Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Doctor Doom Effect: Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) and Four Super-Franchise Dilemmas

Tim Story’s Fantastic Four is not an A-level superhero movie like X-, Spider-, or Bat-films of the last few years, but it’s better than the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe.

The principals--Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chikliss--are the heart of the film, and all are well cast--not because they embody some “essence” of the comic book originals (whose personalities have been incredibly malleable over the years anyway), but because each creates an appealing, distinctive character, and because, as a group, they have a sort of scrappy, amiable chemistry that feels genuine. Even as a long-time reader of the FF who’s played the fanboy game of fantasy-casting the film more times than I care to admit, these actors won me over. Evans’s flip, pyro-kinetic Johnny is the obvious standout. Chikliss somehow manages to emote from beneath the bad-but-better-than-CGI Thing suit, playing his best scenes against the Torch’s needling. And I don’t care what anyone says about so-called “weak links” Gruffudd and Alba. The powers that be decided to skew young, and given this premise, Gruffudd’s tongue-tied science nerd Reed and Alba’s surprisingly commanding geek-fantasy Sue are easy to root for and fun to watch. Bottom line: I liked these characters and am looking forward to seeing them again in Fantastic Four 2, a film that will almost inevitably be better than its precursor and will certainly have a better villain.

If Fantastic Four’s main strength is its core characters, its most obvious weakness is its lack of a credibly menacing antagonist. As I argued in my review of Batman Begins, villains in superhero movies must be genuinely scary. That is, they must scare us, and not just become the pretense for the hero’s performance of bravery. This is obviously true for broody, take-me-seriously superhero franchises like Batman or X-Men, but it is no less important for deliberately lighter fare like Fantastic Four where the only thing that keeps the film’s levity from sailing off into inanity or farce is a black hole of menace at the centre, acting as a gravitational anchor for the entire picture.

Unfortunately for viewers of Marvel’s most recent offering, Julian McMahon’s Doctor Doom cannot provide such an anchor for several interrelated reasons, and this is why Fantastic Four misses the A-list, despite its potential to have been the first really great seriocomic A-level superhero picture. What’s wrong with Doctor Doom, exactly? Why isn’t he an adequate villain?

I want to approach this question circuitously, because even though Doom is the most obvious problem, his weakness as an antagonist is symptomatic of the film’s failure to overcome a larger set of challenges that face every superhero movie that is intended as either a stand alone feature or the first in a series. For this reason, rather than simply bemoaning this lame-duck Doctor Doom, it might be more appropriate to speak of a “Doctor Doom effect”: the seemingly inexplicable appearance of a B- or even C-level villain who acts as a drag on a film that has the potential to be much greater. This “effect,” I want to suggest, arises not simply from laziness or poor judgment on the part of the filmmakers (though these no doubt play a role), but from a specific configuration of narrative challenges and formal constraints affecting the translation of comic book superhero properties to film that, while not in theory unsurpassable, are extremely difficult to address adequately in a mainstream movie, particularly in the eyes of audience members who are also comic book readers. (My wife, who has never read a Fantastic Four comic, loved the film and had no complaints at all about Doctor Doom. I’m speaking here, as usual, from the position of rampaging fanboy.)

To begin, then, what are the specific constraints and problems faced by the maker of the first installment in a superhero movie “franchise”?

There are at least four that have immediate relevance for a discussion of Fantastic Four, and they could be summarized as: (1) the constraint of mainstream plausibility; (2) the problem of closure; (3) the temporal constraints of the medium; and (4) the problem of visualizing the villain. That is, comic book movies are potentially hamstrung by the real need to tell origin stories and the perceived need to have tidy endings, by the material limits of the medium (which require them to deliver plot points economically), and by the difficulty of visually translating super-villains from comic book image to live action.

