In returning to the well of Marvel Comic superhero characters for inspiration, Twentieth Century Fox bypasses the single characters (like Daredevil and Elektra) that have served the studio as poorly in the past as they’ve done other studios (Universal with The Hulk, New Line with The Punisher–only Sony really hit the bull’s eye with Spider-Man), and instead tries to duplicate its successful X-Man formula with this even older team of amazing characters. The Fantastic Four were created back in 1961 as Marvel’s answer to DC’s Justice League, and their title has been published without interruption since then. On the basis of this initial feature showcase (aside from an unreleased cheapie in the mid-nineties), however, it’s doubtful whether they’ll have the same longevity on the screen as they’ve had on the printed page.
The quartet consists of a group of astronauts endowed with a variety of special powers as a result of exposure to mysterious space radiation. They include Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), an earnest, intense scientist named Reed Richards who’s become an elastic man; siblings Johnny and Sue Storm (Chris Evans and Jessica Alba), he a hot-shot action-lover and she a hottie scientist, who are transformed into the fiery Human Torch and the elusive Invisible Girl; and hearty pilot Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), close buddy of Reed, who becomes the permanently Hulk-ing rock-man The Thing. Reluctantly banding together to form a squad of superheroes without secret identities after Johnny’s exhibitionism and Ben’s very public depression get them a notoriety most never wanted, and intent on trying to reverse the process, they confront their first menace in the form of Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon). Doom represents the major deviation, as it were, from the comic story in that he’s no longer the wickedly imperialistic ruler of an imaginary country called Latveria but one of the original space crew, a nasty billionaire industrialist who’s always been a rival of Reed’s (for scientific recognition as well as Sue’s heart) and who, as the owner-operator of the ship that takes the mission into space, also suffers the radiation blast but is made even more evil by its effects when he’s turned into a sort of ugly titanium man. (To be fair, he is still portrayed–somewhat oddly–as a native of Latveria, but little is made of it until a close that both swipes its visuals from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and is obviously designed to invite a sequel.) Our intrepid new heroes thus will not only have to overcome the divisions Doom has sewn among them but use their new powers in tandem to foil Doom’s dastardly plot to divide and conquer them and then presumably–you guessed it–take over the world.
This is all ultra-silly stuff, of course, which even on the printed colored page has always seemed both derivative and second-rate, but theoretically it could have been dumb fun as a movie. Unfortunately, the filmmakers–scripters Michael France (“Hulk,” “The Punisher”) and Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks”) and director Tim Story (“Taxi”)–succeed in getting only the dumb part right, omitting the fun entirely. In their hands “Fantastic Four” is a succession of chintzy-looking action scenes punctuated by exposition sequences of stunning puerility; the writing–which consists of laughable scientific jargon, juvenile jibes, slobbering romantic drivel, stentorian super-hero cliche and–heaven help us!–human interest smarminess (the movie actually wants to make us care about these “misfits of nature”!)–is so moldy and echt-cartoonish that it actually makes the dialogue that appears in speech bubbles in the comic sound profound. Presumably the intention was to maintain the cheesy goofiness of the old books, but the result is frankly something that comes perilously close to the campiness of the old “Batman” TV series, but with incongruously sappy elements added to the mix. (The encounters between The Grimm Thing and the wife who’s unable to accept what he’s become are worse even than the “intimate” moments between Richards and Sue.) The B-movie quality is accentuated by the no-star casting. Gruffudd, who cut a stalwart figure as A&E’s Horatio Hornblower, looks a bit embarrassed playing a character that might be marketed by Rubbermaid (of course, maybe it’s just his interpretation of the character’s emotional shyness), while Chiklis, who’s sort of like a gruff second-string replacement for Bruce Willis in human form, can’t do much when encased in his Thing outfit–though his having only four fingers on each hand is at least true to the cartoon bible. Alba is so strikingly lovely that one regrets her playing the figure that disappears on a regular basis, but Evans proves all too convincingly obnoxious as her jokey, prankster brother. Unfortunately, the movie lacks the strong villain it would need to work on its own goofy level. Dr. Doom, especially after his dons his metal mask, comes across like a bargain-basement Skeletor from the old He-Man cartoon (itself made into a dreadful live-action movie back in 1987), and his powers are never defined, so that he seems a cut-rate version of Magneto from “X-Men.” McMahon, moreover, plays him with a kind of generic Snidely Whiplash sneer, so that he’s never really interesting or amusing anyway. On the technical side, the movie is apparently aiming for an affectionately phony look, but the effects don’t achieve the outrageous looniness that’s presumably the goal, and the rather garish cinematography by Oliver Wood is frequently hard on the eye. Even the score by the John Ottman sounds tinny and weak.
The moral for Marvel in all this? “Spider-Man 4,” definitely. “Fantastic Four,” one is more than enough.