Director: Tim Story

Hollywood has been making cinematic adaptations of comic books for decades, as far back as the Batman and Superman serials in the 1940s. From superheroes in the Marvel and DC camps, to underground comics like Road To Perdition, Ghost World, and A History of Violence, very few comic book properties are safe from filmmakers. One of the most talked-about adaptations was the 1994 movie based on one of Marvel's most famous properties, the Fantastic Four. Produced by B-movie icon Roger Corman, the Fantastic Four movie was absolutely horrendous and has never been released, only seeing the light of day through online file-sharing programs and bootleggers at comic book conventions. Prompted by the influx of successful movies based on Marvel Comics properties that started with X-Men in 2000 (or with Blade in 1998, if you want to split hairs about it), Twentieth Century Fox decided to revisit the Fantastic Four a decade later with their own big-budget adaptation. With a bigger budget and an infinitely better cast, Fantastic Four premiered with much hype on July 8, 2005. But does it actually improve upon the previous disaster? That's what we're here to find out.

FANTASTIC FOUR (2005)Brilliant yet bankrupt scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) has developed a theory that evolution was sparked by Earth passing through clouds of cosmic energy millions of years ago, and calculates that Earth will soon be passing through one of these energy clouds again. With his best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) in tow, Reed begs his ultra-rich MIT classmate Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to let him use his company's space station to observe and study them. Victor agrees, but with the condition that he gets the final say in everything. Coming along for the ride are Victor's assistant Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and her daredevil brother Johnny (Chris Evans), passengers that affect Reed and Ben in separate ways. Johnny's youthful arrogance annoys Ben, while there's a certain tension between Reed and Sue, thanks to their failed romantic relationship while attending MIT.

The five travel up to the space station to perform their experiments, but things go awry when the clouds appear hours ahead of schedule and all five are zapped by its energy. They return home intact, but each of them eventually begin to mutate, developing their own separate superpowers. Reed discovers an ability to stretch and elongate any part of his body; Sue can generate force fields and becomes transparent at will; Johnny gains the powers of pyrokinesis and flight; and Ben has himself some fancy new super-strength. But unfortunately for poor Ben, his incredible strength is offset by his skin becoming craggy orange rock. And that sort of thing can be hazardous to both your self-esteem and love life too, because his disfigurement causes his wife to leave him while he falls into a pretty severe funk.

Although the use of their powers save numerous lives in a car crash on the Brooklyn Bridge (a situation that prompts the media to dub them "the Fantastic Four"), only Johnny really embraces his newfound powers, as Reed, Sue, and Ben want to resume their normal pre-mutation lives. This desire for a return to normalcy spurs on Reed's research into building a chamber to replicate and reverse the effects of the energy clouds. Meanwhile, Victor's skin is changing into an organic metal, as well as developing the ability to generate and manipulate bursts of electricity. Blaming Reed's space venture for the failure of his company, he sets into motion a plan to exact vengeance against his rival. He begins sowing seeds of dissent among their ranks, prodding Ben's low self-esteem by convincing him that Reed's work on the chamber isn't very high on his list of priorities. Though he causes a temporary rift between his adversaries, Victor's plan ultimately fails, and donning a sinister metal mask similar to Darth Vader's, he re-christens himself "Doctor Doom" and vows to crush the unified Fantastic Four.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, the Fantastic Four helped put Marvel Comics on the map. But alas, they just can't catch a break in the world of cinema. While it is most certainly better than its 1994 counterpart, this updated telling of the Fantastic Four story isn't very fantastic. Sure, it's entertaining, but it's perhaps mediocre at best. The screenplay, penned by Mark Frost and Michael France, makes for an incredibly uneven movie. While I personally thought that it was a good intro to the powers of the Four and Doctor Doom (an introduction that seems to draw inspiration from Marvel's "Ultimates" comics), it didn't really tell much of a story. The movie could have benefited from being twenty minutes longer. We're dropped right into the movie mere minutes before the fateful space trip that gives our lead characters their powers, and it's as if the filmmakers expect us to jump right in and expect us to be familiar with the characters from frame one. What are their backgrounds? How did they get to where they are? How are we supposed to believe that they're a family if that dynamic is never really established? I'm not a reader of the comics, I don't know these things. I understand they want to avoid wasting time by getting to their powers quickly, but a little character introduction is nice too. The relationship between the Thing and his blind girlfriend Alicia Masters, as played by Kerry Washington, is severely downplayed as well. The character of Alicia is pivotal in the Thing's development, right? Yeah, well, it's kinda hard to be pivotal when you're relegated to one scene where you buy someone a drink. Don't get me wrong, it's a great scene, but in the long run, it doesn't really do much. The movie's tone is very inconsistent, and comes across like it was aimed toward teenagers too young to properly appreciate other, better comic book adaptations like Batman Begins and Sin City. While I'll admit that the movie has a fun visual look and the special effects are good (not fantastic, but acceptable), it didn't seem like Story did enough to mask the flaws of the script he was working with.