If the artistic achievements of X2, Spider-Man 2, and Batman Begins (arguably the three best live action superhero films of the last decade, if not ever) offer any lesson at all, it is that the skill with which a superhero film addresses and/or overcomes these constraints and potential pitfalls is often an index of its aesthetic accomplishment from the point of view of a comic book reading audience. Despite its genial cast, passable special effects, and a script that dares to actually have fun, Fantastic Four still falters on nearly all four points. Did it have to? Probably not, but some of these constraints were more difficult to deal with than others given the nature of the FF concept and its relatively low Q-rating with the general public. Here’s how it stacks up against (and what it could learn from) previous franchise-launchers: Batman (1989), Batman Begins (2005), X-Men (2000), and Spider-Man (2002).


(1) The Constraint of Mainstream Plausibility

First installments of superhero film franchises are often origin stories, and even if they aren’t, they almost always deal with origins in some way. The omnipresence of origin stories in superhero films isn’t surprising, since this type of story solves a genuine (and well-known) problem that arises when translating a concept like Spider-Man or Batman from a subgenre with a small, exceptionally knowledgeable audience to a mainstream medium like film whose much wider audience might recognize icons like Batman or Superman, but doesn’t know much about the characters or their world and is presumed to be impatient with (or simply baffled by) the unspoken premises of comic book logic and the unruly heterogeneity of superhero universes.

This is the problem of “mainstream plausibility,” and it goes well beyond simply wanting to know why Bruce Wayne plays dress-up or how the Fantastic Four got their powers, though it certainly includes these things. Ultimately, it is a problem with the plausibility (for mainstream audiences) of the superhero premise as such, and it is the reason that superhero films are often painfully pedantic about explaining the origins of heroes and villains alike. The most obvious function to the origin story is to effect a compromise; it is the (chrono)logical starting point for a superhero film franchise because it is the only available point of contact between these two extremely different but equally important audiences. Just as importantly, though, origin stories are performances of coherence that address the problem of mainstream plausibility, even when they don’t make sense. They symbolize homogeneity and logic, even when they don’t actually provide it.

The decision to shoehorn Doctor Doom into the origin of the Fantastic Four by making him the fifth passenger on the space station that is bombarded with cosmic rays is a particularly vivid example of this process at work, providing as it does an excessively simple, clear, coherent pseudo-scientific explanation for the presence of all the film’s super-powered characters. To a comic book reader, there would be nothing unusual or implausible about providing a “scientific” origin for the FF and a more convoluted scientific/mystical origin for Doctor Doom. When setting up a superhero “world” for a film audience, however, even this relatively minor complication of the universe’s rules becomes problematic. Mainstream plausibility may not always demand a single mechanism of transformation, common to hero and villain alike, but it does appear to require a consistent logic that would preclude the co-existence of, say, magic and science as causal agents within a single set of origin stories. The film’s uninspired rewriting of the FF’s comic book origin to create a “Fantastic Five” with one rogue member who will become an arch-nemesis is an emblematic solution to the implicit demands of mainstream plausibility.

I suspect that this constraint applies more to live-action superhero films than to cartoons. This difference likely has to do with the way in which “realistic” live-action films using human actors create heightened audience expectations about plausibility versus the relatively low level of plausibility expected by mainstream adult audiences for cartoons--a genre which, despite its ever-growing (and one could say long-standing!) narrative sophistication, is still understood as providing primarily libidinal satisfactions and continues to signify the diminished coherence of a childhood universe to the average adult viewer.

In any event, the focus on origins as a solution to this problem doesn’t mean that origin stories cannot be told in compelling ways. Batman Begins and the flawless first half of Spider-Man are cases in point. In both of these films, the origin story is the main attraction and the films succeed precisely because (and to the extent that) they expand the origin story to the point where it transcends its function as a purely mechanical solution to the problem of “mainstream plausibility.” These are superb examples of making a virtue of necessity, and it is noteworthy that Spider-Man only falters with the introduction of a clunky super-villain plot involving the Green Goblin in the second half.

An alternative to this strategy is provided by X-Men, the beauty of which is that its mutant premise negates the need for an origin story altogether (the origin is literally provided in Patrick Stewart’s 15-second voice over about mutation that opens the film). This allows Singer to dwell on the psychological motivations of characters like Magneto and Xavier and to advance the action far more rapidly, throwing us almost immediately into a dynamic that is closer to that of a superhero “sequel” than to that of a first installment.

