It’s gradually becoming conventional wisdom that you simply cannot make a watchable Fantastic 4 movie. For two decades running Hollywood has failed rather miserably to adapt Stan Lee’s/Jack Kirby’s half-goofy/half-gritty characters into a successful feature film, despite having much better luck with other Lee/Kirby designs such as Iron Man & The X-Men. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Fantastic 4 specifically that is so difficult to competently capture on film, despite the wild commercial success of other superhero properties. What is certain, though, is that despite the disparate variety of approaches, no adaptation has won over fans of the comics or even casual movie goers looking for mindless escapism. And it’s somehow still likely that there will be even more shoddy attempts to adapt this property in the future, despite the four already-raised red flags. Listed below is a brief review of every Fantastic 4 feature released so far, hopefully to serve as a guide for the morbidly curious.
The Fantastic Four (1994)
Perhaps the most infamously troubled Fantastic 4 adaptation of all also happens to be the one I enjoyed the most. A Roger Corman production from the mid-90s, the original Fantastic 4 movie is often rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights that he eventually put to grander use over a decade later with the 2005 adaptation. As a result to these backscene shenanigans the Corman picture never saw an official release. To this day, the film can only be viewed through bootleg VHS copies & less-than-legal YouTube uploads. There’s even a documentary in works called DOOMED!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four (which I’m dying to see) that’s supposed to recount the entire troubled production & intentionally bungled release, which are, in short, a jumbled mess.
What’s most surprising about this mucked-up non-release is that it’s actually a really fun picture, much unlike the three adaptations that followed. Corman’s production ignores the insanely popular trend of Burton’s Batman pictures & intentionally reverts to a time when comic book movies were still made for children. 1994’s The Fantastic Four plays like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon. Even Dr. Doom’s surveillance setup & pack of obedient goons recalls the evil Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget more than it does any other villain I can name. Sure, the costumes & effects employed here were way behind the times even for 1994 & the film was easily distracted by subplots that involved not one, but two will-they-won’t-they love stories as well as some less than compelling & entirely tangential jewel thief goblins that must’ve wandered from the set of Ernest Scared Stupid by mistake, but that’s all part of the movie’s hokey charms.
When viewed as a children’s movie instead of how we think of modern superhero fare, Corman’s The Fantastic Four is a fun little modestly-budgeted movie. There are some great cheesy lines like “Hello, Mrs. Storm. Can Johnny & Susan go out into space with us?” & [flying a spaceship] “Using turn signal. Turning right.” The cheapness of some of the effects can be fun in a campy way, especially in the psychedelic outer space transformation scene where the group gains their powers (where the background looks like something you’d expect to be projected behind The Doors) & in Doom’s hand-drawn space palace. There’s also some really awkward twists on the Fantastic 4’s core members’ group dynamics, like in the revelation that Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards knew Susan “The Invisible Woman” Storm as a little girl who she had a crush on him (gross!), Ben “The Thing” Grimm’s self-hating depression cycles turning him into a silent film bum, and in an over-explained monologue that reveals that each of the 4’s powers are reflections of their personalities, (something that’s much more subtly hinted at or assumed in the films to follow). Corman’s stab at adapting The Fantastic 4 is far from a perfect picture, but it is at the very least a mildly enjoyable slice of mid-90s children’s media with a fascinating context given its troubled production & lack of an official release. That’s more than you can say for any of the other films listed here.
Fantastic 4 (2005)
If Corman’s goofy adaptation sorta worked in its decision to chase the goofy, kids’ media bent of the Fantastic 4 universe, the 2005 adaptation that it made possible fails miserably because it makes no decisions at all. The mid-00’s Fantastic 4 is remarkably bad, just awful. Even more-so, it’s a prime example of what’s terrible about Hollywood’s chase for the PG-13 movie, a grey blob of un-creativity meant more to hit every possible demographic in their wallets more than it is meant to entertain. It tries to mimic the childlike goofery of the Corman film in lines like “Why the long face?” (directed at a stretched-out Mr. Fantastic, of course) & “That’s my nose. This is my face, genius,” (in a scene where an invisible Sue Storm is being sloppily kissed, of course), but also attempts to appeal to salacious old men in a gag where Sue (played here by 00’s sexy symbol Jessica Alba) is left publicly embarrassed in her underwear, ripe for the oggling. The 2005 adptation has its foot one in, one out, trying to juggle Corman’s children’s movie with the adult Burton Batman aesthetic; it drops the ball on both ends.
