Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Talkative Tetrad

So, why is it apparently so difficult to make a decent film about the Fantastic Four? I have seen the previous (unreleased) attempt and I can say that the new film is twice as good as that one. But saying that is to damn with very faint praise indeed.

A number of my friends have taken the tack that the trailer for the film constituted fair warning and that, armed with sufficiently low expectations, the film can be a pleasant surprise. I guess I buy that. Properly viewed, the film can be fun. If you haven't seen it yet, do so by all means. Don't let me stop you. When you go, be sure to turn off your cell phone and your cerebrum as these can interfere with your enjoyment and annoy the people around you.

Truth in blogging requires me to admit that I have never been much of a Marvel Comics fan. Even back in the "Silver Age" of comics, and my youth, I tended to like DC Comics titles and characters more than the Marvel equivalents. This tended to be a somewhat lonely experience as most of my friends were into Marvel. I couldn't really blame them -- at that time Marvel was a much more creative enterprise and DC was languishing is a prolonged dry spell -- but, nonetheless, while all my friends wanted to be Spiderman I wanted to grow up to be the Batman. That's probably the key to my problem with the Marvel universe: You don't have to grow up to be a Marvel superhero...

All you have to do is get bitten by a radioactive spider or zapped by a cosmic storm... and talk a blue streak. One of the things that puts me off about Marvel characters is their chattiness. In the DC universe more than twenty words in a word balloon is a pretty good indicator of bad-guy status, but Marvel heroes just chatter away. I often find myself rooting for the villains because, although they might be evil, if they were to rule the Marvel Universe there would be more to look at -- and less to read.

So, my biases being nicely confessed, I can get on with The Fantastic Four movie -- a film which should have been better because Marvel has demonstrated that their products can be made into far better films. This wasn't always true. Before the year 2000 Marvel Enterprises had a fairly impressive string of movies they had produced, some for television and some for theaters, and they were all crap, in various degrees. The My Little Pony movie was one of their better films, which goes to show what I am talking about here. Then they screwed up and released the first X-Men movie and the bar was permanently raised. Then came Spiderman and X2 and a couple other films -- Daredevil, Hulk, etc. -- that were not as good, but were still masterpieces by Marvel's pre-2000 standards. Fantastic Four falls in the gap between Marvel's new and old quality standards. It is not a good as, say, Daredevil but is somewhat better than The My Little Pony Movie.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, I suppose, but I wouldn't worry about it. Fantastic Four presents the origin story more-or-less exactly as it has appeared many times in the comics. The writers expected the audience to know the plot going into the film -- several bits depend on it -- so the more you know about the plot going into the film, the more your experience of it will be what the writers intended.

The production quality on FF was decent, for the most part. There are a few continuity holes that I suspect represent special-effects sequences that were omitted because they were too cheesy to use. (We briefly see VonDoom's rocket sitting on the pad but we don't see it take off -- we just cut to it docking with the space station.) But those holes are easy to overlook because the rest of the script has very little actual plot to tie the scenes together anyway.

This is a film based on a comic book so there's not much point picking nits. But, then again, why not? Here are a few that bothered me:

Setup: The film opens with Reed Richards trying to convince squidzillionaire, Victor VonDoom, to help with Richards' project to study a cosmic space storm of a sort which may have triggered the creation of life on Earth. Richards wants to use VonDoom's space station for the research since its shielding will protect the researchers from the storm. My problem: Why does VonDoom have a space station to lend out? This could have been fixed with a few words. If Richards had said "your agricultural research space station" or "your low-gravity manufacturing space station" it would have been enough. But, without any shred of back-story the space station exists only because the script calls for it.

