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Fantastic Four: The original movies, vaguely defended

They came. They went.

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Everett Collection

Here is what I cannot say about Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the JAlba-fronted, Chiklis-obscuring, Evil Space Cloud-lovin’ superhero-film duology, which entered the public consciousness in the summer of 2005 and left forever in the summer of 2007. I cannot say:

— That they are good movies.

— That you should pay any sum of money to watch them again.

— That they represent some kind of missing link in the history of superhero cinema.

You have probably forgotten about these movies. They don’t really have a bad reputation. It’s more like they have no reputation. And accidentally or on purpose, this is part of 20th Century Fox’s plan. This week, the studio releases a new, very different Fantastic Four movie: A Fantastic Four movie that stars a quartet of young, ambitious, “serious” actors, a Fantastic Four movie that features long quiet dialogue scenes where characters speak in hushed tones about the military-industrial complex and the broken promise of the space age and the possibility that humanity itself is a cancer to be wiped from the universe.

Here is what does not happen in the new Fantastic Four movie: A snowboarding montage set to Sum-41.

20th Century Fox does not want you to watch these previous Fantastic Four movies. Not right now, at least. As reported by the Hollywood Reporter earlier this summer, Fox scrubbed FF and FF: RotSS from Amazon and iTunes. They’re not on Netflix Instant. In order to watch the movies this week, I had to go to Vidiots, one of the last rental stores in Los Angeles/the world. (When I brought them up to the guy behind the counter, he asked me: “Why?”) If you don’t do DVDs anymore, and you know how to Google, it is currently easier to watch Roger Corman’s cheapo-cashgrab Fantastic Four film from the ’90s than either of these big-budget blockbuster releases.

Here is what you probably don’t remember: The first Fantastic Four is not terrible. It is occasionally very fun. Fantastic Four hit theaters in late June 2005, a couple weeks after Batman Begins, and so Fantastic Four is maybe the superhero movie that feels nothing at all like Christopher Nolan. Instead, the rip-off touchstone here is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. The setting is the same: New York, but a specific retro-Raimi corner of New York populated entirely by genius millionaire industrialists and brash astronauts and tough Bronx bald dudes from the Bronx. The general vibe is the bargain-Raimi. There’s wacky hijinks, there’s wide-eyed, mouth-drop shock every time someone uses their superpowers, there are endless crowds of cheering New Yorkers, and there’s banter that would embarrass Top Gun.

Like, here’s Chiklis-as-Ben Grimm on future teammate Johnny Storm. “That wingnut washed out of NASA for sneaking two Victoria’s Secret wannabes into a flight simulator! They crashed it into a wall! A flight simulator.”

And here’s Johnny Storm, taking a question from the press about Reed Richards and his incredible elongating ability:

REPORTER: “Is it true what they say about him? That he can expand any part of his anatomy?”

JOHNNY: “I’ve always found him to be a little limp.”

And here’s Ben Grimm, talking to eventual bad guy Victor Von Doom about his friendship with Reed Richards.

BEN: He does the talking. I do the walking.”

VON DOOM: “So take a walk.”

People complain about superhero villains now, but you have to understand: In the original Fantastic Four movie, Doctor Doom is basically Val Kilmer from Top Gun, except with Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows. Julian McMahon doesn’t actually do anything particularly villainous until about 2/3 of the way through the movie. Mostly, he just glowers in the shadows, flashing his Ryan Murphy Brand™ bitchface and trying to draw a wedge between the Fantastic Four using his incredible powers of shameless gossip. He’s the kind of supervillain who mainly seems annoyed that the heroes are getting all the attention: The most poignant moment of Doom’s origin story comes after his IPO fails, when his assistant tells him “Larry King just canceled!” because Larry King would rather talk to the Fantastic Four.

The DVD copy of Fantastic Four that I got from Vidiots had the Extended Edition of the movie. I watched it, hoping for unicorn dreams. There is one reason to watch the Extended Edition, which also happens to be one unqualified great thing about these very-not-great movies.

I’m talking about Chris Evans, doucheboat superhero.