The mutant short-cut is obviously unavailable to the Fantastic Four, and given the relative obscurity of the characters to a mainstream crowd, an origin story is inevitable. Could it have been better than it was? Perhaps, but there’s a real problem here that isn’t easy to solve. Marvel is clearly attempting to diversify the tone of its various franchises (Spider-Man takes place in a kind of melancholy twilight, punctuated by redemptive bursts of light and color; the X-films are magisterial Shakespearean fables; Daredevil is a grittier take on Batman--only not, etc.), and since Fantastic Four is evidently intended to leaven this rather somber collection with its straight-ahead blockbuster, crowd-pleasing sensibility, the thoughtful examination of origins exemplified by Spider-Man (or Batman Begins) is not really an available option.

The scenes of Ben’s angst (which come closest to this kind of introspection) form a sort of movie-within-a-movie, a Spider-Man writ small, and it’s telling that even these moments contain little real pathos. Ben’s misery is underscored (and at the same time undercut) by pigeon droppings or by the inability of his huge mitts to grasp the discarded engagement ring on the crowded bridge. Both of these ostensibly tragic scenes elicited laughter from the audience, and they were meant to. Tim Story doesn’t want a tragic Fantastic Four--not even momentarily--which is why the film’s treatment of Ben Grimm feels so shallow and why his “big choice” at the end falls flat. It’s no accident that Ben’s best scenes are the comic ones played against Chris Evans’s Human Torch. For the heart of the movie is really entrusted to Johnny Storm, the pleasure-seeking id who can’t stop grinning: “Isn’t this cool?!?”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a premise. In fact, I’m kind of charmed by it. But what it means is that the movie is saddled with the unenviable task of providing an origin story that is merely perfunctory, that will not really take the implications of metamorphosis seriously. The result, as critics have been only too happy to point out, is a film that violates plausibility in a completely different, and apparently less forgivable way. As Roger Ebert complains about the FF, for instance, “Are these people complete idiots? The entire nature of their existence has radically changed, and they’re about as excited as if they got a makeover on ‘Oprah.’” In attempting to make a light-hearted film out of a little-known concept, Fantastic Four gets caught in the double-bind of mainstream plausibility. The origin story is at once necessary and yet impossible to treat with any degree of “realism.” In the infinite scope of the comic book’s serial format, there was time to tell different kinds of stories; time to take the monstrosity of the FF’s origin seriously and time to have a little fun. In the limited space of a two hour movie, however, the simultaneous presentation of the origin and evasion of its implications is jarring and ultimately undermines our suspension of disbelief.

One solution might have been for Marvel to take a long-view on branding the tone of this franchise and to have begun with a more subtle and involving origin story that made more of the pathos and let the laughs be bittersweet, saving the high-octane giddiness for episode two once the team’s demons had been dealt with. Alternatively, they could have made a film that largely bypassed or merely alluded to the origin story and thrown us head first into a rip-roaring adventure, minus the half-baked angst. In today’s world of superhero filmmaking, this would have been an audacious move because it would have rejected the popular wisdom in Hollywood that origin stories are the only feasible way to manage the problem of mainstream plausibility--a problem that, in the end, may be a self-fulfilling prophecy anyway. In any case, either of these symmetrical choices would have resulted in a better film. Instead, Marvel aimed for the middle...and missed.


(2) The Problem of Closure

Mainstream film audiences generally expect their adventure pictures to have narrative closure, and only in exceptional cases are studios prepared to risk frustrating that expectation by creating open-ended adventures. Only sequels to properties that have already proven themselves to be sure-things like the Star Wars or Matrix films (or, are larger cultural phenoms like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) can afford the luxury and the aesthetic rewards of this multimillion dollar gamble.

