Fantastic Four: Two-Disc Special Edition Review

Tell me the truth readers: if you had superpowers, would you walk around lamenting your newfound gifts, or venture upon the world to have a little fun?

That’s the question many would pose to the Fantastic Four, who after receiving amazing properties from a freak space anomaly, proceed to bitch and moan about their situation. Yeah, right! If cosmic rays were to “fundamentally alter” my DNA for the better, I’d be happier than the soles in this picture. The FF have certainly had enough time to come to grips with their powers. They were the force that kept Marvel afloat in its formative years, predating iconic characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men. Created with a great deal of charm by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four are a family unit - living and working together; while dealing with their “celebrity” and fighting crime in New York.

There’s Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud), whose body resembles elastic, allowing him to stretch his limbs to any length he wishes; his former girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), who possesses the power of invisibility; her brother Johnny (Chris Evans), who can literally become a living flame, and Reed’s close friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis). Ben is the only one to draw the short straw, transforming into “The Thing”, whose body is composed entirely of rock. Ben’s horror at his new physique is understandable, but Reed and Sue treat their gifts like a disease - only the hot-headed Johnny is willing to embrace his abilities. It’s one of the many reasons why Fantastic Four didn’t sit right with me. Humans are always looking for the extraordinary, so I doubt a scientist like Reed would balk at becoming Stretch Armstrong. We want them to use their powers, not banish them to the ether! By the time Fantastic Four realises this, the audience has lost all interest…

Ridiculed by many critics upon its release, Fantastic Four suffered in the wake of Sin City and Batman Begins - two superior comic book adaptations, released in the same summer. It couldn’t compare to those pictures; the FF comic books were always light and frothy, with little in the way of substance. The other pictures were dark and sophisticated, making them the ideal choice in these cynical times. Perhaps we were too harsh on Fantastic Four. It sets out to entertain a family audience, with colourful action, loveable characters, and a sunny disposition. I couldn’t bare to trash anything this good-natured - Tim Story’s film isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel or make a statement. It wants to be fun, disposable entertainment, and it certainly works on that level. Fantastic Four’s faults are notable, but there’s enough pizzazz to nod in approval.

Of course, this isn’t the first screen outing for the FF. After a series of poor cartoon adaptations (the best of which, was the 1990’s incarnation), the rights fell into the hands of B-movie legend Roger Corman. He decided to make a full-blown feature, with a measly $2 million budget. Produced in 1992, it was directed by Oley Sassone, and featured a barrage of Z-grade actors in the lead roles. The history behind this production is fascinating - it seems it was made with the intention of never being released. Corman’s option on the rights was due to expire unless he made a film; fighting off Hollywood heavyweight Chris Columbus, who wanted to make the film himself. 20th Century Fox were forced to pay Corman a considerable amount of money to buy the rights for themselves, and Corman’s version has sat on a shelf gathering dust ever since. But it’s probably for the best - the film is rumoured to be an utter waste of celluloid, and a complete slap in the face to Lee and Kirby. After all these years, it’s surprising to see a half-way decent screen version of the comic, although it’s perplexing as to why Marvel honcho Avi Arad would entrust the project to Story (Barbershop, Taxi). Fans were prepared for the worse, but the finished film was merely flawed, rather than an outright disaster.

The biggest problem is definitely the story. It’s as flat as a pancake, and the narrative is full of padding; clearly saving the plot for a sequel. For the entire run-time, Story is only concerned in setting up the characters and their powers - the odd action sequence aside, it’s all about constructing a franchise. As the film opens, Reed and Ben visit the suave Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon); arguably Marvel’s most recognisable villain, whose ridiculous name is one of the many indications that Fantastic Four should never be taken seriously. The pair wish to spend some time on Victor's space station, in order to observe a weird phenomenon. Reed believes that the cosmic storm might have useful benefits for human kind. Smelling money, Von Doom agrees; deciding to join them on their journey. What happens next is obvious - the group blasts into space, only for the unpredictable cosmic storm to smother them in gamma rays. On their return to terra firma, it isn’t long before their powers begin to show…

From here, most of the film follows the Four as they discover their abilities, bicker a lot, and attempt to return to normal; before choosing to use their powers for good. Not a lot really happens - the screenplay by Michael France and Mark Frost is terrifically episodic in nature, although it does stay faithful to the source in many areas. All sorts of details are gleaned from the strip – the suits made of unstable molecules, which transform with their abilities; their residence at the Baxter Building; Von Doom’s shrouded history on Latveria, and the various character quirks that are sure to please fans. The characters themselves are very well-drawn, and not much has changed in their transition from comic book to film. The family dynamic is fairly prominent, and the sparring between the Four provides plenty of comic relief. The romance between Reed and Sue is merely blossoming here, although it’s obvious to everyone that they will confess their undying love for each other before the credits roll. It’s a rather limp sub-plot, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between the pair is atrocious. Luckily, the writers have Johnny and Ben to spice up the picture. Their constant childish squabbling was a highlight of the strip, and works a treat here too. The dysfunctional aspect of the superhero family is a great idea, and it was later ripped-off mercilessly in The Incredibles.

