Fantastic Four: Rise and Fall (1999), a Retrospective
From Swords and Spaceships Magazine, May 2015
Marvel’s growing 1990s/2000s “Movie Universe”, or Earth #307135, made a major transition from a series of linked but stand-alone films into an overlapping “MMU” in 1999 with The Mighty Thor
, Captain America
, and today’s Retrospective, Fantastic Four: Rise and Fall
. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, produced by Rob Tapert and Margie Loesch, and executive produced by Sam Raimi and Stan Lee, the film not only brought back the popular Four and Ralph Fiennes as the complex and villainous Dr. Victor von Doom, but answered the question on every fan’s mind since the premier of Black Panther
the year before: why did Reed look like he had hardly aged a day in 1998, over three decades from his last appearance? And how did he know T’Chaka?
(Image source A.R.C.H.I.V.E. at Pinterest)
Fantastic Four: Rise and Fall
, or FF:RF
as the fans call it, was the second of four Fan4 films in the MMU. Whedon, building off of his earlier work in basing the Four around the Four Temperaments, decided to take things a step further, building the film into a four-act structure, each roughly 30 minutes with each act tied loosely to a single temperament and by extension a single member of the Four. The story would begin in the 1960s and then be thrown into the present day, and make commentary on the interplay between the concerns of both eras.
“I wanted to play the Four against what was happening in the US in the mid ‘60s,” Whedon told Comics Craze
Magazine upon the film’s release. “You had the Cold War and post-colonialism and the US having to make pragmatic geopolitical decisions that we all today are still having to deal with the consequences of. And I wanted to see how the Four would deal with this and use them as stand-ins for America, kind of like how Ron [Howard] was doing with Cap[tain America]
And indeed, Fantastic Four: Rise and Fall
, released for Labor Day weekend in 1999 following Captain America
, released on July 4th Weekend, also divided the narrative between the past and present, and used the interplay to comment upon both. However, while Captain America
layered the story in overlapping flashbacks that made immediate comment upon the events of the present-day narrative, FF:RF
split the narrative down the middle with a literal time skip in the middle. It also employed, per Whedon, a chiastic or ring structure.
“Yeah, Star Wars Episode One
had been in production while I was writing this, and I got a peek at how they were trying – and failing, frankly – to do a proper chiastic structure,” Whedon told Comics Craze
. “They ran Episode One
as a repeat of Episode Six
, but they should have run it as Six in reverse
. I decided to do things the right way.”
This translated into a structure where Act III would mirror the story beats of Act II in reverse while Act IV would likewise mirror Act I in reverse, seeing the Four essentially revisit their past actions in the present day (at the time), and their different decisions would reflect their growth arcs.
Things began, obviously, with Act I, where the Four are pulled into the ugly world of African Cold War power-jockeying. Act I would be built around Sanguinity as represented by the adventurous and likeable Johnny Storm. Themes of adventure, glory, recklessness, and arrogance would play out, as would the concept of the regrets of pursuing short-term gain at the expense of long-held values. Things began in media res
with the Four intervening to stop a bank heist in downtown New York, an exciting and quippy beginning that reintroduced audiences to the Four and their strengths and powers and issues, as well as reintroducing audiences to the 1960s setting. As the Four capture the criminals and save the day, they are beset by the press where “Human Torch” Johnny Storm (Keanu Reeves) in particular is eating it up.
The NYPD commissioner then approaches them to help break up an “impending riot” in Harlem, and the Four join the NYPD and travel to where the riot is looming, only it’s not a riot, but a peaceful civil rights protest. Johnny, immediately taking the NYPD’s side of the story and anxious for some more adventure, is keen to engage, and lands, flaming, in front of the protestors, but Ben “Thing” Grimm (Tommy Lister) adamantly refuses to intervene, and instead joins the protestors and moves to block his friend and symbolic brother! Sue “The Invisible Woman” Storm (Michelle Pfeiffer) stands between them and erects a force field. With the argument heating up, Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards (Pierce Brosnan) tells the commissioner that the Four are “not in the business of settling civil disagreements” and calls on the Four to leave the street and return to the Baxter Building.
This was, of course, where Stan Lee had his obligatory cameo (alongside Black Panther director Ernest Dickerson), as one of the protestors standing up to Johnny. “Equal rights for all, you glorified Ronson lighter!” and later to Ben, “Yeah, you tell him Bruder!”
Grumbling and fighting among themselves, the Four return to the Baxter Building where Howard Stark (Tom Selleck) is waiting for them, with a new job in Africa.
The FOUR are walking through the lobby of the Baxter Building, arguing about the event at the protest.
Ben: What is wrong with you, Johnny? You’d side with the cops against a peaceful protest?!? Did we fight the Fascists in Europe for nothing?!?
Johnny: Those hoodlums were on the verge of burning the city to the ground. I could see it in their eyes!
Ben: Oh, so in addition to being a flying fireball you’re a psychic now too!
Sue: Guys! Settle down!
Johnny: (points at Ben) They were yelling in anger! They had sticks!
Ben: (yelling) They had signs, doofus! They was protesting!! It’s what you do! Carry signs and yell! They have every right to be angry with how they’re treated in this city, hell, in this whole country!!
Reed: Gentlemen, dial things back a few clicks. We have company
HOWARD STARK approaches, carrying a folder.
Howard: Mr. Richards, Miss Storm, always good to see you.
Reed: I assume that SHIELD has a job for us, or why else would you be here, Mr. Stark?
Howard: Straight to the point as always, Mr. Richards! I like that about you. Have you ever heard of an African colony called Kazaland?
