Monday, August 03, 2015

Revisiting the FF's Rise & Fall

Unable to find a trailer on YouTube for Fantastic 4: Rise of the
Silver Surfer
but each official one had embedding to share as
"disabled by request." These are just some of my credentials.
This Friday, the third attempt at establishing a "successful" film franchise for Marvel Comics' First Family will be released when Josh Trank's Fantastic Four hits the screens. Though never released theatrically, yet available as a bootleg, I am including the famously low-budget effort, Roger Corman's 1994 The Fantastic Four in that total.  Somewhat surprisingly, despite making significant profits for distributor 20th Century Fox,  the last two Tim Story-directed Fantastic Four films have been deemed "failures" worthy of being forgotten.

While I will see Trank's film in theaters opening weekend, and having seen each film iteration of the team's exploits, I still maintain that the criticism levied against both Fantastic Four (2004) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) is unwarranted. In truth we may never get a big-budget film that reflects the classic FF story as closely as the 2007 sequel. While I hope to be entertained this weekend at the movies, from what little footage that has been made available (all the trailers/ads seem to consist of the same two minutes of film re-edited), because the filmmakers opted to go the Ultimate Universe route, my optimism is muted.

I write here, however not to bury the new Fantastic Four movie, but to praise the previous one. Chances are that if you've read this far you know the basics of the plot to 2007's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: The Fantastic Four (Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis) learn that they aren't the only super-powered beings in the universe when they square off against the powerful Silver Surfer (Laurence Fishburne and Doug Jones) and the planet-eating Galactus while their old nemesis, Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon) waits in the wings. Whether you "like" either film, it is clear that Rise of the Silver Surfer is a much more confident film than the first; the returning cast is much more comfortable in their respective roles, and without the need to address (again) the origin story, the narrative moves on to a more interesting "World's Greatest Comic Magazine" story.

Beyond relative vagaries of "like" or "dislike," there seem to be four quibbles that fanboys have with Story's films, as exemplified in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and I'll take them individually. Not surprisingly, the majority of the perceived issues I'll address reflect the process of difficulty in bringing to life cinematically those characters that so many have visualized in their imaginations for many years.

  • An inconsistent or "silly" tone. In retrospect, Story's take may have been ahead of it's time. Released during the popularity of the grittier, psuedo-intellectual Christopher Nolan Batman films, some may not have been ready to have fun with superheroes, at least the way they are now (see last summer's The Guardians of the Galaxy for further evidence). Rise successfully evokes the classic humorous mood reflected in the camaraderie and affection our characters have for one another.  Story and his cast nail the characterization of each teammate. Many rightly pointed to the excellent dynamic between Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (an underrated Michael Chiklis), but upon repeated viewings I have grown to appreciate Gruffudd and, especially Alba's, performances too. Alba plays Sue as strong, sweet and intelligent. As a longtime comic book fan, Alba's Sue is developing into the field leader the Invisible Woman has since become, and I only wish they'd had the courage to allow Alba to play the role without the faux blue eyes and blonde hair (an option co-star Chris Evan's apparently did have). When depicting the smaller moments in the life of Marvel's First Family, the comedic elements are brought to the forefront. The tone suitably shifts to a more serios one when telling the Surfer/Galactus story. Much like Ant-Man (2015), Rise is consistently inconsistent in tone, which is to suggest it honors both necessary aspects of the source material (if not seamlessly) that the narrative dictates.
    Note Ben Grimm's size relative to his teammates in the Kirby
    influenced panel to the right and the shot from F4: RoSS.
  • The Thing looks like a lumpy, "regular" guy with a skin condition. Actually, for what it's worth, Ben Grimm and the Thing (both played by Chiklis) look pretty much how they were originally envisioned by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. While many would rather have had a CGI Thing (something they'll get with the new film), the decision to use a "suit" was pretty bold given what producers knew  movie goers might have expected to see. The fact that the Thing was not depicted as eight feet tall and five feet wide only helps to reinforce the greatness of the character; Ben Grimm is a man trapped in a deformed but powerful facade. Ben Grimm is a man who gift came at a cost, unlike his teammates. There is a scene in Silver Surfer where Johnny, having acquired the ability to switch powers with the team after tangling with the Surfer, becomes a "Thing" himself. Not just a goofy shot, Johnny's response to momentarily sharing Grimm's burden reminds us how strong Ben is not to snap completely given his permanent physical state. This was just one of many smaller moments that Story deftly weaves into the larger narrative that reminds the viewer that the four really are just "regular" folks caught up in fantastic circumstances.
    Classic Marvel 616 Dr. Doom and
    Doctor Doom from FF: RoSS as played 
    by Julian McMahon.
  • They messed up Doctor Doom. I had not seen Nip/Tuck prior to Julian McMahon playing Victor Von Doom, but having watched the six seasons since, I totally understand why the studio tapped him for the role. In Rise, Doom is written in a manner that better reflects the villain we love in the comic books, especially his manipulative nature and obsession with acquiring the power cosmic. Visually, the costuming (if not the power set) is without  a doubt spot on. For old school comic book fans, Doom's attire is very reminiscent of the updated look Doom acquired wa-a-a-a-ay back in the original Secret Wars (1984) limited series. For my money, McMahon successfully began to scratch the surface of what could have done with the character here, and if there was a weakness in his performance I would say the finger of blame would more fairly be pointed at the writers.
    The introduction of the Ultimate Universe's Gah Lak Tus swarm
    on the cover of Ultimate Extinction #3 and the Galactus cloud 
    (recolored for enhancement in the still) in F4:RoSS.
  • The Galactus "cloud"!? The director/producers couldn't win. They could have gone "full comic book" and given  us a gigantic, planet-eating man with a tuning fork on his head, or Ultimate Universe and introduce a horde of robotic drones operating with a shared hive mind. I think they actually went in the most reasonable direction, if one envisions the "cloud" as a "swarm" (though it was never fully detailed as such). The threat as presented in Rise is serious--Galactus is shown by the Silver Surfer to be capable of "eating" planets--a claim supported by Mr. Fantastic. 
With repeated viewings, the strengths of Tim Story's Fantastic Four films are clear: family friendly entertainment, that both honors the past and sensibly modernizes the story elements that might play as silly in a contemporary context. These qualities are sharpened in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), a film deemed a failure by fans despite winning it's opening weekend at the box office with a $58 million take, $2 million more than its predecessor. Ultimately, Rise ended its theatrical run by taking in nearly $290 million dollars on a $140 million dollar budget.

This weekend with Josh Trank's Fantastic Four the aesthetic elements others desired are going to be addressed: the Things is CGI, the tone is gritty and realistic, Doctor Doom is... well, you get the idea. Perhaps the younger, darker Ultimized version of the FF will connect with audiences and my favorites will finally be seen as the viable cinematic commodity comic book fans of the Four have always known them to be.

Wikipedia's FF: RoSS Entry

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