"Fantastic Four"

This peppy comic-book tale is the lightest and fluffiest of summer blockbuster fare -- and is that really such a bad thing?

Published July 8, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

"Fantastic Four" is a breezy summer blockbuster that already has the feel of an antique: It exists largely to entertain and delight, which used to be precisely what summer blockbusters were engineered to do. But in the summer of 2005, so far at least, "Fantastic Four" seems like an anomaly: It's not a "quality" blockbuster -- note the quotation marks -- like "War of the Worlds" or "Batman Begins," pictures with heavy, doomy spirits that work overtime to convince audiences they're getting some spinach (or even just some craftsmanship) with their alleged entertainment. "Fantastic Four" is so light, it sometimes seems in danger of blowing away. Written by Mark Frost and Michael France, and adapted from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's iconic Marvel Comics series, the script flirts with one or two potentially complex ideas but never develops them, and the story toodles along accordingly, with very little shape and no direction home. But there's a rambunctious, teen-pep-rally spirit to "Fantastic Four"; its airheaded cheerfulness is wholly intentional, and part of the movie's charm. This is a movie that at least remembers what summer is for.

Dr. Reed Richards (Iaon Gruffudd, who played Lancelot in last year's dorky "King Arthur") is a scientist and astronaut who, with the help of his right-hand guy, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), is trying to finance a trip to outer space to examine a cosmic storm that he believes holds the key to the genetic codes of humans. But he's dead broke -- one character refers to him as the dumbest smart guy in the world -- which means he's forced to go to his old MIT rival, zillionaire Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, of TV's "Nip/Tuck"), to fund the project. Von Doom agrees, his very eyebrow hairs quivering with sinister intent. And so he accompanies Reed and Ben into outer space, along with his girlfriend, genetic specialist Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), who also happens to be Reed's ex, and Sue's younger brother, Johnny (Chris Evans, of "Cellular"), whose pecs are as crisply defined as his junior-high style of wit.

But Reed miscalculates the speed at which the storm is approaching the crew's space station: It sucks them, one by one, into a fiery cartoon vortex that alters the very makeup of their DNA. Johnny, formerly just your average extreme-sports asshole, is now able to burst into flame at will; Sue can make herself invisible, and can also throw up a handy protective force field when necessary; Reed has become infinitely stretchy; and Ben has turned into a moving, thinking, feeling creature made entirely of stone. At one point, after the team has returned to their home base in New York City, Ben pauses on the Brooklyn Bridge, mourning his old human body and the fiancée he seems to have lost, and pigeons mistake him for a reproduction of "The Thinker," dropping rude, unwelcome splats on his shoulders.

Grimm's new shape may be monstrous, but he's still more Rodin than Rodan. And he eventually realizes that although he's not terrifically happy in his new persona, as the Thing, his newfound capacity for fighting evil isn't such a bad thing. Similarly, Sue Storm, now the Invisible Woman, and Reed Richards, now Mr. Fantastic, try desperately to understand, and reverse, their new superpowers. Only Johnny, with the adaptability of a kid who's used to living on a diet of PowerBars and Gatorade, is immediately comfortable in his new guise, as the Human Torch, if only because he realizes it could be an asset in picking up babes.

Von Doom has also been transformed, in a way that director Tim Story ("Barbershop") reveals gradually, if not altogether suspensefully. "Fantastic Four" is a bouncier, frothier confection that most recent movies based on comic books -- including either of the "X-Men" or "Spider-Man" pictures, Guillermo del Toro's passionate hymnal "Hellboy" or Robert Rodriguez's dazzling adult bloodsploitation extravaganza "Sin City" (in which Alba also appeared). The stark reality is that "Fantastic Four" is a comic-book movie that's actually trying not to be too adult. Comic-book fans are understandably protective about the art form they love; but they often become disproportionately angry when a movie fails to confer on its source material an acceptable level of seriousness. (They also tend to become very angry at critics who don't respond to the movies that meet their official approval. But I get more feeling off any random dozen panels of Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," or Jim Lee's work on "Batman: Hush," or Tim Sale's on "The Long Halloween" and "Dark Victory," than I do off any of the oh-so-dark visuals in "Batman Begins.")

"Fantastic Four" doesn't expand on, or even illuminate, anything much beyond the most basic theme of what it feels like to be an adolescent misfit. This is a comic-book movie that actually makes an effort not to go over kids' heads. Its special effects aren't particularly dazzling, and a big scene on the Brooklyn Bridge, in which the four first begin to come to terms with their new powers, is a bit too chaotic and unshaped to work as well as it should. But the performers are fun to watch. Alba has the bod and the sunny cheerfulness of a pinup cutie, but she's not a wholly plastic one: There'a a little bit of Vargas girl in her. And Chiklis, from beneath a hot, heavy latex suit, manages to underplay his suffering, even though we can always see evidence of it swimming in his eyes. In one scene, Ben's fiancée appears out of nowhere to face him down. She used to love him, but she can't accept what he has become. In a fit of angry, hurt confusion, she places her engagement ring on the ground. As Ben's friends look on, he stoops to pick it up -- but with his fat, clumsy, granite fingers, he's unable to do so. Reed, aka Mr. Fantastic, retrieves it for him and places it in his rough, brick-red palm.

When Ben's fiancée puts that ring down, we're tempted to snicker: It's a moment of unalloyed corniness. But Story manages to turn the moment into a stark, simple panel of pure emotion. Ben can't pick up the pieces of his old life -- he'll just have to start a new one. It's not a probing exploration of a major theme, and it doesn't delve very deep. But the aggressive optimism of "Fantastic Four" is at least forthright. This is summer entertainment for those who like their Shirley Temples straight up.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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