The film then takes us to Latveria, past adoring crowds and idealized Authoritarian Realist style posters of Victor von Doom (Fiennes) and up the side of a castle wall to a dais where Doom, unmasked, is giving the adoring crowd a “state of the Kingdom” address, with positive tales of Latveria’s strength and worldwide influence. Zooming closer on his ruggedly handsome features, we see that he is heavily made-up. With the speech ending, he leaves the dais and a makeup artist approaches with a brush only to shrink back in abject terror when Doom glares at her. He ignores the fawning of various ministers and servants and retreats to a room, where, in front of a mirror, he wipes away the makeup with a towel to reveal a face covered with small scars that most would say add distinction. Instead, he says “hideous” and covers his face with the iron mask.
Back in the hallways of his palace, a minister alerts him to a troubling development: a band of “murderous terrorists” known as the White Gorilla Army, supported by the neighboring nation of Naganda (a US ally), have begun assaulting the Latverian colony of Kazaland in East Africa. They are backed by US intelligence, and the minister suspects that the plan is to slaughter the Latverian settlers and create a new nation or simply annex it into Naganda. Doom swears that “this shall not be” and pledges to “protect my people at all costs”, personally intervening in the conflict.
Back at the Baxter Building, Stark lets them know that SHIELD wants the Four to intervene in Africa, where the Latverian colony of Kazaland is about to be “liberated” by a group of “Freedom Fighters” called the White Gorilla Army. Sue expresses concerns about this mission and “getting involved in local conflicts” while Ben expresses a desire to help “liberate” his distant African cousins, but Johnny in particular, excited for another exotic adventure in a distant land, pushes Reed to accept this mission.
Reed, however, is given some paperwork by Stark, who tells him that SHIELD has additional information on the power that transformed the Four, and will share it with Reed if he agrees to the mission (“much more where this came from, Dr. Richards”). He accepts, willing to set aside his misgivings for the chance at knowledge, and setting up the events of Act II.
Forrest Whitaker as M’Baru (Image source IMDB)
The Four travel by their sleek silver jet to Naganda and meet WGA leader General M’Bara, played by Forest Whitaker, who gives the role a similar psychotic amicability as Michael Clarke Duncan’s M’Baku in Black Panther
, suggesting that the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree. M’Bara presents himself as an amicable person with a good sense of humor, but seems almost violently offended when Johnny asks for a steak, noting (like M’Bara in the earlier film) that the WGA are vegetarian. Reed is impressed when shown the WGA’s “secret weapon”, two massive albino gorillas three times the size of normal  named Upendo (love) and Chuki (hate). “They are special presents from your government. The results of Dr. Zemo’s research. I hear rumors that he is trying to duplicate the Supersoldier Serum, which your government denies, of course!” M’Bara’s young son M’Baku plays with the two giant apes, adoringly.
The Four at first join the WGA in their assault on Kazaland, helping to counteract the well-equipped Latverian Army (in particular a corps of robot soldiers), but soon find themselves engaged with Doom, who has arrived to defend his colony. Enraged to see the hated Reed, he effectively abandons his own soldiers in order to battle the Four. The melee is brutal with lots of collateral damage, but eventually the Four manage to subdue Doom, and seem to emerge victorious. But Sue then notices that the WGA, aided by Upendo and Chuki, has gained the upper hand, and have routed the Latverians and, rather than simply declare victory, they proceed to attack the civilians, Latverian colonists and colonized African alike! Doom, awash in emotion, cries out for “my people!!!” Sue convinces the Four to leave Doom to protect the civilians, to the surprise of Doom. But it is largely too late, the civilians are scattered and many killed.
(Image source Marvel Wiki)
Sue manages to shield two young Latverian children while Doom specifically intervenes to kill as many WGA members as he can. M’Bara notices and sends a legion to kill Doom, who is forced to rocket off into the distance. The victorious WGA, awash in the thrill of victory, turn their attentions to the small, neighboring kingdom of Wakanda, a “small, poor nation”, though Reed notices that the “central mountain contains a strange and familiar radiation signature.”
The Four intervene to protect Wakanda against their own allies, despite the local warriors swearing that they “don’t need your help.” The Four engage a rampaging Upendo and Chuki as M’Baku cheers on the two monster apes. The Four manage to overpower them both, and are content to subdue them, but a young King T’Chaka of Wakanda (Laurence Fishburne as a young James Earl Jones) appears and stabs them both with a long spear in front of Young M’Baku, who cries and runs to them as the two big gorillas slip into death, vowing that he will avenge their death and running off. T’Chaka tells the Four that “your people are not wanted here,” and goes to turn his back on them. But Sue pleads with him to protect the two young Latverian children that she rescued, which he, despite his brother M’Baza’s (Mario Van Peebles as a young Harry Belafonte) warnings, chooses to adopt.
Ashamed and angry at being thrown into such a senseless fight, the Four return to the US and Act I ends, with the Four having been pulled into the ugly side of Cold War politics and the complexities of postcolonial Africa. In general, the Sanguine desire for adventure and glory run into to Sanguine limitations of disregard for the feelings of others and simplistic moralism, as represented by Johnny nearly pulling the Four into a repression of a civil rights protest in New York and later getting them involved in the brutal postcolonial battle in Africa, with the two events deliberately linked visually.
M’Baku: (eyes flooded with tears) You murderous Wakandan! I shall avenge them both! You will see!
As M’Baku runs off, a Wakandan Soldier steps up and starts to raise a spear, but T’Chaka holds up his hand.
T’Chaka: We do not kill children. (turns to REED) Unlike your allies in the White Gorilla Army.
Reed: Your Highness, we apologize for the acti…
T’Chaka: Your help is not needed, mtu kunyoosha, your apologies ring hollow, and your people are not wanted! Your kind have done enough damage in these lands! Be gone!
