Fantastic Four

It’s not often that I’ll go to a movie that I strongly suspect I won’t like. If I do, I’m hoping that I’ll see some appealing quality in the film that others missed, or maybe that my expectations have been diminished to the point where I can enjoy a mediocre effort. Either way it’s not much to bet seven bucks and two hours of my life on. In this case the gamble paid off.

The buzz on Fantastic Four has been negative for over a year. On sites like Aint-it-cool-news and Coming Attractions fans have been carping about the director, the casting, the script, the early publicity photos-everything. Of course, fanboys are a notoriously hard group to please. Still when a movie is this universally dreaded, you know something’s wrong. And then, of course, when people started seeing it, the invective really started. It’s not quite like the reaction to Battlefield Earth; there are some positive notices, but even they are lukewarm at most.

The Fantastic Four was one of Stan Lee’s first stabs at adding psychological depth to his adventure stories. Over the years artists and writers have built on the dynamics of this dysfunctional crime fighting team until we have something truly complex and deep. Spider-Man will always be the best Marvel character but FF is up there.

So it is really a shame that the filmmakers decided to throw away four decades of carefully constructed backstory, filled with nuance and psychological depth, to make a cheesy family movie. It’s another case of the director and the studio just not getting it. They didn’t have the imagination to see what this project could have been.

Mind you, as a cheesy family film, Fantastic Four isn’t bad. It just could have been so much more.

First the setup. Super genious Reed Richards, played by Ioan Gruffudd, is almost broke and wants to conduct an expensive experiment in space. He goes to college rival Victor Von Doom, played by Julian McMahon, who’s company happens to have a space habitat in orbit. Richards takes his childhood friend, Ben Grimm, played by Michael Chiklis, to the pitch meeting, and they run into Reed’s old flame Sue Storm, played by Jessica Alba. Sue works for Victor and they are an item. The pitch is a success and the four of them, joined by Sue’s younger brother Johnny Storm, played by Chris Evans, go to the station, where there’s an accident involving cosmic rays and they all get super powers. I won’t elaborate on who gets what,because you probably already know.

I liked some of the performances. Ioan Gruffudd believably plays Reed as an insecure nerd. Micheal Chiklis is rugged but vulnerable as Ben Grimm. Chris Evans finds a lot of humor in the role of Johnny Storm. His barbed exchanges with Ben are very funny. Jessica Alba isn’t bad; she just doesn’t take any chances. Neither does Julian McMahon, who plays Dr. Doom as a stock villain, when in fact, he’s one of the best bad guys in the Marvel universe.

That’s the problem with this whole enterprise. No risks were taken. It’s strictly by the numbers filmmaking. The effects are adequate; the sets are nice but nothing to write home about. It falls far short of the new standard set by Batman Begins.

But if you know all that going in, you might just come out thinking that Fantastic Four is not a waste of two hours on a hot summer afternoon.  How’s that for a lukewarm recomendation?

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