The moment that principal photography on Roger Corman’s million-dollar production of The Fantastic Four commenced on December 28, 1992, the ultimate goal of license holder Bernd Eichinger was instantly fulfilled. His hold on the Fantastic Four rights were immediately extended for another ten years, meaning he could forget all about the cheapie picture Corman and Co. were toiling away on in favor of something (theoretically) more worthy of the four-color foursome’s legendary reputation.
And so, with the low-budget version preemptively pulled from release in ’94, Eichinger’s Constantin Films and Marvel Productions quickly began development with Twentieth Century Fox on a big budget adaption. As the ’90s turned into the aughts, the age of Marvel movies began. There was Blade in ’98, X-Men in 2000, and, perhaps most importantly, Spider-Man in 2002, the first release to ever break the $100 opening weekend barrier. If it wasn’t clear before, it was now: superheroes were very big business, and the Marvel heroes were the biggest business.
Fox had seen its gamble on the X-Men franchise pay off in a big way (especially when the 2003 sequel did even better than the original), and the studio quickly scheduled Fantastic Four for a 2005 release. But if the unreleased 1994 flick suffered from too much ambition in proportion to its microscopic budget, the 2005 model was beset by too little. While a variety of directors flirted with the project, including Chris Columbus (who would end up producing), Peter Segal, Ant-Man‘s Peyton Reed, and Scooby-Doo‘s Raja Gosnell, all begged off thanks to the suffocating grip of Fox president Tom Rothman and Marvel honcho Avi Arad.
Despite the out-of-this-world subject matter, Rothman was hesitant to invest too heavily, and Arad saw the property as, essentially, a sitcom with superheroes. So it isn’t too much of a surprise that the director they settled on was Tim Story, who previously found success with the Ice Cube starrer Barbershop in ’02. Story had the comedy background to satisfy Arad, and the ability to work with a relatively low budget, which checked off the box for Rothman. From there, it was on to casting. To fill out the titular team and their big bad, the studio recruited a roster of familiar (read: inexpensive) faces, many of whom were pulled from within the Fox family.
Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, perhaps best known for a brief appearance at the end of Titanic, was chosen to play Reed Richards, and after considering a post-Mean Girls Rachel McAdams, the studio settled on Jessica Alba for Susan Storm. Rising star Chris Evans landed the plum part of Johnny Storm, and lifelong Fantastic Four fan Michael Chiklis, in the middle of his award-winning run on FX’s The Shield, lobbied to play Ben Grimm (unlike his predecessor, he got to play the Thing too). And for the villainous Victor Von Doom, the production wrangled Julian McMahon, also toplining an FX series as plastic surgeon Christian Troy on Nip/Tuck.
With cast and crew locked, armed with a script by Michael France & Mark Frost, and a $100 million budget (in other words, 100 times greater than the brief, ignominious Corman excursion), production commenced on the first real Fantastic Four movie in history. As our story begins, scientist Reed Richards and best friend Ben Grimm are seeking funding and resources for a planned interstellar voyage to study a spacefaring energy cloud. With no other options, the pair turn to Victor Von Doom, reimagined as a ruthless corporate raider who has a long-running rivalry with Reed.
Agreeing to finance the expedition in exchange for a majority ownership stake in all resulting discoveries, Victor has his girlfriend (and Reed’s ex) Susan Storm, a genetic researcher herself, and her brother Johnny, a former astronaut, to accompany them. When the cloud approaches the Von Doom space station faster than was anticipated, Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny are fully exposed to its radiation while Victor believes himself safe behind a metal shield. Upon their return to Earth, the foursome began manifesting the usual array of strange abilities (Reed starts to stretch, Sue turns invisible, Johnny bursts into living flame).
