Movie review: 'Fantastic Four'

EntertainmentMoviesSpider-Man (fictional character)Julian McMahonFranceIoan Gruffudd

2½ stars (out of four)

"Fantastic Four" is the latest of the Marvel Comics super-productions, and its legions of fans can rest somewhat assured. That fab foursome—rubbery head honcho Mr. Fantastic, the elusive Invisible Woman (once The Invisible Girl), the fiery Human Torch and that tormented monster, The Thing—have been adapted and re-created with all due faithfulness and respect.

They will also be happy to learn that those characters and their diabolical nemesis Dr. Doom are written and played in the movie pretty much as sprung from the minds of Marvel's Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; that the special effects are suitably astonishing; and that the producers seem to have lavished every technological miracle available on this show.

But does that really make it a good movie?

As directed by Tim Story ("Barbershop"), it's pretty entertaining: fast, slick, spectacular and full of wisecracks and inside gags, in the manner of "Fantastic Four" co-creator Lee's scripts for the early '60s comic books. It certainly looks stunning, and there's even a try at injecting some human drama and strong emotion into the action stew, two ingredients that made "Spider-Man 2" soar.

Sometimes, though, you need more than love and money—or even love, money and talent. Though "Fantastic Four" seems to have almost everything going for it at the start, Story and his writers—ex-David Lynch collaborator Mark Frost ("Twin Peaks") and Michael France ("Cliffhanger")—seem to be missing something vital by the end.

There is, or should, be, an epic quality here, mixed with Lee's trademark playful impudence. And, in the beginning, it seems there will be. Like "Batman Begins," or the first "Superman" movie, "Fantastic Four" is an origin story, explaining how five exceptional but relatively normal and un-super human beings turned into a collection of super-heroes and one super-heavy.

With painstaking care and detail, we're shown how brilliant scientist-inventor Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) became the supremely stretchable Mr. Fantastic; how Fantastic's one-time inamorata Sue Storm became the now-you-see-her, now-you-don't Invisible Woman; how Sue's wiseacre, girl-chasing younger brother Johnny became the red-hot flying Human Torch; how gentle giant Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) became morose walking brick pile The Thing; and how greed-crazed corporate bully Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), Sue's new fella, became the metallic, maniacal Dr. Doom.

It all happened in outer space, where the five were involved in an exploratory flight to a cosmic storm, which turned ugly when storm clouds unexpectedly swamped them and scrambled all their DNA, turning them into rubbery, invisible, torchy or monstrous super-creatures. Afterwards, the Four, accepting it all mostly with an impressive "c'est la vie" attitude, get together to live at Richards'/Fantastic's lab in sometimes contentious camaraderie, while giving the city the benefit of their good-hearted super-talents. Von Doom by contrast, goes ballistic when he starts turning into Dr. Doom: a irredeemable villain without alibis—and increasingly, without flesh on his face.

Soon, the Fan 4 and Doc Doom are headed for what The Thing calls "Clobbering Time"—and along the way they turn the city (Vancouver and North Vancouver, disguised as New York) into a wrecker's playground, bashing and thrashing each other, creating nearly fatal traffic jams and generally wreaking havoc. Along the way, Fantastic stays elastic, Invisible Woman returns some of the old erotic magic to brassieres, The Torch sizzles, The Thing clobbers and mopes and Doc Doom winds up looking like a road-show Darth Vader.

Screenwriter Frost says he wanted to catch the comic's bubbly quality and director Story has been good at comedy, but the movie still seems swamped by the effects. It's not light-hearted in the way they intend—and some of the performances (Gruffudd's, for example) are almost too straight-faced and serious. The best acting, by Chiklis ("Wired" and TV's "The Shield") as The Thing, benefits greatly from the fact that he's the one Four guy who doesn't depend on computer-generated effects. He's transformed the old-fashioned way, with special effects makeup and costuming. Chiklis gives the film some emotional weight.

But "Fantastic Four" tends to disappear from your mind afterwards almost as fast as Invisible Woman vanishes in plain sight. It's the movie you expect but that's not necessarily the best result. (By contrast, "Spider-Man 2" gave you more than you expected.) There's something too heavy about the jokes and the style, too obvious about the action—even in a big fancy set-piece like the Torch snowboarding down a snowy and soon-melting mountainside.

Comic monolith Marvel has had a hit-or-miss record with recent adaptations, making something truly marvelous with the two "Spider-Man" pictures and scoring with the second "X-Men," but stumbling into camp, formula and even drivel with "Daredevil" and "Elektra." "Fantastic Four" falls somewhere in between. I don't think it will seriously disappoint longtime fans, but it made me itchy as I watched it unfold in ways that the comics never did when I read them in the '60s. All too often, it's clobbering time—and eventually, you want to clobber back.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'Fantastic Four'

Directed by Tim Story; written by Mark Frost, Michael France; based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; photographed by Oliver Wood; edited by William Hoy; production designed by Bill Boes; music by John Ottman; produced by Bernd Eichinger, Avi Arad, Ralph Winter. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and some suggestive content).

Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) - Ioan Gruffudd

Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) - Jessica Alba

Johnny Storm(The Human Torch) - Chris Evans

Ben Grimm (The Thing) - Michael Chiklis

Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom) - Julian McMahon

Leonard - Hamish Linklater

Alicia Masters - Kerry Washington

Debbie McIlvaine - Laurie Holden

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentMoviesSpider-Man (fictional character)Julian McMahonFranceIoan Gruffudd
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