Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Rise of the Silver Surfer, Fall of the Fantastic Four

I'll post a family update tomorrow. In the meantime, I've been meaning to add an entry about the Fantastic Four sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which my son and I went to see last week. He was reluctant to go, I might add, because the first Fantastic Four movie was a disappointment, and he didn't expect this one to be any better. His verdict, after seeing the sequel, was that it was terrible. Me, I just thought it was mediocre, not awful, but not terribly good.

I've discussed the great challenges that exist in trying to make movies out of comic book series in a previous post, Spider-Man 3 and the Limitations of Adaptations. For example, in the superhero genre, origin stories are usually weak, mere formalities that provide a pretext for an ongoing set of adventure stories, and this is certainly the case in the Fantastic Four comic book, where in the original version scientist Reed Richards is a cold warrior concerned with winning the space race, and in order to speed things up, decides to take a rocket ship up into space himself, piloted by his friend, old college roommate, and former World War II fighter pilot Benjamin J. Grimm, with his fiancée Sue Storm and her kid brother, teenage hot rod enthusiast Johnny Storm along for the ride (ah, the innocence of 1961). Unexpectedly, however, they are bombarded by mysterious cosmic rays (can you say Van Allen radiation belt?) that have a disabling effect on them, forcing them to abort the mission and land as best they can.

In good fifties and early sixties science fiction tradition, radiation leads to mutation, turning Reed Richards into the pliable, stretchable, Mr. Fantastic, turning Sue Storm into the Invisible Girl (later also able to create invisible force fields, a much needed power upgrade, and still later given a name upgrade to Invisible Woman), turning Johnny Storm into the Human Torch (thereby recreating a character from the forties, although the original was an android), and turning Ben Grimm into the monstrous, super strong and all but indestructible Thing.

This super team was introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the same year that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth, and Alan Shepherd followed by becoming the first American in space, although it wasn't until 1962 that John Glenn was able to fully orbit the earth. The Fantastic Four origin story was very much a part of the times, and continued to resonate throughout the sixties. With the space race won at the end of the decade, the story lost some of its power, but the bigger problem emerged as the years wore on, because the characters were not allowed to age naturally. Instead, Ben Grimm's WWII background was deemphasized and disappeared, and the space race theme was also phased out, replaced by a vaguer sense in which Reed Richards was simply anxious to test an experimental spacecraft.

So, the Fantastic Four had a weak origin story to begin with, as there is simply no good explanation for taking his girl and her brother along on a dangerous test flight, let alone the improbability of Reed and Ben launching a rocket by themselves. Why not, then, just forget about the origin for the film, start us off in medias res, with the characters already empowered, and just do a quick flashback or even just a verbal explanation in passing? Why not, well, because movies rely on linear narratives that move us from beginning to middle to end, and filmmakers want to begin at the beginning, something epic poets knew never to do (and comics are closer to epos than cinema ever will be). And filmmakers want to focus on the actors, on the personalities and faces, which means, for superhero narratives, spending too much time on the secret identity and/or personal history prior to the point of origin. The result is, shall we say, unfortunate.

But the problem of dealing with the origin can be a minor one, if the origin is especially poignant, as is the case of Spider-Man, or mysterious and complicated, as is the case for Batman, or even otherworldly, as it is with Superman. It also helps to keep in mind that, for the comic book series, the origin is not meant to set up the story's conclusion as would be the case in linear narratives, but rather its function is to set up a situation out of which an ongoing series of stories can be told--it's the episodic format that also prevails among television programs (as discussed in several previous posts). Filmmakers on the other hand feel the need for closure too strongly, and this tends to have negative effects on comics adaptations.

But even a first movie that messes up on the origin in all of these ways can still set up a sequel that, because the origin is now over and done with and we can therefore move on, is far superior to the original. The Fantastic Four sequel had this potential, and while I will grant that it is an improvement on the first movie, it is a relatively small improvement, not enough to save the film. One reason for the failure of the sequel is that the first movie introduced certain flaws that the second could not overcome, in particular regarding the characters.

Fundamentally, the Fantastic Four was a product of 1961, a time when the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant reigned supreme, and like much of popular culture, the Marvel superhero comic represented an ethnic take on WASP characters, in particular a Jewish (both Stan Lee néeLeiber, and Jack Kirby, being Jews) take on WASPs, following in the footsteps of the Hollywood motion picture industry, a respectful and reverent representation of those quintessential Americans. WASP culture was dominant back then, and WASP characters held a monopoly on heroic iconography, so it all was taken for granted. Today, there has been such a reversal of fortune that it is hard for us to take the old WASP image seriously, we tend to find it hokey or play it for laughs (take Leslie Nielsen for example, or Tim Allen).

