Last week, I finally got around to watching Fantastic Four (not Rise of the Silver Surfer, mind you, but the original film from 2005). I guess it wasn’t the worst film I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t even the worst superhero film I’ve ever seen (for my money, you just can’t get worse than Superman IV, or Batman and Robin). But man, this wasn’t a good film. I mean, in an age when films like Batman Begins, Spiderman, and Superman Returns has shown us that superhero films can be entertaining and good, why does Hollywood insist on making superhero films that are, at best, mediocre? And that are so very annoying in so many different ways?
Where to begin?
There was Doctor Von Doom. Dooctor Doom’s portrayal in the film was very different from the way he’s been presented in the comic books, but I’m not going to let that bug me too much. I’ve never been a serious reader of the comic book, so I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination. But Julian McMahon’s portrayal of Doom showed us that, more than anything, McMahon desperately wants to be Kevin Spacey. He can’t do it, though; he doesn’t have those innocent-yet-psychopathic eyes that made Spacey so great at Lex Luthor or as the villain in Se7en.
I suspect, though, that it was probably director Tim Story who was responsible for McMahon’s approach; Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards was excrutiatingly dull, while Chris Evans, as Johnny Storm, did not convince me at all. Michael Chiklis, as the Thing (aka Ben Grimm) was appropriate to the role and to Story’s direction, since the stony makeup didn’t allow for much facial expression anyway.
Then there was Jessica Alba.
By herself, Jessica Alba doesn’t bug me. She proved in Dark Angel that she can act tolerably well, when given the chance, but I suspect she has trouble finding roles that are challenging and interesting. She looked bored as Susan Storm in this film, and presented her most wooden face to the screen.
However, the character of Susan Storm in this film really bothered me. Science fiction and fantasy literature has always been good at pushing the envelope of gender roles, though most films still suck at it. Check out any of the Science Fiction Channel’s original movies if you don’t believe me; a stock character is the "hot but brilliant" female scientist. I’m not saying that women can’t be scientists, of course, and I’m glad that science fiction films recognize this; I just find it kind of disturbing that for most of these women characters, their brilliance is secondary to their hotness. Check out the picture to the right; Alba’s portrayal as a scientist is pretty much par for the course in this sort of film. Women scientists accentuate their doctorates with cleavage.
But the character of Susan Storm was one of the most disturbing portrayals of a woman scientist I’ve seen in a long time. Her intelligence is barely utilized at all. Sure she’s a scientist, even head of genetics at Von Doom Industries, if we can believe Doctor Von Doom himself. We never got to see any indication of this in the film, though. It was a throwaway line
, a nod to the character in the source material. We never hear her referred to as "Doctor Storm" (I assume that the head geneticist of a large private industrial research firm will probably have a PhD after her name); we only hear her referred to as "Susie". Sometimes Susan, but mostly Susie.
Once the Fantastic Four gain their powers, though, things get worse. Okay, she gets to spout off pseudoscientific babble about how the gamma rays altered our DNA and gave them these great powers, but what is it that triggers Doctor Storm’s invisibility? It’s her emotions, particularly the stereotypical female emotions of jealousy and frustration at what some man is doing. Women don’t get to have power when they’re rational and intelligent, the film seems to be telling us; it’s only when they’re emotional and angry that they have any power. And I’m sure a thesis or two could be written about how Doctor Storm’s power is invisibility, and that when she becomes emotional, she literally disappears (there’s a part of me that wonders whether we should look at this film not as a cheap and shoddily done superhero movie, but as a brilliant satire criticizing gender stereotypes, but there’s too much evidence suggesting that this isn’t meant to be the case).
There is a frightening amount of sexism in science these days; the other day I found this article in the Washington Post, about Ben Barres, a neurobiologist who underwent a sex change operation from female to male, and who reports on the biases that exist against women. I think that Doctor Barres is in a unique place to report accurately on this sort of thing, and what he has to say are pretty unnerving.
I like that women can be portrayed as scientists and soldiers in these films, but there’s still a ways to go. We need to be telling girls that they can go anywhere and do anything they want; right now the message seems to be, "You can do anything you want in this world, as long as you look hot and 18 while you’re doing it." Until these messages change, "hot but brilliant" will still be the way women scientists are characterized in these films.
Update: As I said, I haven’t read the comics books very regularly, so I’m not very familiar with it, but I’ve been informed that Sue Richards is not actually a scientist in the comic book. This makes me even more puzzled about the choice to make her a scientist in the film. Perhaps they wanted to update the character just a bit; which begs the question of why they still chose to not take her and her role as a scientist seriously.