Imagine you’re on a trivia gameshow. If you get one more question right, that million dollars will be yours, and you can pay off your mortgage, buy that brand-new Camaro you’ve always dreamed of, and even get a house by the L.A. coast just for kicks. The final question: who was Marvel’s first superhero team?
If you said “The Avengers,” you’d be wrong. There’s a superhero team that predates the Marvel heavy-hitters by two years, and is often credited with ushering in Marvel’s triumphant era of the ‘60s, when it seemed they could do no wrong. This team is the Fantastic Four. Obviously, it seemed like a great idea to adapt the team for film.
Reed Richards is a broke but brilliant scientist with big ideas. He and his friend Ben Grimm have a proposition for rich and manipulative scientist Victor Von Doom: fund a mission to study a cosmic storm. Reed gets out of debt, Victor gets even more return on his company, and everybody wins. So before long they’re at a space station overlooking earth, along with Reed’s ex-girlfriend Sue Storm and her brother Johnny. But when the cosmic storm comes ahead of time, it affects their DNA in profound ways and changes their lives forever.
It’s a pretty basic origin story as far as origins go. But the story itself isn’t so much about them and their powers as it is the formation of the team. While three out of the four get some pretty cool powers, like shooting fire and forming forcefields, Ben gets the short end of the stick. He’s transformed into a rock-like creature and has an infinitely difficult time adjusting. Thanks to the arrogant Johnny’s coaxing and Reed’s being distracted from a cure by his reigniting relationship with Susan, Ben turns sour. Victor, a master of manipulation who has had his very life stolen from him, uses that to his advantage.
From a strictly entertainment perspective, the movie drops somewhere in-between cliché and imaginative. The plot of a team suffering from in-fighting because of the exploitation of one disgruntled member by a villain is hardly original. In fact, the development of that theme is perhaps one of the most disappointing things about the creative direction of the film, given decades of comic material to pull from. But while the script may be somewhat lacking in creative direction, the actors somehow manage to save the project.
Each of these five actors had enormous shoes to fill. The Fantastic Four was Marvel’s most lucrative property for many years, although Spider-Man has become more iconic in recent years. These are beloved characters, and Doctor Doom is often regarded as one of the greatest villains in comic book history, ranking number three on IGN’s list of 100 Greatest Comic Book Villains. Julian McMahon plays the role beautifully, and his performance is so compelling that the filmmakers just couldn’t keep him dead for the disappointing sequel. The other actors also show their remarkable acting chops, with Chris Evans’ fun and haughty portrayal of Johnny Storm, not to mention one of the most believable on-screen romances between Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba (although she still doesn’t look anything near a natural blonde).
Looking at the film through a Christian lens, it’s hard to find much to criticize in the film’s worldview. Aside from a brief inappropriate scene featuring Sue Storm (due to the fact that her clothes do not turn invisible with her), the film is clean both in terms of objectionable content and worldview. Like most all comic book films, it rewards virtue and punishes evil, but there’s also a slightly deeper theme at work here. Doctor Doom received his powers at the same time and in the same way that the other four did, and he even comes from the same background. He is shown early on to have the makings of a villain, but you could argue the same about Johnny Storm, with his cocky attitude and joy for the spotlight. This leaves a lingering question in my mind as I watch his development: how can people from such similar walks of life respond so differently to the same thing?
Then I think back to Scripture. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 present extremely similar appeals for their audiences to respond to God’s plan of salvation. They both show how Jesus was part of God’s plan from the very beginning, show the sin of the people in the Old Testament, and show that Jesus was unjustly killed. But in the former case, there are several who respond, and those that do not respond at least react peacefully. But in the latter case, they kill the man bearing the message. While in Fantastic Four is more about use and abuse of science and power, a theme more present by osmosis from the original stories than a deep exposition by the film’s creators, I find the same idea present. It forces me to consider my heart and think about which audience, and which scientist, I am embodying in different aspects of my life.
This isn’t by any means the most original or innovative film you’ll see, and it probably won’t make a list of the best comic book films, either. But with great acting and a message I can get behind, not to mention its fair share of laughs, it becomes easier to look past the cliché plot and feel free to enjoy the film as it stands: a good yet flawed comic book adaptation.
This review was originally posted at Let There Be Movies.