However, the characters are only interesting if you have a great cast to bring them to life. Fantastic Four is rather rickety in this area - each of the leads have led interesting careers to date, but most of them seem adrift thanks to the aimless script. Yet, they manage to overcome a lot of the films shortcomings, and inhabit their roles with affection. Gruffud is certainly above material like this, but he nails the dorky aspects of Reed well - a man with a considerable intellect, but an inability to see the love of his life passing him by. He doesn’t fare so well when depicting Reed’s graft of science, however. The screenplay keeps reminding us that “Mr. Fantastic” is just that, but there’s little evidence of his brilliance here. He comes across as gormless. He doesn’t have much chemistry with the beautiful Alba either. As ever, the Sin City starlet provides oodles of eye candy for male audiences, but she’s the least convincing scientist since Tara Reid in Alone in the Dark. At least she looks fetching in blue spandex…

The film is stolen from under their noses by Evans and Chiklis. The pair are clearly having fun with their roles, and living the dream of playing such iconic figures. Evans is charismatic as the reckless “Human Torch”, and his wild-eyed excitement at his powers is wonderful. Chiklis on the other hand, manages to project the horror of his disfigurement, allowing for several moments of pathos. The effects boffins were planning to render “The Thing” as a CGI creation, but it was Chiklis who decided to perform the role under mountains of latex. I’m glad that the producers agreed, since Chiklis is able to emote under the make-up and make the audience care for his plight - would we be bothered if he was composed entirely of pixels? Unfortunately, the final member of the cast, McMahon, is sorely wasted. Von Doom’s origin story is completely fudged (he didn’t receive his powers from the cosmic rays, like the FF), and he is ridiculously underused as a villain. His power of controlling electricity is a little sketchy, and his decision to turn evil comes out of nowhere - he has no motive for wanting to destroy the Four, and only becomes “Dr. Doom” during the climax. What a waste.

Helping to paper-over such problems, are the bursts of action throughout the film. Compared to pictures like Spider-Man, Fantastic Four is suspiciously light on pyrotechnics, but there are two large-scale scenes of carnage that raise the heart-rate; both executed efficiently by Story. The first is a great encounter on the Brooklyn Bridge, as the Four are involved in a vehicle accident, which leaves a fire engine hanging precariously above the water. It’s a familiar scenario, but it really allows the group to show their abilities, especially since Story throws explosions and car wrecks into the mix. The second, is during the conclusion, in which the Four - finally functioning as a team - battle Dr. Doom on the streets of New York (in a fight reminiscent of Superman II’s climactic tussle). Boosting the effectiveness of these scenes, is some satisfying special effects, which manage not to rob the picture of its humanity. Making skin stretch, or turn to flame, must have been incredibly difficult to accomplish, but the effects wizards have managed it with aplomb. The movie looks great.

Fantastic Four might be considered a low-point in Marvel’s motion picture enterprise, but fans of the source material and family audiences will certainly find something to appreciate about Story’s flawed fantasy. It could have been so much better - that much is true - but the final product is never anything less than entertaining. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will see our heroes finally cut-loose, and provide us with that elusive property: a definitive screen version of the Fantastic Four…

The Discs

“It’s clobberin’ time!”

This must have been the phrase in mind for countless critics, as they mauled Fantastic Four on its theatrical release. But Marvel’s “First Family” still managed to claim a respectable box office gross, and it wasn’t an all-out failure. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to see Fox release the film in two flavours - a simple, one-disc incarnation, and a two-disc “Special Edition”, with all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect. For fans, it would make an ideal Christmas present.

The Look and Sound

An onslaught of colour and eye candy, the anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is a near-perfect presentation of Fantastic Four. The colour was certainly the most important aspect of the film-to-disc transfer, since it’s eye-poppingly good here - from the opening Marvel logo, to the super-brawl in New York, the film is screaming with a bright, effervescent palette. Detail is also very strong, with everything on screen boasting a high degree of clarity. The effects shots appear smoother and more refined than they did in the cinema, and black levels are maintained with care too. As you’d expect from such a recent release, there’s a pleasing lack of film grain. If it wasn’t for a slight, and infuriating spot of compression, I would have given the video a 10 overall. As it stands, this is a reference-quality presentation of the film.