One of the strangest aspects of the film is that even though it arrived with an outrageously larger budget more than a decade after Corman’s picture, its effects were not nearly as impressive. Corman’s The Fantastic Four may have looked cheap, but at least it looked cool. The only practical effects used in the 2005 film are in The Thing’s prosthetic costume, which I gotta admit I thought was kinda cool-looking in a hand-made way (although the awfulness of Michael Chiklis’ labored voice work ruined that effect). Everything else looked stuck in the late 90s, especially in the transformation scene where the crew mutates into their newly powerful bodies, where the CGI was barely a step above an old-school screensaver.
The CGI wasn’t the only thing stuck in the late 90s, either. Further solidifying the movie’s cynical grabs at the perfect PG-13 market, Fantastic 4 is crawling with dirt bikes, snowboards, pop punk, and antiquated rap rock, gasping its final breaths here in the twilight years of its heyday. Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm is essentially a live-action Poochie in his 2005 incarnation, appealing to all of the cool, radical kids out there who are too X-treme for the establishment. The movie also indulges in some X-treme marketing in a single, extended scene that finds room for ad placement for ESPN, The X Games, Red Bull, Burger King, Pepsi, Sobe, Mountain Dew, Dos Equis, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. It was dizzying. There’s something very telling in that sequence’s love for X-treme branding as nearly every minute of the movie that surrounds it feels just as hollow & desperate to make a buck.
Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Despite the mixed reviews, narrative bankruptcy, and all-around awfulness of 2005’s Fantastic 4, it was still financially successful enough to garner a sequel. X-treme marketing really works, y’all! There’s a reason studios are chasing those sweet, sweet PG-13 bucks. Two years after Johnny Storm won The X-Games, Fantastic 4 returned to the silver screen, this time with a Silver Surfer in tow. The sequel is somehow even more awful & empty than the first, its narrative hinged on a much-delayed wedding between Mr. Fantastic & Sue Storm that no one could possibly care about. The Silver Surfer is an interesting character (voiced here by Lawrence Fishburn) who threatens to shake things up with his space alien aesthetics & threats of world destruction, but the movie is largely uninterested in this line of thought.
What it is interested in is repeating itself. Rather than trying to tell a worthwhile story about its titular villain , Rise of the Silver Surfer aims to tell more goofy jokes (with even fewer that land) and make room for more nonsensical asides, like in a sequence where Mr. Fantastic & The Thing both bust moves on the dance floor at a bachelor party for that all-important wedding, making me question the value of living another day . . . or at the very least watching another Fantastic 4 movie ever again. Besides some surprise cameos from folks like Brian Posehn & Kerry Washington (not to mention a not so surprise cameo from Stan Lee as himself, even though he played a mail man in the first film), Lawrence Fishburn’s competent voice work, and a needless sideplot where the 4’s powers are switched around in a gag that felt hokey even for Scooby-Doo (2002), there’s just really not much to distinguish this film from the first. It feels like an exact repeat of the not-at-all satisfying formula that came two years before, complete with yet another gag where Jessica Alba is left naked in public, complaining “Why does this always happen to me?” It’s a moment almost existential in its pleading desperationg, prompting me to ask it of myself as a member of the movie-going public. Why?, indeed Jessica. Why?