No doubt, there is much to be said for aesthetic coherence, and many of the best superhero films scrupulously strive for both visual and thematic unity--Batman Begins being probably the most impressive recent example. For comic book readers, however--many of whom derive enormous pleasure precisely from the serial medium’s built-in resistance to complete narrative closure--the transition of a favorite character or concept to film (even in a very good film) can often be vaguely disappointing, precisely because something essential about the comic book medium is lost in the shift from a serial to a stand-alone format.

What’s lost, of course, is that feeling of suspense created by the monthly cliffhanger and also by the many dangling subplots that develop over a much longer span of time. And this pleasure of incompletion is clearly not limited to comic books, but is inherent in all serial forms, from soap operas to the old movie serials themselves. It’s telling, I think, that the Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars films (of those that are watchable, it is after all the truest to Lucas’s adventure serial-inspiration), and that X2 and Spider-Man 2 are also fan-favorites. There are many reasons for the popularity of these latter two, of course, but one of the reasons must surely be that both aspire to capture the open-endedness of serial publication by leaving us with a tantalizing glimpse of what might be coming next. The Phoenix in the waves and Harry Osborne’s discovery are teasers rather than genuine cliff-hangers (especially since the allusion to the Phoenix is primarily intelligible to only one of the film’s two audiences), but the effect is satisfying enough that even the opening installments of optimistic franchise hopefuls like Fantastic Four or Batman Begins follow suit by throwing in a slow coffin ride to Latveria or a leering playing card in their final frames.* (Even in a mediocre film, this cheap trick is very effective. Doctor Doom’s sea cruise is ironically one of his character’s best moments.) By the same token, it’s interesting that movie “trilogies” that feel more like serial comic books (like Star Wars or the Matrix films) often end with a whimper rather than a bang. Almost as if the imposition of closure upon what are essentially adventure-serials can only produce a depressing fizzle.

If the approximation of seriality in X2, Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and even the Fantastic Four is one satisfying way of dealing with the problem of closure, the two Spider-Man films suggest another even more ingenious solution. Rather than simply gesturing at what’s to come, the films produce seriality through splitting. What Sam Raimi gives us is not two two-hour movies but four distinct episodes of roughly one hour each. Episode 1 is an origin story, episode 2 is a mettle-testing adventure with the Green Goblin (that probably sets up episode 5 or 6), episode 3 is “Spiderman No More!”, and episode four is the resolution of that two-parter, which restores the status quo while advancing the romantic sub-plot that’s been ongoing since episode 1. When you go back and watch them, the relative coherence of each of these episodes is astonishing--watching them is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing the episodic nature of comic book storytelling on screen, and it’s really quite wonderful. Fantastic Four seems to be striving for something akin to this “splitting,” but can’t quite carry it off, in part I suspect because it simply has too many characters, too much to do, and too little time to do any of it adequately. Perhaps only the austerity of a single protagonist like Peter Parker could support such a narrative technique. And in any case, the origin story/battle with super-villain split of the first Spider-Man film is the least effective of the two movies, for reasons I will explore in more detail below. No wonder it is unsuccessful in the busier, overcrowded Fantastic Four.


(3) External Constraints

Another aspect of the comic book medium’s seriality that does not survive the transition to film is the infinite expandability of story length that seriality makes possible. The comparatively condensed two hour framework of the average movie is a real limitation for comic book properties, particularly for first installments, which already face a cumbersome set of narrative demands stemming from the hurdle of mainstream plausibility. In first pictures that recount the compulsory origin story, the temporal constraint of this two hour limit is often felt most acutely in the underdevelopment of the antagonist. As I suggested earlier, truly effective super-villains frighten. They must at the very least be possible to take seriously. And among successful villains, the most iconic and memorable fall into two principal classes: (1) those who are psychologically complex characters with compelling motivation (Magneto, Ra’s al Ghul, Doctor Octopus), and (2) those who embody some primal characteristic or mythic archetype (Scarecrow or Darth Vader). Julian McMahon’s silly, preening, megalomaniacal Doom falls into neither of these categories, for he does not scare nor does he command serious attention, not even for a moment. He is a refugee from the garish Bat-films of the ’nineties, and one of the most fundamental reasons for his vacuity is that the film literally does not have time to develop him.

