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Movie Review: Fantastic Four


The Fantastic Four. Left to Right: Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans)

This is another one of those movies this year that I've been determined to see but with  expectations set so low that I've been pleasantly surprised. Last one was Batman Begins, just last week, and now we have Fantastic Four. (Coming up next week: Sin City).

Fantastic Four has been made into an animated TV series three times (in 1967, 1978 and 1994) but has never been made into a live action show before, principally due to the technical difficulty of portraying the characters, particularly the Human Torch. Recent advances in the art of special effects keep bringing the goal of putting the comic book up on the big screen ever closer.

I loved Fantastic Four but I should confess that I haven't read an issue in twenty years. I do, however, have nearly all of the first hundred and something issues (#s 1,2,3 and 5 are missing from the collection). However the movie is pretty much based on part of the first issue plus plot elements found in the first twenty issues. 

The origin has been updated, quite nicely. In the original, they undertake a risky space mission to help "beat the Reds to the moon" but now they're studying some cosmic storm for reasons I can' begin to comprehend. In fact, one of the great things about Mister Fantastic was the uncanny way he used to oscillate between brilliance and bullshit and you were never completely sure which one he was feeding you at a given time. Like the "unstable molecules" in the Fantastic Four's costumes. I'd explain how they work but I'd have to understand it myself.

Unfortunately, many elements of the ancient origin of this story become apparent again. (Why do screenwriters always want to start the story from the beginning anyhow? What is so wrong with just jumping in? I mean, most people who read a comic or watch a long-running TV series do just that.) This is particularly a problem with the Invisible Girl, due to her creation in 1961, pretty close to the high water mark of sexism. Hence the name. Her invisibility power wasn't all that impressive and creators Stan Lee (who makes an appearance playing the Fantastic Four's mailman, Willie Lumpkin) and Jack Kirby soon added the invisible force field thing.

In the movie, everyone has had a brainlift and Sue now is an expert on genetic engineering or something. Actually, Jessica Alba has her work cut out convincing us of that and somehow doing things like unzipping her costume to show off her brassiere seems to undercut the message that she's a serious, brainy scientist at times but she does look really great and after a while we get very comfortable with her as a tougher, gutsier, new-age Sue Storm.

Many of the critics were bewildered by the characters. They found Reed hopelessly dorky, Ben intolerably full of self-pity, Sue improbably eager to show off her undies and Johnny such a complete and utter asshole that they wanted to choke him, if not all four. The powers of the Fantastic Four, of course, represent the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, but the characters together form a family. Which is to say that they fought nearly all the time. The problem is that we don't spend nearly so much time with them as to come to love them despite their very rough edges, like we did in the comics. So I liked these characters, who were well cast, even Jessica Alba once you got used to her.

Furthermore, they found the villain of the piece, Dr Doom (Julian MacMahon) strangely ordinary. Having been jilted by Sue and ripped off big time by Reed, his actions seemed justifiable. This, too, is all in character with the original. Indeed, in the original first story, the Fantastic Four faced off again the Mole Man, a guy who, having been turned down for a date one too many times, fled to a subterranean world where he became an evil overlord and led an assault on the surface world (as you do).

So what's missing? Well, under Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four came to be a great sci-fi series. Our heroes wandered over photographs the size of houses, opened up and explored the Negative Zone and battled innumerable aliens from the furthest reaches of outer space. What is missing is that element of the fantastic that truly made them the World's Greatest Comic Magazine.

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