T’Chaka turns his back on REED and starts to walk away. Sue trots up with the two LATVERIAN CHILDREN.
Sue: Your Highness, wait! These are Jaeger and Ashley. The WGA killed their parents. The US Government will not let me take them with us. I ask you to shelter them until they can be returned to Latveria.
T’Chaka looks at the two children. JAEGER (5) has a look of defiance on his face. ASHLEY (3) is teary-eyed and clutching a doll.
T’Chaka: They should go to Latveria where they belong.
Jaeger: Our home is here in Africa!
M’Baza: My brother, they are the children of colonizers! We can never be sure of their true loyalty! I would recommend against this course of action…
T’Chaka: (raises hand) We will not repay cruelty with cruelty. Take these two children to my palace and have them bathed and fed. I will decide what to do with them later.
Act II would explore the Melancholic, and be driven primarily by Reed, where his intellectual curiosity and cold pragmatism would drive the events of the act. The Four are back at the Baxter Building and exhausted and disgruntled at how their self-identity as heroes and protectors of the innocent is being challenged by the brutal pragmatism of the Cold War. Reed is burying himself in his work while Johnny and Ben are arguing over every small little thing, neither willing to address the real stress between them over the last few days. Reed’s quest, as revealed to Sue, is to determine and possibly duplicate the strange radiation from the comet that transformed them into the Four, which he notes is “similar to the vita-rays from Dr. Erksine’s super-soldier experiments. He also notes that he has detected “low levels of this background radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere” and “detected a similar radiation in Wakanda”.
(Image source Pintrest)
Going against Sue’s advice (she is infuriated at SHIELD for putting them into the “Kazaland mess”), Reed contacts Howard Stark, who puts him in touch with Baron Heinrich Zemo (Birol Ünel). Zemo, since the war, has become a naturalized citizen (in a reference to Operation Paperclip and the adoption of Nazi scientists by the US) and has gotten a job with SHIELD as a scientist studying the “Odinforce” as he calls it. Zemo is very complimentary of Reed and seems to utterly adore Johnny, but is very dismissive of Ben and treats Sue like a secretary, ignoring her intelligent insights. Zemo suggests that the Odinforce is “behind everything unexplained or feared, in one way or another.” He suggests that high levels of Odinforce may have been what transformed normal aluminum into vibranium and iron into adamantium over “centuries of exposure” and there’s even a suggestion that it was found to be present in small levels during “gamma ray experiments”, suggesting a link to the Hulk.
This exposition, along with some subtle hints dropped in the Black Panther
film, has confused fans for years, as it never really gets brought up again in future films. In truth, it relates to a dropped plan for what Sam Raimi called a “grand unifying theory” on Marvel supernatural, that would tie what at the time was called the “Odinforce” (before its more familiar name was revealed) to all other methods of human empowerment. We saw it in tying the Vita Rays from Captain America
to the Odinforce, the overt listing of the Odinforce as what powered Asgardian magic in The Mighty Thor
(this one would stay), and even (as a leaked copy of the Hulk sequel script attests) to the gamma bomb and the Hulk. It was even intended that vibranium and adamantium would be normal metals transformed over centuries by the Odinforce! This all was dropped along with the grand unifying theory idea for being, in Whedon’s words, “too much”.
Stark, along with a young SHIELD Army attaché named Sergeant Fury (Matt Damon, who does not yet have an eye patch), then alert Reed that they have detected “a small object with a strong gravitational field passing through the solar system” and note that it bears “a trace radiation signature similar to the Odinforce”. Sgt. Fury also notes that intelligence shows that Latveria is preparing a rocket, presumably to approach this same object. Reed notes that he “wondered what old Victor was up to” since the events in Kazaland.
The film then takes us back to Latveria, where Doom is in a foul and violent mood, with servants and generals all trying to avoid his wrath. Irate that they “lost the colony” and irater that Reed Richards was “behind this atrocity” Doom’s erratic behavior leads one Latverian General to breach the unspeakable to some of his peers. He suggests that they should overthrow Doom. Another General considers this blasphemous, and also doomed to failure. “The people would never accept any leader but Herr Doktor von Doom!” The first general suggests they could replace him with a Doombot and rule “from the shadows!” But the second General slips away and alerts Doom, who personally strangles the mutinous General to death.
Doom then tells the loyal General to prepare “the Explorer”. His scientists have located an object surrounded by “the radiation that made the accursed Four.” He plans to capture a sample so that he can recreate it.
This sets in motion a montage as Doom and his crew race the Four in prepping their rockets for the journey. In a reflection on the “race to the meteor” in the earlier film, the Four and Doom try every trick to beat each other to the strange object or run the other off course. This time, the Four work more effectively together, though Reed still trades quips with Doom as Ben pilots the ship and asks him to “stop taunting the psychopath!”.
(Image source The Direct)
The battle comes to a head as the two ships, neck-and-neck, approach the object. Suddenly alarms go off and Sue reports that she has identified the high-gravity object—a black hole! Doom’s ship side-swipes the Four’s and the two ships lock, Reed reporting to the enraged Doom that he has doomed them all, given that the two ships are now on a collision course with the black hole. Doom, suddenly realizing that his rage has blinded him to the bigger threat, quickly agrees to work with the Four to escape the gravity well “before we breach the event horizon”.
In a fast-paced moment of situational comradery, Doom, his scientists, and the Four work together in a massive maelstrom of technobabble and switch flipping to come up with a plan to combine their powers and ships’ abilities, narrowly avoiding the event horizon and escaping the gravity well of the black hole.
All relieved to have escaped certain death, they agree to part in peace, separating their ships and flying back to the Earth separately. They are briefly confused as to how they ended up so much farther away from Earth than they should be, but Sue manages to find and plot a course back to Earth.
