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Monday, July 25, 2005 

Don't be fooled by this little "double-trick"

This is funny. The ultra-establishment Captain Comics, Andrew Smith, writes a column for July 17 in which he tries to explain why movie critics didn't like the Fantastic Four movie, for the following reasons:
All of these critics compared Fantastic Four unfavorably to other superhero movies. And, to a man, disliked FF because it wasn’t as dark and brooding and psychologically troubled as those other movies.

Well, I find that silly. Fantastic Four isn’t like those other movies, because … well, those are different movies. Movies that tell different stories. Fantastic Four didn’t tell a dark and brooding story, because the Fantastic Four aren’t dark and brooding characters. The FF didn’t see their parents gunned down when they were kids (Batman). They aren’t hated and feared by a world they seek to protect (X-Men). They aren’t juggling guilt and responsibility (Spider-Man).

In general, they’re having a whiz-bang of a good time. They’re not even really superheroes -- they’re explorers, and they’re celebrities. And their lives are pretty swell. With the exception of the tragic Thing – which does give the story a little heft – the Cosmic Quartet are pretty much a well-adjusted, happy bunch. I mean, for heaven’s sake, it would be a blast to be the Human Torch!

So, to compare “Fantastic Four” to “Batman Begins” is apples and oranges. It’s like watching a bunch of Shakespeare comedies and then going to “Hamlet” … and complaining that it’s not funny enough. Hey, they’re all “plays by William Shakespeare” – shouldn’t they all be exactly alike in tone and theme?

Well, of course not. Nor should “movies with superheroes in them” all be exactly alike.

Now, if you want to compare Fantastic Four to The Incredibles, I’m game. Those are both superhero movies with similar themes. (Pretty much identical themes, to tell the truth.) But both are fun movies, and the DVDs would make good bookends.

“Fun” being the word not found in these reviews – or, apparently, looked for. What the dour critics are missing is the Fantastic Four’s appeal: They’re throwbacks to a simpler, sunnier time. They do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. And they’re familiar. Despite the super-powers, they’re just like us – only us looking a lot more buff, with a lot more money and fame, and going places and doing things we can only dream of. Which means kids of all ages just adore the FF, without the slightest bit of post-modern irony.

And Fantastic Four, the movie, gave us mostly that. The film (some critics lamented) focused more on interpersonal relationships than spectacle. The only “dark psychological trauma” I saw on the screen was that Reed sometimes ignores his girlfriend, Sue can be a nag, Johnny’s irresponsible and Ben has a bad temper. With the Fantastic Four, like our own families, there’s no tragedy – just a lot of irritation.
Would that I could credit this...but no. Not after the double-stance he took when it came to what DC Comics cooked up last year, in the pages of their very own comics, that being none other than Identity Crisis, whose apparent purpose was to grim and grittify the DC Universe, and to tear down the heroic ideal of the superheroes. Tsk tsk tsk. Putting down the movie critics for lambasting a movie like FF for not being dark, while at the same time backing the steps taken by a publishing company that does almost exactly what the movie critics may have been hoping for with the FF movie! What's the world coming to?

Now I'm not saying that some parts of the DCU can't be "dark." But then, not every character/title in the DC line of superheroes is exactly alike, and it wouldn't - and doesn't - work to flat-out make them that way either. So why say that not every superhero movie should be exactly alike, while at the same time supporting/tolerating an attempt in comicdom's publishing base itself to make 'em all alike? Batman may work best in the dark, but Superman works best in the light. There is a difference, isn't there?

Granted, he's right, that the movie critics do tend to be dishonest in many cases like these. But then if a movie critic can be dishonest with the audience, so can a comic book critic, as I learned when I looked at what websites like The Comic Fanatic, The Fourth Rail, Hero Realm, and even Comic Readers could do. And that is exactly what even Mr. Smith is doing here by arguing one side of the spectrum while supporting another.

