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"Fantastic Four": Cheese On!

Last Fall there was much talk of how Pixar’s superb The Incredibles was a perfectly imagined take on Marvel Comics’ First Family of superheroes: the Fantastic Four. Oddly there was no talk of lawsuits. Maybe that was for fear of bad publicity, as this year Fox brought the four to the big screen for their first live action adventure. The Fantastic Four DVD is sure to fill fans full of holiday cheese. Er, cheer.

Reed tries to cop a feelThere’s little point comparing The Fantastic Four to Batman Begins or Spiderman 2. This is a pure popcorn movie with no greater pretensions. It’s a colorful, bouncy spectacle whose lighthearted antics are a welcome reprieve from the ponderous self-importance of Batman Begins.

However when the writers stretch themselves to attempt actual jokes or drama the audience’s goodwill quickly disappears. Most of the ostensibly comedic dialogue lands with a clunk, and the acting is far too lightweight to convey any real emotion. The latter is particularly regrettable, because there are several opportunities for genuine pathos that might have been realized in a slightly more sophisticated production. Finally much of the film is without any great tension, as our heroes don’t face a real threat until late in the game.

As our story begins, brainy, heavily in-debt scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd – King Arthur) and gruff best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis – The Shield) reluctantly partner with egocentric tycoon Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon – Nip/Tuck) to analyze a cosmic storm that may explain the origin of life on Earth. Or something. Joining their research team on Doom’s space station is Reed’s breathtaking ex Sue Storm (Jessica Alba – Into the Blue) and her reckless brother Johnny (Chris Evans – Cellular). Beneath a wintry exterior some feelings remain between Reed and Sue, but Doom makes the first move. Suddenly the storm slams into the station and all five are bathed in cosmic radiation.

Back on earth this embarrassing and expensive debacle begins to unravel Doom’s financial empire, and our recovering heroes notice strange changes in their bodies. Johnny (the Human Torch) can generate flame and fly, Sue (the Invisible Woman) can turn invisible and create force fields, Reed (Mr. Fantastic) can stretch his body to all manner of lengths and shapes, and Ben (the Thing) has super strength and a monstrous rocklike appearance. Unnerved by his disfigurement, Ben heads to New York to see his fiancée, only to be crushed when the sight of him repulses her. His friends catch up with him on the Brooklyn Bridge where he becomes involved in a massive pileup. Together they use their powers to save bystanders, and as a result the media dubs them heroes: the Fantastic Four. While Reed tries to find a cure for his friends’ condition, elsewhere Doom, financially ruined, refused by Sue, and undergoing disturbing physical changes himself, plots revenge.

When SPF 15 isn't enoughChiklis recalls a beefy and less charismatic Bruce Willis as Ben, but as the Thing he puts on the film’s best performance with dead-on voice and mannerisms. Of course he gets to hide behind an elaborate costume, and most of his dialogue is comedic. Evans is serviceable as the carefree and self-indulgent Johnny, interested only in girls and money. Though there’s little depth to the role it’s a refreshing change from the “great responsibility” cliché most superheroes labor under.

The rest of the cast collapses under the weight of carrying “dramatic” moments, with performances so vanilla you’d think George Lucas was directing. Gruffudd certainly looks the part and Alba looks, well, fantastic, but their romantic “chemistry” is nearly invisible. Although McMahon fits his part, as the armored Dr. Doom his feeble voice makes him about as intimidating as the Tin Man.

If for no other reason, The Fantastic Four is a must see for the hilarious sequence where Sue strips down to invisibly sneak through a crowd, only to be mortified when she accidentally slips back into visibility half naked. Trying to imagine what isn’t visible on camera in this scene is enough to give even Reed a headache. Other fun slapstick moments include the Thing inadvertently eating half his spoon and Reed, having fallen asleep on his keyboard, waking up with a serious case of bedface. Unfortunately the action is rather tame until the superb but brief showdown with Dr. Doom, which feels ripped right from the comic pages.

As only a casual follower of the FF franchise I can’t definitively state how accurately the film adapts the comic books, but certainly a lot of key elements are lovingly depicted: the transformation of the Four, their Baxter Building headquarters, Ben’s discovery that love is blind, Doom’s vanity, the team’s struggle with celebrity, and the costumes. Doom’s origin and powers are not quite how I remember them, but perhaps they’ve changed over the years.

No means no VictorThe special effects, save a dodgy moment or two with Mr. Fantastic, are great all around. Torch looks just like he does in the comics, and Thing, well, doesn’t quite, but he grows on you after a while. The film features another all-star Wind-up soundtrack in the tradition of Daredevil and thus is peppered with loud rock numbers.

The best extra is the highly entertaining commentary in which Alba, Chiklis, and Gruffudd relate amusing anecdotes about each scene. Gruffudd talks about how he wanted so much to impress his Welsh parents with the grand Hollywood production, only to find they were shooting an elevator scene the day of their visit. The brief deleted scenes are of little interest except for a bizarre moment when Reed morphs into Wolverine (!). The “Video Diary” is an interesting look at what it’s like to be on an international press tour for the stars of a blockbuster film.

Unfortunately “Making of Fantastic Four” turns out to be a meaningless fluff piece, but “Making a Scene” compensates with a thorough and fascinating dissection of the “Brooklyn Bridge” scene, actually shot on a huge outdoor set in Vancouver. Finally there’s another fluff piece in “Casting Session”, with Stan Lee and the actors briefly discussing their roles, and two unspectacular music videos. Warning: the Region 2 DVD contains several additional extras such as a two-hour documentary, so watch out for a probable double dip.

If you like your superheroes with a thick slab of cheese then The Fantastic Four won’t fail to entertain. It’s silly, corny, and sometimes awkward, but darned if it isn’t lovable all the same. If the planned sequel can correct the acting and dialogue problems, Fox could have a solid franchise on their hands. Then again, the last time Fox tried that we got Elektra. What a revolting development.

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