The movie’s focus is necessarily on providing an origin story and then introducing the four core characters, their powers, and their relationships. This leaves little time to flesh out Doom’s character, much less introduce the far more complex and interesting Doom of the comic book. (Ebert notes, very aptly, that the movie is “all setup and demonstration, and naming and discussing and demonstrating,” so much so that “it never digests the complications of the Fantastic Four and gets on to telling a compelling story.” He also remarks, revealingly, after listing off the codenames and powers of the FF, that he “almost forgot the villain, Victor Von Doom.” Indeed!) I initially discussed the awkward insertion of Doom into the FF’s origin as a way of managing the problem of mainstream plausibility. But it is also symptomatic of the temporal constraints of the picture more generally. Economy becomes the rule in an overcrowded canvas like this one, and a shared origin is the most economical choice of all, even if it inevitably reinforces the problem of closure by tying the defeat of Doom at the end back into the birth of the team at the beginning.**

The claustrophobic effect of this narrative move is no more satisfying here than it was in Tim Burton’s Batman, where Batman and the Joker are mutually implicated in each other’s origins by the filmmakers’ predictable decision to make Jack Napier/Joker (rather than Joe Chill) the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This closed circuit exemplifies what it feels like to be trapped in what Dave Fiore calls an “eternal past” instead of living in the “eternal present” of “dynamic stasis.” In a terrifically apt critique of the often deadening effect of origin stories, Dave explains that:

the reason that Batman is my least favourite superhero is that he is, basically, all origin.... The Batman story is too airtight (and there's nothing I hate more than a tidy story)--the unreasoning fear of bats + the murder of the Waynes always adds up to the same thing--and once Bruce dons that costume, all he lacks are the foes/confederates (and they’re not hard to find) that will enable him to reenact his origin story until the end of time. Spider-man’s origin, on the other hand, provides a crucial break with the character’s past that serves as a foundation (rather than a narratological morass) for the story proper. “Dynamic stasis” cannot be consubstantial with the origin--it sets in later, emerging out of the conflict generated by the encounter between (always-)already empowered characters and the world. Otherwise, what you get is a “person” that is incapable of recognizing the world at all (i.e. “stasis, hold the dynamism”)...

This is a powerful argument in favor of what Dave calls superhero stories that travel “the middle passage” where closure is perpetually deferred and otherness (“the world”) is genuinely encountered. As I’ve been arguing here, it is very difficult for comic book movies to achieve “dynamic stasis” precisely because they are formally predisposed, to a much greater degree than comic books, to endlessly reproduce not only origin stories, but also closure and aesthetic coherence.

It is noteworthy, for instance, that even Raimi’s wonderful first Spider-Man film nearly falls into the trap of stasis without dynamism by drawing Spider-Man’s first villain from Peter Parker’s immediate circle and ill-advisedly introducing a father/mentor relationship between Peter and Norman Osborne that makes the whole Green Goblin plot feel too insular and incestuous. If Dave Fiore is correct that the strength of Spiderman’s origin is a break with the past that provides a foundation for encountering novelty and otherness, then the Oedipal plot of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man can only be read as a regression--a Batmanizing of Spider-Man that pulls the character back into the paranoid, claustrophobic world of the Oedipal family and the castrating father just when the hero seems poised to make a genuinely dizzying plunge off the rooftops of Manhattan. No wonder the Green Goblin exerts such a depressing drag on what was, until that moment a luminous, perfect film, even if (as is the case) there are fascinating and perfectly defensible thematic reasons for making Goblin an Oedipal villain.