I never really thought about this before, but now it occurs to me that this extreme reversal has gone too far. There was something admirable about the stiff upper lip seriousness and confidence of the old fashioned WASP character types, so maybe today we ought to make room for them as part of a spectrum of ethnicities, restoring the WASP hero as a serious alternative heroic character type. And the filmmakers should have allowed for the fact that the Fantastic Four works as a team of white bread types, and deviating from that formula can only undermine the characters.

To be specific, let's start with Reed Richards. At first glance, the Welsh-born actor, Ioan Gruffudd has the right pedigree, but he's just too much of a nebbish. In the first film, he's pushed around by Victor Von Doom, in the sequel by General Hager. What's missing is the good old WASP self-confidence, the pipe-smoking, patriarchal, father-knows-best calm assurance, that characterized the comic book character. Reed Richards is a genius, a regular Einstein, arguably the world's smartest person, and he knows it. He doesn't brag, but he doesn't sell himself short. He's not egotistical, he's more like the absent minded professor, as played by Fred MacMurray, and like many of us professors, he's used to running the classroom and not used to answering to anyone; maybe a Gary Cooper type would do. If he has any weakness, it might be that he's too self-assured, so much so that he takes his best friend, girlfriend, and her little brother on a risky mission to space, but the point is that he has that dispassionate ability to get things done that Tom Wolfe called the right stuff, the stuff of astronauts and test pilots. That same characteristic accounts for his choice of code name, Mr. Fantastic, a rare overtly flamboyant display. Bottom line, he is Mr. Science, the man with all the answers or failing that, insatiable curiosity. He is serious, running counter to type as a superhero in the mold of Plasticman, but his stretching is often a way to work with technology more effectively, rather than a fighting style. All this is missing in the wimpy character we see in both movies.

Sue Storm was miscast from the start by giving the part to the ethnic Jessica Alba, whose tinted contact lenses I found quite disturbing in their weird shade of blue. And they went for cheap laughs in both movies by including scenes in which she winds up naked in public (not that the camera shows us anything, this is a kid-friendly film). But the bottom line is that there is no there there with Alba, which may be in keeping with the code name Invisible Woman, and it's true that the comic book character was not very impressive in the early issues, being just a girl who turns invisible, but the essence is of the WASP blonde before being blonde became a joke about being dumb. She would put honor and duty above personal gratification, unlike the movie version who has Reed so cowed about their upcoming marriage that he turns down urgent requests for his help in dealing with alien phenomena (and winds up helping anyway, behind her back). The comic book Sue was sometimes to selfless as a consequence of being stereotypically feminine, but the movie Sue is too selfish, and the matriarchal qualities of the character are absent. They both grapple with the team's sudden celebrity, but the comic book Sue handles it with the grace and dignity of the WASP, while Alba seems overwhelmed by the acclaim.

Johnny Storm played by Chris Evans is the most popular character from the movie, and his egotism and willingness to sell out for endorsements is entertaining. But what's lost is the sense of youthful enthusiasm of the comic book character, as we get a more mature sexuality going with Chris Evans, and the comics Johnny Storm was a hot head, and also very self-confident, but not conceited like the Chris Evans character, not ruled by his libido in the same way, more like the kid sidekick. But of course, kid sidekicks are hard to take seriously these days as well, and teenagers are no longer kids, they're adults. Still, the answer would be a significantly younger Human Torch.

Ben Grimm as played by Michael Chiklis almost works, as Chiklis in heavy make up and prosthetics looks the part of the man-monster, and sounds sort of like Grimm would sound, which is a working class New York City street dialect from before the time of hip-hop, a lower east side, essentially Jewish manner of speech, although it would reflect the confluence of Italian and Irish ethnic influences as well. Kind of like Bugs Bunny on steroids. The Thing is at once a tragic character, being the only member of the Fantastic Four to suffer a mutation that leaves him disfigured and alienated from society, and Chiklis does get across some sense of depression, but the fundamental sadness and frustration of being trapped in that frightening body that also gives him the power to be a savior is not communicated well in either film. In contrast to Richards and the Storm siblings who are middle class WASPs, Grimm represents a working class ethnic stereotype, and that contrast does not come through all that well in the films. As such, in the comics he sometimes plays comic relief, both in his lack of sophistication, but also in his down-to-earth common sense. This is the most powerful, compelling, complex character in the comic series, but all of that is lost in the films.

The Thing gains a girlfriend, Alicia, who is blind (therefore not frightened by his visage, able to see the goodness in his soul), and a sculptor (representing the truth of art). In a very truncated role, Kerry Washington gives us an African-American in place of a WASP for this character, and it's not that there is anything wrong with an interracial relationship, nor is there a problem with making this particular substitution, but it does seem at least questionable to inject race into the films in this way, almost as a token, and associated with blindness.

