Review by Mark Walters

 

There are a few comic books that just about everyone is familiar with.  Obviously SUPERMAN, BATMAN and SPIDER-MAN rank at the top of that list.  Just underneath are titles like CAPTAIN AMERICA and X-MEN.  But the book that has remained the most endearing over the years is the first family of Marvel Comics, the FANTASTIC FOUR.  What makes their story so great is the relationships they have with one another.  They are a family first, and superheroes second.  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had an instant hit on their hands when the title first came out in 1961.  Those stories became immediate classics with comic fans worldwide, and the characters remain popular to this day.  A decade or so back when Marvel was foolishly giving movie rights to any studio that wanted them, Roger Corman got his hands on the popular property, and produced a laughably bad interpretation of the heroic team.  To date that version has never seen an official release, which believe me is for the best.  In more recent years, Marvel has seemed to be on top at the box office, with big budget takes on characters like SPIDER-MAN, BLADE, X-MEN, DAREDEVIL, THE PUNISHER, and more.  When their properties started to become popular in Hollywood, several folks behind the scenes wanted to see the FF get a proper big screen treatment.  Directors like Chris Columbus (HOME ALONE, HARRY POTTER 1 and 2), Raja Gosnell (SCOOBY-DOO 1 and 2), and Peyton Reed (DOWN WITH LOVE) were at one point attached.  But the man who ultimately won the job to helm the feature was Tim Story, who previously directed BARBERSHOP and TAXI.  The cast came together quickly, featuring popular actors like Michael Chiklis and Jessica Alba, and lesser-known names like Ioan Gruffudd and Chris Evans.  Many started to wonder if Marvel was simply hoping for another successful film franchise likewhat  X-MEN has become.  Did they get it?

 

 The film begins with Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and his best buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) looking for financial funding for a space mission which could help provide important scientific data.  Their attempts haven't worked out so well with others, so as a last resort Reed calls upon billionaire Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) for help.  Doom agrees, under the pretense he'll get a bulk of the financial profit.  To complicate matters Reed's ex-girlfriend Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) is now working closely with Doom, creating some added tension for an already delicate situation.  Susan enlists her cocky brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) to pilot the mission, which rounds out the team.  Reed hopes to gather information from a passing cosmic storm, but things go wrong when the storm hits the ship, and all five of them fall victim to it.  At first everyone seems unaffected by the event, but the media looks badly on the mission, and it becomes an embarrassment for Doom's company.  Soon Reed, Ben, Susan, and Johnny begin to notice certain unusual side effects in their DNA.  Johnny's body has the ability to burst into flames, Reed has the ability to elongate any part of his body, and Susan finds she can turn invisible and create force fields.  Ben's side effects become the most noticeable though, as his skin turns into rock, and he develops super strength.  Meanwhile Doom is going through problems within his company, as the board of directors feels he is no longer capable of running the very corporation he built.  Victor also starts to change, learning he has capabilities to control electricity.  While the four friends find themselves using their powers for good, Doom begins to thirst for ultimate power, and soon becomes a significant threat.  Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben become local heroes, calling themselves the Fantastic Four.  While they appear to be amazing from the outside, their relationships with one another become increasingly difficult as a result of their new powers.  Only by working together as a group can they successfully fight evil, and keep Doom from abusing his new abilities.

The FANTASTIC FOUR works on many levels, giving us a different and more engaging look at a superhero team.  Each of the four heroes have unique qualities, and interact with each other in interesting ways.  While Reed and Sue have to deal with still having feelings for each other, Johnny and Ben seem to always be competing.  Rather than watching multiple characters from different walks of life, this is like watching a dysfunctional family trying to make things work.  They also have individual problems to deal with.  Ben is devastated with the change in his appearance, which not only makes things physically difficult, but also destroys his marriage.  Reed is trying desperately to prove himself as a competent scientist, even when the biggest experiment of his life goes awry.  Sue must deal with her lingering feelings for Reed.  And Johnny is a bit too enthusiastic about being a thrill seeker.  As a group they are all very fun to watch.  Then there's Doom.  Unfortunately this character never seems to develop very well.  In many ways his storyline is a thinly veiled retread of the Green Goblin origin in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN.  While I like Julian McMahon as an actor, his performance here is pretty subdued, making the character fairly weak.  There are many elements that could've been played upon better with him, such as his anger at Reed for screwing up the mission, or Sue falling back into Reed's arms and not his.  Sadly these factors are only brushed upon briefly.  Doom ends up just being an eccentric madman.  Comic fans will find some nice elements in the film, such as the personalities of the heroes, and the perception the public has of them.  There is one particularly pleasing moment where FF creator Stan Lee shows up in a cameo as the group's mailman Willie Lumpkin.  But where films like X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN succeeded with their devotion to the source material, FANTASTIC FOUR comes across more like just a fun time at the movies, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Director Tim Story manages to pull off some nice moments here and there, though a few scenes might seen too simplistic for a film like this.  Then again that could just be the filmmakers attempt to relate to all ages.  I was let down at the fact the Reed Richards (also referred to as Mr. Fantastic), despite being the team leader never really does all that much.  In many ways he's the most visually pleasing to watch in terms of his power, but unfortunately most of the action takes place with the other characters.  Guess I should note I was also disappointed that Cyclops wasn't showcased more in the X-MEN movies, seeing as how the scenario was very similar.  Gruffudd does a fine job playing Reed, and I'm glad they went with a lesser known actor for this part, so audience expectations wouldn't interfere with the role.  Alba is stunning as Sue Storm (also called the Invisible Woman), and even pulls off the nerdy hot chick look pretty well in a few scenes.  But trying to accept her spout off lengthy lines of scientific dialogue is tough.  One could simply say hot chicks never talk like that.  Yeah I know, that sounds chauvinistic, but you'll see what I mean.  The two most impressive performances are Chris Evans as the wisecracking Johnny Storm (also referred to as the Human Torch) and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm (also called The Thing).  Perhaps it's their competitive banter with each other that makes them so much fun to watch.

While some of the dialogue is cleverly written and delivered, other lines come off as a little wooden and forced.  There are also some minor inconsistencies in the story, like Reed supposedly being broke, yet able to afford constructing a large and complicated machine that would easily cost millions to build.  We must be somewhat forgiving too of things like seeing folds in Ben Grimm's "rock" skin, which isn't too distracting because the outfit still looks great.  While I enjoyed the first half of the film, the second half seemed a tad unpolished.  I found the finale just a bit weak too.  The big fight between Doom and the team feels more like something you would see in the middle of the film and not the end, giving the movie an almost anti-climatic feel.  Overall it's not a bad superhero movie, but pretty tame in comparison the the other big Marvel flicks of recent years.  It certainly does set itself up properly for a sequel.  Kids will enjoy the effects, but adults may find it all to be a bit repetitive in design.  THE INCREDIBLES pretty much did these types of characters and storyline on the big screen already, and did it so well, that anything inferior feels just that.  Maybe I'm being too critical, but since I've been a fan of the comic for so many years, I guess I've come to expect a more direct translation.  Don't get me wrong, I liked a lot of the film, just not all of it... but I did have fun.

BIGFANBOY.com score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best, I give FANTASTIC FOUR a 7.


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