(4) The Problem of Visualizing Villains

There’s no question that the translation of superheroes from illustration to live-action is difficult to achieve with any degree of dignity. Flowing, flapping, ballooning capes look great in comics, but are hard to pull off on film where they are more likely to hang flaccidly than flare dramatically. Storm’s cape in X-Men, for instance, is appalling. It’s chintzy, limp, and impractical. (Again, plausibility problems arise here as the visual conventions of comic books encounter the unyielding gaze of the camera--and gravity. This problem continues to plague Batman Begins and has no doubt been a hurdle for the makers of the forthcoming Superman). Moreover, even the most toned and sculpted Hollywood physiques often seem all too human when clad in a colored leotard or a rubber body suit. It’s difficult to move from a medium where the human body is defined by stylization and perfection to one of real human forms, no matter how idealized and “perfected” the performers’ bodies might be.

And yet, despite all this, superhero films have become pretty good at visualizing costumed heroes. (Let us ignore, for the time being, the eccentric case of Catwoman, which is there to remind of the dangers of complacency.) The ideal for the superhero picture would be to achieve what the visual conventions of comic books already do: that is, to make the visual appearance of the hero “conventional” or second nature, so that, in effect, it becomes tacitly accepted, part of the language, and thus, in a sense, “invisible.” The costuming of the heroes in the X-Men films illustrates how such a solution to the problem of visual translation can be achieved: namely, by replacing distinctive costumes with mildly differentiated uniforms--preferably black, preferably leather (not speaking as a fetishist here, honest!)--in order to make our visual awareness of the “outfit” fade into the background of consciousness. When the garb of everyone on screen looks basically the same, the distinct faces of the actors themselves assume the full burden differentiation that, in comic books, falls primarily on the costume. (The underlying reason that Storm’s costume is so “bad” is that it draws too much attention to itself as a costume.)***

The coolest looking characters are always those that either do not wear costumes (Professor X, often Wolverine--though his haircut is a costume) or who wear only the most basic uniforms (Jean Grey, Cyclops, and again Wolverine, though he’d be better off ditching the leather). Those characters who walk a fine line between uniform and costume such as Storm, Rogue (with her green hood and ridiculous gloves) and ragged “Vincent”-reject Sabertooth careen into cheesiness. These semi-costumed characters are aesthetically-speaking “too much” for a filmic medium that is already “in your face” and where the differentiation of heroes by costume is made redundant by the extreme recognizability of movie actors themselves. (This is very different from comics where, with a few notable exceptions like George Perez or Rags Morales, artists do not render character faces sufficiently distinct to make characters recognizable without clear additional markers like goatees, hair color, context, dialogue, and costumes.) Cyclops’s in-jokey response to Wolverine’s complaint about leather jumpsuits in the first X-Men film, when he asks if Wolverine would prefer “yellow spandex,” is a telling indicator of the degree to which superhero filmmakers are constantly trying—and yet not fully able—to make the problem of superhero costuming just disappear.

(The notable exception to this “rule” is Spiderman. Here, there is no way out of reproducing Marvel’s most iconic costume, and it is a measure of the genius of the way the costumed portions of the film are shot that the film pulls this visualization off as well as it does. Part of the solution here appears to be keeping Spiderman and the camera itself in almost perpetual motion, while resorting to CGI for the city-swinging scenes in order to provide an added sense of speed and kineticism that bring the costume to life and transform Spiderman from an ordinary human being into something quite different. Not even these tactics, however, quite account for the almost magical success of this visualization, which I am hard pressed to completely explain.)

In the case of the Fantastic Four, the naturalization of the superhero costume is considerably less difficult since the FF have always worn uniforms rather than costumes. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, the rejection of costumes was in fact a crucial feature of their original look.) The blue jumpsuits are niftily introduced as part of the astronauts’ gear, and between the voyeuristic pleasure we are invited to take in Sue’s “uniform” and Johnny’s enthusiasm for his own body sheath, one can almost believe that they are as cool as the film claims.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Doctor Doom, whose costume is one of the shabbiest in recent memory, despite the faithfully sculpted iron mask. (Did they have to make it an award statuette!?) Given the constraints that I’ve already discussed, the only thing that could really have saved Doctor Doom (and at least modulated the film’s “Doctor Doom Effect”), would have been a different conception and visualization of the character. If time constraints meant that Doom had to be broadly sketched, then he could at least have been given a little more gravity and he certainly could have looked more menacing. This is the area where no apology can really be offered for the film’s mistakes, because even with the current script (whose Doom is abysmal), a great deal could still have been done with costuming and makeup to get us to take the character more seriously.

