When I was growing up, my favorite comicbook was the Fantastic Four (okay, it was a tie with the Avengers, but they haven’t made that film yet). Anyway, I collected X-Men and Spider-Man and all the others from Marvel, but my heart was with that dysfunctional family made up of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Thing and the Human Torch. I won’t even go into how I had these comics collected from issue #1 on, sold them in college for $273 and, if I’d held onto them, they’d be worth $60,000 or more today. No, we needn’t talk about that. Instead, let’s focus on how great it’s been as an adult to see these comicbook heroes come to life. So much so that we can actually entertain a Smackdown between two of the greatest super-hero groups of all time — Fantastic Four and X-Men — cosmic rays versus mutant genes. Let’s compare apples to apples by smacking the first films which started each of what are now cinematic franchises.
Even though, in comicbook terms, Fantastic Four would be the defending champion in a match with the X-Men, that’s not the order the films came out. Because of being such a fan-boy, my anticipation was high for this one. After all, they had a good cast that included Jessica Alba at, presumably, the apogee of her hotness playing Invisible Woman (Girl?) and that terrific British actor whose name I can’t pronounce but who played Horatio Hornblower as Mr. Fantastic. Oh, and the Thing was played by a guy who’d I’d actually met a half dozen times while running the TV Academy, the incredibly talented Michael Chiklis. They also had decent money to make the film, something that an earlier attempt at making the Fantastic Four as a film lacked, leading to a movie that was, without hyperbole, unreleasable. Point is, this was a film I badly wanted to see.
The Defending Champion
Back in 2000 when X-Men hit the theaters, it was pretty much acknowledged as a well-conceived execution of the popular comicbook series. It also hit at an interesting time in my personal life. I’d become friends with Marvel comics legend Stan Lee. A few years earlier, we’d done a pilot together, Missing Link, for NBC. It’s a funny thing about a lot of Stan Lee’s creations and co-creations: whatever would kill you or me (like cosmic rays, being exposed to a nuclear blast, falling in toxic waste or being bit by a radioactive spider) turns his people into… super-heroes… Except for the X- men, of course, who were born mutated. That’s what made this film (and the comicbook) so damn good. These people had been outcasts all their lives and all the extraordinary powers in the world couldn’t disguise the fact that they weren’t normal. And, especially with teenagers and young adults (which fit all the characters), everybody just wants to fit in. So, if you can kill somebody by having sex with them, well, that’s a problem. Great origin film.
At least my pal Stan created both of these hero groups so he can’t lose in this particular match-up, and yours truly doesn’t have to side against him which would half-kill me (or turn me into half a super-hero, I guess). One mark against both films in this Smackdown is the knock against group super-hero movies in general because, with fewer people to unload backstory on, Batman and Spider-Man are easier to relate to and there’s fewer people to get in their way. But this showdown is between the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, so you have to take that out of the equation.
As “origin” stories go, both films do a serviceable job. Fantastic Four, however, is saddled with actually shooting people into space and having them come back changed in these odd ways and making it sound at least comicbook plausible. X-Men, on the other hand, really chooses to go for set- up instead of origin, and does a snazzy job of letting us see these mutants in action from the get-go. Point: X-Men.
Meanwhile, in terms of character, the mutants of X-Men were tormented by the powers they were born with, and the story seemed framed against the backdrop of what it means to be human. In Fantastic Four, it’s a miracle these four have survived their close encounter with a cosmic storm, and the DNA changes they’re going through are monumental. Despite all this, it seems to be oddly ignored with the exception of the Thing who gets pissed because Reed Richards can’t build a “cosmic ray reverser machine” fast enough. Okay, I know I’m beating this horse deader than dead but the deal is, what seemed so cool to a little kid reading a comicbook, seemed goofy to the adult sitting in the movie theater.
On the Fantastic Four plus-side of the equation, Jessica really is at the apogee and the FF blue uniforms have never looked better. The Human Torch really does seem like a lovable a-hole whose temper matches his flames. And, like I said, Michael Chiklis is a really, really nice man.
Score one for the mutants. Fantastic Four just never gets over its “origin” and moves into a compelling plot. But lame as the origin is, it’s better than what follows which is a snooze, a disaster, an engine that can’t get started. Because the fondness a pre-teenage kid feels for a comicbook still can’t take the place of the authentic human drama an adult needs to see in a film he cares about, the mutants of X-Men have smacked the holy crap out of zany super-powered Fantastic Four. I should have stayed home and kept my memories.