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Meet the Fantastics

 

Fantastic Four

Tim Story, USA, 2005

Rating: 3.6

 

Posted: July 9, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

In the first six issues of their long-running comic, Marvel's Fantastic Four repelled an invasion of alien shape-shifters, were sent back in time by their nemesis Dr. Doom, discovered the lost prince of Atlantis living in squalor as a bowery bum, and saw their skyscraper headquarters lifted into space (again, as part of a plot by their arch-enemy). If you haven't figured it out already from the commercials, trailers or dismissive reviews, Fantastic Four, the long-awaited (in some corners, anyway) big-screen adaptation of Marvel's very first comics property, isn't as imaginative or wide-ranging in scope as all of that.

In fact, it's not a lot of things -- particularly deep, for starters. In contrast to such Marvel properties as the Hulk or the X-Men, there's no gripping dramatic subtext -- no inner demons to face down, no societal biases to overcome. There's not even an Ayn Rand-ian "let your superiors do as they please" subtext a la The Incredibles, a movie whose cast has drawn comparisons to Marvel's first family of superheroes. No, Fantastic Four is nothing more or less than a fairly rote, by-the-numbers superhero popcorn flick that delivers on the basics: it introduces the characters, sets the stage for their transformation into super-powered adventurers, and positions them for conflict, not only with their adversary Dr. Doom but, on a lesser stage, with each other.

And it does so quite well. Taken on its own, less-than-world-shattering terms, Fantastic Four is an enjoyable diversion that yields a disarming amount of laughs, a relatively quick pace and, best of all, a climactic showdown that doesn't get bogged down with some convoluted McGuffin (a la Spider-Man 2) or feel like an afterthought (surely the slam-bang final third is the least exciting and most disappointing part of Batman Begins). It's lightweight, breezy and disarmingly fun -- and in a summer of thematic misfires like War of the Worlds, that sounds just fine.

Of course, it could still have been an utter disaster -- the book's superheroes-as-family conceit isn't as easy a fit with the silver screen as, say, Spider-Man, and Reed Richards' stretching limbs and the Thing's rocky orange carapace present their own visual problems (just think of the last FF film adaptation, an unreleased, legendarily bad 1994 B-movie produced by bad-movie auteur Roger Corman).

But ultimately what makes Fantastic Four memorable aren't the effects but the characters. Each of the principals capably inhabits their well-defined roles: Ioan Gruffudd (King Arthur) is quite believable as the brilliant scientist Reed Richards, a researcher whose not-so-fantastic recent track record leads him to go to his former college rival Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) for help; he wants to use the industrialist's space station to study a cosmic storm. Jessica Alba is surprisingly maternal as Susan Storm, Reed's former girlfriend, who's now in Von Doom's employ (and also in the arrogant CEO's romantic crosshairs). Michael Chiklis (The Shield) tones down the hammy gruffness of ace pilot and right-hand-man Ben Grimm, shooting instead for a working-class, average-Joe approach that works well.

The real star here, however, is Chris Evans, best known for his work in teen-centric films like Not Another Teen Movie and The Perfect Score, as well as the high-concept thriller Cellular. As reckless extreme-sports enthusiast Johnny Storm, Evans nails the character's cocksure affability, and provides most of the film's laughs. It's a potentially star-making role, with Evans positioning himself as a much more likable Seann William Scott.

Once the experiment goes astray and the researchers are saddled with their strange new abilities -- super-pliability for Reed; invisibility and the ability to project force fields for Susan; strength and the appearance of a walking rock pile for Grimm; flame-generation and flight for Johnny, aka the Human Torch -- the wheels of superhero plot mechanics begin spinning: Von Doom, who blames Reed for the mishap that's placed his company in financial jeopardy, altered his appearance and given him electrical powers, sets about getting his revenge. (Special kudos to McMahon for never descending into the hysterical caricature of so many screen supervillains, especially Willem Dafoe or Alfred Molina of the Spider-Man films.)

But Fantastic Four never gets too focused on the rudimentary plotting, or on the powers and effects, wisely zeroing in on the relationships between the characters. (This results in some good chuckles, as when Johnny refers to Reed as the "world's dumbest smart guy" or Grimm, upon first seeing the group's blue uniforms, cracks "You guys look like an '80s rock band.")

Yes, the effects are less than stellar, and while the decision not to go the CGI route in creating the character of the Thing is an admirable one, the suit poor Chiklis gets stuck in becomes more distracting as time wears on. And yes, the plot grows more mechanical as it moves toward its third act -- in fact, in its first half-hour FF feels like nothing so much as the pilot for a chummy TV series: Friends with super-powers.

But the film stays true to its internal logic -- the biggest suspension of disbelief involves swallowing lithe, doe-eyed Alba as a genetic researcher. And while Fantastic Four may disappoint fanboys hungry for the cosmic scope of the comic, let's face it: That movie would have been difficult to pull off, and would very likely have tanked. The film's light approach was probably the smartest choice, the best way to get the movie made and hopefully appeal to a wide-enough audience to nab a return on its investment.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with the occasional summer movie that knows exactly what it's there to do and fulfills its role without taking things too seriously. More than once, Evans, as Johnny Storm, implores his teammates to embrace their new abilities; to lighten up and enjoy the ride. That's the perfect advice for enjoying the easily digestible Fantastic Four, as well.

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 1.1-1.9: Poor
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