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Fantastic Four

Comic book fans with kids have long wanted a big-screen movie that would really be appropriate for the whole family. With Fantastic Four they finally have it, and you know what they say: be careful what you wish for.

Not that director Tim Story's take on Marvel's First Family is really that bad. In some places, it really captures the feeling of the classic Lee-Kirby comics while putting the whole thing in a modern context. Since the Fantastic Four are the superheroes treated most like celebrities, the movie even has a different feel than most comic book adaptations, exploring how the four handle fame.

But the script, by Michael France and Mark Frost, tends to focus on the comic relief that Lee and Kirby established, and forgets about actually putting high stakes and danger in the characters' ways. Instead of being a family changed by a traumatic event, their origin brings them together under the only vaguely malevolent wing of Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon).

While Doom and Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) still went to college together, their conflict wasn't over who was smarter, but over Susan Storm (Jessica Alba). Despite the very obvious age differences among McMahon, Gruffudd and Alba, we are to believe that they are at most a couple of years apart, and that the 24-year-old Alba has become a top geneticist. Granted, it's better than Reed just randomly dragging his girlfriend and her brother on a space flight, but it still doesn't quite play believably.

Don't ask exactly where Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) fit in. Again, somehow the 24-year-old Johnny (older? Younger than Sue?) managed to become a top astronaut under Ben's command before defecting to Von Doom, Inc.

Once their powers activate, the foursome have misadventures rather than actual adventures. Fearing that their altered cellular structure may be dooming them, Reed requires that they quarantine themselves in the famed Baxter Building until he can find a cure. Sure, they go stir crazy, but it gets hard for an audience to get too worked up over Doom hiding the fact that he, too, is changed and angry about falling stock prices. Yes, falling stock prices.

This drives him insane, even as his alteration gives him mastery over electrical power and possibly metal. By the time he chooses to actually confront his old friends, having a big supervillain battle seems beside the point and curiously anti-climactic. For a world class despot like Doom, the resulting fight even seems rather petty. Almost child-like, in fact, as every fight really ends up being just The Thing or Doom throwing cars around. Nobody even notices that the first time, The Thing starts it.

So the action is, well, comic-booky even by comic book movie standards. Take that away and you have, as former Marvel publisher Bill Jemas infamously stated, a sitcom. On that level, it works pretty well.

The dynamic between Johnny and Ben is actually a great translation from page to screen, though it gets a little over-used whenever the energy starts to flag. Even trapped in a Thing suit, Chiklis' personality holds the screen, with a great long-suffering burn. Up against Evans obviously having a great time playing the one character that is actually having a great time, all their scenes just rock.

Even the obligatory Thing self-pity scenes work, again because Chiklis does more real acting with his eyes than Gruffudd does with his whole CG body. Extra points for including the classic comic book image of him in a trenchcoat and fedora, as if that would work as a disguise. If his dramatic scenes come off as funny, it's because Story puts Grimm in a somewhat ridiculous situation with a fiancée (Laurie Holden) who obviously thinks she's in a soap opera.

Actually, it's unfair to slam Gruffudd. Reed is supposed to be a brilliant man who can barely see what's right in front of his face, even when it's a suddenly pliable nose. The Welsh actor tends to stammer and look nonplussed a lot, which is likely all Story asked of him. His accent, unfortunately, is as inconsistent as the grey in his hair, a plot point brought up for no reason other than to match the comic book.

Also stuck between serving movie needs and comic book fans is Victor Von Doom. McMahon doesn't seem all that torn, affecting a too-precise American accent that only once falters inexplicably into being British (McMahon is Australian). But the revision of Doom as a businessman obviously doesn't work; at the beginning of the film, he utters a line that will have fans howl. Dr. Doom would never admit that "...Richards is always right. He just doesn't always know what he has."

Half-way through, the production seems to recognize that it isn't clicking, and then starts throwing in the comic book elements rather than going back for reshoots. Someone snidely remarks it might be time for him to return to Latveria, when no mention has been made before at all. At least they follow (for a time) co-creator Jack Kirby's belief that Doom has only one small scar on his face. As for the famous mask that covers those matinee idol looks, that was a gift from the Latverian people for services rendered.

"How nice! A Dynamic Forces Dr. Doom mask replica! That will be perfect for when I start my career as, um, Dr. Doom. Bwa-ha-HAAAA! Why'd the room get so quiet?"

Then there's Alba. I actually bet Michael Goodson an extra planet rating that the Invisible Girl would have a nude scene. Sure, you can't actually see it, but it's there. Twice.

Alba actually has more weight here than you might expect, but in too many scenes, she seems like a little girl playing big girl, at least until bristling when Johnny dubs her the Invisible Girl instead of Woman. Maybe by the time the franchise reaches Sue and Reed having kids, she'll have the real gravity to be a tough mom.

And there should be a franchise. Though it has a lot of flaws, Fantastic Four left me wanting to see where they might go next. Clearly, the Ben Grimm/Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington) relationship gets the barest of nods here but is meant to grow. I've also got to give Story props for giving Stan Lee the best role of his career, and that's including playing himself in Mallrats. Casting the venerable creator as long-suffering Baxter Building mailman Willie Lumpkin? Genius. In Fantastic Four 2 they can use special effects for his ear-wiggling power.

The kids will love it, and should. Despite a PG-13 rating, this movie really has nothing too edgy - maybe it's the invisible nude scene, or a non sequitir swear word that seems carefully placed just to push it over into that -13 territory. Fantastic Four is lightly entertaining, but with more promise than actual delivery.


Derek McCaw

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