Double-stancing aside, another problem is that, most convieniently, he glosses over the harder, more challenging questions as to why anyone, critics or audience, would find fault in this movie. To which I present the following argument from the Las Vegas Weekly:
After an exciting opening sequence detailing the group's origins, the movie grinds to a halt as the central quartet sit around and make jokes while waiting for Reed to whip up a machine that will cure them all of their powers. In a strange twist for a superhero movie, there is no world-ending threat, and Victor doesn't even get around to being particularly villainous until the movie is almost over. Story seems to think that Fantastic Four will work best as either a mismatched buddy comedy pairing the angsty Ben with the lighthearted Johnny, or a romantic comedy pairing onetime lovers Reed and Sue.

He's wrong on both counts, and while Evans gets in a few good one-liners as the sex-crazed, extreme-sports-loving Johnny, the film goes straight downhill after its opening. Even when the team finally sees some action, the effects are so fake-looking that it's hard to suspend disbelief long enough to get excited. Chiklis, buried in a ridiculous latex suit, growls excessively, perhaps to draw attention away from how stupid he looks.
Whoa. Now that's telling something, I'll say. Not to opine upon the movie, even from an analytical perspective, but, if it's really as anti-climactic as the reviewer from Vegas says, then waddaya know, they've come pretty close to what Marvel, under Bill Jemas anyway, was trying out: taking out the themes from an action-adventure book that make it work best, to say nothing of de-facto rejecting their powers, at least at the beginning of the movie! Why wasn't this mentioned in the Smith column? The Thing I could understand in a case like this, but the rest of the movie-FF I cannot.

And it doesn't get any better with the following, revealed by the Boston Globe:
What these mutations inspire is a bad superhero comedy that takes its time going nowhere. Much of it is centered around poor, pathetic Ben, who's depressed that his horrified wife has left him. In one sequence, he sits atop a bridge where a bird perches on him and relieves itself. Then he scares a suicidal man into oncoming traffic in an attempt to save him. That mishap provokes massive crashes and imperils bystanders whom Ben and friends rescue.

This is supposed to be a bravura sequence. Ben, for instance, stops an oncoming truck simply by letting it smash into him, the metal warping around his body. But the image is too familiar to be rousing. (Didn't the Hulk do the same thing? Didn't somebody in a "Matrix" movie?) And the filmmakers fail to top it with a shot as remotely as exciting. Instead, the scene relies on jokes as flat as the acting by Gruffudd and Alba. When invisible Sue reappears in the scene wearing only her underwear, Reed observes, "Wow, you've been working out!"
As unhappy as I am with what the critic from the Globe says about the FF as comics characters, that they were "never all that interestingly human to begin with", which is untrue, I'll at least have to give him some credit for giving some clues as to why one could end up disliking the movie, and not just the critics. Which is more than I can say for Mr. Smith, who doesn't say anything, that's for sure. And while I do dig Jessica Alba, if she really doesn't have anything else to do other than to serve as attractive wallpaper, then where's making her into by far the strongest of the team, huh?

Finally, from Week in Rewind:
Not even the evil fifth person, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), has the necessary bite to be a great villain. For much of the movie, he’s just seen festering along the edges, wringing his hands and smirking malevolently, until his electrical powers are called upon to generate some trouble in the flame-out finale.
A supervillain who doesn't do anything, if at all? Now this is a novelty, heck, it has to be! 'Course though, if the underwhelming presentation of the Doomster in this movie didn't sink it, I'd figure that the ambiguous presentation of his [metaphysical] superpowers would've. I can tell though why the filmmakers strayed as far as they did from Victor Von Doom's origin in the comics: they just didn't want to use one that would feature a cruel dictator who needs to be opposed and brought down, since for them, it'd be an analogy to the war on Iraq, and today's film industy nuts who are opposed to the war simply can't have that. What a shame. But what's really a shame is that Mr. Smith doesn't dwell on any of that. And that's exactly why his column ends up being as underwhelming and unchallenging as it truly is.

I think the best thing I can say in response to this is: pack it in, Mr. Smith. It's getting old already. And the blogosphere already outmodes his columns 100 to 0. With blogs to help us out, who needs newspaper double-talk like what he specializes in anyway?

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About me

  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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