Wednesday, February 09, 2005

About "The Fantastic Four"...

Did you watch the Superbowl? I watched the Superbowl. I'm from New England, so it was sort of required even though I was technically at work.

I usually don't watch for the game, because I don't "follow" professional Football closely enough to really elevate one game above the others even if it is the big one. But I usually at least tune in for the commercials, (am I the only one who's already sold on the innevitable plush "Esuvees"?) specifically the movie trailers, which are usually early looks at the big summer tentpoles of the year.

The big news this time was the first non-teaser spot for "Batman Begins." At this point, early praise has become a cliche: Yup, the cast is unbelievable. Yup, I love the cool "Year One"-reminiscient brown-ish color scheme so much of it seems to have. But what thrills me about this spot is our first peek at The Scarecrow. Can I just say how much it thrills me that he actually is a guy dressed like a scarecrow? I know this is something only "fanboys" are supposed to care about but, honestly... the costumes are important. It's part of what makes the genre cool and different. If your lead is dressed like a bat, it's fine for the bad guy to go about with a burlap sack on his head. It's just cooler that way.

But speaking of this... the new "Batman" isn't the only comic book franchise making a go of it in theaters this summer. Marvel Films, who are still technically the driving force behind the new studio fascination with the genre, has "The Fantastic Four" coming out. It's a big project, with a budget somewhere in the $130 Million range, and the franchise it represents is one of the very biggest as-of-yet-untapped properties in all of comics. So why didn't it have a Superbowl spot?

Logically, it'd be because it's not quite ready for one. But it could also be just the latest in the long string of publicity-related bad luck the project has had. Unlike "X-Men," which fans approach with cautious optimism, or "Spider-Man," which had fans largely elated the moment Sam Raimi was announced as it's director, the project just can't seem to get any traction among the "fanboys" that the studios claim to so greatly despise but so transparently rely on to build pre-release hype.

Ever since Marvel Film's Avi Arad got "misquoted" as saying the film was aiming for a "sitcom" vibe, the buzz has been unrelentingly negative and hasn't caught a break since. Some of this can be, admittedly, chalked up to the geek community being just this side of paranoid about a Marvel project that seems to have so much more heavy studio/marketing influence upon it than the Spidey or X-films, but there's also the rumbling of something deeper going on. Something that makes me think that those who dismiss the "fanboy" concerns over this could likely find themselves walking out of the theater on "F4's" opening night echoing Joaquin Pheonix's astonished utterance from "Signs," namely: "the nerds were right!"

But let's not jump to conclusions. Let's do the grownup thing and make a list, or two lists, rather; of reasons to be looking forward to "The Fantastic Four" and also the reasons to be, well... a little worried about "The Fantastic Four."

Let's do the happy list first:

Because it's "The Fantastic Four!" It's probably the single biggest Marvel franchise yet not made into a film, and fans know that it's got the potential to be one of the all-time great superhero action films. A stretching super-scientist, an invisible woman, a guy who lights himself on fire and a hulking muscleman made of orange rock, locked in endless combat with mad scientists, monsters, intergalactic invaders and a power-mad Eurotrash dictator in an armored suit. Even if you're not a fan, how can you not want to see a movie about that?
Michael Chilkis as "The Thing!" Is this not the niftiest peice of comic-hero casting since Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier? The "Shield" heavy will play a football-hero turned space-pilot who mutates into a superstrong creature made of orange rock. It's just cool is what it is, and he gets to be the one with a catchphrase!
Because... because... Okay, I'm already all out of reasons to look forward. And I'm not trying to be cute about it. Not a good sign.
Because it's "The Fantastic Four." There's a reason why this wasn't the first film out of the gate for Marvel. Consisting of a unique fusion between characters rooted deeply in kitschy 1960s familial archetypes and an overall universe rooted in pulp-era popular-science (fiction or otherwise,) it's never been a surefire bet that the First Family of the Marvel Age could be morphed into a more "21st Century" framework with the same ease with which "Spider-Man" embraced angsty young-adult romance or that "X-Men" connected with culture-war allegory. And you need only look at the boxoffice gross for "Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow" to know why adopting an unstuck-in-time pop-art otherworldiness simply isn't considered an option for a project like this at the Studio level.
Because of director Tim Story. I don't mean to beat up on Story, I'm sure he's a great guy and all that, but seriously, how's a film geek supposed to respond when a project that (for reasons described above) requires the surest of and most commanding of directorial hands to live up to it's potential AND avoid the toxic influence of never-get-it-never-will studio marketing buzzards is placed in the hands of a director who's only prior effort was "Barbershop," at best an above-average feature-length sitcom pilot? And who's 2004 release, "Taxi," qualifies as just about the worst buddy comedy since "Chill Factor." Bottom line is, Story may yet turn out to be the best man for the job, but he's got no clout of his own and usually that means it's the studio driving, not the director. And thats a big problem waiting to happen...
Because the cast, aside from Chilkis, is worrisome. Iaon Grufud is a fine actor, but he looks miscast as Mr. Fantastic. Emphasis on looks. Jessica Alba is bad casting for any role, being that she's a spectacularly limited actress known only as a garden-variety factory-issue "hottie" in the Shannon Elizabeth/Tara Reid mold. Chris Evans... look, the Human Torch is the broadest and hardest-to-screw-up on a character level figure in the franchise, but isn't it a little odd that Sue Storm's younger brother should look so much older than her? Julian McMahon's turn as Dr. Doom has thus far only been witnessed by lucky fans who downloaded some early footage, such as yours truly, and it wasn't really encouraging.
Because of the "improved" Doctor Doom. Comics are not movies, movies are not comics, that much is understood by even the most hardcore fan. Thus, often, changes need to be made to get stuff onscreen, including changes to "fundamental" backstory and character elements. That being said, what is known thus far about the "retooling" of perenial F4 bad guy Doctor Doom for the film just smacks of, at best, unecessary interference and, at worst, evidence of a complete misunderstanding of the franchise and it's appeal. Doom of the movie is yet another "evil corporate magnate," the go-to baddie for unimaginative action/suspense scripts trying to be more "today" (see also: "The Manchurian Candidate" remake.) Apparently this is to make Doom more "relevant." The comic-book Doom is a third-world dictator who threatens the Western World with weapons of mass destruction... yeah, nothing relevant about that.
The film's only trailer is, well... bad. Seriously. Did you SEE this thing? Since it played before "Elektra," probably not. Look at it here:
The studio doesn't seem very confident in it: When "The Incredibles" came out, paying homage to Silver Age superheroes in general and "The Fantastic Four" especially, the go-to half-kidding query among film pundits was "the guys making the 'real' F4 have their work cut out for them." But then came the studio's response, that they... um... indeed have their work cut out for them, and that the film was going to have to be "kicked up" to not be a letdown after "Incredibles." The movie isn't as good as someone paying homage to the source material? Hm...
And then the most recent signal of the same: The film was scheduled for the July 4th weekend, in direct competition with Steven Speilberg's "War of the Worlds." The competition did have a superbowl spot ready, and it seems the F4 producers took one look at that big crumbling freeway and boldly... backed off, moving the film ahead a week to compete with the "Bewitched" remake. Hm...
Look, I don't want to be so down on this project, but so far I think I've made my point: There's just not much to get excited about. It could turn out that all the early impressions have been wrong, and if so I'll be the first to post right here how relieved I am to have my predictions and premonitions proven wrong. But right now, many of us "nerds" are justifiably looking to this as a letdown waiting to happen, and until some further proof otherwise is seen, right now it's looking like "the nerds were right"... even if they desperately wish not to be.