Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The League Goes to the Cinema to bear witness to

So, The Legue took in a special weekday journey to the cinema to catch up with Marvel's latest foray into the world of celluloid.

Jack Kirby created the FF after leaving DC and Challengers of the Unknown behind. Stan Lee pretty much forced him to turn his adventuring team into super heroes to help him launch Marvel Comics, and it worked. For forty years the FF has been the First Family of Comics, and is billed as "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine." A loyal fanbase the FF has. And Marvel does a good job of replicating the spirit of the comics while recreating the origin in a world without Commies to beat into space.

As anyone who has ever spent more than twenty minutes perusing The League can tell you, I'm going to dwell on the fidelity of the comic-to-big screen adaptation. Which is pretty close, actually. Four (well, five) people go up into space to check out some cosmic rays, something goes wrong, cosmic rays bombard our heroes and amazing powers are bestowed upon the heroes.

The Four (well, five) return to Earth and fight Mole Man. Well, no Mole Man, but I don't think you're going to hear anybody complaining that the first adventure didn't include Mole Man. Instead, we've jumped to villain numero uno. Lucky number 5 up in space is Dr. Victor Von Doom of Von Doom Inc., a company powerful enough to own it's own space station with gravity replicators. But, a company which has not yet gone public.

Curiously, instead of giving Doom a pathological hatred of Reed for being right about some calculations (and Doom being wrong, and this leading to an experiment exploding in Doom's face, scarring him and pledging a life of anti-Reedism), in the movie, Reed sort of does shoulder some plame. During our space mission, Reed forgets to carry a zero, and realizes the space storm isn't coming in seven hours, it's coming in seven minutes. He tells our hapless CEO, Doom, about the predicament. Doom tells him he should probably get rolling with his experiment (having just spent a billion dollars getting everyone into space. Note to self: Leave at LEAST a day early for space-based experiments).

Next thing we know, kablooie! Our heroes (and, we learn later, Doom) are bathed in cosmic rays.

After an improbable scene atop a bridge (either Georhe Washington or the Brooklyn Bridge...) the FF become Media darlings, and for some unexplained reason, this makes Doom's IPO tumble. Doom, however, is left holding the responsibility ball and is told his company is now, uh... doomed, thanks to the failure of the space project. (Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. Diversify, Victor!) Ironically, for once, a villain appears to have a fairly legitimate reason to be irritated with a superhero movie's protagonist. Oh, that, and Reed steals his love interest. So, yeah...

Anyhoo, a vast majority of the movie is dedicated to the FF discovering their powers and dealing with suddenly being dumped into the media spotlight. And then Doom goes crazy and tries to kill everyone. And he has super powers and no accent, although he's from a tiny Eastern-European country.

Anyway, the Four get their act together and have a somewhat interesting battle with Doom in Vancouver/ NYC. The Thing picks up an HBC (Hot Blind Chick), Johnny zips around sporting the best effects of the movie, Reed's effects are uniformly terrible, and Sue's effects are sort of old hat, so...

Anyway, is it close to the comic?

Well, sort of. The Baxter Building is there. Willy Lumpkin, the FF's mailman, makes an appearance. It's still early in the game for a Fantasticar or HERBIE, or Annihilus or, uh... Galactus. And we are saved from the menace of explaining the Inhumans. In one major departure, Ben Grimm is given a wife he can lose, but she's not around as much more than a plot point before disappearing.

Von Doom's past is changed, but, more than anything, Julian MacMahon is just never properly threatening. In fact, as mentioned before, you sort of get the feeling that maybe he has a lot of legitimate reasons for not liking Reed Richards. Sure, he's a bit egotistical, but he just seems like a run of the mill jerk with a lot of dough. To his credit, he appears interested in being helpful to the FF for the first half of the movie, not to mention concerned for the future of his company, which, no doubt employs hundreds of loyal little scientists, office admins and janitors.

The final act just never really leads you to think Doom is really all that threatening, and while MacMahon isn't exactly lighting the world on fire, Tim Story's direction of MacMahon just sucks. Doom is not the kind of guy who picks up a rocket launcher, walks to a window and fires it. Doom uses robot minions to do his dirty work, and would never lower himself to getting his own hands dirty. Also, Doom has sort of a regular guy voice for the face that literally inspired Darth Vader.

As Sue Storm, Jessica Alba does little more than act bratty and fill out a spandex suit. One is left to wonder, aside from her Barbie-like features, what an egg-head like Richards would want with Sue? She yells at him and lays passive-aggressive guilt trips on him like a perpetual bad-ex-girlfriend machine. Not to mention arbitrarily shouting at her brother. But she's pretty, so we know our hero will love her by movie's end. Her invisibility effects are okay, I guess. Nothing innovative makes it's way into that department at all.

Chris Evans plays Johnny Storm just as he is in the comics. Broad, silly, but with a conscience. And, again, the best effects seem reserved for the Human Torch sequences.

Initially I was disappointed that The Thing was not a CG generated 7' high 4' wide behemoth. And part of me is still disappointed that isn't the case. At times the Thing's latex costume is convincing, but whenever he turns his neck, you can see that it's Chiklis in a rubber suit. Still, he looks like he's got better mobility than either of Keaton's Batman suits. I guess The Thing was fairly close to Lee and Kirby's initial take. Chiklis doesn't embarass himself in the role (or suit), and given the kiddy audience this movie is intended for, his pathos at becoming The Thing is probably heavy enough. Nobody likes a whiner. Chiklis wisely goes with understandably grouchy.

The dude playing Mr. Fantastic probably didn't need to read any comics to get Reed Richards down pat. He's just a guy who loves his work and has forgotten about everything else in his quest for the advancement of science. His power is to stretch his body mass into any shape he likes. Sort of like the ultimate Stretch Armstrong. The Mr. Fantastic FX are, as noted above, quite lame. But I never really cared too much. It took me out of the moment a bit, but after w hile you can play a game where you try to decide what part of mr. Fantastic is actor and what part is colored polygons.

Most disappointing was the creative team's lack of Kirbyism. Jack's name is up there in the credits right next to Stan's (a shout out to fans who know who REALLY dreamed up the FF), but no sign of his wild vision for the FF's unique technology makes it into a single frame. Instead, everything looks sort of as if it were purchased at Fry's electronics. Where are my Kirby-dots when Doom crackles with energy? Where are the wavy lines over glass? The unnecessary zigzags? The odd reflections of endless miles of steel tubing? Where are my pronounced bottom lips and sleepy looking eyes?

Dammit, man! I wanted KIRBY! Where's my fill of villains with improbably designed headgear?

Also, for some odd reason, the script makes it sound as if Reed is a genetcist. Which is fine, I guess... But the FF in the comics are adventurers, not guys working ont he human genome project. Nor are they superheroes with capes going out on patrol. They're a team of professionals ready to jump in the Fantasticar (designed by Reed) to drive through the transdimensional gate (also designed by Reed), to collect data with instruments (designed by Reed), for application in industrial projects (by Reed). Unfortunately, they often run afoul of transdimensional beasties and alien warlords in their travels. And it was this adventurous attitude that got them bathed in cosmic rays in the first place.

In truth, the movie was better than I expected. It's certainly more enjoyable than the forgettable Daredevil, but is still a far cry from the rare-achievemnt of the Spider-Man movies. The story and characters are terribly kid friendly, and a part of me would have loved to have seen more toys and doo-hickeys (Fantasticar, HERBIE) for younger fans to have as $20 plastic toys.

Maybe next time around.

Not only does the film jump up and point to the likelihood of a sequel, it's made enough this weekend alone to justify a second round with the FF.

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