`Fantastic' Opportunity

His sense of humor and an affection for a misfit superhero 'family' gave director Tim Story the power to turn Marvel's 'Four' into real people

July 07, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In July 1966, Marvel's Fantastic Four became the first comic book to introduce a recurring black superhero - an African monarch who assumed the identity of an animal revered in his kingdom, The Black Panther.

So it's fitting that in July 2005, Fantastic Four has become the first big-budget superhero movie to boast a black director - Tim Story, a 35-year-old graduate of Los Angeles' Westchester High School and film school at the University of Southern California.

Just three years ago, Story, with no major credits to his name, demonstrated a killer instinct for ensemble comedy and neighborhood culture in a sleeper smash called Barbershop.

"We at Marvel were big fans of [Barbershop]," says executive producer Kevin Feige in Fantastic Four: The Making of the Movie. "There were a lot of characters in that film - it wasn't a big action spectacular, and yet it was equal parts hilarious and endearing, which is not an easy combination to come across."

So when executives at Marvel and 20th Century Fox discovered that Story was a Fantastic Four fan - and could talk about Marvel's first family, in Feige's words, "as if they were four real people" - Story got the job of imbuing a mock-epic fantasy extravaganza with his own cheeky attitude and infectious clubhouse humor.

Over a crackling cell phone from New York, Story's ebullience keeps the conversation percolating even when he repeatedly loses his signal. "I grew up on comic books," he says. "I definitely knew the world of Fantastic Four and thought that if it was going to happen as a movie I would go after it 100 percent."

Vintage Marvel Comics got to Story as a kid, and the best Marvel movies haven't let him down as an adult. "Whether black or white or Chinese, my friends go to The X-Men or Spider-Man movies for the emotion and the action and good times," says Story.

For him, the eternal-adolescent pleasure of identifying with Marvel legends who overcome everyday self-doubt - or fall deeper into angst because of their heroics - "definitely transcends race. For example, anyone who's been a fan has daydreamed about having the ability to burst into flames like Johnny Storm [played in the movie by Chris Evans]."

The rightness of the actors regardless of race determined the movie's casting, whether it was Jessica Alba, of Mexican-French-Danish ancestry, playing lily-white Sue Storm (aka The Invisible Woman), or African-American performer Kerry Washington of Ray playing Alicia Masters, the blind sculptor lover of Ben Grimm (aka The Thing). "The best people for the part - we went for that, and we got it," says Story. "In Kerry's case, she happened to be black."

In the original Fantastic Four comic book, Marvel mastermind Stan Lee created an alternative family ahead of its time. The literally and spiritually elastic Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic) and his true love and eventual wife Sue acted like parents - or Sue like an exasperated older sibling - to her brother Johnny (aka The Human Torch) and to the almost Hulk-like The Thing. Zapped with cosmic rays during a flight through outer space, they discovered their powers simultaneously. Then they bonded with a fractious domesticity that made their battles with arch-villains like the metallic loony Dr. Doom all the more entertaining and suspenseful.

To flesh them out on-screen, Story had a source close to home: a twin sister, Tammy, who was a point guard on the women's basketball team at USC when Story was studying film there.

Growing up, they had fun "fooling each other and arguing with each other," says Story. "I was the younger brother by 13 minutes, so I did that younger-brother thing of getting on her nerves as long as I could - she'd say `Stop touching me,' and I'd say, `I'm not touching you, I'm not touching you.'

"I love people who are so familiar with each other that they don't have to hold their tongues. They can really argue because they're not worried whether the other person loves them or not. They do anything to get their point across and make the other person commit to a conversation. That's what Sue does with Johnny and what Johnny does with Ben Grimm."

Story also drew on combative-buddy films like 48 HRS. and his own Barbershop. What makes Fantastic Four such a "cool" superhero film, he says, "is that the costumes don't hide the actors and the characters are completely out there" - including The Thing, a big rock orange mountain of a man. Rather than concoct a big-screen Thing with computer-graphic imagery, Story ordered prosthetics. "If you've got Michael Chiklis in your cast," Story says, "the last thing you want to do is not use him. You can still see every nuance of his expressions through the makeup."

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