Super-villains tend to receive less screen time than superheroes (especially when their presence in the film must compete with that of the origin story), and it is for this reason that they must make a strong impression when they do appear. The error of Fantastic Four, and also of Spider-Man, is to suppose that the route to a villain’s “strong impression” is to abandon the principles that inform the costuming of the heroes themselves--namely: austerity, plainness, and restraint. If anything should change at all in the costuming of the villain, it is not that these principles should be swept aside, but that they should be adhered to even more stringently, with forms of differentiation becoming even more painstakingly subtle and selective. Some time ago, Jack Nicholson and the makeup team from Batman showed us how not to approach the translation of the comic book villain to film, but people were so dazzled by Nicholson’s bizarre, scenery-chewing performance that they mistook a warning for a model, and subjected us to a decade’s worth of diminishing returns. Spider-Man’s Green Goblin is another nearly film-wrecking example of bad costuming that obeys the same lurid premise as Nicholson’s Joker.

The problem with the visualizations of Nicholson’s Joker, Dafoe’s Green Goblin, and McMahon’s Doctor Doom, is that all three costumes rip us out of the world of the film by trying to adhere too closely to the brash, colorful visualizations of the comic book. The costumes look silly, they defy flesh-and-blood plausibility, and they terminally undermine the possibility of taking the villain seriously enough to be frightened by him. Of the three, the Joker’s look is perhaps the most plausible and comes closest to being scary (though there are other problems that I’ve discussed before). Green Goblin’s mask is preposterous, despite the wonderful justifications Raimi provides in the form of Norman Osborne’s “primitive” mask collection. And Doctor Doom is the saddest example of all, for his donning of the tired cape and iron mask (award statuette!) is not adequately motivated, except by a vanity that is pathetic rather than chilling.

Among recent films, the most effective screen villains are either minimally or austerely “costumed” (Magneto, William Stryker, Lady Deathstrike) or else they wear “costumes” that reference an entirely filmic set of frightening images. The best examples of this latter group are Scarecrow (who references horror film conventions in Batman Begins) and Doctor Octopus (whose “arms” reference the fluid cybernetic chills of apocalyptic science fiction films like T2 in Spider-Man 2). Batman Begins’s Ra’s al Ghul is also noteworthy as an example of a villain who succeeds because we take him seriously, even if we do not find him frightening as such. Costuming plays a crucial role here too, this time by referencing the relaxed yet deadly sensibility of martial arts films attire that the Matrix films exploited so effectively. In all of the cases, the villains’ costumes subtly symbolize their characters without drawing too much attention to themselves: the clean fascist lines of Magneto’s suit and cape which underscore the ironies that drive his character is the masterpiece here (in part because Ian McKellen is likely the only living actor who can pull off a cape and a goofy helmet), but the cold grey military gear of William Stryker, and the King-Lear-like rags of Doctor Octopus are also exemplary.

As these examples testify, comic-geek directors do seem to be convincing Hollywood to get over its allergy to unflashy super-villains, though not without a few missteps. Imagine how much better Spider-Man would have been, for instance, if Willem Dafoe had donned a softer, Scream-like Goblin mask. At the very least, this might have established a smoother transition and a greater continuity between the incredible (and genuinely scary) scenes where Dafoe’s own face is “transformed” by madness as he stalks through the mirrored rooms of his mansion. (One hopes they make better use of the great Dylan Baker as Doctor Curt Connors in a future film.) What’s so frustrating about Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom is that the comic book actually provides the movie with a simple way of rendering the villain frightening in a visual language that transcends the specificity of comic book imagery: Victor von Doom dons the iron mask in the comic book precisely because his relentless pursuit of power disfigures his face beyond recognition. This disfigurement would translate so seamlessly to film and produce the effect of horror so perfectly, that one can only conclude that the filmmakers were more concerned with audience demographics (don’t scare the five year olds!) than with making an aesthetically satisfying film. This isn’t surprising, of course, but given Marvel’s impressive recent track record in this area, one might be forgiven for having hoped for something a little better.