In the midst of all of this, we see a streak of silver reflected on the windscreen and Johnny swears that he saw “a shiny guy on a surfboard”, but Ben dismisses him as seeing things (“You been eating the funny fungus with the hippies, Johnny?”).
The Four return to Earth and are almost immediately intercepted by Quinjets that demand that they identify themselves. When Reed reports who they are, the pilot reacts with a dismissive laugh. “Hey El-Tee, we got ourselves a missing Mutant here!” he says to his wingman. However, they are soon ordered by their commanding officer to escort the ship to the Helicarrier. They guide the Four to the Helicarrier, where they land and emerge on the deck as the crew stares in disbelief. Waiting for them is Agent Gyrich (Samuel L. Jackson), who greets them, telling them that they have arrived back on Earth in the year 1998, three decades after they left.
Thus ends Act II, with Reed’s blind, melancholic pragmatism and willingness to accept Stark’s “bargain” on the information ultimately leading them to a whole different time: the present day. It explored themes of science, knowledge, compromising our values for short term gain, and failure to consider consequences of our actions, and led us straight into the reckoning that is the Third Act.
The FOUR emerge from their battered rocket, looking in wonder at the strange, impossible vehicle that they have landed upon. Up walks Agent GYRICH and a pair of AGENTS.
Gyrich: Well, well, Dr. Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnathan Storm, and Benjamin Grimm. The “Fantastic Four” in the flesh, fire, and stone. Welcome back to Planet Earth! You’re right on time!
Johnny: Wait, what is going on? Who are you?
Reed: Based on the suit and the smug grin, I’d assume SHIELD. And I’d assume that Howard Stark is lurking nearby.
Gyrich: Alas, Dr. Stark passed on years ago, and his prodigal son has yet to accomplish much more than spend a weekend on a yacht surrounded by supermodels.
Sue: (looking around) When did SHIELD have the budget for flying aircraft carriers?
Gyrich: Since the Omnibus Budget of 1982, though we were officially listed as “Agricultural Subsidies”. Ol’ Ronnie was quite generous.
Johnny: Nineteen eighty-two?!? This man is delusional! It’s…
Gyrich: (interrupting) 1966? Hasn’t been for over three decades, Mr. Storm.
Ben: And how…
Reed: (interrupts) Time dilation. A sufficiently high gravitational field will result in matter travelling through time at a faster rate than outside the field. The extreme gravity from the black hole we passed must have flung us 32 years into the future.
Gyrich: Spot on, Doctor Richards. I personally squeaked by with Bs in Physics, but SHIELD’s Top Physics Nerds correctly predicted, based on your measured trajectory going in – you were all kind of hanging there in one place for a while – precisely
when you would emerge from the black hole’s gravity. I’ll have to advise Director Fury to increase their pay.
Ben: Wait, did you say
Director Fury? The young Sergeant?
Act III takes us into the Phlegmatic, and Sue Storm’s turn to take lead in the narrative. The Four have returned to Earth, but much has changed in three decades, and they need to deal with the consequences of the past.
(Image source Pintrest)
The Four are taken to meet SHIELD Director Nick Fury, now played by Kurt Russell rather than Matt Damon as in the second act. Per Fury’s exposition, it is now the year 1998 and the Four are no longer seen as heroes, but have been villainized by many rich and powerful men in their absence, with Senator Kelly and the Reverend Stryker dismissing them as “dangerous Mutants”. “It seems that the powers that put you on cereal boxes in the sixties will now put you on the Public Enemies list should you make yourselves publicly known.”
Fury offers to put them into protective custody, but Sue adamantly steers Reed against it, still hurt and distrustful of SHIELD given how they were used and unconvinced that the organization has changed in any meaningful way. They instead decline Fury’s offer and ask to be returned to New York City. Fury warns them that “things won’t be the same” and has Agent Gyrich give Ben a trench coat and hat.
As the Four are led away, Gyrich says to Fury, “Are you sure we should trust these Mutants, Director?”
To which a smirking Fury replies, “They’re not exactly Mutants, Agent Gyrich, and frankly, you know as well as I do what’s coming…do we have any choice?”
Doom likewise returns to Latveria to find that three decades have gone by. Worse yet, Latveria is in a state of ruin, the economy crumbling, its empire gone, the mighty Army a shadow of its former glory. He finds a Doombot sitting on his throne, which he casually walks up and beheads in a shower of sparks and coolant. The Loyal General, now older, walks up bowing to him, explaining that he only did what he could to “keep Latveria from falling apart without your leadership.”
Doom thanks him, but strangles him to death anyway. “Your intent was good, General, but your execution poor.” He then sets out to purge his nation of corruption and incompetence in the most brutal way possible.
The Four, meanwhile, return to the Baxter Building, but find that it has long since been turned into a series of office spaces. Trask Industries now occupies most of the structure. “What did they do with my laboratory?” asks a shocked Reed.
“What are these obnoxious little padded cells?” asks a disguised Ben, noticing the rows of cubicles.
(Image source Pinterest)
The Four are forced instead to find work while concealing their nature, requiring Ben in particular to hide in an apartment they share. At one point a little kid on the street sees him and screams “Mutant!” causing a stir and attention from a cell of paramilitary Sentinels, leaving Ben running and muttering bitterly to himself “we fought in Europe and Korea for nothin’”. Reed takes up a job as a professor at Empire University, where the dean recognizes him, but assures him that he’s “a supporter of Mutant Rights.” Sue gets a job in a cubicle working for Trask Industries, ironically in the Baxter Building, under a misogynistic boss who harasses her. Johnny ends up working at an electronics store on the first floor of the Baxter Building (“Welcome to Hotronics, where our prices burn down the competition!”). At one point we get a recreation of the scene in Black Panther
between Reed and T’Challa (Wesley Snipes) from Reed’s perspective, now loaded with the full intertextual knowledge of Reed’s part in the events of the past.
