNiro in Tribeca, the Fantastic Four in a skyscraper in Manhattan seemed as if they were just part of the neighborhood. Just like the TV commercial, you can imagine seeing The Thing having a meal not at his favorite restaurant, but yours, since he is a local. By choosing to live in New York City, they were able to walk the streets of Manhattan without being bothered by admirers and were able to live the lives of ordinary citizens. They kept their names and individualities along with their strengths and weaknesses. Breaking convention with other comic book archetypes of the time, The Fantastic Four favored celebrity status over anonymity or secret identities.

In contrast, in the movie, after saving Earth from extinction, in place of doing military missions, the team asked the military to give them their own facility in which to work. While it was explicit the team no longer works for the military, it is implied that if asked to save the world from evil in the future, they will consent for the sake of humanity. They dubbed the new facility the Franklin Strong Research Center (formally named Central City). They now live in isolation from the world, no longer a part of humanity or the local neighborhood. They chose fame over community instead of having both.  

In the movie, Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and the Strong siblings are all about the same age. Reed Richards is recruited by Professor Franklin Strong, who is impressed by his achievements at an Oyster Bay High School Science Fair. Professor Strong offers him a full scholarship to the Baxter Institute, a government-sponsored school for young prodigies, which has already been doing research into interdimensional teleportation without complete success. Left unexplained is why Richards' partner Grimm is not also offered a scholarship to the Institute. The visuals in the movie are not coordinated at times because we see Manhattan from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, and not from where we are supposed to be in the script. 

Both Richards and Grimm were disqualified from the Science Fair for doing "magic tricks" because their science teacher was too dense to fully understand what he had just observed. Reed Richards and Ben Grimm built their device in Reed's garage using items from a junk yard and spent only a few thousand dollars, while researchers at the Baxter Institute were unable to accomplish the same feat despite spending millions of dollars over a course of many years. At first Reed Richards thought he was teleporting items to somewhere else on the planet instead of into another dimension. But after we got to see Planet Zero in the movie, it certainly looked like a real place and not just Earth in another dimension, but then again, who knows what another dimension would look like.

In the comic book universe, Doctor Doom pioneered a new version of the "mad scientist" as a full-fledged villain with various powers. Like Hercules, he is a kind of demigod having both mystical and human origins. Unlike other comic book villains, he often exhibits empathy and compassion and even does occasional good and patriotic deeds for his own reasons. At no point did he ever have a personal relationship with any of The Fantastic Four in contrast with the young Superman, who knew Lex Luthor as a friend. In this current movie re-launch, the effort is made to depict young Victor Von Doom as a moody James Dean type trying to find himself but the effort is entirely unsuccessful. There is a suggestion that Doom is interested in Sue Strong but this plot line is never effectively developed. Sue is clueless that Doom has a thing for her.   

Each of the Fantastic Four characters have familial issues unlike the original comic book launch where they all seem to come from traditional two-parent families. The original Marvel Comics in the day broke cultural barriers by having strong black and female characters but in the movie, political correctness and the blind desire for diversity is taken to an irrelevant extreme that does not add to the story. Johnny Strong is now black and his white sister is an orphan adopted from Kosovo. Reed feels disconnected from his parents, mother and step-father, who tolerate his scientific research but don't understand anything he is working on. Ben is the son of a junkyard owner who lived in an abusive home environment. Sue doesn't know who her real parents are and her brother has a strained relationship for unknown reasons with his father. You would think the elements are in place to drive the characters to adopt each other as the family they never had, but if that is the case, it ends up becoming a very dysfunctional family indeed, with infighting, jealousy

In the movie, Miles Teller plays Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Jamie Bell is Ben Grimm (The Thing), Michael B. Jordan appears as Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), and Kate Mara is his sister Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman). They coalesce together as a team to fight Victor Von Doom (the villain known as Doctor Doom, born in Latveria, who emerges in future issues of the comic book series Fantastic Four). Victor, who was a protege of Professor Franklin Strong, is left behind on Planet Zero and later believes he has the moral obligation to destroy the Earth to protect Planet Zero and the rest of the universe from its inhabitants. He correctly believes the military has every intention to use the mysteriously conscious energy on Planet Zero to subdue and dominate the Earth. The Fantastic Four, of course, win for now but Professor Strong ends up being killed by Victor. His dying wish is for Johnny and Sue to look after each other. Our superheroes assume the name The Fantastic Four because they intend to use their superpowers to vanquish evil and protect humanity from its enemies. How they come up with their name is lamely depicted.

The movie is one long trudge before we get to the climax. Director Josh Trank takes his time as well as our time through a long exposition before we get to the all too brief action scenes. We are not given enough time to appreciate how villainous Doom has become before he is put down. In order to have great heroes, you need to have great villains, and this we do not have. 

In the comic book universe, the characters are flawed individuals with strengths and weaknesses that make them all the more human and believable. Even Doctor Doom has a good side as the people of Latveria accept him as a caring monarch who looks after them. The world is made a better place by The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Doctor Doom. In the cinematic version, all of the characters are one-dimensional, cardboard cut-ups, ill-portrayed by the actors who fail to bring them to life. There is no chemistry between the actors and their characters; no real love or hate; we don't care.

Who is responsible for this disaster? A perfect storm of bad writing, bad acting, bad directing and bad editing did in Fantastic Four. The producers, the actors, the writer, and the director have been successful in other enterprises; instead of their synergy making the film better than what they could have individually achieved, the exact opposite was the result. This should have been a release on home video, skipping the movie release altogether in order to minimize the damage to the franchise. Some have suggested Twentieth Century Fox produced this loser in order to fulfill a legal obligation to Marvel so it could keep the franchise. In fact, everyone involved appears to have leaked a story trying to explain away their own contribution to this turkey, which never got off the ground and certainly couldn't fly.

Why do we have relaunches? The culture changes, so how characters are portrayed also has to change. Part of the reason is that every generation gets the superheroes it deserves and expects. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next Fantastic Four movie, the characters tweet and have their own Facebook Page, posting selfies on Instagram. The actors who portray them in movies and cartoons also influence the way the superheroes are perceived by each new generation. Sometimes, new story lines are needed; other story lines have had their day; or no longer work.  

Relaunches can save or doom well-established hero franchises. Superman and Batman were successfully relaunched as vulnerable, multidimensional  human beings who have experienced success and failure, have been scarred by their adventures, and have striven to become better people instead of simply being used for comic relief. Timothy Dalton almost did in the James Bond franchise, while Daniel Craig gave it new life. When the Whiteman's Africa came to an end, so did Tarzan but the reincarnated Phantom, the oldest superhero franchise of all, manages to soldier on. The Fantastic Four are just teenagers with new powers and shiny toys who have not become better people in the process. You cannot identify with them and it is very difficult to like them. Sadly, this franchise, which needed no reboot, got one it did not deserve.

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