Fantastic Four
directed by Tim Story
(20th Century Fox, 2005)

I went into Fantastic Four with purposefully low expectations, which allowed me to be pleasantly surprised. While FF was nowhere near the quality of recent Spider-Man and X-Men movies (let's ignore Daredevil and Hulk for now), it certainly allows me to believe the Marvel Comics franchise is in good hands.

The Fantastic Four is often considered the flagship title for Marvel. In short, a group of friends blast into space for scientific research when they are caught in a cosmic storm that changes their DNA and gives them remarkable powers: invisibility, fire, stony strength and, um, stretchiness.

There isn't as much action in the movie as one might expect, but the steady pacing gives characters time to develop and come to grips with their new abilities before matching them against their first arch-foe. Oh, and the movie doesn't have the best dialogue I've heard in a while, but when the cosmic storm hits the Von Doom space station, the special effects get wickedly cool.

First, let's look at the team. The brilliant scientist Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards is neatly played with heavy doses of idealism and social awkwardness by Ioan Gruffudd. The cosmic rays have left him stretchy and malleable, but Gruffudd -- with the help of some seriously cool CGI -- makes a potentially goofy power work on the big screen. Jessica Alba is reserved, even chilly, as the Invisible Woman/Sue Storm, until circumstances force her back into the pliable arms of ex-beau Reed. Then she quickly warms up -- and not only because her brother is often on fire.

Chris Evans, as the hotshot Human Torch/Johnny Storm, is flashy and arrogant, having way too much fun with his powers and sudden celebrity. As the mighty, rock-faced Thing/Ben Grimm, Michael Chiklis is a gruff and loyal mook with big muscles, sad eyes and some serious need for a pick-me-up. Johnny's never-say-die approach to life is a nice foil for Ben's tragic gloom, and together they provide the film's lightest and heaviest scenes.

And who'd have thought of recasting the villainous Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) as a handsome and charismatic industrialist? Granted, Doom's comic-book facade -- bloodshot eyes peeping through the slits in a medieval-style suit of armor and green cloak -- doesn't make much sense in a modern world. The movie reboot plops Doom right in the middle of the action, and his own exposure to cosmic rays soon has him developing super-hard metal skin and tricky new electrical powers. Still, for all his icy calm and unsatiable ambition, the love triangle set up to create additional tension between him and Reed is cliched and unnecessary.

There's also a fascinating glimpse of -- um, those tricky little "unstable molecule" outfits the superteam wears. The way my wife elbowed me in the ribs when Sue displayed them, you'd think there was something else to see. (Did I mention that, on one of her early attempts to go invisible, Sue flashes a bridge full of bystanders in a lacy bra and panties? Of course, the lingerie was of the "stable molecule" variety.)

The cast is good all around, and the special effects are expertly applied. So why, when the FF makes its first public appearance -- at a rather spectacular traffic pile-up initially caused by the Thing -- does the public seem completely unsurprised? Have New Yorkers become so jaded by Spider-Man and the X-Men that a rock man, a flame man, a putty man and a beautiful woman in her underwear don't even warrant a raised eyebrow?

Fantastic Four has garnered plenty of mixed reviews, but I hope the studio doesn't give up on it just yet. Now, with the characters in place and their powers revealed, the team is poised for a more action-packed sequel, and I hope to see this cast return to do the job.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 30 July 2005

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