I like Chris Evans as Captain America. But Chris Evans as The Human Torch belongs in a museum. His Johnny Storm is introduced as a washout astronaut. (Those Victoria’s Secret models, remember?) Except, wait, no, he’s actually introduced driving a motorcycle (what a badass!) while making out with a hot girl (what a badass!) except that the hot girl is ALSO driving, a CONVERTIBLE. A high-speed convertible-to-Harley makeout sesh: What a cool guy! So cool, he’s hot! Lest we not understand how cool this Torch is, here are his first lines in the movie, directed at Ben Grimm:

“Digital Camera: $254. Memory stick: $59. The look on your hardass former CO’s face when he finds out he’s your junior officer: Priceless.”

This is, of course, a gag on the catchphrase for the Mastercard commercials. It is impossible to stress how badly that joke has aged, because it was already years out of date when the movie hit theaters. But Evans sells everything. He is The Superhero as Unmitigated Horny Id: He is Downey-as-Tony-Stark, without the redemptive qualities of smartness or Paltrow.

Find me a counterexample, but I think that Evans as the Human Torch is the single randiest superhero in movie history. After his makout sesh with Convertible Girl, after Johnny goes to space and gets zapped by an evil space cloud, after he gets bored of hanging out at the hospital and insists on going snowboarding on a nearby mountain, there is the Nameless Nurse, who agrees immediately to go skiing and even wears helpful girl-coded Bright Pink snow gear:

While they’re totally shredding the slopes, Johnny flames on for the first time, and falls off a cliff, and flames directly into a snowy hillside, creating a hot tub in the middle of the snow. Nameless Nurse skis down to him. Keep in mind: In this world, this is the very first time anyone has ever had a superpower. Johnny Storm has just fallen off a cliff and his entire body has been on fire. (He was also in space yesterday.) He looks confused. Then he looks up at the Nurse. “Care to join me?”

The Extended Edition only has more of this. There is a montage where the Torch rides the elevator in the Baxter Building all day, and incredibly attractive women keep getting in the elevator. He turns on his firepowers. “Is it hot in here?” the attractive women keep saying, as they take off their jacket. (At one point, he appears to make out with two girls at once. ON AN ELEVATOR.)

This is mere prelude for Rise of the Silver Surfer, when Johnny has a full-on semi-romance with an Attractive Soldier Who Actually Has A Name But It Only Gets Mentioned Once…

…but only after we get a brief scene of Johnny with his Nameless Girlfriend Who Is Never Seen Again.

A reporter asks that nameless girlfriend: “What’s does it take to date the Human Torch?”

She responds: “Fireproof lingerie. And a lot of aloe.”

Let me restate that in all-caps, bolded, underlined:

FIREPROOF LINGERIE. AND A LOT OF ALOE.

In order to appreciate these Fantastic Four movies, you have to appreciate how that line is incredibly gross and arguably more emotionally true than anything that has happened in any superhero movie of the decade since. There’s not a lot of sex in superhero movies, unless you count bleak conversations about Black Widow’s uterus. Iron Man 3 boldly hired Rebecca Hall to play a long-ago one-night-stand for Tony Stark. But superhero movies in general are so serious, and so cosmic. Superheroes are either in fairy-tale love, or they’re too workaholic for love: There is no in between. And so there is something fascinating in the Human Torch’s unrepentant horndog attitude. “Come on!” he says early in the movie. “Am I the only one who thinks this is cool?” He’s talking about his superpowers, but he could be talking about the whole idea of superhero movies. (A line the Torch could’ve said, unironically: “Why so serious?”)

I’m not trying to defend any of this, by the way. The enjoyment factor of these two Fantastic Four movies is purely anthropological. They feel like the Roger Moore versions of the Fantastic Four series: Wacky, haphazard, the antithesis of deep. (The Human Torch has a car, and that license plate reads: “TORCH’D.”)

Which means that poor Jessica Alba gets stranded in the Holly Goodhead role. Her Susan Storm gets introduced as an equal to the male characters: “Meet my director of Genetics Research.” All of 23 at the time, Alba immediately gets banished into one character trait that will last her through two movies: Fretting over the fact that Reed doesn’t love her enough. When we first meet the characters, they have actually already dated and broken up: We later learn this was because Reed didn’t want to move in together.

And because the actual superhero battle at the end of the first movie is an afterthought, the main question at the core of Fantastic Four is: Will Reed Richards find it within himself to settle down with a smart, successful woman who loves him completely and looks like Jessica Alba? Muddying the water: Doctor Doom proposes to Susan early in the first movie, when they’re in space — even though, as the movie makes very clear, they have never actually been on a date.

