Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

directed by Tim Story

starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon

20th Century Fox

“It’s clobberin’ time!”

After battling the baddies in inked pages and in cartoons for 44 years, the fiery-bodied Human Torch, rocky behemoth the Thing, elastic Mr. Fantastic, and the force field-wielding Invisible Girl have finally made their way to the big screen. CGI technology has finally caught up with the quartet’s rather unusual superpowers, allowing this summer’s Fantastic Four film to properly present a solid plot — the team’s origin — along with satisfying special effects. In some viewers’ eyes, however, Fantastic Four will have one glaring, ironic drawback: it plays out like a 1960s comic book.

Since its 1961 creation by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ( in response to DC Comics’ wildly popular Justice League of America series) the Fantastic Four title has been a mainstay of the Marvel universe. From issue #1, FFset itself apart from the competition, for better or worse. Lee introduced the concept of a superhero family (influencing Pixar’s superb satire The Incredibles decades later) that dealt with everyday trials and tribulations while simultaneously involving themselves in adventure after adventure. Capitalizing on the nation’s obsession with the space race, FF had more to do with science fiction than crime-fighting. The astronauts-turned-heroes did not bother with small potatoes such as muggers and bank robbers; kicking ill-intentioned aliens’ asses and out-smarting world-endangering megalomaniacs was their forte.

Moreover, FF, like the rival Spider-Man title, quickly developed a sort of New York breezy coolness to it, offset by touches of tragi-comedy in almost every issue (courtesy of the tortured, Brooklyn-ese speaking Thing). Through the years, FF remained comparatively light, mainstream fare, with its focus and legend mostly untouched by latter-day tinkerers.

Likewise, director Tim Story (Barbershop) and Fantastic Four‘s writers have altered this focus very little, abstaining from the ultra-stylish, “graphic novel” approach. If Fantastic Four had somehow predated Batman Begins and the X-Men, Spider-Man and Daredevil movies, fans and the uninitiated alike would have been highly impressed by the movie’s spectacular action scenes and clever in-jokes. But the aforementioned epics’ concentration on combining ingenious effects and all-important, first-rate scripts and acting have spoiled moviegoers.

Perhaps due to budget constraints and a lack of genius-level imagination, Story & Co. did not attempt to “one-up” FF‘s cinematic predecessors, or even compete with them on artistic or literary levels. The filmmakers seem to have had their hands full just re-creating Reed Richards’ (Ioan Gruffudd, King Arthur) stretching powers, Susan Storm’s (Dark Angel’s Jessica Alba) invisibility, Ben Grimm’s (The Shield‘s Michael Chiklis) orange countenance, and Johnny Storm’s (Chris Evans, Cellular) pyrotechnics at a believable level — and they did a good job. But apart from Chiklis’ dead-on performance and Evans’ laugh-garnering take on the headstrong, superhunk Torch (now a pilot/motorcycle jumper/Xtreme snowboarder), the acting is on a “C” level, at best.

The story? Well, superhero origins are tough to tackle, in terms of pacing and action. Fantastic Four steps into scandalous territory, introducing the team’s (and Marvel’s) number one villain, Doctor Doom, right away (he originally appeared in FF #5). The writers use the device of having Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, Nip/Tuck), Richards’ tech-mogul rival, accompany the group into space, where they are all irradiated by a cosmic storm. Subsequently, each character, including Doom, develops super powers. This “Doom deviation” from the FF legend has already provoked Internet outrage from fans who haven’t seen the movie yet, but truthfully, it works in integrating the future Latverian dictator into the film.

Another deviation from the comic is that Susan Storm, Richards’ ex-girlfriend, is initially Doom’s assistant, making for a half-assed love triangle.

To Fox’s credit, Fantastic Four plays up the novel premise of the group lacking secret identities. When Ben Grimm, in the movie’s best action sequence, saves a hook-and-ladder fire truck from plunging over the Brooklyn Bridge, the group becomes media darlings. While Richards, Grimm and Sue Storm retreat to the famous Baxter Building to figure out the extent of their transformations, Johnny, Susan’s brother and Ben’s verbal sparring partner, soaks up the limelight — much to the team’s dismay.

Meanwhile, Doom, a nasty bastard to begin with, is dealing with his newfound power to harness energy… and getting more malevolent by the minute.

Story’s presentation of the plot is pretty one-dimensional — seemingly taken off the pages themselves — but the movie, while not sluggish, strangely lacks the frenetic Johnny Quest-style pacing of the comic. Additionally, given that this is a light-hearted adaptation, another dose of campiness might have helped.

Fantastic Four‘s shortcomings, however, can be addressed in the sequel — which, given the film’s finale, must be in pre-production already.

Ultimately, this passable adaptation will have no problem at the box office; teenagers will generally dig it, and adults… well, if they can remember back when comics were marketed to kids — and if they are willing to accept the fact that not every superhero flick is going to be an epic Oscar contender (FF is much better that The Hulk, at least), they might have fun watching the Torch “flame on,” as well.

‘Nuff said.

Fantastic Four Movie: fantasticfourmovie.com

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