The good news is that, now that the origin story has been told, and barring incompetence, there’s reason to be optimistic that Fantastic Four 2 will outshine the original, just as Spiderman 2 exceeded Spider-Man and X2 surpassed X-Men. The only difference is that Spider-Man and X-Men were already superb superhero films with only minor flaws, which meant that their superior “sequels” (entirely the wrong word for the second installment in a comic book film series) could actually become comic book film masterpieces, which, by most standards, both unquestionably are. Whether or not FF2 can surprise everyone and leap from B to A+ quality in a single bound remains to be seen, but such a scenario isn’t impossible if the will is there. Are you listening, Marvel?


Notes

* As I have argued elsewhere, unresolved cliffhangers can in fact be real endings. Would Empire Strikes Back not in some ways be an even better picture if Return of the Jedi had not been made? Even if plans for X3 were suddenly scuttled, would that make the ending of X2 any less thrilling?

** The Latverian cargo ship clip provides some relief, but it is still too perfunctory to really re-open things here. It doesn’t help that it doesn’t even appear within the movie proper but as a blip after the credits begin to roll, as if the film skipped. I watched it between the heads and shoulders of departing patrons.

*** Another reason why the blankness of the uniform is preferable to the distinctiveness of the costume is that, at a very basic level, superheroes are objects of fantasy, and our relationship to them characteristically involves a play of difference and identification that requires some point of “entry” into the fantasy. The uniforms of teams like the X-Men or the Fantastic Four become neutral mediators between the viewer and the fantasy persona on screen, a mechanism whereby, libidinally speaking, we gain entry into the world of the film, like a sort of pinprick on the screen through which we travel. More individuated costumes, like those of Spiderman or even Batman are more likely to repel our desiring gaze, even though identification can be recouped in other ways--in Spider-Man it is through the film’s astonishing language of speed and movement; an identification with Batman is, I suspect, less universal.


References

  • For more on Dave Fiore’s discussion of “dynamic stasis” see these articles from his culture blog, Motime Like the Present, here and here.
  • Read Roger Ebert’s review of Fantastic Four at Chicago Sun-Times, as well as many others at Rotten Tomatoes.

  • 4 comments:

    kiche said...

    i used to read the x-men when i was a kid back in the late 80s/early 90s.

    i loved their individual costumes.

    it pissed me off so much when marvel took away their individual costumes and crammed them into uniforms.

    i bemoaned that the characters lost their "individaulity" (along with a lot of personality) when they were reduced to wearing uniforms.

    i was informed that it was easier for artists to draw uniforms than a diverse group of individual costumes. i would assume that the reason that the producers of the x-men films made uniforms instead of individual costumes is because it was easier to do so.

    the problem with spiderman's costume is that it looks goofy on film.

    batman looks less so (well at least when they have him in black).

    the x-men would look completely goofy, if the film producers had opted for the classic yellow and blue uniforms.

    individual costumes could be created that didn't look goofy.

    Jim Roeg said...

    Hey kiche,

    Thanks for the reply. I know what you mean about the X-Men costumes--one of the best dressed groups in comics imo. I sort of agree about the X-uniforms too, but part of me always got a little thrill out of having Kitty or Storm ditching their regular duds for one of those yellow and blue outfits (not sure what that's all about!)

    I enjoyed the temporary switch to leather fetish-gear under Morrison's tenure, but hey, that's just me. (And the fact that they were drawn by Frank Quitely probably had something to do with it anyway!)

    Will the film-types be able to design non-goofy colored uniforms? Time will tell... But I've yet to see one that wasn't at least faintly embarrassing (even Spider-Man's, though I still say they they did a pretty decent job of disguising the fact, all things considered). They'd better come up with something though, because the all black all leather get-ups are starting to look...not cool.

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