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July 12, 2005 > Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

Directed by Tim Story

by Jeremy Inman

As a result of Hollywood's apparent almost-universal lack of creative inspiration, comic book properties are being tapped (or is it milked?) as an increasingly more popular and mainstream form of entertainment. According to Wizard Magazine, there are currently over 150 comic book franchises in some stage of the film production process. With the recent success of Batman Begins, the staying power of Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man and the recently announced Superman Returns, there is enough "nerd media" floating around to keep any comic book junky fixed for the foreseeable future. I can't help but think that it's a glorious time to be a nerd. Characters that comic book fans have been familiar with for thirty years are now making their way into the spotlight.

It's a fine line for studios to walk as they attempt to make these properties hip and accessible to new fans without changing them so much that the old fans lose their faith. Case in point: take any Marvel movie franchise outside the X-Men or Spider-Man powerhouses and you'll find them drastically altered. Hulk was a two and a half hour film about a giant green monster that only showed up for a half an hour of the flick. Punisher took everyone's favorite dark New York anti-hero and stuck him smack dab in the middle of sunny Florida. These movies strayed from the original stories and subsequently met with disaster. Hello Hollywood! These stories have been around for decades and, believe it or not, they've worked. Leave them alone!

Spider-Man worked because Sam Raimi remained true to the characters without changing too much of the story. Batman Begins proved that you can make a serious comic book movie that works. Fox's recent Fantastic Four (FF) took a stab at making a widely-accessible summer blockbuster that is still true to the source material; it just about pulls it off. But before beginning my review at this point, I'd like to take a second to clarify any confusion about the sure-to-be numerous connections that new (and uninitiated) fans will draw between Marvel's fabled Fantastic Four and Pixar's The Incredibles.

Look at the FF - one stretches, one is super strong, another turns invisible. These guys have been around since the early sixties. When this group, Marvel's first family of "imaginauts," took a fateful journey into space and became dosed with cosmic radiation, it left them with amazing powers. The Incredibles, aside from being a gorgeous and enjoyable film, is a big, computer-generated heap of homage to characters like the X-Men's Cyclops and Iceman, the Justice League's The Flash, and every member of the FF, even the Human Torch. Recall the end of The Incredibles when baby Jack-Jack morphs into representations of the FF's Johnny Storm, the Incredible Hulk, and X-Men's Colossus. The name, "Incredible," is just a synonym for fantastic. The final scene of The Incredibles, when the "Underminer" rises from his underground lair, is a direct tribute to one of the earliest issues of the Fantastic Four when the quartet confronts the Mole Man. So, kiddies, Fantastic Four came first - way first!

Now that that's out of my system, Fox's new Fantastic Four flick shines on a number of levels but will be bound to leave audiences wanting more, especially with a running time of only 110 minutes. The film wastes no time getting started - the heroes are in space and irradiated in less than 15 minutes - but was also shortened by reportedly heavy editing. Unfortunately for some fans, this means that they didn't take time to explain the origins of the heroes or their villain. In the comic, Victor Von Doom is the original Darth Vader: a bastard child of science and wizardry and the totalitarian ruler of his own European nation, Latveria. In the movie, he's a brilliant but greedy industrialist from Latveria who funds and accompanies the team on their trip into space. Unfortunately, they didn't give Julian McMahon a dialect coach for an appropriate Eastern European accent, but he still plays the part with respectable ruthlessness.

We meet our leader and reluctant hero Reed Richards, played adequately by Ioan Gruffudd (of Horatio Hornblower) as he and his stout best friend Ben Grimm (played to perfection by The Shield's Michael Chiklis) approach Doom for funding. Doom and Richards are former MIT students and rivals, adding context to their relationship and filling Doom with a scornful glee when he agrees to fund the trip. The three go into space along with Reed's ex and Doom's current girlfriend Sue Storm and her cocky younger brother, Johnny.

Hit by unidentified cosmic energy, they develop powers seemingly representative of their personalities. Reed, who is stretched thin in a constant struggle to stay financially afloat and keep himself and his mind together, gains the ability to stretch and contort his body. Sue, who has been continually ignored throughout her life, gains the ability to turn invisible and create force fields to protect her from the outside world. Hothead and showoff Johnny gains the ability to generate and control flame while Ben becomes a tragic character as his strong exterior surface (which houses his soft, mushy interior) is transformed into solid rock - a state from which he cannot return. Doom's powers develop slowly, almost unnoticed. A man of power, he learns that he can absorb and emit electricity; his metallic, inhuman exterior is morphed into an unbreakable metal.

As should be obvious with powers such as these, FF is a special effects marvel. Johnny looks especially incredible when he covers his entire body in flames. Also, it becomes immediately apparent through Chiklis' performance as Ben Grimm that a real actor and not CGI was the way to go with the Thing. For the most part, the acting was spot on. Chiklis steals the show as the Ever-Lovin' Blue Eyed Thing. Chris Evans as Johnny Storm was another perfect casting decision, the one character who gets to have some fun with his new powers. Gruffudd's Reed is lacking in personality, but he's supposed to be. Why criticize an actor for the traits that have been written in to his character for over forty years? Jessica Alba and Julian McMahon adequately portray Sue Storm and Doctor Doom respectively.

The final battle is a little short, but there's a lot of room for a sequel, especially if they remain true to the comic book version of Doctor Doom, giving him the power to trade bodies. In the comics, he even switches with Reed for a long period of time without letting anyone know. Just imagine the possibilities: Doom in Reed's body, deceiving Sue and the rest of the team while the real Reed sits trapped in Doom's mangled body on the new throne of Latveria. But for now, expect minor plot holes, but great character work. They nailed it with Doom's jealousy and rage, Sue's struggle to maintain the team, Reed's unrelenting calculating mind, Ben's big, giant heart and Johnny's sophomoric antics.

Ultimately, the Fantastic Four is a family, and with only two major action sequences in the film, what it's really about is how they grow to be comfortable with their powers and with each other. There's got to be something in this film that speaks to everyone.

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