Thursday, February 20, 2014

The "Fantastic Four" Cast is Awesome

Oh, the wails and lamentations going around the internet today! The cast of the new reboot of "The Fantastic Four" was just announced, and reactions have been less than stellar. Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic. Jamie Bell as Ben Grimes, The Thing. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. Kate Mara as Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman. Why is the Human Torch black while his sister is white? Why are all the male member of the cast under the age of thirty? They're all supposed to be these super competent scientists, right? Why on earth is skinny Jamie Bell playing the team's hulking bruiser, Ben Grimes? What are FOX and director Josh Trank thinking?!

Well, the film isn't due in theaters until 2015, and Miller and Bell are still in negotiations, but I think that if the casting reports are correct, this movie is looking much more promising now, and potentially could be a huge improvement over the terrible 2005 and 2007 "Fantastic Four" movies. This is a great collection of up-and-comers. Teller is coming off of "The Spectacular Now" and "Whiplash," which picked up the major awards at Sundance this year. Michael B. Jordan carried "Fruitvale Station," and already worked with Trank in "Chronicle." Jamie Bell is still best known for "Billy Elliott," but has been doing solid work in smaller parts for well over a decade now. And Kate Mara? She's done mostly TV work but that includes two seasons as a major player on Netflix's "House of Cards." It's a lineup that more than matches up to what we had in the previous films, which featured Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, and a pre- "Captain America" Chris Evans as The Human Torch.

Best of all, this looks to be a major departure from the established conception of the "Fantastic Four," which was always a little goofy and retro with a very 1960s vibe. The movie versions handled by Tim Story didn't help much, offering silly, forgettable B-movie action and sub-par visuals. Comic book fans bemoaned the fact that they wasted some of the Marvel Universe's most beloved villains like Dr. Doom and Galactus, never mind that we were somehow expected to be taking villains with names like Dr. Doom and Galactus seriously. This time around, we've been getting rumors that the new movie will be based on the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" a comic-book series that significantly modernized and reworked the characters, and introduced an entirely different origin story. So why not a more progressive movie version with a black Human Torch and a trimmer Thing? And adoption or remarriage easily accounts for the Storms having different skin tones.

The stakes have been raised for superhero movies in recent years, as comic book characters have become valuable commodities. FOX may have started the trend of modern superhero movies with "Blade" and "X-men," but they've fallen behind Marvel, are less visible than Sony or Warners, and have been struggling to catch up for a while now. "Fantastic Four" is one of their most promising properties, but if they don't make it into a hit, they may have to let the rights revert back to Marvel, whose films show no sign of slowing down. FOX has announced some big plans, potentially connecting "Fantastic Four" to their "X-men" movie universe, so there's a lot riding on this movie. The choice of Trank as a director is a good one, since he helmed one of the best superhero movies in recent years, the found-footage action film "Chronicle."

Is there the risk of alienating existing "Fantastic Four" fans? Sure, but it's not exactly a healthy franchise at the moment. Unlike the Batman and Spider-man movies, the most recent "Fantastic Four" films were critical busts and audiences didn't like them much either, which is why only two were made. Many older fans have fond memories of the comics and cartoons, and the characters enjoy a lot of name recognition and pop culture clout, but it's mostly of the nostalgic variety. The new film will be targeting younger audiences, and there aren't many under the age of twenty-five who are particularly familiar with the source material anymore. Nobody was fantasy casting The Thing. In short, it's one of the comic book properties that could probably most benefit the most from some vigorous reinvention.

The "Fantastic Four" reboot had barely been on my radar before this, but I'm much more interested in where it's going now. It's got a good group of people attached who deserve a shot at making this work. I can understand the trepidation from viewers who have only seen Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan in "The Awkward Moment," or got attached to Michael Chiklis, but this could turn out to be something really interesting. Stay tuned.

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