THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Stan Lee was ready to get out of the comic book business altogether when he created the Fantastic Four. Years of pounding out superhero stories had left him feeling like he was spinning his wheels. His wife convinced him to write one more book but to do it the way he wanted to. Forget the traditional formulas, she told him, and come up with something brand new. Together with artist Jack Kirby, Stan the Man created a team of superheroes who had personal problems and sometimes didn’t get along with each other. It was as much about the humans as it was about their personas. Because Marvel Comics has been so wildly successful in bringing their characters to cinemas, we now get Fantastic Four on the big screen.

Ioan Gruffud plays Reed Richards, a scientist who wants to journey into space to do a DNA study. He and best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) try to sell the idea to their old rival, a billionaire named Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). Von Doom is so rich that he has his own shuttle and space station. He agrees to accompany Richards and Grimm on the excursion with the provision that he will profit immensely from it. Also pitching in is Von Doom’s girlfriend - and former Richards Flame - Sue Storm (Jessica Alba). Last, and probably least, is Sue’s brother Johnny (Chris Evans), a cad who was kicked out of NASA for making out with two women in the flight simulator.

A freak storm in space exposes the group to radioactive waves. Once back on Earth, they start to notice some changes in their own DNA. Johnny can light himself on fire without any adverse effects. Sue can become invisible at will. Reed’s body turns elastic. And poor Ben…well, his entire body turns into a hard, rock-like surface. Thereafter, he is known as “the Thing.” After saving lives in a massive multi-car accident, the group is labeled the Fantastic Four by the media. (Johnny is the only one who thinks the media attention is a good thing.) Von Doom, meanwhile, develops a hard metallic skeleton as well as an uncontrollable rage. He puts on a creepy steel mask and, under the moniker Dr. Doom, seeks to destroy his more heroic counterparts.

The Fantastic Four have a legion of devoted comic fans, and for good reason. Although perhaps lacking the breakthrough appeal of, say, Spider-Man, the FF (as they’re affectionately known) have always been one of Marvel’s more interesting mainstays. The film version tries hard to remain faithful to the source material while bringing it to a wider audience. This is a picture that wants to be fun, like a comic book come to life. It has been cast with appealing actors who seem right for their roles, and is clearly designed to launch a franchise. That said, I think this is one of those cases where the sequel will be better than the original. Fantastic Four is an adequate starter film that effectively sets up the premise but doesn’t quite deliver on the follow-through.

So what gives? Well, other than the Thing, the characters are not particularly well-developed. The Reed/Sue/Doom love triangle is pretty standard, except for the fact that it’s one of the dullest in recent memory. The outcome is such a foregone conclusion from the beginning that the screenplay doesn’t even try to make it dramatic or interesting. Remember the Peter Parker/Harry Osborne/Mary Jane Watson triangle from Spider-Man? Now that was something that pulled us in.

The filmmakers never seem to know what to do with the characters. They are more or less defined by their powers. Sue Storm, for example, feels invisible around Reed Richards and so she…turns invisible. Compare her to the Rogue character from the X-Men movies. You will recall that Rogue sucked the life energy out of anyone she came into physical contact with. That made it hard to kiss her boyfriend or hold the hand of an injured friend. The movie dealt with the downside to her mutant abilities; they kept her from being a normal girl in more ways than one. Sue, in contrast, has no visible emotional reaction to her invisibility. Johnny Storm actually likes his power, but he’s little more than an overgrown frat boy, which doesn’t give him much room for growth. Reed Richards is like Bill Nye the Science Guy without the charisma. Then there’s Dr. Doom – a potentially interesting and threatening villain. What does he want anyway? Dr. Doom’s motivations are never made clear. Most comic book villains have some nefarious goal they’re trying to achieve, like world domination or something. Doom just wants power. Okay, but what’s he going to do with it?

The Thing is the exception to the rule here. Well-played by Michael Chiklis, Ben Grimm struggles with his newfound exterior. When his wife leaves him, Ben becomes obsessed with returning to normal and winning her back, only to realize that the world might need him to stay all huge and stony. Although the subplot involving Grimm’s friendship with a blind woman goes nowhere, the character is certainly the most well-developed of the group. I wish the other three had been given the human element that the Thing gets. He’s definitely the best part of the movie.

The biggest problem faced by Fantastic Four, though, is the fact that the bar has been significantly raised for superhero movies. In the past five years, we’ve had the two X-Men movies, Spider-Man 1 & 2, and Batman Begins - all exemplary comic book adaptations with solid characterization, thrilling action, and superb special effects. Fantastic Four isn’t bad; it’s just tame by comparison. The characters are mostly bland, the action is constant but ho-hum, and the special effects are occasionally cheesy.

At some level, that’s okay because this is, after all, a movie based on a comic book. It is light and mindless and breezy. There are moments of humor that work well, and some amusing uses are found for the heroes’ superpowers. It is fun to watch Mr. Fantastic use his rubber arms to grab a guy who just fell from a bridge. Or to see the Human Torch divert a heat-seeking missile by lighting himself aflame. Superpowers have always been a big part of the appeal in this comic. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invited us to imagine the ways that we would use these powers if we had them. That still works here.

I have some definite affection for the film and wouldn’t necessarily try to deter anyone from seeing it. But any entry in the genre has to be better than this to be a must-see event. We know what comic book movies are capable of being. They can have greatness in them. Fantastic Four has nothing more than okay-ness.

( 1/2 out of four)

Fantastic Four is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some suggestive content. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

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