What makes for a good superhero story is a good supervillain, and the comics version of Dr. Doom is one of the best. A megalomaniacal dictator of the fictional Eastern European country of Latveria, Dr. Doom is the evil genius foil of Reed Richards, and reflects the traditional American suspicion of foreign influences. He is the mad scientist of horror movies, the absolute ruler seeking world domination, with an old world sense of nobility and honor (if he gives his word, he won't go back on it), an elitist loner in opposition to our democratic foursome. The film version, inexplicably, gives us a completely American Von Doom, a genius who wants power, but mostly lusts for money and Sue Storm. He's a capitalist, not a fascist, and therefore is more ordinarily greedy rather than representing the height of evil, a kind of surrogate Hitler. Then in that drive for closed narrative, the first movie has him gaining powers along with the Fantastic Four, through exposure to cosmic rays, losing the sense that he employs weird science, a mixture of high tech and sorcery. He make the main conflict in the first film less than compelling, and is thrown into the second movie with little reason. He is shown in Latveria, with no explanation why an American would wind up there, he agrees to help the US Army and cooperate with Reed Richards, in a way that the comic book dictator never would, he steals the power of the Silver Surfer, a plot element taken from the comics, but he doesn't do much with it, there's not much sense of threat or evil, and he loses it all too easily in what really should have been a separate story.

The Silver Surfer was one of the most compelling characters ever introduced by Jack Kirby, and written by Stan Lee. He was the herald of Galactus, devourer of planets, and in this sense appears as the angel of death, harbinger of doom. But he agonizes over his role, commenting on humanity's base impulses and our innate nobility, ultimately persuaded to abandon his role and fight on our behalf by Alicia. In the film it's Sue who turns him, and while his CGI image is impressive, the character simply does not communicate the moral struggle that it at the core of his story. Ultimately, the Silver Surfer emerges as a Christ-like character, but you can't see that in the film.

And then there's Galactus, a god-like being, a space-god, who is totally amoral. In the comics, he appears as a giant, who explains that he doesn't care about whether we live or die, just as we are unmindful of whether we are stepping on ants as we walk along the ground. He is a higher being who works to insure his own survival, and to survive he must eat, and what he eats is the life energy of planets. Nothing personal, we're just lower down on the food chain,, and he's here to eat us and our world. The Fantastic Four are able to gain his attention and communicate with him, but to no avail in the comics. The movie abandons all sense of Galactus as a person, however, and turns him into a cloud (Marvel's Ultimate comics line, which presents a revised, simplified, more realistic version of the Marvel Universe, did a story with Galactus as an impersonal swarm of ravagers, I'm not sure if this influenced or more probably was influenced by the film script), and this loses much of the drama of the confrontation. And while it retains the idea that the Silver Surfer serves Galactus as part of a deal he made to have Galactus spare his home world, my son picked up on the problem inherent with an impersonal version of the big guy--if it doesn't appear to communicate, how did the Surfer make a deal with it? A big loss here, and I can't help but wonder if there wasn't some fear about offending the Christian conservatives by giving us an image of Galactus as a personified, godlike being.

In the comics, Galactus transformed Norrin Radd, an ordinary human or humanoid, into the Silver Surfer who wields cosmic power, granting him a small fraction of his power. So, when the Surfer chooses to oppose Galactus, it's not much of a battle, he's doomed to failure. In the movie, somehow, inexplicably, the Surfer appears to be a match for the planet-sized cloud that is Galactus, and is able to defeat it. Not only does this not make much sense, but it effectively takes the heroes of the film, the Fantastic Four, out of the story in any significant way, at the climax of the film. They play no role in defeating the threat and saving the world. In the comics, they actually are the ones who save the day, as another cosmic being, the Watcher, helps the Human Torch locate a weapon that can defeat Galactus, and Reed Richards threatens to use it, even though that weapon would also destroy the one who wields it, along with his target. This forces Galactus not only to withdraw, but to concede that we may be more than just insects unworthy of notice.

Look, much of what has been published in comics is unexceptional, but the story of the Fantastic Four's first encounter with the Silver Surfer and Galactus was a landmark achievement on the part of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and the filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves for mutilating the classic. So I guess my son was right, the movie was terrible. If there are going to be any more Fantastic Four films, my sincere hope would be that they would hit the reset button, rethink the whole adaptation business, and start over again. Or else, just leave sleeping dogs lie.

3 comments:

Mallon said...

well said mate. I agree, the movie was mildly entertaining at best. These superhero movies have so many opportunities to tell an in-depth thoughtful story (with all the literature printed) yet they continually dumb down the script and story for the sake of the masses. Can these filmmakers not find a way to tell a colorful yet sensible story without copious suspension of disbelief?

Lance Strate said...

Thanks. And of course, the answer is right there in your (rhetorical?) question. Yes, they could, if only they would respect the source material.

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