The sound is also very good, with options in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. For those with the required hardware, the latter is definitely the audio track I recommend - it gives the film a great atmosphere, with plenty of surround activity. The sound effects and use of deep bass are numerous, especially the scene on Brooklyn Bridge. Dialogue and music are transferred without distortion, making this a satisfying experience. While other DTS tracks would put this disc in the shade (even the DD 5.1 track on the Batman Begins DVD was superior), there’s no denying how good Fantastic Four looks and sounds.

Fox also provides English subtitles.

The Menus

These are actually a mixed bag. The menus on the first disc are truly under whelming - they look cheap, with little in the way of design, or animation. The menus on disc two are much better. Designed to look like the comic book, they really nail the spirit of the source material. As you’d expect from a studio, they are easy to navigate, and come with the customary anamorphic-enhancement.

Bonus Material

This excellent two-disc package is probably more than Fantastic Four deserves, but the materials provide a great document of the production. Enthusiasts will appreciate Fox’s efforts in this area…

Disc One

Audio Commentary by Ioan Gruffud, Jessica Alba and Michael Chikilis

I never look forward to cast commentaries. They are usually bogged-down with mutual back-patting, and dry, useless facts. Surprisingly, the commentators actually manage to entertain the audience, and the yack-track for Fantastic Four should hold your attention. The camaraderie between the group is clear, and they have plenty to say about the film from the get-go. Welsh actor Gruffud offers some interesting insight into how he prepared for such a large-scale Hollywood movie, while the others chime in with their two-cents on playing these well-known characters. Chiklis is brimming with affection for the role, and Alba isn’t afraid to poke fun at the movie and her own abilities as an actress. They discuss the story, the effects, and the FF as a whole; even letting slip a few titbits about the proposed sequel. While they do congratulate each other on occasion, this is a fun discussion, with a few nice facts to glean from the process.

“The Fantastic Tour”

We all know that the marketing of a blockbuster film can be hard work for actors, as they fly across the world to handle the press, and pre-release hysteria. This is the first time, however, that I have seen such a regime presented in detail on a DVD. Shot largely by Alba, this video document of the world tour is an intriguing look at studio promotion, with footage of both the cast and crew going about their routines. It’s nothing I’d watch again, but it was very interesting while it lasted.

“Inside Look: X-Men 3”

Wow. What a complete disappointment! This isn’t an “Inside Look” at all - it’s Avi Arad talking to us (very cryptically) about the plot of the next X-Men movie. There’s no footage, and no stills to accompany the presentation. We learn absolutely NOTHING about the film. Anyone thinking of buying or renting the DVD for this feature alone, are wasting their money…

The first disc rounds-up with two music videos, “Everything Burns” and “Come On, Come On”.

Disc Two

“Heroes Are Born: The Making of Fantastic Four”

This is a very lengthy documentary, which goes into sufficient detail on each of the characters and the main set pieces. Clocking in at just over 97 minutes, it includes a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage and talking head material. Story, Gruffud, Alba, Chiklis, Evans and McMahon are all interviewed, with a healthy dose of trivia on both the comic book and the film.

“The Baxter Building: Declassified”

The film’s associate producer, David Groder, takes us on a tour of the Fantastic Four’s crib, showing us how the design elements came together, and what eventually showed up on screen. The footage is cross-cut with scenes from the film, showing how the production design paid off.

Deleted scenes

A 30-minute collection of alternate takes and missing scenes that were cut from the film for the usual reasons - timing and pacing reasons. There are some real gems here, including a scene in which Mr. Fantastic morphs into Wolverine. I wasn’t expecting that, let me tell you!

The rest of the supplements fall into the “promotional” category, and are pretty fluffy. “Making of Fantastic Four” is a 5-minute piece that essentially introduces the characters and the franchise, which is made redundant after the first documentary. “Fantastic Four: Making a Scene” is a painfully-brief look at the special effects process, and how the CGI was achieved. “Fantastic Four: Casting Session” is much better, showing us the audition tapes for the lead actors, and how they were chosen for the film. Overall, a solid collection of supplements, that should please comic book anoraks.

The extras conclude with a batch of theatrical trailers and TV spots.

The Bottom Line

The final nail in Marvel’s cinematic coffin? Some people like to think so, but I found Fantastic Four to be an entertaining ride - nothing special, or even memorable, but it’s a decent adaptation of the comic book. If you look past the numerous flaws, you are sure to find something to like about the Four’s first adventure. Fox’s “Special Edition” is worth a look for collectors, combining an outstanding transfer with some above-average materials. With Christmas just around the corner, it would make an ideal stocking filler for the kids…

The “Fantastic Four: Two-Disc Special Edition” is available from the 2nd December

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:05:06

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