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Rated 3.01 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Light Fantastic
by Jeffrey Chen

I feel sorry for the Fantastic Four. They were Marvel Comics' first superheroes, but instead of being the revered characters who started it all, they watched Spider-Man, Hulk, and the X-Men surpass them in popularity. The X-Men sting in particular -- after all, why follow the adventures of merely four heroes with unique individual powers when you could follow a whole school of them?

As a result, the Fantastic Four get shoved off to the side when superheroes contend for extra media attention. During this current renaissance of Marvel superheroes in cinema, not only have Spider-Man and the X-Men had two movies each, but even Daredevil and The Punisher got movies before the old-school foursome did. Now they've finally gotten their own movie (if you're not counting the 1994 Roger Corman cheapie that was never planned for release), and, sadly, even before seeing it, their film feels like a side project -- and, to add insult to injury, it's easily overshadowed by the rival DC superhero movie this year, Batman Begins.

Bringing up Batman drives home the important point that the bar for movies like these has been raised quite high -- Batman Begins received lavish praise for its depth and attention to character, as did last year's extravaganza, Spider-Man 2. So, again, poor Fantastic Four -- it has the depth of a Saturday morning cartoon. Since this is the origin story, it would've been one of those three-part episodes, where the story hurries to get explanations across, knowing there's only 21 minutes per episode to cram everything in. Meanwhile, the characters don't appear to have real personalities -- they're given one-dimensional stock ones you can quickly tag a label on. The nerd. The hothead. The guy with the gruff exterior but warm interior. The smart and sexy woman.

It seems like no one wanted to give these characters a real chance. We don't detect a vision for the story -- their tale is told perfunctorily. The movie sets the tone right away when Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) meets with his corporate benefactor, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), to convince him to fund a space mission that will "benefit all humanity"  (naturally). So, without wasting time, the principles go to a space station, and a cosmic storm hits them, and they're back on earth in the hospital, and then they slowly begin to discover they've been endowed with super powers. The next thing you know, every cheesy cliche is on display, without any nuance -- Reed, since he's such a science nerd, can't communicate his true feelings to his ex-girlfriend, Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), who's seeing Von Doom only to see if that'll get Reed to snap out of it and express how he really feels. Reed's best bud, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), becomes a monster and is quite grumpy about it. Susan's brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), embraces his new power and tries to use it to gain fame and score with the ladies.

Corniness isn't bad when human elements of it are emphasized, but that's not what's going on here. Everything, from the acting to the dialogue (much of which is dreadful -- I mean, what's a reference to the Master Card "priceless" commercials doing in there anyway?), just sits on the surface. Evans plays one note, and plays it loudly. Alba is very pretty to look at, but that's because they've illogically displayed her scientist character's cleavage everywhere while dressing her in various tight outfits. Her frustrated romance dialogue with Gruffudd is less expressive than most of what's on the WB, and delivered in that spirit.

The only one who manages to make something of a character out of his role is Chiklis, all the more ironic since he's the one stuck in a big orange suit and makeup. Chiklis looks like he's trying to give more to his part than what's on the page, and it's sad to see his efforts doing battle with some very poorly  written scenes. The most out-of-place moment comes in the scene where the foursome have made their public debut, and, after people had been recoiling in fear of Ben, who is now the frightening, golem-like Thing, they applaud him because of his heroic work in rescuing some imperiled firemen. But, oh no, in the midst of his moment of glory, here comes his wife whom he visited and terrified the night before, appearing literally out of nowhere, just to give a teary "I can't accept this!" look and throw her wedding band to the ground. There's no context for this moment, no congruence with the action scene that just happened before. Instead of letting the actor/character elicit emotion from his performance, we're given a cue that sticks out like a sore thumb. It feels cheap because it is cheap.

Fantastic Four had the potential for a few interesting themes, the most conspicuous of which is today's cult of instant celebrity. These heroes don't have secret identities, and after their public appearance, they are followed around by a curious public eager to see more of the friendly freak show. Like the "Runaway Bride," they even get their moniker, "The Fantastic Four," from the media; like many media-made personalities, they react in predictable ways -- some, like Johnny the Human Torch, revel in it; others, like Susan the Invisible Woman hide from it; meanwhile, Reed, now the elastic Mr. Fantastic, just carries on with his pursuits. Alas, the movie sets up an interesting situation here and then does nothing with it.

Fantastic Four is like a child of a movie, wanting to sit at the adults' table with Spider-Man and Batman Begins, but then told to go the other side of the room and play with its toys -- ironic because it really should be seen as a Marvel Comics granddaddy. Since no one else takes it seriously, it can't take itself seriously either; as such, it's content with being funny and shallow. The most endearing terms I might come up with for this film are "dorky" and "cute," but "cute" is never what a superhero movie aspires to be.

(Released by Twentieth Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for sequences of intense action and some suggestive content.)

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