All men may be created equal, but not all supermen are. In Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics' flagship supergroup suffers defeat from its own version of Kryptonite--weak direction and a weak script.
This is really the story of five individuals forever changed by a freak bombardment of cosmic rays while on a routine space mission. On the good guy side we have leader Reed Richards, (Ioan Gruffudd), the super-intelligent and highly elastic Mr. Fantastic; his former flame, Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), also a scientist, as The Invisible Woman; her brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), a hotrod pilot straight out of a Mountain Dew commercial, as the Human Torch, capable of transforming himself into a walking and flying ball of fire; and Ben Grimm, (Michael Chiklis), whose transformation into the nearly inhuman rock creature The Thing makes him the tragic figure of the group. On the bad guy side is Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), the sneering industrialist and scientist who bankrolls their mission and becomes the evil and aptly named Dr. Doom. Once this dysfunctional family figures out its powers--in a pile up on a New York City bridge for which they are largely responsible for in the first place--all that's left is one showdown with their cloaked and iron masked villain, who has very little objectives besides killing off his business partners and exacting some revenge on the Fantastic Four. Despite the ingenious idea of portraying these costumed characters as celebrities first and heroes second, the clumsy story fails to connect. It's a concept that should have worked, especially with today's tabloid and paparazzi obsessions. But like the rest of the movie, that idea fails to take flight. In other words, other than defending themselves, the quartet doesn't really have anything fantastic to do at all. Hmmm. Maybe comic-book movies are getting more realistic.
It's difficult, and unfair, to pin so much disappointment in a movie on its performers. Good actors often bear the brunt of a poorly made movie. In this case, the actors aren't bad--they're just miscast. Gruffudd as their reluctant leader has neither the angst nor the gravity of the real Mr. Fantastic. Instead, he's a charming fop. Alba is indeed beautiful but suffers from bimbo scientist syndrome, which she must have caught from former Bond-girl Denise Richards, who played a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough just as convincingly. Nip/Tuck's Julian McMahon, channeling Kevin Spacey, is decent but is given very little to do. Only Chiklis and Evans shine here. Although they deserve every bit of credit, they are the only characters the writers--and there were many--cared enough about, giving them full-fledged personas. Chiklis captures the morose quality of the Ben Grimm, even under a full-body suit, which works better than photos suggest. It's more of a departure from his TV role as a tough cop in FX's The Shield than you might expect. And Evans (Cellular) gets all of the best lines in the movie, especially when he insists that everyone should enjoy their powers instead of fighting them. Of course, it helps if you can become a human firebomb and still look really good.
While not on the iconic level of Batman and Spider-Man, the members of the Fantastic Four are integral to comics history. They're the first superheroes created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, and from the moment of their debut in 1961, they not only created Marvel Comics, they were also already different from the ones that followed. The characters called each other by their first names and harbored no secret identities. They fought and bickered like any family. Now, we have the big-screen version--and unfortunately, although faithful to the intent and style of the comics, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Fantastic Four apparently languished for a decade in development, so there is an unmistakable rushed feeling to everything. Not only does the film skimp on showing their trip to and from space, but it also seems to have cleared out every other person except for the main characters, who spend all their time talking only to each other. Other than the occasional small cheering New York City crowd or a brief appearance by Ben Grimm's blind love interest (Kerry Washington), where is everyone? And by opting for realism over sheer whimsy, director Tim Story (Barbershop) seems to have fallen for another silver screen superheroes trap--the more realistic we try to make them, the more unrealistic they become. It may have been best to leave Fantastic Four to the world of animation. In fact, the best version of a family of superheroes--Brad Bird's The Incredibles--beat this movie into theaters by nearly a year.
Fantastic Four needs its own cosmic ray boost. From a distance it has all the necessary trappings of a good superhero movie--colorful characters, a catastrophe that turns them into freaks and then heroes, a dastardly villain. But the devil is in the details. The best of the comic book movies in recent years have demonstrated that thrills and spectacle don't have to be strangers to wit and grace.