Fantastic Four (2005)

aph_9Superheroes were pretty bland and flawless until 1961. That’s when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced Fantastic Four, the comic book that changed everything. Here were four heroes with truly weird attributes even by comics standards: a scientist who could stretch (inspired by Jack Cole’s 1940s character Plastic Man), a woman who could turn invisible, a man made of orange rock, and a young (literal) hothead who could command flame. Only the last one — the Human Torch — had been around before, in early Marvel comics of the ’40s. Moreover, these heroes had problems; they bickered. The comic was as much about their personalities, their prickly family dynamic, as about their adventures protecting Earth against cosmic villains. For superhero fans in 1961, this was radical. A case could be made that Fantastic Four was the Elvis of comics — the one that changed and influenced everything thereafter.

After several false starts, including a notoriously bad and unreleased 1994 film, the Fantastic Four — stretchy Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), transparent Sue Storm/Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), fiery Johnny Storm/Human Torch (Chris Evans), and encrusted Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael Chiklis) — finally emerge as the stars of their own big-budget blockbuster. By now, though, it’s impossible for a Fantastic Four movie to be as revolutionary as the comic was. The movie is fun enough — I enjoyed it — and it can’t help but be better than the 1994 version, which was rushed into production with a $2 million budget and looks like it cost half that. After a slew of comic-book films, including the cinematically daring Sin City, this one just breaks no new ground. Not helping matters is The Incredibles, which stole Fantastic Four‘s thunder.

Still, the movie more or less successfully grafts the comic’s 1960s spirit to the attitudes of the 2000s. Johnny Storm, for instance, is now an adrenaline junkie, jumping into any number of “extreme sports,” and it’s perfectly in character for him (and Chris Evans, very aware that eyes are on him in a summer blockbuster, rises to the occasion and gives a fine comic-book performance with emphasis on the comic). The quartet’s nemesis Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon) is now a suave billionaire who bankrolls the foursome’s fateful space flight, accompanying them for good measure. The space-shot exposes all five crew members to radioactivity that forever alters their DNA; in Doom’s case, it slowly turns his body into metal. Stan Lee tapped into a generation’s fear of and fascination with radioactivity; half his hero roster (including Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Daredevil) were similarly afflicted.

The film is affable enough, though nothing much seems to be at stake. Fully half the movie is given over to who the Fantastic Four are and how they got that way, and in a 105-minute film that doesn’t leave much time for actually showing those amazing superpowers in action. There’s one nice extended sequence in which all four heroes work together to save a firetruck teetering off a bridge; this act wins them unwanted celebrity and the adoration of blasé New Yorkers (the Fantastic Four have always been the most beloved heroes within the Marvel universe, unlike the prejudice-hounded mutants of the X-Men, the media-derided Spider-Man, or the military-hunted Hulk). But mostly this feels like the first half of an origin story, as most other comic-book movies do, trying to reach non-fans as well as fans. Perhaps one reason why Spider-Man 2 and X2 were so satisfying was that they had the luxury of assuming everyone knew the backstory, and they were free to launch into action.

I may be in the minority in preferring a lightweight flick like this to the überserious Batman Begins, but Fantastic Four harks back to the more innocent days of comics — the adventures I read when I was five and I thought it would be cool to hang out with the Thing or Spider-Man. Who’d want to hang out with the grim, preoccupied Batman of Batman Begins? Frank Miller’s anguished, age-haunted Batman: The Dark Knight Returns struck many of us in 1986 as a revelation, but it was meant for teens and older readers, and every comic book thereafter tried to duplicate its success by turning gloomy and gritty. Do kids even find any pure escapist fun in comics these days? The movies based on comics have gotten awfully heavy with angst, too — hell, the first X-Men movie kicked off with a flashback to Auschwitz, for Christ’s sake. All of this may explain why Fantastic Four — though I much prefer The Incredibles on this level — made me happy even though it’s nothing great or inspired. For two hours, I was five again, sipping a coffee frappe under a tree on a summer afternoon, and reading about the Thing punching Dr. Doom through a plate-glass window.

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