Half of Four is...
It's getting so that summer at the movies isn't summer at the movies without a movie with Stan Lee's name on it having a massive day-and-date release. With the exception of 2001, every year so far this century has seen Stan The Man and his numerous fictitious progeny enjoying extended stays near the top of the cinema charts. We've had the X-Men, the Hulk, and Spider-Man (plus considerably less successful out-of-season appearances by Daredevil, Elektra, and the Punisher), but now Lee's first and arguably most important creations get their moment in the spotlight - yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's the Fantastic Four, in a film by Tim Storey.
The film opens with the world's most brilliant scientist Reed Richards (Yowain Griffiths1) and his sidekick Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) trying to get funding for his latest space mission. As NASA are understandably preoccupied with another attempt at inventing a double-sided sticky tape that works on thermal tiles, they are forced to seek help from billionaire tycoon Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon). Yes, Reed may be a scientific genius but he still can't recognise someone who might as well have 'destined to become a supervillain' stencilled across his forehead. Anyway, Reed, Ben and Doom pop up to the latter's private space station in the company of Reed's ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and her slightly annoying younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans - no, not that one, another one).
Before you can say 'this is one superhero origin story that hasn't aged especially well' the station gets hit by a cloud of cosmic energy and all the inhabitants duly find themselves Fantasticised on their return to Earth. Ben is permanently transformed into a colossally strong being of living rock! Johnny can set fire to himself (this is more use than it sounds)! Sue can turn invisible and project invisible energy fields! And Reed can go a bit stretchy. Three out of four ain't bad, I suppose. Of course, Doom also finds himself a changed man, although unfortunately the evil megalomaniac component of his personality is wholly unaltered...
A film of the FF has been a long time coming for the simple reason that until quite recently it would have impossibly expensive to do - back in the 60s, even a cartoon of the Four needed the Human Torch removing in order for it not to be impossible expensive to do! Now, of course, technology has caught up, and CGI is able to bring Mr Fantastic's elasticated limbs and the Torch's fiery sheath to the screen in fine style. Interestingly, the film opts not to create the Thing digitally, but rather through the old-fashioned method of putting Michael Chiklis inside what must have been a gruelling prosthetic make-up job. The result is not entirely authentic - Chiklis just isn't big or rocky enough to pass for the classic comics Thing - but it does allow Chiklis to give a genuine, and actually rather affecting performance. Just as well, because this is a film built around performances rather than big set pieces.
What may surprise people used to the rather dour tone most comic book adaptations have adopted since Tim Burton's first Batman is how light and breezy most of this movie is. With the exception of Ben, whose life is understandably messed up by his new circumstances, the Four have a rather jolly time, not bothering with tedious things like secret identities and spending most of their time in their spacious skyscraper HQ amiably squabbling. The film's faithfulness to the source material is, up to a point, impressive and successful. This is a genuinely funny character-based film that touches most of the bases Lee and Jack Kirby covered in the comic - the characterisations of the Four are pretty much spot on, even down to Reed and Sue's romance being a bit passionless and unconvincing.
However, the greatness of the classic Fantastic Four books came from the way they mixed wise-cracking sitcom characterisations (Lee's forte, one suspects) with mind-boggling kitsch cosmic grandeur (Kirby's stock in trade). Storey's film has the former in spades but virtually none of the latter (it'll be interesting to see how the planned sequel handles Galactus' assault on Earth). This really leads to the film's only weak link, namely its presentation of Doctor Doom. Bereft of his original origin (oh, good grief), powers, background, and (for most of the film) appearance, this is a very poor showing for a character who deserved much better (the comics Doom was a horribly maimed scientist-sorcerer, traumatised by the death of his mother, who chose to encase himself in armour and embark on a ruthless quest for power - it's a miracle George Lucas didn't get sued by Marvel). As it is Doom comes across as a poor amalgam of Magneto and the Green Goblin, who appears to go bad simply so the Fantastic Four can fight someone in the last reel.
But anyway, this is very solid stuff, at least as good as the first X-Men movie. Thoroughly enjoyable and a nice change of pace from most of the summer's other movies, this isn't quite the absolute delight it could have been, but it's still well worth a look for comics fans and normal people alike.