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At the turn of the millennium, as the now-ubiquitous superhero blockbuster became more and more prevalent at the box office, audiences were offered essentially two major approaches to adaptations of beloved comic book franchises. On the one hand, there's the approach taken by Sam Raimi with Spider-Man, which was to essentially approach the material with an earnest love and respect for the original stories, with a few tweaks thrown in for the sake of modern audiences. On the other, there's the approach taken by X-Men and Blade, which offered recognizable aspects of the comics, but also leaned heavily into adaptation, crafting stories that ultimately stood on their own as cinematic achievements.
Then came Fantastic Four, which just arrived to stream this month on Peacock. Directed by Tim Story and written by Michael France and Mark Frost, the first blockbuster outing for Marvel's First Family represents a fascinating hybrid of these two approaches, a blending of reverential moments and absolute devotion to updating tropes and characters for the sake of skeptical general audiences who'd never picked up one of the comic books. Looking back at the film now, nearly 20 years after its release and as Marvel Studios prepares to mount its own big-screen adaptation of the characters, it serves as a fascinating time capsule of a simpler era, a time when big-screen lore was a little prized, and superhero movies were more about the given moment than the grander universe.
When you run in the internet circles that I do, you develop an anecdotal body of evidence which suggests the Fantastic Four are harder to adapt than other superheroes because they're seen as "silly," and indeed the proto-Marvel nature of their origins at least hints in the direction of a certain dividing line between the FF and the rest of the Marvel stable. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had not yet perfected the formula when they developed Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm. They were just two guys trying to come up with a hit that would keep the lights on, and they ended up succeeding. In these four characters, you can see the version 0.1 of many other Marvel characters that would follow, and while the FF would grow much more sophisticated in the issues following their 1961 origin story, it's clear from their beginnings that it wasn't about building a universe right away. It was just about trying to tell a story kids would pick up at the newsstand.
By the time they got the big-budget blockbuster treatment more than 40 years after their debut, the FF had built up hundreds of issues of evolution and lore for filmmakers to choose from, and what's most fascinating about looking back at the film now is the hybridized, often strange approach taken by the narrative. It never leans entirely into outright devotion to the original comic, but it never strays all that far from them either. The spine of the story is a very obvious one: The Fantastic Four go to space, get their powers from cosmic radiation, and then fight Doctor Doom. What happens around that spine, though, is both very interesting and very uneven.
Reed (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue (Jessica Alba), Johnny (Chris Evans), and Ben (Michael Chiklis) begin the story in very different places. They all know each other, but they don't yet have the familial bond that will later establish them as a formidable quartet. Reed and Ben have their own bond as best friends and partners, while Sue and Johnny are close siblings who also work together via a shared connection to Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). As the film opens, Sue is dating Victor some time after breaking up with Reed, who's facing bankruptcy because no one wants to keep funding his work at the Baxter Building. Victor, with his vast business empire and resources, agrees to fund Reed's space exploration mission to research the foundations of evolution on Earth via cosmic clouds, provided he gets to come along, and bring Sue and Johnny. The film is engineered that way so that all five of the principals can get on the same spaceship and face the same evolution, an effort to simplify the story that creates an even more tangled web in its wake.
Until recently, I hadn't seen Fantastic Four since its first home video run, and I'd forgotten just how much the film veers away from its source material in service of setting up the concluding fight with Doom, a fight that's meant to hold higher personal stakes because of the shared personal and professional connections between all the major players. It's something that could have been established simply by telling us Reed and Victor were old schoolmates and intellectual rivals, or even through nothing more than a shared interest in the cosmic experiment. Instead, the idea was to give us a story in which the FF and Victor are evolving simultaneously, with different reactions and end goals, until Victor is so isolated and the FF so united that they're able to beat him by working as a team. That's a nice idea, and in the end it's the best thing about the film thematically, but the way we get there feels like something you'd never see in a Marvel movie now, a twisted amalgam of comic book tropes and pure invention that raises more questions than it answers.
As for the rest of the film, it's more solid than I remember. Some of its goofier humor feels almost refreshing in the context of the many more self-serious blockbusters that have followed. And while Gruffudd and Alba are reliable in terms of serving the material they're given, Evans and Chiklis are flat-out scene stealers, using the ever-present tension between Ben and Johnny to really sell the film's tone. The visual effects are a bit dated, but often charming and ambitious, the world is intriguing, and I was even outright moved by the final shot of Johnny tracing a flaming number four in the sky over New York City. There's a lot about the film that works, in other words, more than I thought I'd find when I came back to it.
So, if you're interested in looking back at the superhero films of yesteryear, in the more innocent, pre-MCU days of comic book blockbusters, give Fantastic Four another try. If nothing else, it's a time capsule of where superhero films were a few years into the 21st century, and its attempts to merge various sensibilities of that era into something new are both rewarding and intriguing.
Fantastic Four is now streaming on Peacock.