The four are miserable, with Sue trying her best to keep their spirits up, despite the fact that she is struggling to deal with this computerized world (“electronic mail?”), but the boss finds her difficulties amusing in a sexist way (“it’s a good thing you’re cute!”). She tries to make friends and demonstrate her worth (she picks up the computer systems quickly), but still gets spoken down to (“Honey,” says Christina Hendrick as the catty office manager, noticing her out of date fashions and hairstyle, “I don’t know what Podunk town you hail from, but maybe it’s time to stop dressing like your mother if you want to be taken seriously in the Big City.”). Sue also slowly starts to suspect that her boss is up to something nefarious. Using her invisibility powers, she sneaks around late at night and discovers that he’s indeed hiding something: he’s using company funds to buy expensive gifts for his mistress. Sighing, she simply forwards the evidence of the crime to the NYPD and is about to leave when she overhears something in another part of the building. She soon finds that Baron Zemo’s grandson Helmut Zemo (also played by Birol Ünel, representing “the unchanging face of evil”, to quote Whedon ), a scientist working on Robotics for Stark Industries, is meeting with Bolivar Trask (Andy Garcia). Zemo is passing along secret Stark robotics plans to Trask for “Project Sentinel” in exchange for more information on the Odinforce, which Zemo exposits could be “an incredible power source, if properly harnessed”.
SUE, invisible, watches ZEMO and her boss’ boss, BOLIVAR TRASK.
Zemo: (hands a folder to TRASK) Everything you need is in there, twenty years of research into robotics.
Trask: (flipping through papers) Perfect, perfect. Exactly what we need for the next generation of Project Sentinel. The Mark I’s are performing well against your average Mutie, but they have…limitations against some of the more…enhanced specimens. And Stark is unaware?
Zemo: (laughs) Stane has him on a yacht in the bay. There are two dozen women and a fully stocked bar to keep him…distracted. Do you have what I need?
TRASK hands ZEMO some paperwork. The folder has the SHIELD logo and is recognizably the one Howard Stark gave to Reed 30 years prior.
Trask: Right here. More information on the Odinforce, as your grandfather called it. We found it in some hidden safes when we took over the Four’s old facilities here. You may find this…useful.
Zemo: (flips through file) Excellent, Mr. Trask, excellent! My grandfather’s research combined with Richards’. This is exactly what we need, a near limitless source of power for our ongoing reactor experiments. I…
SUE leans in to see, accidentally knocking over a lamp. She gasps and starts to slip away.
Trask: Of a sort, yes…
TRASK hits a button on the wall as SUE, still invisible, starts to slip through the corridors of the Baxter Building as alarms start to sound.
Like with the other abandoned “grand unifying theory” hints, this idea that the Odinforce was somehow behind the Arc Reactor too was quietly dropped.
Sue nearly gets caught by Zemo and Trask when she knocks something over, but makes it out in time, going back to the Four and telling them that they “have a problem.” She alerts them to the situation, sure that Zemo is up to something nefarious, and is certain that they need to tell Tony Stark, noting that she overheard them mentioning that Stark was on his yacht off the coast. Reed notes that they don’t have any way to get to him, but Johnny notes that he can fly there. Sue warns him that they’re not supposed to expose their powers, but Johnny notes that it’s “the only way” and jumps out the window, flames-on, and flies out into the night.
Johnny flies across the waters and lands on the deck of Stark’s massive super-yacht which, despite the late hour, is still jumping with lights, music, and flowing drinks. Beautiful, scantily-dressed women dance and laugh. Hard-eyed guards stand by. Tony Stark (Nick Cage) sits in a huge jacuzzi in the back with a glass of whisky, surrounded by women.
(Image source Marvel Wiki)
Johnny, talking almost ludicrously fast, attempts to explain to Tony that his scientist Helmut Zemo is betraying him and giving his secrets to a competing company, but Tony just looks at him like a madman. Obadiah Stane appears (Stanley Tucci) and casually guides Johnny away, apologizing for the “interruption”, and dismisses Johnny’s worries with some platitudes.
Johnny then notices that the guards seem alert, looking to their watches and the sky, and then sees two lights in the sky from rockets. Realizing something is up, he runs, leaps off the boat, flames-on, and flies away as the lights turn out to be Sentinel robots, which engage him in a dogfight. He manages to destroy one, nearly getting hit by missiles, and eludes the other. He is shaken when he gets back to the apartment with the Four.
Thus ends Act III, where emotional connection, empathy, caring, and trust are explored along with the dangers of these things being manipulated by the unethical for their own reasons. In keeping with the chiastic structure, Act III essentially followed Act II in reverse, beginning in space at the black hole, coming to Earth, dealing with Nick Fury and SHIELD, encountering hijinks at the Baxter Building involving a Zemo, and being exposed to dark plans. This led into the fourth and final act.
JOHNNY flies towards the lights in the harbor below, which reveal themselves to be a large yacht. As he approaches, booming music and feminine laughter can be heard. JOHNNY flies in low, his flames reflecting in the waters as he approaches. The yacht’s name, “Stark Raving Mad”, is visible.
Landing on the yacht and cutting the flame, all eyes are on JOHNNY as he casually walks past scores of scantily-dressed, beautiful women. Alcohol flows freely. A DJ spins records for dancing women. Large men in black suits with the composure of bodyguards watch JOHNNY suspiciously. One speaks into his collar-pin. JOHNNY walks up to a large jacuzzi on the aft deck. Inside, surrounded by bikini-clad women, is TONY STARK, who holds a glass of whisky.
