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The Fantastic Four: A Defence Of Sorts

January 21, 2012

Last year I was asked to write a contrarian defence of the widely derided 2005 Fantastic Four movie. I re-watched the film to make sure I could do so without exploding into a smokey cloud of lies and devil’s advocacy, then I wrote this, a not-entirely-disingenuous list of reasons the film is better than most people suggest (with a title that oversells just a little).

Is it just me… or is The Fantastic Four the lost superhero gem of our generation?

Poor old Fantastic Four. Of all the sub-Spidey comic book adaptations we’ve been bombarded with since X-Men made spandex shorts cool again in 2000 – The Punisher, Ghost Rider, even Ben Affleck’s bastard-chinned Daredevil – the Fantastic Four movie of 2005 has been the most roundly jeered and derided. But six years on, I contend that not only is it a better film than you think it is, it’s also a better film than it thinks it is. Hell, it might even be a better film than I think it is, and I’ve been thinking about it for ages.

The complaints go something like this: Fantastic Four is witlessly optimistic and lacks the depth and darkness of the best comic adaptations, while Ioan Gruffudd is a manicured bag of warm air as Mister Fantastic and Michael Chiklis is a vocoder away from Mr Blobby as a sad-faced Thing. Jessica Alba is best when she’s invisible, Chris Evans’ nuclear smirk is unbearable, and the science underpinning the story sounds like the ravings of a physics teacher in the grip of a full-on, wizard’s-hat-in-the-classroom nervous breakdown.

It’s hard to deny any of this. And certainly, the stats seem to back it up. Fantastic Four has a 5.7 rating on IMBD, a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 40 on Metacritic. All sad numbers. And while the film scored a worldwide box-office gross of $330 million, exactly $330 million more than the previous Fantastic Four film from 1994, that’s only because the 1994 film was made as a copyright-extending throwaway (unknown to the cast and crew) which never received a release of any kind.

But let’s remember this: everyone on the internet is wrong about everything. And, more importantly, while all those criticisms of the film hold true, they’re not necessarily mistakes. Yes the film is upbeat and limits the techno-jabber to some balls about cosmic rays. But the Fantastic Four has always skewed towards a younger audience, and the film simply ditches cheap mood photography and paper-thin character complexes synonymous with the Wolverines and Batmans of the world for a broader appeal that’s faithful to the source material. And anyone who claims this isn’t a kids’ movie, based on a kid’s comic book, should consider the fact that the hero is called Mr Fantastic (a man so insipid Gruffudd did a fine job just making him slightly boring) and his metal-skinned nemesis carries the equally subtle name of Victor Von Doom. And he turned out bad?

Not that the film is just a big, bright nothing. It’s also far funnier than it’s given credit for. With his brutal turn in The Shield now a fading memory it’s easier to appreciate the comedy of Chiklis’ Thing – fat rock fingers thudding concrete while grasping for his wife’s discarded wedding ring (a scene so devoid of real emotion it can only be aiming for laughs) or turning to a crowd of terrified kids and roaring a rushed and feeble “Don’t do drugs!”

An even bigger factor is that at the time Evans was hard to take as the cocksure Human Torch – too young, too handsome, too on fire. But six years on he has the track record to back up the swagger, and we know there’s more to him than sparkly eyes and one-liners (now the funniest part of his reply to a nurse shocked at his temperature isn’t the initial zinger – “You’re hot” “Thanks, so are you” – but the follow-up “…and I’m not afraid to cry”). Like a fine wine confusingly made from a small muscled actor from Massachusetts, the film is better with age.

It’s not dark or clever or menacing. But then it’s really not trying to be. It’s funny, it’s unpretentious, and it’s over in a just-right 90 minutes. It’s also better than you remember. And by God, it’s better than Daredevil.

This piece originally appeared in Total Film issue 181.

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