Well, it's about time. Nearly 50 years after Stan Lee dreamed them up, the Fantastic Four have finally made it to a theater near you, and you can hardly blame them if they seem a little peeved. While they were waiting for their close-up, other stars in the Marvel Comics cosmos were given a shot at fame and fortune ' Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, even Daredevil. And to add insult to injury, The Incredibles decided to help themselves to the Fantastic Four's powers ' invisibility, elasticity, flammability and superhuman strength ' since Marvel didn't seem to have any use for them. In the constantly mutating world of comic-book movies, copyright infringement is the highest form of flattery.
So our fearsome foursome don't exactly seem like the new kids on the block, nor do they seem particularly fearsome. But that's always been part of their appeal. They're the superheroes-next-door, unencumbered by secret identities or tortured psyches. And with Batman Begins still haunting the multiplexes, this movie's refusal to plumb the depths can seem refreshing. Directed by Tim Story, who steered Taxi into a critical and commercial brick wall, Fantastic Four doesn't have the pop grandeur that so many of these comic-book movies are striving for. But it does have the straight-ahead pleasures I recall from reading Lee's opuses, our little makeshift family of superheroes having put the "fun" back in "dysfunctional."
An origin story, the movie shows us how Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) became Mr. Fantastic, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) became Invisible Woman, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) became the Human Torch and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) became The Thing. And it offers psychological explanations for the various transformations. Reed, a scientist with his nose stuck in a test tube, needs to reach out and touch someone. Sue, still in love with Reed after breaking up with him, needs him to notice her. Johnny, with hormones coursing through his bloodstream, is literally on fire. And Ben? Well, watching The Thing do his thing, I was reminded of the first joke I ever heard: What's big, red and eats rocks? A big, red rock-eater.
Encased in 60 pounds of latex, Chiklis manages to give an actual performance as a character so uniquely repulsive its creator finally just threw up his hands and called it The Thing. In fact, the sibling rivalry between The Thing and the Human Torch, who go after each other like a pair of extremely playful lion cubs, is worth the price of admission. As Sue, Alba doesn't do much more than stand around and highlight her comic-book curves. And Gruffudd, as Reed, is about as charismatic as his name would imply. But the real disappointment is Julian McMahon, as Victor Von Doom, the villain of our piece. More sleazy than scary, McMahon should stick to his day job, rearranging body parts on "Nip/Tuck."
Another problem: The movie doesn't really go anywhere. The superheroes spend a lot of their time trying to turn back into ordinary people, which is not what most of us would do in that situation. (Only Johnny Storm sees the chick-magnet possibilities.) And it's hard to tell exactly what Von Doom is up to, conquering the world or convincing Sue to go out with him. Still, none of this seems to matter as long as Fantastic Four hits its marks, which it does as often as it doesn't. One might have wished for more of the vision thing; the art design seems straight off the shelf. But the movie definitely has its moments, as when The Thing, having unknowingly assumed the position of Rodin's The Thinker, gets an impromptu art critique from a pigeon.