Sunday, January 23, 2005

I am of several minds about this summer's Fantastic Four movie. I love the comic, which has had three "somewhat great eras" so far -- the original, untoppable Lee/Kirby days back in the 1960s, John Byrne's vigorous work in the 1980s, and a "near-great," Mark Waid's recent work with Mike Weiringo. The original "superhero family" of comics (if you saw "The Incredibles" and you're a comics fan, you know how much of "Fantastic Four" it channeled/ripped off), the Fantastic Four are some of the greatest characters of comics -- brainy Reed Richards, beautiful Sue Storm, hotheaded Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm, the tragic Thing.

Yeah, I dig the comic, but now that the big-budget cinematic extravaganza has its first official trailer out, I'm more on the fence than ever about whether a "Fantastic Four" movie was necessary, or if the spirit of the comics can really be translated to a film. This trailer isn't terrible (although whoever decided the nĂ¼-metal of A Perfect Circle was a good accompaniment to the trailer's action should be shot), but neither is it hugely promising. Part of the pitfall is the very nature of the characters' powers -- Mr. Fantastic stretches, for cryin' out loud, which looks cool in a comic but rather, um, silly on screen. Or take The Thing, the rocky orange monster who pops off a comic page -- they've tried hard, but actor Michael Chiklis still kinda looks like a man covered in orange Playdoh to me. The Human Torch's fiery powers do look nifty, while The Invisible Girl -- well, as her name indicates, her powers aren't really flashy. And the movie's villain, Dr. Doom, a man encased in an iron suit -- imposing as heck in the comics, but on film, you only get a brief glimpse of him, and all I thought was "low-rent Darth Vader."

We're living in a great age of comic-inspired films -- I ranked "Spider-Man 2" as my single favorite movie of last year, and the "X-Men" movies have been great. I'm holding out great hope for "Sin City" and "Batman Begins," and more indie-comic minded movies like "Ghost World" and "American Splendor" have also been superb. Yet the conspicious bombing of twaddle like "Elektra" and "Catwoman" and Ang Lee's woebegone "Hulk" show you can't just toss every Iron Man and Captain Ultra onscreen and have a hit. Clearly the dollar signs began flashing in Hollywood's eyes after the hit flicks, but I feel like we're not getting Tim Burtons or Sam Raimis any more -- "Fantastic Four" is directed by the guy best known for "Barbershop" and "Taxi," for cryin' out loud, which doesn't fill me with confidence.

Besides, do all popular comics need to be movies? Everyone from "Ghost Rider" to "Man-Thing" is getting dredged up for the big screen. It's as if they aren't considered artistically valid characters by the mass media until some actor puts on spandex and makeup to play them. A movie doesn't usually better the comic it comes from; sometimes, it ruins its reputation. (There've been some pretty good "Catwoman stories over the years, but Joe Q. Public only thinks of Halle Berry in a tatty dominatrix outfit now. It took years for Adam West's Batman to marginally recede in the popular imagination.) Fortunately, you do get gems like Raimi's "Spider-Man" or Richard Donner's "Superman," every once in a while -- but for hardcore comic fans, watching a favorite comic get turned into a movie is kind of like a trip to Vegas -- sometimes, you get a pocket full of coins; more often, you leave with less than you came in with and a heck of a hangover besides.

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