Ben, having turned into a rock-covered monstrosity (well, a PG-13 monstrosity), is rejected by his fiancé (The Walking Dead‘s Laurie Holden, again playing an utterly unlikable character). While Ben drowns his sorrows on the Brooklyn Bridge, he inadvertently causes a traffic pileup when he tries to stop a suicidal man from jumping. The resultant wreck soon draws the attention of the others, and their collective efforts to save lives on the bridge result in them being branded “The Fantastic Four” by the media. Meanwhile, Von Doom too has developed a mutation, and he’s none too happy at the negative impact on is company’s stock prices. (Cue ominous music…)
After more than a decade in the development pipeline, Fantastic Four was finally released to theaters in July of 2005 (arriving just a few short months after Fox’s Marvel adaptation Elektra flopped hard). More than anything, it serves as a fascinating snapshot of a time when both ambitions and expectations were far lower for superhero flicks. Bear in mind, this was three whole years before the 2008 releases of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk signaled the sea change of the comic company producing and financing its own movies under its own shingle.
While the Marvel label in front of a title has become an intrinsic indicator of a certain baseline of quality in recent years, this wasn’t always the case. Even still, Fantastic Four mustered a fantastic (sorry) $56 million opening weekend, comparable to the debut of the first X-Men five years previously (and about par with Ant-Man just a few weeks ago). This demonstrates how even back then there was an eager and hungry audience waiting to see their favorite heroes translated to live action. What those fans got, however, is the very definition of a mixed bag.
With the ’94 movie, the general chintziness of the thing (and the Thing) is understandable given that they didn’t have two dimes to rub together. It’s a little harder to understand how Fox could lavish $100 mil on the 2005 model and still come away with something that looks like a syndicated sci-fi show from the ’90s. Part of the problem is in the questionable hiring of Tim Story to direct. What distinguished both the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises during that era is that they were guided by filmmakers (Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi respectively) with a distinctive style and vision.
But under Story, there’s just nothing particularly distinctive about 2005′s Fantastic Four. Who knows, maybe if this was the one they’d made in the 1990s it would be more fondly remembered. But the problem is that FF ’05 arrived in the midst of superhero movies finally finding their footing as something to be taken seriously. The aforementioned Spider-Man and X-Men had already made the case for Marvel’s big screen legitimacy, and perhaps most damningly, mere weeks earlier Batman Begins had raised the bar so high for the genre that Fantastic Four couldn’t help but feel like a deflating balloon in comparison.
As far as the cast goes, Gruffud and Jessica Alba have come in for some criticism, but both do the best they can with what they’re given. They have a decent amount of chemistry, and their relationship at least feels natural. (That said, it bugs me that Reed is depicted as a nebbishy loser instead of the confident man of science from the comics.) Even McMahon is fine, but what the script does to his character is disastrous. It’s a complete hatchet-job that leaves the premiere Marvel villain, the tyrannical ruler of distant Latveria, a shadow of his former self.
Of course, the cast’s unquestionable standouts are Evans and Chiklis. Their comedic byplay feels like it’s torn straight from the comics, and while Evans (who’d go on to have further brushes with Marvel superhero-dom) gets some of the best lines, it’s Chiklis who gives the thing (and the Thing) its beating heart. His lifelong FF fandom is clearly in evidence as he portrays poor Ben’s transformation from space jockey into disfigured monster. (Though, seriously, Ben’s girlfriend? The Worst. She shows up on the bridge just after the team debuts, just to leave her engagement on the ring on the ground in front of him.)
Ultimately, Fantastic Four is as lightweight as they come. A strictly-for-the-kiddies, enjoy-it-in-the-moment, forget-it-when-it’s-over popcorn flick. What makes it such a disappointment is that “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” deserved better. Still, despite being roundly dismissed by critics (Roger Ebert picked it as one of that year’s worst movies), it managed to clear more than $330 million worldwide ($154 million of that domestically). That was a very healthy return on Fox’s investment, and it’s no surprise that the band was quickly put back together for a sequel two years hence. Whether they learned any lessons from their first outing remained to be seen.
To Be Continued…