Fantastic Four

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A mission to Victor von Doom’s private space station to study the genetic effects of solar storms goes awry, causing – how to put it? – complications for scientist Reed Richards and his companions. As the four ‘victims’ get used to their new powers and the instant celebrity their abilities bring, they discover that the fifth member of their party, von Doom himself, has also acquired some new abilities and intends to use them to further his own ends.

At the risk of repeating myself whenever I watch a movie based on comic books, my knowledge of these things rarely rises above absolute ignorance. So, whereas I was aware that the Fantastic Four were, like the X-Men, a Stan Lee creation, I was not aware of his collaborator Jack Kirby or indeed which of the superhero teams came first. Interestingly, the Four appeared before the X-Men in comic book form, while (excluding a cheap film basically made to retain the rights) the X-Men were the first to make it into theatres. A matter of luck, or a case of superior evolution winning out?

Fantastic Four gets into its stride pretty quickly. Exceptional but penniless scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), accompanied by thick-set friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), approaches his old college buddy turned mega-rich entrepreneur Victor Von Doom (Julian MacMahon) to see if he can borrow his space station to test his theories on genetic evolution in the teeth of an imminent solar storm. Von Doom negotiates a generous cut of any profits and gets in on the project, meaning that his Director of Genetics Research Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) and her cocky pilot brother Johnny (Chris Evans) also come along for the ride.

Susan is both Reed’s ex-girlfriend and the current apple of Victor’s eye, causing some tension within the group; but not half so much as when Reed’s solar winds turn up several hours early, von Doom’s decision not to deploy the station’s shields covering the whole group in solar energy. Although everyone wakes up back on Earth apparently none the worse for the experience, Ben suddenly finds himself transformed into a rock-hard giant, much to his and fiancée Debbie’s disgust. Meanwhile, Johnny is delighted to find that he has the power to both produce and become a flaming ball of fire; Susan discovers that she can become invisible and produce a force field, whilst Reed finds that he is almost infinitely stretchy.

The group, dubbed The Fantastic Four by the media and named The Thing, The Human Torch, Invisible Girl and Mr Fantastic, are shut away whilst Fantastic (ie. Reed) works on a way of reversing the process. Von Doom – or just plain Doom, looking increasingly metallic – starts to exhibit powers such as control over electricity, which he uses to eliminate the suits who have taken over his company. Since Reed is responsible for his condition, he is next on Doom’s hit list, regardless of who tries to get in the way.

It might not be a fair comparison, and almost certainly wasn’t director Tim Story’s intention, but for anyone who has watched the X-Men series The Fantastic Four can’t help but feel like a Junior gang, a practice league of superheroes, a warm-up act. In part, this is down to the straightforward way in which the tale is told, the way the heroes come about (no concentration camps here) and the relatively bright world they live in (The Thing is orange, the others’ suits a shiny blue). The abilities of the Four are more often used for comic effect than for heroism and the film only boasts two big set-pieces, the first a rescue on the Brooklyn Bridge from a pile-up initially caused by Ben, the second the battle against Doom (now sporting an immobile mask).

The effects for both of these sequences are very good, though since The Thing is a latex rather than CG creation, he never looks quite as solid as he should; but our superheroes spend altogether too much time shut away rather than being heroic. Also, although there are a few murders in the film, the sense of peril is never particularly acute (Invisible Girl gets a nose bleed when she’s stressed, but that’s about as threatened as our heroes’ lives get).

Casting only adds to the sense that these are not Major League heroes. Chris Evans is the most entertaining of the gang, though Torch’s obsession with extreme sports feels like the product of marketing men seeking target demographics and product placement opportunities; Jessica Alba also seems chosen specifically to attract young boys, a thought an entirely gratuitous scene in which she strips to her undies does nothing to contradict. She’s not particularly convincing as a scientist, and doesn’t share much chemistry with Gruffudd’s Reed, a real shame since the film spends altogether too much time developing Reed’s bashful love for her.

Gruffudd looks the part as Mr Fantastic, though he’s obviously too old for Susan, but I assume that he spent all his effort erasing his Welsh accent and didn’t have much energy to expend on charisma. Chiklis becomes the de facto leading man and thankfully he exudes real pathos as he slowly comes round to his new role in the world. In commentary, Chiklis states that he was the sole fan of the comics amongst the cast: it shows.

Fantastic Four is a competent and undemanding superhero movie, and perfectly good fun as long as you don’t expect to find significance or thought-through mechanics beneath the surface (if you look closely, a world of plot holes emerges: exactly how does Ben reverse the reversing machine, without Doom’s extra energy input? Despite Reed’s explanation, since suits don’t have DNA, how can they possibly match the powers of the wearer? Where the hell is Latveria?). Its ethics, language and violence are comic-book in an old-fashioned sense, which is in no sense a criticism. Unfortunately, for a generation aware of X-Men, The Dark Knight, Watchmen and so on, the one-dimensional dispositions of the Four are likely to come across as unsophisticated and insufficiently complex.

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