It’s just the wrong movie.
The 2005 Fantastic Four movie fascinates me.
Common knowledge, and the general hyperbolic nature of the Internet, would tell you that it is a film with absolutely no redeeming value. That it’s embarrassingly cheesy, embarrassingly desperate to be hip and relevant, incredibly mean-spirited, ploddingly paced, and badly acted by everybody except Michael Chiklis. The titular quartet are too unlikeable, Victor von Doom is too inadvertently sympathetic, they don’t actually do much superhero-ing despite the film running upwards of 100 minutes. In a period where Spider-Man, Batman, and Hellboy were proving how great superhero and comic-book movies could be, Fantastic Four was right there reminding us of exactly how bad things could get. It’s completely worthless.
In a way, they’re right. The film that Fantastic Four ended up as is a pretty bad movie and it has still somehow managed to age atrociously – I watched this for the very first time two nights ago and found myself saying “Yep, this was definitely 2005” roughly every fourth scene. However, I would like to pitch to you this radical idea. It’s gonna seem kinda ridiculous initially, but hopefully you’ll understand where I’m coming from by the time I’m done. You might even agree with me or, at the very least, not laugh me out of the metaphorical building! Are you ready? Then here it is:
Fantastic Four is not a bad movie. It’s just the wrong movie.
No, seriously. The 2005 version of Fantastic Four is genuinely a very good movie, it’s just been fine-tuned into being a terrible movie. For example: the Fantastic Four, with the exception of Ben Grimm, are massive dicks. Johnny Storm is a walking jock jerk who holds everybody else in contempt. Reed Richards is a selfish dick who orders everybody else around and forces them to wait on his clock because he never has the guts to go forward on anything, and he’s also busy stealing Sue Storm from her fiancé-to-be. Whilst Sue Storm spends the entire movie ranting at Reed about how much he lost a good thing and how, god, why didn’t he just f*cking commit to her and you’re so clueless Reed… (Not kidding, that’s pretty much 80% of her dialogue.)
That may sound like I’m exaggerating the truth for comic effect, but I’m not kidding. That is how the film portrays our cast for the entire film. Ben Grimm is the only sympathetic one, because he’s the only nice one and his personal conflict makes genuine sense, and he spends the entire film being made The Butt Monkey whilst the rest of the team take turns being mean to him. The four spend almost all of the film’s 105 minutes arguing and bickering with each other in a way that comes off as each of them being genuinely unable to stand each other, instead of the (possibly) intended aim of having them as friends who are being pushed apart by these powers.
Then there’s the issue of Victor von Doom. The whole point of Vic’s origin, from what I’ve gathered, is that he irrationally blames Reed for the disfigurement that he himself is responsible for due to his arrogance and not listening to Reed. Except that here, the fault really is all Reed’s. The accident that causes the 4 and Doom to earn their mutations and powers comes from Reed being terrible at his job and miscalculating the Cosmic Clouds’ arrival time. Doom is absolutely right to blame Reed for the loss of money, the loss of his company, and the mutations. He’s given Reed funding, a place to stay, and even the suits, and Reed pays him back by stealing his girlfriend of two years. The only indications we’re given that we’re supposed to not like him are that he acts and talks like a really obvious dick, that he shuts the shields early during the Cosmic Clouds, and that he succumbs to the evil potential of his power for the awful finale.
As for the superheroics in this superhero movie? Basically non-existent. Reed and co. spend the vast majority of the film sat around at Reed’s place trying to figure out how to depower themselves, whilst any of the actual big setpieces come from them cleaning up their own mess – Doom is Richards’ fault, the chaos on the bridge is brought about by their own mistakes, and the final moment where Doom is now putting the civilians at risk is because of Ben knocking him down to street level. Throughout the entire movie, not once does any member of the team do anything that could be remotely considered “heroic”. They’re just cleaning up their own various messes, at best, and, at worst, using their powers to prank each other or reach for spare toilet paper. Our heroes are just as bad as the nominal villain of the piece.
But here’s thing. All of this could be brilliant! Hell, all of this is basically the framework of Chronicle. A small-scale film about a personal set of feuds that end up spilling out into the public forum, where really terrible and unlikeable people spend 100-odd minutes screwing each other over in various ways, their various issues with each other and their personal flaws being exacerbated due to a collective conflict over their powers, whilst the sole likeable and sympathetic character (who just wants to go back to normal) is bullied and played and outcast. That’s a golden movie, one that can deconstruct superhero films and superpowers masterfully if it committed to the idea. If that was what the movie was about, then it could have been brilliant.
The problem with Fantastic Four, therefore, is not the idea of the movie. The problem with Fantastic Four is that it is a superhero movie.
Instead of being the kind of more cynical, personal, and downbeat movie that is befitting of the material the film has, Fantastic Four is instead a big, loud, cheesy, crowd-pleasing superhero movie. Therefore, it doesn’t have room for the nuance and moral complexity that this particular film requires. It’s hard to do deconstruction in a film that is explicitly engineered to be loved by families and especially children – there is a sequence that takes place at X-Games, for god’s sake – and near impossible to do it with the kind of tone that this set-up needs. You’re making a big expensive Summer blockbuster! The people want mindless action and jolly fun-times with big stakes, not a darker and more complex (and semi-philosophical if pulled off right) tale about flawed or just-plain-awful people doing terrible things to each other. You know, unless it stars Batman.
Therefore, all of the subversive edge or nuance is flushed completely from the film, because a crowd-pleaser doesn’t examine its characters and their actions. A crowd-pleaser presents these people and orders us to like them because they’re the heroes. Johnny Storm’s cavalier sexism is endearing, Sue’s constant nagging of Reed is romantic banter, Reed is a guy with non-stop bad luck whose excessively-cautious nature is a minor issue he must overcome, and the group’s treatment of Ben is alternately hilarious and sad but always good-intentioned, whilst Doom is an obviously evil dick who got what was coming to him. These are just good ol’ guys!
That one little change is what actually sinks Fantastic Four. By squeezing that film into the skin of a crowd-pleasing superhero blockbuster, you end up getting a quietly hateful film that seems to resent its own existence. Because nobody bothered to change the make-up of the film to better fit this kind of movie, you get a deconstruction without any of the actual deconstruction. It’s all of the terrible parts that would build up to an interesting set of messages – about power, responsibility, friendship, the inherent terribleness of certain people and how special powers can manifest and change that – being played straight for fun mindless popcorn entertainment.
Hence why Fantastic Four is so thoroughly wrong-headed and terrible. It’s not so much that it’s a bad film, although it is – the acting from everybody except Chris Evans (who seems to have gotten the same idea as I did) and Michael Chiklis is awful, the soundtrack is embarrassing, the desperate attempts to stay relevant are cringeworthy and dated, the dialogue is terrible, the effects suck, among many, many other things – it’s that Fantastic Four is the wrong film. There is a great film to be made from all of these parts, despite what you might hear from other people, it’s just that a crowd-pleasing Summer family blockbuster is not the way to make that movie.