The release of “Fantastic Four” marks the beginning of the end for movies based on Marvel Comics’ upper tier of characters (until they greenlight an “Avengers” movie, anyway). The oldest of Marvel’s titles, the Fantastic Four have always had a devoted following, but have never enjoyed the same massive popularity or success as Spider-Man or the X-Men, both of which have twice been successfully adapted for the big screen (by Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer, respectively). With this latest effort, Avi Arad and company are hoping to reinvigorate Marvel’s movie division in advance of films based on Iron Fist, Iron Man (maybe they could combine these), and Ghost Rider, and also to put some recent high-profile disappointments (Elektra, Blade: Trinity) behind them.
As “Fantastic Four” opens, we find bankrupt scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) appealing to his former Yale classmate (and current Evil Industrialist) Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) for funding to finance a cosmic ray project that will “unlock secrets of the human genome,” etc. etc. Doom agrees, after securing a usurious cut of future profits, and Team Richards is on its way to Doom’s orbiting space station. Along for the ride are Reed’s ex-girlfriend and current Von Doom Inc. employee Dr. Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), Susan’s snowboarding/motorcycling/spaceship piloting brother Johnny (Chris Evans), and Reed’s pilot/bodyguard Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis). Doom comes along as well, for no other reason than to get all the principles in the same place for their imminent irradiation.
What happens next is the stuff of Marvel legend (well, except for Doom), as the group is bombarded by cosmic rays, with each member affected in different ways. As Dr. Storm tells us (Alba rates somewhere between Aline Cedrac and Christmas Jones on the Hot Babe Scientist believability scale), the storm caused fundamental changes to their DNA, resulting in Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, and the Thing. Doom is also altered, growing some kind of organic body armor and gaining the ability to shoot force lightning, or something.
Unfortunately, director Tim Story and crew have taken what could’ve been a harmless diversion and made a bad amalgam of “Melrose Place” and the “SuperFriends.” Between the angst-ridden nonsense of a Victor-Susan-Reed love triangle and Ben’s depression following his wife’s less than enthusiastic reaction to his new form, one gets the feeling the Baxter Building’s zip code is 90210. Extensive navel gazing might be acceptable in your typical romantic comedy, but this is the Fantastic Four. Granted, the comic book always had its share of familial dysfunction, and there’s plenty of time for that in a series that’s been running for over forty years. A movie that clocks in at 105 minutes, on the other hand, deserves more than two combat sequences spaced almost an hour apart.
The characters also take an inordinate of time bemoaning their superhero-ness. In fact, most of the second act is devoted to Reed’s attempts to construct a “Superman II” style chamber that will return the four to their normal, boring selves. Give Johnny some credit for thoroughly enjoying himself, while everyone else cowers in the Baxter Building trying to avoid applying the great power/great responsibility thing to their new abilities.
Everything about “Fantastic Four” feels rushed. The special effects are occasionally interesting (the space station scene), but too often merely look cheap (you can actually see Gruffudd’s real hand behind the CGI during a scene where he’s attempting to restrain the Thing). And Mark Frost’s screenplay attempts to capture some of the comic’s sense of whimsy, but too often resorts to emotional hand-wringing and bad puns (Susan calling Johnny a “hothead,” or comments that Reed “stretches himself too thin”), coming across like a rejected episode of “The O.C.” Then there are the little things, like the perfunctory romance between Ben and Alicia, the Thing’s fluctuating weight (he can absorb the impact of a truck hitting him full speed but can’t keep his feet in a three-foot high torrent of water, for example), or the presumption that Reed Richards would have every let Jessica Alba get away in the first place.
“Fantastic Four” is aimed squarely at 14-year-old boys, who most people probably assume comprise the core comic reading demographic. Fortunately for them, there’s plenty of goofy dialogue, Jessica Alba in her underwear, and “extreme” motocross and snowboarding to go around. Too bad for anyone else, unless the idea of seeing the two finalists for the role of James Bond (Gruffudd and McMahon) squaring off appeals to you. “Fantastic Four” is anything but, and should serve as an indication that maybe its time to put the brakes on the current avalanche of comic book adaptations.
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