Saturday, July 16, 2005

Fantastic Four--Tripping the Light Fantastic

What can one expect from light summer movie faire--- only fast food of mind? Well, yes and no. Growing up, the Fantastic Four was my 'other' favorite comic book (my favorite being Spiderman of course). Therefore, I went into this movie expecting very little. One might say my attitude fell under the rubric--"Blessed are those who expect little, for they shall not be disappointed". However, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. This movie was well put together and time was taken for character development. It wasn't all shoot 'em up bang, bang. In fact the action was limited to the sequences where it needed to happen, and there was no gratuitous sex or violence.

What sets the Fantastic Four apart from most comic books, except for Spiderman perhaps, is there are actually characters who generate some pathos--- in this case Ben Grimm, 'the Thing'. If ever there was a reluctant super hero who is not comfortable in his own skin, this is the man (and what a skin it is, like something out of the mudflats of the Mahavi). He has lost his fiancee and his former life when he is transformed, and unlike the other three of the Fantastic Four, he is unable to change back into a normal form. What is especially fascinating about the Thing's character is that he is a walking critique of our culture's attitude that "image is everything" or that "beauty is only skin deep". In fact he is a walking critique of the other three of the Four, who are all amongst the 'beautiful people'. Grimm may often be grim, but he is a poignant person, and turns out to be loved by the perfect woman--- a blind lady named Alicia. This is not the sort of story one is used to finding in comic books, and it is one of the things that set Stan Lee's characters apart from some of the those at rival DC comics.

Reed Richards is likewise a vulnerable figure-- a geek or genius who is not good at all at acting on how he feels, but his character falls flat compared to Grimm's. More interesting is Victor Von Doom whose resemblance to Darth Vader, in terms of career trajectory is striking, as striking as the resemblance in costume. One wonders if George Lucas based his character on Stan Lee's. Von Doom wants power, but of course like all power junkies, he can never get enough of it, and it is his fatal flaw. What is especially interesting is that it takes all of the Fantastic Four to handle one Von Doom. Each of the four has a specific power or ability, but it is the team work which insures that good triumphs over evil. In other words, evil is too powerful for even one robust super hero to handle.

Marvel Comics have now generated enough of a movie track record (X Men, Spider Men, Daredevil, Electra, and now Fantastic Four) to evaluate them as a genre of movies, and as such they provide some interesting and occasionally thought provoking faire for families, while always remaining entertaining. All of them remind us that even if we had super powers, this would definitely not solve all of our problems--- indeed they would create a whole new set of problems. Perhaps the lesson for us is that after all what is really needed is not juiced up humans, but an incarnational deity to handle the Evil problem.


David said...

thank you for posting this, Ben. I grew up a DC fan myself (the Marvel females were too scantily clad for my conservative parents), but the recent hash of fantastic movies has slowly turned me. I expected FF to be a bomb, but now I'll check it out!

Mike Morrell said...

I've heard much the same report echoed through the corridors of blogdom, so I'll have to see it.

A Marvel Man, eh? Have you checked out the FF comic lately? Its pretty good. The main title just had a lengthy run by fan-favorite scribe Mark Waid, and now J. Michael Strazinski has taken over. Meanwhile, the "slightly more mature Marvel Knights line has a title, 4, written by this New York playwright guy. Its good stuff!

(To keep up with comics insanity, I'd highly recommend clicking here regularly. Oh yeah, and there's Christian stuff on my website, too!)

William Roper III said...

Nice post, I enjoyed the movie too and I thought the acting was great (Julian McMahon makes a great villian).

However, I really have to respond to your suggestion that Marvell heros are more poignant and deserving of sympathy than DC heros. I mean: Batman watching his parents gunned down before him when he was just a kid, Green Lantern slowly being driven insane, Arsenal and his drug adiction, Superman's whole planet being destroyed; no, nothing deserving any sympathy there.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jason: You are right that the circumstances of the DC characters are sometimes tragic, but I am not talking that. I am talking about the way the characters themselves are portrayed--- their character itself. Batman Begins does something for Batman that the comic did not do, it turns him into a brooding and potentially tragic figure. Now Green Lantern is closer to a person with pathos, but not in the same way or to the same degree as some of the Marvel characters.

William Roper III said...

This is getting somewhat off-topic, but I strongly disagree. I think Batman in both movie and comic incarnations (although not in tv) is a tragic figure and I know an awful lot of people who do feel he is someone they can empathise with.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jason:

I am assuming you are not referring to the previous Batman movies which were more comedy than tragedy, more like the TV shows.


Jeremy Pierce said...

Marvel has made others, most notably the Hulk. They've also successfully pulled off Blade. A decade ago the Punisher failed, and around the same time they made an absolutely terrible Captain America movie.

I do think there was pathos in the first Batman movie with Michael Keaton, though one so abnormal that I don't think it's as easy to identify with it as it is most of Stan Lee's characters. That movie was nothing like the TV show. It was extremely dark and captured some of the sense of Frank Miller's Dark Knight work. There were comedic elements with the Joker, but he is the Joker. I wouldn't say that even the third film in that series was a comedy, though each on expanded to more comedic elements than the previous ones. The fourth is much closer to the TV show in its comedic elements, due to Arnold's presence, but I still think it falls just short of being a comedy.

Bill Heroman said...

I love DC, but I can't relate to having my parents gunned down, or my planet explode, or being a drug addict. But everyone who's ever been a teenager can, however, relate to feeling like an outsider who doesn't fit, a la Ben Grimm, or the X-men.

Marvel became popular because they used "pathos" most people could relate to, especially teenage boys.

Sorry for commenting on ancient history, here.. but speaking of ancient...