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Fantastic Four

The Fantastic FourRating: **
Director: Tim Story
Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis and Julian McMahon

Fantastic Four falls far short of fantastic. It’s a deeply flawed movie whose troubled production history is glaringly obvious in the final cut. Yet while romantic-comedy director Tim Story is pretty much lost at sea with big action set pieces, he nails some very nice little character moments that give the movie a bit of heart. That made me like the movie despite its flaws, and the fact that the story is all origin, ending only as the heroes truly become the Fantastic Four, left me eager to see a sequel that could kick action ass in all the ways this one doesn’t.

The Fantastic Four is a great comics property. Other than Wonder Woman, it’s probably the best four-color project to have not yet hit the silver screen. Famously, Stan Lee was ready to give up comics in 1961 when Marvel decided to try reviving superheroes, as DC had done in recent years with the Flash, Green Lantern and others. Asked to create a team to match the Justice League, Stan instead created a family of heroes “¦ “heroes with hang-ups,” he called them — forerunners to his best creation, the perpetually neurotic Peter Parker.

At the dawn of the space race, a scientific genius hijacks a spacecraft and takes, oddly, his best friend, his girlfriend and her goofy little brother into orbit, where “cosmic radiation” ping-pongs their DNA until they develop leukemia. No, wait, that’s real life. In Stan Lee’s world, high radiation exposure gives you super-powers, with a one-in-four chance of being turned into a super-strong monster.

The movie follows that basic plot. Some effort is made to make more sense of why these four are in space — Susan Storm goes from mere girlfriend to a top scientist in her own right, but the whole premise is still a little silly, and the sheer wonder of blasting off into space just ain’t what it was in 1961. Still,
the film is wise to hew to the origin, and also wise to shoot through that in a crisp 20 minutes. This early part of the film suffers from having every line of dialogue be a revealing plot or character point in a way that feels forced. That feels specifically like a dozen failed drafts were strip-mined for key beats that were then mashed together on 15 pages.

Jessica AlbaThe movie also throws Victor Von Doom into the origin, aiming for plot symmetry, I guess. This is the first of too many mistakes in the handling of the FF’s greatest foe. Doom, as CEO of a company about to go public, inexplicably goes into space, too (he owns a space station way better than anything our world offers — his fakes gravity, which really stretches a thin effects budget), and therefore also acquires powers. This clutters up the team’s origin — they’re really the Fantastic Five, it’s just that one of them’s a crazy, evil bastard. That’s not cool.

So while scientist Reed Richards is getting all stretchy, and Sue Storm is turning invisible, and Johnny is setting stuff on fire, and Ben Grimm is turning into a big pile of orange rock, slick businessman Vic is turning all metallic, very slowly. Also, in out-of-nowhere turns that are never explained, the bank “¦ I don’t know, calls in his mortgage? Anyway, he’s broke, gonna lose his empire, due to public reaction to the disastrous space mission. So Doom decides to go full psycho, put on a metal mask, and kill the Fantastic Four.

The full-scale costumed Dr. Doom is only revealed for the final battle scene, which is good — that classic Doom look is hard to take in live action — but this means that Julian McMahon needed to carry the menace of the villain strictly on his own, without props, and the script doesn’t give him much to work with, nor any way to make Doom’s slide into madness believable. And without a compelling villain, the film pretty much falls apart.

The other major action set piece involves the Thing inadvertently causing major chaos on the Brooklyn Bridge, forcing all four heroes to reveal their powers to the world. It is the most awkwardly staged, claustrophobic, slow-moving action sequence I can recall, and it has a number of illogical premises that the audience can’t help but notice.

What’s left is the middle section, a likeable collection of lighter character bits — unfortunately, this is as though the best part of Superman: The Movie was Reeve rescuing a kitten from a tree, or the best part of Spider-Man 2 was Spidey in the elevator.

This lighter stuf is apparently what Tim Story is kinda good at. There are a few good gags with the heroes’ new powers — though logic-free excuses to make a mostly invisible Jessica Alba keep taking off her street clothes are absurd.

This complex foursome comes together as a family through the course of the film as Ben faces the trauma of his transformation and Reed and Sue try to rekindle their failed romance. Johnny flirts with girls, courts celebrity and, as in the comics, relentlessly goads the tragic, sad-sack Thing.

As the Thing, Michael Chiklis gives as touching and believable a performance as the script makes room for. Jessica Alba is gorgeous but a little awkward as the Invisible Woman, and Chris Evans is appropriately hyper and boyish as the Human Torch. I thought Ioan Gruffudd had a speech impediment until I realized it was just his effort to make Reed Richards not share Gruffudd’s Welsh accent. Still, his awkward and uncertain Reed — an unfortunate deviation from the energetic, unredoubtable Mr. Fantastic of Stan Lee’s comics — is likeable, and one could hope that a further exploration of the character would help Richards grow into the super-scientist and stalwart husband of the comics.

So the Fantastic Four are given time to grow on the viewer, and many of these individual beats work. But they don’t fit together. Ben’s marriage (invented for the film) ends because his wife immediately dumps the monster he has become. When he meets his comic-book girlfriend, blind sculptress Alicia Masters, it’s a likeable scene that comes out of nowhere and leads nowhere. You wonder if there was a version of the script that this really fit into. It’s not the one they shot.

Lots of extraneous details fail to fit. For two-thirds of the film, Sue is presented as Victor’s girlfriend of two years. He has a ring he’s dying to give her. But then Susan tells Reed that she and Vic never really had a relationship, apparently so we don’t have to imagine good, pure Susan getting it on with a future metallic psycho jerk. Make up your minds, script collators.

The Human TorchReed at one point tells Sue that (as in the comics) she should be able to make other things besides her body invisible. Yet never in the film does she learn to do that — she can’t even make her street clothes vanish. Doom’s fortunes and his background as a “Latverian” (though his English is flawlessly American — what should a Latverian accent sound like, anyway?) are all handled in slipshod manner. Johnny Storm’s motocross and snowboarding antics seem mainly designed as a lower-budget way to excite kids, and maybe to trigger tie-ins to this massively overmerchandized film.

The Spider-Man movies and the summer’s standout comic-book flick, Batman Begins, had solid scripts, strong visions and top-notch directors. Fantastic Four has none of this, and an infamous history of rewritten scripts, revolving-door casting, and an apparent round-robin lottery in which every member of the DGA got to be named director of the movie for at least a week. This is clearly what kills the film, yet a sympathetic viewer can’t help but think that this cast and this property could make a great sequel if a more visionary director and writer were to take a now-established Fantastic Four and give them a real adventure. Especially one that, unlike this film, captures the sheer mad scientific adventure of the early FF comics. These heroes weren’t crime-fighters so much as adventurers, explorers. Indiana Jones, only with spandex and parallel dimensions.

Chris EvansAs it is, we’re left with something that’s no Daredevil or Elektra, but is also more like Ang Lee’s ill-fated Hulk than it is Bryan Singer’s strong X-Men films, or Sam Raimi’s pitch-perfect Spider flicks. Since the action isn’t up to snuff anyway, no need to see it on the big screen. It’ll be on DVD in no time, and then you can enjoy the little character bits for less than ten bucks a head.

five degrees of separation