Fantastic Four has the smallest ratio of mopes per minute than any comic-book movie of the decade, and it makes for a passable, brief breather from this year’s psychologically tortured heroes.
Only Ben Grimm (a pitch-perfect Michael Chiklis) grumbles about his powers once he becomes the Thing, and he’s got good reason. Cosmic radiation has made the pilot look like a He-Man villain, his wife splits and his super-strength causes him to break the glass when he’s trying to drown his sorrows.
He gets it the worst after a space-mission miscalculation of an oncoming radiation storm alters the DNA of each of the five crewmembers.
Bumbling scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) gets fully poseable, stretchy skin as Mr. Fantastic. Buxom genetic researcher Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) can disappear and put up force fields as the Invisible Woman. And her bratty brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), becomes Human Torch, able to heat his body to supernova-sparking levels.
Then there’s Victor von Doom, the scientific entrepreneur funding the mission, for whom “man of steel” becomes a quite literal expression after his mutation. Julian McMahon (of Nip/Tuck fame) nicely underplays the first-ever metrosexual comic-book villain. As the Four become beloved New York heroes, Doom’s planned IPO goes south from the accident and he plots revenge.
World domination isn’t on von Doom’s mind — at least not yet, as the Raiders of the Lost Ark-style coda drops about 50 pounds of sequel bait. Von Doom wants to off the heroes, and that’s all, so the film’s diminished scope makes it feel less abrupt than the similarly structured X-Men.
To be fair, there are fewer characters here. But like X-Men, this film’s faults can be erased in a better sequel.
First, give Johnny something to do other than expose the film’s worst bits of writing and moments of corporate weakness.
Banter about Johnny revolves exclusively around how hot or on fire he is, which is utterly lazy given the frequent wit of Michael France and Mark Frost’s script. And when Burger King product placement becomes a sight gag, it’s a bit much — as it is when Johnny seduces a nurse played by Entertainment Tonight’s Maria Menounos and when his extreme-sports leanings allow for even more commercial creep.
It makes Herbie: Fully Loaded look like an indie-cred champ, and the reliably charismatic Evans is wasted in an impossible role.
And for all its joking talk of science, there’s zero chemistry between former lovers Reed and Sue. Their second-time-around courtship is so light, it practically evaporates.
The irony of Fantastic Four is that its most affecting, human element is that which looks least like us. And it’s a credit both to director Tim Story for not going digital in recreating the Thing and Chiklis’ ability to make both his good and bad emotions clobber their way out of the costume. Like Hellboy and Sin City’s Marv before him, this behemoth feels rightly rough around the edges because it’s a man in makeup, not a software patch.
And after the abominable Taxi, Story wouldn’t seem capable of directing children in a crosswalk, let alone a big effects movie. When freed from the restraints of a low budget and Jimmy Fallon, he has crafted setpieces that thrill without always pushing the harder and faster buttons.
Fantastic Four doesn’t come close to matching Sin City, Batman Begins or even Constantine, but it’s still a relatively quick, vibrant and focused origin story.