When I saw the first Fantastic Four movie in the theater, I wasn’t impressed. The story and acting struck me as merely so-so, and the special effects, while cool, weren’t enough to carry the rest. But I’ve got an embarrassingly large crush on Ioan Gruffudd (Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic), and when I had the opportunity to pick the film up on DVD as part of a buy-one-get-one-free sale, I grabbed it (the version I have and am referring to, by the way, is the 2005 release – not the most recent cut, which I haven’t seen. If you’re interested in some of the differences, Kalinara has written a bit about it).
I’ve found, in the time since, that (at least for me) it’s the kind of movie that improves upon subsequent viewings. The story is still clumsy, and the dialogue frequently awkward, but the film has some charm, and I’ve liked it better with each viewing. Plus, it’s fun to listen real closely to the dialogue from Gruffudd and Julian McMahon (Victor Von Doom), to see where their American accents break down (okay, maybe that’s only fun for weirdos like me, but still).
The repeat viewings also allowed me to pick up a little better on some interesting things I hadn’t really noticed when watching on the big screen, relating to the ways in which women and people of color are presented in the film.
The leading female character, Sue Storm (as played by Jessica Alba), is an obvious place to start. Like many other critics, I was not impressed by the treatment of Storm’s intellect within the film. She ought to have had a greater role in the research parts of the story, and it really irritated me that her powers were based on her emotional state.
However, I did like it that her powers were useful, which isn’t always true of every incarnation of the Invisible Woman. This Sue Storm wasn’t confined to hiding and sneaking – she got to use her powers offensively and as an effective defense, as well. Very cool.
Since Sue was a main character, though, and since I go to every movie with my metaphorical gender-critic hat on, I didn’t really need to see the film more than once to pick up on those issues.
Other things, I had to see the movie several times before catching. Being in full possession of white privilege, myself, I’ve only recently learned to see that many movies and television shows have curiously Caucasian-looking backgrounds. Extras in crowd scenes are pale-skinned far more often than they should be. Fantastic Four, though, does a pretty decent job of having people of color visible in crowd scenes, and also in close-up scenes featuring extras and one-line characters (during a memorable sequence near the end, for example, when Michael Chiklis as The Thing talks to two women about borrowing their car, one of them is Black). Cool.
But what I came to appreciate most about Fantastic Four was Alicia Masters, as played by Kerry Washington. The first version of Alicia Masters, from the comics, is yet another blonde White woman. The film version, however, is Black. Washington’s portrayal of Alicia Masters is, in my opinion, absolutely true to the spirit of the original character, and brings a little much-needed diversity to comic-book-film casting.
Alicia Masters doesn’t get a lot of screen-time in the movie, but she’s a very likeable character even so. And I thought it was great that she’s shown to be a woman who is capable and very self-sufficient, even though she’s blind – not someone to be pitied or taken care of.
By the time I heard about the new Fantastic Four movie, I was a definite Alicia Masters fan – and I was really excited. Because the new movie was going to feature the Silver Surfer, and in the original comics covering the same basic story, Alicia Masters played a major role.
Unfortunately, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer totally disappointed me – and not because of the silly lines and ludicrously flawed plot.
I think I knew from the moment Jessica Alba looked into the camera while sporting contacts that made her look like she’d been vacationing on Arrakis and eating melange between the two films that things were not going to go well. And, indeed, the focus on Alba’s appearance in the film only mirrored the focus on Storm’s appearance in the story. In the first film, there was some textual evidence that Sue Storm’s desirability stemmed at least in part from her brilliant mind and her admirable loyalty to her friends. And, of course, she had neat-o powers (which she is still using in very cool ways in the second film – I will give props to the writers for coming up with awesome things for the Invisible Woman to do with her skillz). In the second film, when Reed Richards gives what is meant to pass for an eloquent and righteous smack-down of a speech, the best thing he can say about his fiancée is that she’s really hot.
Additionally, Sue Storm isn’t a career-minded woman with a strong sense of responsibility anymore in Rise of the Silver Surfer. She’s too busy obsessing about having the perfect wedding and starting a family. And, honestly? That would have been okay with me – people’s priorities do change! Real people sometimes do hold an ideal domestic situation up as their highest dream! – except that it was only one of the totally stupid stereotypes about female desires and behavior in the movie.
Take, for example, Johnny Storm’s (played by Chris Evans) new love interest. I liked Captain Frankie Ray (Beau Garret) right away. She was efficient and professional, and the costumers had dressed her in a military uniform that even seemed to fit properly. Awesome!
But then she said “not interested” more than once to Johnny Storm, and I knew it was over.
Though, actually, this wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Usually the “not interested” thing spurs the male character on to creepy stalker behavior which ultimately (mysteriously) wins the woman’s heart. In this case, Storm was inspired to try harder to be a good person, and Ray quite naturally responded favorably to his improved behavior.
So, okay. Not bad. But there was a kick in the teeth waiting for me at the end of the movie.
Sue Storm and Reed Richards finally manage to have their wedding (in a scene that I suspect could be criticized for some pretty goofy cultural appropriation, honestly), and the new Mrs. Richards tosses the bouquet. Naturally, Frankie Ray, the woman who has spent the bulk of the movie not interested in romance, is totally jumping for those stupid flowers. And then Johnny Storm, who has repeatedly moaned to his buddy Ben Grimm about feeling like he’s missing an important relationship in his life, and has been pursuing Ray quite actively, lights the bouquet on fire rather than let her catch it.
Because all women want marriage! And all men want to avoid it! Even when they’re fictional characters whose development over the course of the movie would seem to argue otherwise! And this? Is meant to be funny.
But where is Alicia Masters, my unexpected favorite from the first movie, in all of this? Alicia Masters was still pretty awesome. But she still wasn’t a main character – the role she would have played in communicating with the Silver Surfer had the movie followed the comics more closely was played, instead, by Sue Storm.
I don’t think I’ll be getting a copy of the DVD for this one. Even if I can get it for free.