Fantastic Four, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Fantastic Four is the comic book that gave birth to Marvel Comics, making it the older sibling to such better-known titles as Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Incredible Hulk. The reason Fantastic Four has been relegated to the role of "ugly stepsister" is simple: a lack of publicity. While those other comic books have been honored with their own big-budget Hollywood films, Fantastic Four has languished, with only two animated TV series and a so-bad-it-was-never-released 1994 feature to its name. Now, that has changed. Fantastic Four has gotten its own $100 million movie. Too bad the adjective in the title is not an apt descriptor.

Roughly 25 years ago, when I was going through my "comic book phase," Fantastic Four was one of three titles I regularly purchased. Although it has been more than two decades since I visited the superhero quartet, the characters I remember are captured with superficial faithfulness in this film. Unfortunately, they are saddled with a lackluster story that feels like it was cobbled together from pieces of other comic book-inspired motion pictures. The Four never get a chance to shine - at least not in the way that another Marvel superhero ensemble (the X-Men) did. Fantastic Four fans have a right to feel shortchanged. This movie is more like a B-grade comic book adaptation than the A-list production it should have been.

The film's first problem is the decision to make this an "origin" story, telling how the Fantastic Four came into being. This is only going to make completists happy. This superhero group has a lame beginning, so we're treated to about an hour of corny dialogue and silly plot development. By the time the Four are ready to go to battle, the running time is nearing its ending. Thus, Fantastic Four ends up seeming like a prologue - or, perhaps a pilot for a TV series. Compare this to any of the other superhero origin stories - Superman, Batman Begins, Spider-Man, The Hulk - and its lack of imagination (not to mention epic scope) is staggering. Sad to say, but Fantastic Four feels small.

When the movie opens, genius scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and his best buddy, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), are approaching billionaire Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) about financing a project. Reed wants to spend some time on Victor's space station and use the opportunity to study the effects of cosmic rays on living material. Victor agrees, provided Reed gives him 75% of all potential proceeds. Since Reed is in it for the greater good of humanity (not the money), he agrees. Also along on the trip are Victor's assistant, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), who once had a relationship with Reed, and her brother, hothead Johnny Storm (Chris Evans). Predictably, things go wrong. All four are exposed to cosmic rays, and the experience "fundamentally alters" their DNA. Reed's body becomes elastic. Sue gains the ability to turn invisible at will. Ben becomes a hulking rock creature with incredible strength. And Johnny learns to "flame on" whenever he can't find a match. Victor, however, taps into the dark side of the cosmic rays and learns how to manipulate electricity. Rather than joining his companions in defending truth, justice, and the American way, he puts on a Darth Vader-like mask and pronounces himself to be Doctor Doom.

The weak, uneven nature of the story isn't helped by the miscasting of two of the five major roles. As adorable as she may be, Jessica Alba is not right for Sue Storm, a.k.a. Invisible Girl. This is the worst portrayal of a female scientist since Denise Richards tried it in The World Is Not Enough (Merry Christmas, indeed). She's not convincing. She delivers her lines like she's reading them off cue cards. I would normally call Alba wooden, but her body moves with such fluidity that it's unfair in this case. Also less than impressive is Julian McMahon, who's too busy acting suave to be menacing. Dr. Doom is arguably Marvel's most famous bad guy, but here, he's just another jealous guy in a mask.

On the flip side, three of the Fantastic Four are good. In a way, Ioan Gruffudd (it's easier to say than spell) has a thankless task. Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, isn't the most charismatic superhero. He's the geek of the group. Gruffudd recognizes this and underplays his part, allowing Reed to remain in the background until circumstances force the character into the spotlight. Chris Evans is on-target as the brash-yet-likable Johnny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch. There are times when you want to reach into the screen and slap him, but it's not hard to see that he's basically a nice guy who needs to grow up. The real standout is Michael Chiklis. Despite being buried under layers of latex, Chiklis brings out the humanity in Ben Grimm, a.k.a. the Thing. He's Fantastic Four's Wolverine - the one among equals who steals nearly every scene he's in. Chiklis makes us feel for the Thing, whose conflicted emotions about his appearance represent one subplot that works.

Speaking of subplots, there's an annoying love triangle between Reed, Sue, and Victor that seems to have been written by and for 12-year old girls. Sue and Reed have some nice scenes together, but forcing Victor into the mix doesn't work. That's not the only problem with the good Doctor. He's a villain without a credible motivation. Are we supposed to believe that he wants to rule the world because he's jealous of Reed and has had a bad day on Wall Street? This isn't the Doctor Doom I remember. I'd say bring on Galactus for the next film (if there is a next film, which is by no means a certainty), but I'm afraid of what they'll do to him.

Director Tim Story (Barbershop) fails to develop a consistent tone, and this picture seems targeted at a less mature audience than many of the recent comic book movies. Alba has the dubious distinction of going from one of the most mature of these (Sin City) to one aimed squarely at the crowd for which PG-13 was created. It's tough to blame all of Fantastic Four's problems on Story, but he certainly didn't do a lot to downplay the screenplay's flaws.

Fantastic Four has its good points - there are individual scenes that work. (Consider Ben's "discussion" with a suicide victim and his meeting with Kerry Washington's Alicia.) The special effects are variable, but all four of the superheroes are rendered effectively. There's a nice sense of teamwork in the final battle, and it contains moments of surprise and excitement. Too bad that it comes too quickly and with too little build-up. Fantastic Four is frustrating because it doesn't seem far removed from a wholly enjoyable motion picture, but the tempo's off, beats are missed, and the production ends up sounding out-of-tune.

Fantastic Four, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1