Unfortunately, the weakness of the story is made more evident by weaknesses in the cast. Julian McMahon spends too much time being suave and cool and all that, and not enough time being a bad guy. It's like his agent forgot to tell him he wasn't on the set of Nip/Tuck or something. He's not helped by the fact that the role is written poorly, but at least McMahon could try to be intimidating. Doctor Doom is neck-and-neck with Magneto for the title of "coolest Marvel Comics villain," but in the movie, he's just another guy in a metal mask. Are we supposed to believe that he wants world domination because he's jealous of Reed and had a bad day on Wall Street? I'm sure they could have thought up some better motivation than that. Jessica Alba is severely miscast here as well, spending almost the whole of the movie looking like she's out of her element. Of the three movies Alba starred in over the course of 2005, she played a scantily-clad stripper, an invisible scientist, and a scantily-clad deep sea diver. If I may borrow a quote from Sesame Street, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong." As a red-blooded heterosexual male, I certainly have no problem staring at her for 106 minutes, but I don't believe she's a brainy scientist for a second. Maybe it's the fact that she's made a career out of starring in crap like Honey and Into The Blue, I don't know.

On the other hand, I have no problem with the other three members of the Fantastic Four. The character of Reed Richards isn't exactly the archetype of charisma, so Ioan Gruffudd allows himself to be in a supporting role for most of the movie. Gruffudd is very likable in the role, and if he'd been the focus of the movie for more than he was, I wouldn't have complained. The duo of Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans, meanwhile, are like Fantastic Four's answer to X-Men's Hugh Jackman, stealing every scene they're in. If one good thing can be said about the movie, it's that Chiklis and Evans have a great comedic chemistry together, which made the movie far more enjoyable than it probably had any right to be. Although he's buried under pounds and pounds of makeup, Chiklis gives the Thing a humanity that the role demands. The transition from normal-looking guy to hulking orange rock is a rough one for poor Ben Grimm, and Chiklis makes us believe it. And Evans is wonderfully hilarious as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. He's very effective in his depiction of Johnny as a brash loudmouth prick that you can't help but like.

And while I have your attention, I'd like to point out something that I noticed about the movie. Something that I think gets overlooked is that, like The Incredibles, each of the characters have particular powers that mirror their personalities. Reed's malleable body illustrates the concept that he often tries to stretch himself too thin across any given experiment or concept, while Sue's invisibility is a metaphor for how she often feels Reed overlooks her. Johnny's ability to set himself ablaze seems appropriate for someone who's willing to do just about anything to get attention, and Ben is a classic example of the old phrase "don't judge a book by it's cover." He has incredible strength and a gruff, intimidating exterior, but on the inside, he's a charming, friendly guy. And let's not forget Victor Von Doom, whose coldhearted nature is reflected in the cold steel that makes up his body.

Good points can be found in Fantastic Four, such as two scenes involving Ben (the one where his wife first sees him, and the one where he first meets Alicia). There is also an admirable sense of teamwork in the final climax, but it comes with no real buildup or reasoning. As I said earlier, the movie could have been a lot better had they only spent more time setting up the familial dynamic among the Four. Fantastic Four would have been a fantastic movie (no pun intended) with a little more effort, but its flaws really bog it down. But thanks to some good spots in spite of its glaring flaws, I'll give it a thumbs-in-the-middle with three stars. As always, however, your mileage may vary.

Final Rating: ***