Setup: Richards miscalculates the speed of the storm and it arrives nineteen hours and fifty-nine minutes ahead of schedule. One of the crew is outside the station in a spacesuit and there isn't enough time to get him back inside the station (and its shields) before the storm hits. Richards goes to VonDoom and demands that he abort the mission. VonDoom refuses and attempts to activate the shields while Richards runs off to try to get the team member inside before the storm hits. My Problem: Ignoring the fact that Richards is supposed to be smart and "The storm is accelerating!" doesn't seem enough reason for his time estimates to be off by a factor of 150, what, exactly was Richards expecting VonDoom to do when he demanded that he "abort the mission?" Unless VonDoom could just say "Holodeck: End program!" and make the storm disappear, its hard to think of any way that "aborting" the mission would be helpful.

Setup: The mission to study the cosmic space storm goes badly but everyone somehow gets back to Earth. (See speculation about problems with rocket effects above.) Shortly afterwards VonDoom's financial empire collapses (which makes him cross with his bankers, providing him with someone on whom to try out his new super powers as he gradually turns into Dr. Doom.) My Problem: VonDoom's financial problems should have been set up before the fact. The odd compression of the film before and after the space station scene give us no opportunity to see VonDoom spend any money on the project or make his investors any promises about it. Again, this could have easily been fixed. One scene with his banker saying "You madman! If this project fails you will be ruined!" would have been enough. But that scene isn't there and without it VonDoom's financial problems can only be seen as a mechanism for maneuvering the plot around a difficult corner.

I could go on but, as I said, there is no real point picking holes in the plot of a movie based on a comic book series -- the holes are going to be there but if you like the characters you will choose to ignore them. That is the other problem with the Fantastic Four: with the exception of Ben Grimm, aka The Thing, the characters are either unlikable or uninteresting or both. I attribute this, in large part, to the fact that the characters super powers are related to attributes of their personality: Reed Richards, Mr Fantastic, is always stretching and reaching, trying to expand his knowledge of "science"; Ben Grimm is solid and down-to-earth; Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, is reserved, quiet and self-effacing but with hidden reserves of strength; Johnny Storm, her brother the Human Torch, is hotheaded, hot-tempered and spontaneous; and the villain, Victor VonDoom aka Dr Doom, is steely and power-hungry. The cosmic storm gives them super powers that reflect these personality traits.

The film expends so much effort establishing these character traits that there is very little room left to make the characters likable. The Human Torch is particularly repugnant. At the beginning of the film he is a rich, spoiled, narcissistic, out-of-control punk with a noticeable sadistic streak. As the film progresses he matures into a rich, spoiled, narcissistic, out-of-control punk with a noticeable sadistic streak who can burst into flames, fly and shoot fireballs out his ass. He surrounds himself with sexy cars and fast women, but since he has a body temperature of 209 degrees and an unfortunate tendency to catch fire when he gets excited, he is not likely to have many second dates -- but we don't care. He's a dick. And Mr. Fantastic is a spineless bore. The invisible girl is barely there and even The Mighty Thing -- the only adequate character -- isn't powerful enough to carry the dead weight of the rest of the film.

Of course the "personality-trait determined super-power" thing can be done and still have likable characters. See "The Incredibles" for how it can be done very well, indeed.

And, of course, the characters, being Marvel characters, do jabber on endlessly. Other reviewers have described this line, or that line, that they liked and the lines are in there and they are OK, I guess. But, at least for me, they tend to get washed away in the flood of excessive dialog. Which brings me to another theory I have about the difference between DC and Marvel. When DC runs out of ideas there is nothing. The characters go through the motions but there is no life in them. They basically stand around, remembering better days and wait for things to get better. It's a wasteland -- a desert, devoid of life. When Marvel runs out of ideas their plots become gossipy soap-operas and the characters all talk incessantly to hide the fact that there is nothing going on. I prefer the DC nothingness -- it's quieter and there is less humidity.

But there is one Marvel character I do like: The Black Bolt, the king of the Inhumans.

His voice is an uncontrollable super weapon and he is voluntarily mute to avoid the possibility that he will destroy the world. All the other Marvel characters spend most of their time trying to talk one another to death. Black Bolt never does -- because he could.

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