Tony: (to a WOMAN) You hope to be a film actress, you say? That’s quite the noble goal. You know, I do have some pull in Hollywood…
Johnny: (interrupting) Mr. Stark?
Woman: (glowering at JOHNNY) You’re not expecting me to do something with the Mutant, are you, Tony?
GUARDS approach JOHNNY, drawing guns, but TONY waves them off.
Tony: (pulling down sunglasses, annoyed) Can I help you?
Johnny: Mr. Stark my name is Johnny Storm and my sister Sue wanted me to tell you that…um…
Tony: If your sister has issues, she can bring it up with HR, now if you don’t mind…
Johnny: No!! No, she, um doesn’t work for you, she works for this jerk named Jeffries who’s cheating on his wife, but that’s not the issue. Jeffries works for Bolivar Trask, but……sorry. See, it’s about your employee Zemo….
OBADIAH STANE approaches with two BODYGUARDS.
Stane: My apologies for the interruption, Mr. Stark. (turns to JOHNNY) Johnny, was it?
STANE puts his hand on JOHNNY’S back and leads him away. He nods to a GUARD, who picks up a comm.
Stane: (Cont’d) Mr. Stark is a busy man, but if you have specific concerns, you can speak with me.
STANE nods politely with a painted-on smile as JOHNNY rambles.
Johnny: Look, one of your employees is a Nazi, or, like, the grandson of a Nazi who I used to work with back in the sixties, but then I, like, flew past a black hole so it’s the nineties now and anyway you really need to watch this guy because I think he’s up to…um…
JOHNNY sees a GUARD look to the sky, follows his eyes, and sees two spots of light in the distance, approaching fast.
Stane: So, you were saying there’s an issue with Mr. Zemo?
Johnny: Um…look at the ti…I gotta…um…BYE!
JOHNNY flames-on and flies off into the sky. The approaching lights, revealed to be MARK I SENTINELS, change course to intercept.
And for the final act, we encounter the Four at their nadir. Their fame and wealth are gone. They’ve gone from beloved heroes to hunted outcasts in hiding. And it’s time for Ben to step up, along with the Choleric temperament, to carve a new path forward.
(Image source Funny Junk)
But first, we return to Latveria, where Doom is personally choking the life from an errant regional governor (obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo). Doom tells two uniformed people beside him, a man and a woman, his plans for the region and then asks for their thoughts on it. The man sycophantically agrees with everything that Doom says, while the woman cringes almost imperceptibly. Doom notices and, glaring into her eyes, challenges her to state her opinion. In terror, she haltingly tells him that she disagrees with his proposed course of action and, as if signing her own death warrant, tells him her advice, which runs counter to Doom’s. “So be it,” says Doom, then casually snaps the sycophantic man’s neck with one hand and says, “You may pursue your leadership strategy, Madam Governor. Do not fail me.”
Doom then meets with his advisors and states his intent to recapture Kazaland as the first step to restore the Latverian Empire. “I shall reclaim what is mine by right,” he states. The advisors note that the UN would intervene if Latveria made a direct reconquest attempt, and that Latveria’s defenses are “not yet restored to full levels”. One advisor then notes that there may be another way to reclaim Latverian influence in the region without direct military intervention. “There is a poor nation in the region called Wakanda that none the less has outsized influence in the region, and may conceal a hidden wealth in vibranium. I have a contact named Ulysses Klaw who has plans to seize the throne and install a puppet. Klaw is linked to Hydra, and thus no friend of Latveria, but perhaps there is a way to turn this to our advantage, Your Majesty.”
The Four, meanwhile, are considering their options, including fighting alongside the Mutants (Ben’s plan, backed by Johnny) or leaving the country for one more open to Mutants (Sue’s plan, backed by Reed), even though they are not technically Mutants. But they are soon approached by Agent Gyrich, who lets them know that the White Gorilla Army, aided by Latverian intelligence, has invaded the small, poor nation of Wakanda, and that this war has upset regional stability. Ben flat out refuses to support it, recalling what happened “last time”, but Gyrich assures them that SHIELD plans to intervene against the Latverians and that they just want the Four to protect the civilians of Wakanda. The four, still feeling partly responsible for the events that led to the fall of Kazaland, hope to protect the civilians and “if possible, make up for our failings last time.” Gyrich also promises that SHIELD will fully restore the Four’s resources, give them a new headquarters and lab, and “shield you from any…inquisitive paramilitary types.” Increasingly desperate and with no future in the status quo, the Four reluctantly agree.
Ben: Do you all want to live in this tiny little apartment forever? Do you want to keep hiding in the shadows?
Johnny: Hey, I get it, but the last time we went to Kazaland everything went to hell in a rocket-sled!
Ben: Brother, you don’t ‘get’ shit. When you’re not flamin’ you can walk around town. Sue doesn’t even have to be seen if she doesn’t want to. But I’m stuck here! At least the Baxter Building gave me space to walk around!
Sue: Ben, I really sympathize, but Johnny’s right, Kazaland was a mistake…
Ben: And this is our chance to fix it. Look, I don’t trust SHIELD or Gyrich one bit. But we can’t hide forever, and if we don’t have the independence and resources that we need to take care of ourselves – and it ain’t like Reed’s job teaching classes and Sue’s job with Mr. Handsy is going to get us there – we’ll be living in hiding for the rest of our lives.