Although Corman’s Fantastic 4 film is the adaptation most widely known for its troubled production, the version that’s currently running in the theater may one day give it a run for its money. Although director Josh Trank won a lot of superhero fans over with his debut film Chronicle, they’ve quickly abandoned ship with the release of his much higher profile follow-up. To give you some perspective on just how much critical abuse the latest Fantastic 4 film is receiving, just take into consideration that it currently boasts a dismal 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes, while the much more infamously reviled (and not even officially released) Corman movie is carrying a 33% on the same site. According to Trank, the film’s problems could mostly be blamed on studio interference after 20th Century Fox reportedly hijacked the production in order to, in their eyes at least, limit damages & save face. It’s difficult to say if the final product would have been more successful if it were left completely in Trank’s hands, but there’s definitely enough going for it that indicates a decent Fantastic 4 film was at some point in the works here before it was hideously derailed. Trank claims that his original, unaltered cut of the film was a much better product than what was delivered, but that remains to be seen.
What actually reached theaters is not an entirely shoddy film, however. At least not in the first half. The beginnings of 2015’s Fant4stic (hey, if they’re going to spell their shit that way on the ads, they have to live with it) feels like a kids’ movie in a way very much unlike how Corman’s film did. The idea of children getting in over their heads while building teleportation devices in their garage using stacks of N64s and other dated electronics calls to mind a wonder-struck Spieldbergian kids’s flick or maybe Joe Dante’s Explorers or JJ Abrams’ Super 8. Much like with a lot of recent non-MCU superhero films, though, Trank’s Fant4stic succumbs to the mood-spoiling temptations of post-Dark Knight grittiness. During an early scene, The Thing’s family name “Grimm” flashes in neon, serving as an early warning of the Nolanisms to come. It might as well have read “Gloomm” or “Broodd”.
As the Spieldbergian tykes transform into disgruntled teenage nerds, the film gradually became a slog of very sciency lab montages, who-cares struggles with military figureheads, and knowing looks of teenage lust & self-hatred. This transformation wouldn’t be so bad if it actually built to something significant, but the film completely derails after the 4’s superpower-gaining transformation scene and never really gets started in any significant way. In short, it’s a total nonstarter. By the end credits, reminders of flashes of promise in the film’s cast, which included Miles Teller, Tim Heidecker and (voice of Homer Simpson) Dan Castanella feel so distant that they’re almost unbelievable. I was left in the darkened theater with one all-consuming thought: “What happened?”
The two characters that are seemingly hardest to get right on film are The Thing & Dr. Doom. Part of what makes the newest Fantastic 4 film so frustrating is that it gets them both so horribly wrong. The Thing’s 100% CGI body is much more of a yawn than his practical effects looks in the earlier films & his silly/infamous “It’s clobbering time!” catchphrase is one of the Nolan-spoiled elements in play, as it is delivered by a physically abusive family member (whereas in the other film’s it’s first heard as a cheeky action movie one-liner or through the speakerbox of an action figure). Also bungled here is Doom. In all craptastic four films listed here, Doom is burdened by the prolonged build of the origin story format and, thus, afforded very little time to rock his metal face & hooded cape look. He gets the most screentime in Corman’s film, but even then he’s often obscured by that behind-the-chair Dr. Claw angle. In the 2015 version, since Doom isn’t shown in his full glory until very late in the film, audiences mostly know him as an angry Redditter type, the kind who rarely bathes & is very concerned with the “ethics in gaming journalism” or whatever. He’s grotesquely misused.
Perhaps the absurdity of Stan Lee’s & Jack Kirby’s collaborative aesthetics are just too at-war with our current Dark Knight gloominess. The most enjoyable moments of the latest Fantastic 4 film are when it reverts back to the childlike wonder wholeheartedly embraced in Corman’s adaptation. There’s even a couple full-on goofy moments, like with Johnny Storm’s X-treme love of Fast & Furious style street racing, or the way Sue Storm’s energy shield is at one point employed as a Hamster Ball of Justice. For the most part, though, the movie is sank by a crushing lack of imagination despite its high concept & well known characters. Watching the Fantastic 4 waste their time in the alternate greenscreen universe of Planet Zero or buck against the tedium of government interference is way more of a chore than it should be, very far removed from the unhinged silliness that made Corman’s film mostly enjoyable. I don’t think the 8% score on the Tomatometer is accurately indicative of the film’s overall quality, as it was a much better picture than the X-Treme branding of 2005’s picture & its weak echo of a sequel, but it does reflect a frustration I personally felt. The first half held so much promise. The second delivered so, so little.