There may come a time when the Hollywood machine runs out of comic book icons to adapt to film. Until then, they know they have a captive audience in the rabid fans of the Marvel and DC Comics superhero universes.
It’s surprising that it took as long as it did for the latest entry into the genre, “Fantastic Four,” to make it to the big screen. That could be due in large part to the fabled 1994 Roger Corman adaptation, which is said to have been so embarrassing that the studio abruptly pulled it off the release schedule and destroyed all official copies (though bootleg videotapes continue to surface on Ebay and at comic/sci-fi conventions to this day). Apparently a full decade was necessary to put some space between the two projects.
Fortunately, 2005’s “Fantastic Four” will enjoy a better fate than its predecessor. This is not a “faithful” adaptation — but when was the last time you saw an exact film reproduction of anything? While the essence of the long running Marvel saga remains the same — astronauts who develop superpowers after exposure to DNA altering cosmic rays — fans of the comic book can expect to see a good deal of tinkering with key plot elements.
In order to study a cosmic storm, scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and his longtime friend and pilot Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) must convince rival scientist-turned-industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to allow them access to his super-shielded space station. The ethically challenged Von Doom agrees, only after getting Richards to surrender most of his future profits from any resulting scientific discoveries. He also insists on accompanying them.
The mission is complicated by the participation of Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), once Reed’s love interest and now Von Doom’s director of genetic research and current girlfriend. Adding to further humiliation is Von Doom’s assignment of Susan’s brother, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), as mission pilot over the more experienced Ben.
A miscalculation in the storm’s timing and intensity result in the cosmic ray exposure. Once back on Earth, it appears no one is the worse for wear. It doesn’t take too long for the entire crew to begin experiencing unusual side effects, however: Reed can elongate and contort his body like elastic; Susan has the power of invisibility; Johnny can spontaneously burst into flame; and most dramatically, Ben is permanently transformed into an oversize walking rock with superhuman strength.
What the foursome don’t know is that Victor has also undergone some changes of his own: his body is rapidly morphing from flesh to metal, giving him the power to harness electricity. Fueled by resentment at the loss of his company when the stock value plummets following the accident, Victor seeks revenge on his former crewmates as “Dr. Doom.” Meanwhile the newly christened Fantastic Four — “Mr. Fantastic” Reed, “Invisible Girl” Susan, Johnny “The Human Torch” and Ben “The Thing” — must grapple with the celebrity their heroism creates.
Dr. Doom’s plot device differs substantially from the comic book, but the story benefits from the switch. The comic book Dr. Doom, raised by gypsies and king of the fictional country of Latveria, draws his powers from supernatural experimentation. The cinematic Victor Von Doom shares the predicament of the Fantastic Four, but comes to a very different conclusion about how to exercise his powers.
“Fantastic Four” has some moments of clarity, though it’s no thanks to director Tim Story, who doesn’t seem to have the passion for the superhero genre the way Sam Raimi clearly does in the “Spider-Man” films. You have to wonder how Story, previously known for “Barbershop” and the lackluster “Taxi,” found his way onto the project.
He’s clearly out of his element with “Fantastic Four,” which could have been disaster for the film were it not for performances from Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans. Chiklis proves that thick layers of latex rock don’t have to do all the talking. Ben despairs, rages and eventually finds some humor in his situation. He’s a good foil to the hot tempered ladies man played by Evans, whose Johnny embraces his new found celebrity with gusto. A confrontation between them involving a “Thing” action figure prototype is laugh out loud funny.
So far in the last decade we’ve only seen a handful of decent comic book adaptations: X-Men and Spider-Man getting the best treatments. “Fantastic Four” is only a slightly better than average superhero film. From there, it’s been a short, slippery slope into mediocrity (“The Hulk”) and genuine disappointment (“Elektra”).
Perhaps the reason why so many comic book films have fallen short rests in the fact that fans have impossibly high standards for this genre. More likely, Hollywood has figured out that fans will still shell out $10 to see their favorite heroes, regardless of the quality of the film.