The Four are soon presented with a new version of their old aircraft with promises that, if they continue to work with SHIELD, that they will be protected from the anti-Mutant madness and given a new headquarters to replace the Baxter Building. Tempted by a combination of self-interest and guilt, they travel to the outskirts of Wakanda. Reed again notes the radiation signature of the Wakanda central mountain. Presenting himself to the older T’Chaka (James Earl Jones) and a masked M’Windaji (Clive Owen), who does a double-take upon seeing the Four, Reed offers his assistance in protecting Wakanda from the WGA. T’Chaka refuses the help, noting that “We need no help from you.” Ben attempts to persuade him (“You don’t understand how dangerous these foes are…”) but is himself dismissed.
Ben in particular, however, refuses to stand down. He’s here to “get the job done” and stands in the middle between the WGA and the Wakandans. M’Windaji then personally leads a group of Hatut Zeraze to drive away the Four. The Four then watch helplessly as the WGA attacks, backed by Ulysses Klaw (Mickey Roarke) and Latverian weapons. And yet, armed only with spears and swords and clubs, the Wakandans prove victorious, forcing back the WGA forces despite an apparent inferiority in weapons.
(Image source The Digital Fix)
But then, the Four are confronted by none other than Doom himself! They engage in a massive, and showy clash. In the process of the fight, a flaming Johnny is thrown by Doom into some dry grass, and inadvertently starts a wildfire! The fire, mirroring the scene in Black Panther
, distracts the Hatut Zeraze, and allows Klaw and M’Baku to regroup and make a surgical strike at a lightly-defended T’Chaka.
The Four manage to defeat Doom, with Ben finally tackling him and punching him until sparks literally fly, revealing it to be a Doombot. M’Windaji approaches, watching, and is addressing the issue when he gets a hurried call: the King is in danger!!
He and the Hatut regroup, but Klaw and M’Baku have defeated the King, ultimately mortally wounding him in a replay of the scene from Black Panther
. T’Chaka dies in M’Windaji’s arms. As M’Windaji walks away, unmasked. The Four approach, but an irate M’Windaji screams at them for distracting him and rejects them, ordering them to leave Wakanda forever. But Doom is watching…
M’WINDAJI walks up to the FOUR, unmasked, his face a mix of sadness, confusion, and simmering fury.
M’Windaji: My father, King T’Chaka, is dead. While the people of Wakanda fought the fire that you outsiders caused, the WGA assaulted and killed him.
Ben: Look, Em-Win, we’re truly sorry that…
M’Windaji: Your apologies are like the buzzing of flies in my ears, mtu jiwe.
Sue: (studying M’Windaji) Wait, Jaeger?
M’Windaji: (turns to SUE) I do not use that name any longer, mwanamke asiyeonekana. And any debt of life that I owed to you for what happened long ago has died with my father, who is dead from your actions.
Reed: Your Highness, we deeply apologize for the acti…
M’Windaji: (hold up a hand, cutting off REED) Leave Wakanda now, or be named its enemies.
M’WINDAJI and his WAR DOGS turn their backs on the FOUR. They walk away as in the background two Wakandan SOLDIERS pick up the lifeless body of the King and all walk back towards the Sacred Mountain.
PAN BACK to where a Latverian Drone hovers, hidden in the grass, watching all.
ZOOM IN on its cameras and CUT TO the palace in Latveria, where DOOM watches the events unfold on a monitor, focusing on M’Windaji.
The Four return in silence to New York, and are presented the keys to a new underground headquarters hidden below Empire University, which proves everything that they wanted. But it’s a hollow victory, as they feel that they only made things worse. Ben finally gives a speech about how “working for glory didn’t work out for us…working for knowledge didn’t work out, working for others didn’t work out, and working for our self-interest didn’t work out…maybe it’s about time we worked for something greater?”
Maybe in the next film (Image source Pintrest)
Following Ben’s lead, they instead travel to downtown New York, where (in a reflection of the earlier civil rights protest in the ‘60s) a Mutant Rights protest is about to be broken up by a squad of Sentinel Mark I robots. The Four engage their powers, land in front of the protestors in a protective stance, with Spider-Man swinging in to join them at the last second, quipping “Mind if I join you guys?”
The Four and Spidey then move towards the camera as Sentinel Mark I robots move to engage, cutting to credits in media res
Ben: Look, working for glory didn’t work out for us, right? Working for knowledge didn’t work out much better. Working for others didn’t work out, and working for our self-interest didn’t work out either…maybe it’s about time we worked for something greater?
BEN looks to the TV, where a Mutant Rights march is being confronted by a marching phalanx of Mark I Sentinels.
Johnny: Like fighting for the Mutants.
SUE puts out her hand. JOHNNY puts his on hers. REED follows suit. BEN puts his hand on top.
Reed: (smiles) I guess it’s unanimous then.
Sue: Let’s stop those ‘Bots and save the protestors!
Ben: (punches fist into hand) It’s clobberin’ time!
This brought Act IV to a close, and with it the film, coming full-circle from an in media res
action scene in New York City to an in media res
“Bolivian Army Ending” in the city ala Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
and a tease for a similar coming action scene just after the credits roll, with spliced-in short cuts of the Four and Spidey battling the Sentinels. Just as Act III, in keeping with the chiastic structure, mirrored the story beats of Act II in reverse, so did Act IV mirror Act I in reverse, starting with the Four getting pulled into a situation in Africa beyond their understanding, this time in large part due to the self-interest of having SHIELD restore their lost resources. They finish by intervening in a civil rights protest, this time as a united front in support of the protestors. In keeping with the Choleric Temperament, Ben is the main point of view character and themes of ambition, determination, frustration, goals, revenge, and the violent imposition of power play into the events.