Oh also, this happens:

And then in Rise of the Silver Surfer, this happens:

The films’ beyond-prurient interest in Alba’s body is both unforgivable and another prime artifact of the year 2005. A couple months before Fantastic Four, Alba was the stripper with the heart of gold in Sin City; a couple months after Fantastic Four, Alba was the bikini that occasionally talked in Into the Blue. I’m not even sure we as a culture would allow such an immediate sky-rocket ascendance into Sex Symbol-dom anymore: It’s like the same actress was Demi Moore in Striptease and Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns and Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep. Of course, Fantastic Four is the only movie to give Alba a blonde wig and blue lenses. Alba herself seems, perhaps understandably, to have had an awful time on these movies, which either does or does not explain why she is awful in them. (A happy irony of history: Ten years after she played the bland love interest for two technical supergeniuses, Jessica Alba is a tech-company kamillionaire and nobody has learned how to spell Ioan Gruffudd.)

So maybe what makes these movies interesting is just what a different cultural context they appeared in. Speaking as someone who had a few complaints about Black Widow this year: Anyone who had any complaints about Black Widow should see these movies and thank god Joss Whedon is making these movies now. And there are moments in these two movies that are goofy in a way few blockbusters are goofy now. Throughout Rise of the Silver Surfer, there are loving close-up shots of the Nokia 770 palm tablet, which Mister Fantastic uses for everything: Military alerts, science alarms. You have never seen such craven product placement.

But here’s where I kind of like these movies: They are very aware of the bullshit they are slinging. Earlier in Silver Surfer, the Four are forced to fly coach class on a commercial airline. “What do you guys think about getting an endorsement deal from an airline?” asks the Torch. “I think we have enough endorsement deals,” says the Invisible Woman. Later, the Torch shows off their new uniforms, which he has covered with NASCAR-style advertising. And later, the Torch insists that everyone start calling him “John,” because “Focus-testing found that Johnny skewed a little young.”

The last hour of Rise of the Silver Surfer is just terrible, by the way. There’s Doctor Doom and Galactus and the Silver Surfer. (Weirdly, it’s actually not too different from the last hour of the new Fantastic Four movie: Lots of military guys, lots of corridors, lots of residual Abu Ghraib imagery.)

But let me say this: The first half hour of Rise of the Silver Surfer is one of my favorite sustained sequences of Marvel-dom in the movies. It starts with a planet exploding in some remote solar system, and then we follow a tiny silver surfing comet-thing as it goes to Earth. It passes over Japan and freezes a lake; it passes over the pyramids and freezes the desert; it blacks out Los Angeles.

The media notices, but they don’t pay much attention: Everyone is too excited about the wedding of Sue Storm and Reed Richards, which in the context of the Fourverse is basically the Royal Wedding. (“We’re gonna be auctioning off exclusive wedding photos to the highest bidder!” declares Johnny.) There’s that scene where the FF ride in coach — which gets at the core human banality of Marvel Comics in a way that you don’t really see much outside of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. The Torch insists on taking Mister Fantastic out for a bachelor party, and he does a weird stretchy-dance, which plays in context like that scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin when Steve Carell smokes weed for the first time. There’s the scene where the Thing lovingly makes out with his girlfriend — KERRY WASHINGTON, PEOPLE! — and the scene with Brian Posehn as the fussy priest at the wedding. And, most importantly of all, there’s the scene after the Torch first meets the Silver Surfer, when the film unveils its one good idea: Every time he touches his fellow teammates, they switch powers.

This is such an awesome and potentially hilarious idea that the movie does nothing with — although it does create a new opportunity for Jessica Alba to lose her clothes. I would love to see Josh Trank, or someone else, take the first half hour of Rise of the Silver Surfer and make that into a full movie: A human comedy about a work-family that is also a real family, complete with the annoying little brother and the gruff uncle and maybe a female character who gets to do more than just pout. Director Tim Story doesn’t bring much to these movies as far as action goes, but there is a lightness of spirit, a sense that none of the mythology really matters. The first film has one of my favorite shots in any superhero movie: The Thing, mournful and alone on a New York night, trapped in his own personal version of Hopper’s Nighthawks.

And there’s the scene where The Thing hangs off the side of a bridge, and talks to a bird. The bird flies away — but only after it leaves a dropping on the Thing’s shoulder. For better or for worse, that will never happen again in a superhero movie. Which doesn’t make these movies good. But it does make them unique.

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