Ben himself also reflects the overall Temperament-based themes of the film in his almost-leaning-on-the-fourth-wall line about how they “tried” working for glory (sanguinity), knowledge (melancholy), others (phlegmatic), and self-interest (choleric) and none of it “worked out”, leading to the synthesis-approach of working together for “something greater”, i.e. Mutant Rights, something that feeds all four of these goals simultaneously, but more importantly serves what’s right
“I wanted the Four to essentially explore themselves as individuals before coming completely together as a team in this story,” said Whedon. “They each essentially ‘get a turn’ at driving the events, and each accomplishes things, but also causes greater problems. They learned to be a family in the first film. Here they learn to be a team and learn what their true values are and how they complement each other. By comparison, Dr. Doom has learned and evolved in his own way, willing to adapt with the times, like killing the yes-man in favor of the woman willing to speak truth, and yet he’s still the same flawed individual, casually murderous, autocratic, swinging wildly between moods, dedicated to self-serving goals that he mistakes for being in the service of his people.”
Fears that the complex, four-part narrative and resulting long (for the time) runtime of 2 hours 12 minutes would alienate or confuse fans proved unfounded, as fast-cut editing by Bob Murawski and quippy dialog by Whedon kept things flying by at a fast pace. In fact, the biggest critical complaints were that it flew by so fast that it missed some perceived opportunities to more deeply explore its themes, resulting in what some considered a slightly superficial film. Ebert, for example, called it “fun but overstuffed”, though still giving it a tepid “thumbs Up”.
Still, audiences grabbed the popcorn and enjoyed the action and effects and the great screen charisma between the four leads. Fiennes’ Dr. Doom, of course, stole every scene, even as a Doombot. Interestingly, however, due to conflicts with his Bond schedule, Fiennes himself only did about two weeks of actual filming (the maskless scenes and a few masked close-ups where his eyes were important) while Raimi regular Bruce Campbell and some stunt performers “Shemped” a lot of the action scenes and masked interactions that Fiennes later looped dialog for. Fantastic Four: Rise and Fall
failed to achieve the heights of the first film, though still performed very well, making $312 million against its $94 million budget. It also achieved many of the “meta goals” for the time of expanding the MMU, not only pulling the Four and Doom to the present day so that they could meaningfully participate in the events of the unfolding metaplot, but also tying in the narrative elements from the X-Men films and Black Panther
, having nods, references, and/or cameos involving Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, and helping to further set the stage for the upcoming Iron Man
and, ultimately, The Avengers
In this way, FF:RF
serves as an interesting milestone in the MMU, bridging the previous habit of treating each MMU film as a stand-alone film (with Easter Egg references) with the then-emergent trend of having all of the films not just inhabit the same universe but, as with the comics, affect one another and cross over into “metaplot” moments, something that executive producer Sam Raimi had been attempting (but denied) with the DCMU. Earlier films such as X2
, Black Panther
, The Mighty Thor
, and Captain America
had, of course, begun this trend, but FF:RF
codified it in a major way, making very clear that not only were the different films connected and sharing a universe, but that all of the films were set on a collision course over the coming years. It also slipped in a few “genius bonuses”, with the Wakandans referring to Reed as “mtu kunyoosha”, Sue as “mwanamke asiyeonekana”, Johnny as “mtu kuungua”, and Ben as “mtu jiwa”, or “stretchy man”, “invisible woman”, “burning man”, and “stone man”, respectively, in Swahili.
Whedon in particular expressed his exhaustion in “squeezing it all in”, noting that he’d have hoped to keep the Four, the Avengers, and the X-Men in their own continuities. However, executive producer Sam Raimi and continuity editor Kevin Feige both insisted that “all roads lead to Galactus”. This also led to the now-orphaned set-ups for the “grand unifying theory” of Marvel supernatural, part of Raimi and Feige’s failed attempts to consolidate all unexplained things under a single root cause.
The hours were long and taxing on everyone, and Whedon admitted in a later interview to taking his frustrations out on a young female writer at one point. “I acted like a total dick,” he said. “I basically shamed and humiliated her in front of everyone. I knew at the time it was wrong, and I quickly apologized to her, but, well…old habits die hard, and Jim [Henson] and I had a heart to heart. Self-improvement isn’t for the faint of heart.”
But even despite the behind-the-scenes drama, the production was largely seen as a “fun and productive” time for all, with all of the participants expressing a willingness and even eagerness to work on the third film, which would ultimately come out in 2001.
“Fan-four was a delight to work on,” said Michelle Pfeiffer. “It was a great mix of action, human interactions, and fun on the set. Pierce, Sonny, Keanu, and I managed to forge a close friendship. When I first signed on for the original film, I had no idea what I was getting into, and after the second film I laughed when they asked me to sign a ten-year contract to reprise my role as Sue Storm. I though they were joking! Well, ten years later and I’m still trying to squeeze into blue spandex.”
Fantastic Four: Rise and Fall
remains a popular film in hindsight, even as the consensus is that it grasps for too much and suffers for it. It reminded audiences why they loved the Four and Doom, set up some critical metaplot-points going forward, and, honestly, was just a fun film over all with fast-paced, explosive action on the land, in the air, and IN SPAAAACCCEEE! We at S&S
enjoy it (though not as much as the first and third films), and found it a good if imperfect film on its own and within the MMU, and an excellent bridge between the previous “standalone” phase of the MMU and the emerging “crossover” phase. And this last, landmark reason alone makes it worth the time of any Marvel fan.
 Hat-tip to @Plateosaurus
for this title, which was significantly better than my generic Return of the Fantastic Four
 Changed from Niganda just to avoid the resemblance to other…less kosher words. I’m sure Marvel just intended this name to be a cross between Nigeria and Uganda, but still, a single letter change goes a long way sometimes.
 Beret tip to @Nathanoraptor
for this literal take on a White Gorilla Army.
 Zemo mask tip to @Nathanoraptor
for this brilliant observation.