When a comic book film fails, it is sometimes because the filmmakers stray too far from the source material (see last summer’s Catwoman), losing what gave the characters their appeal and alienating the already built-in audience of comic book fans. Other times, these films don’t work for a variety of the same reasons that other movies fail – from poor performances to uninspired direction or a bad script. While Fantastic Four, an adaptation of the 40-years plus old comic book series, doesn’t completely fail as a movie, it does contain many of the elements often found in other comic book movie bombs.
After a freak “cosmic storm” sweeps across a research space station, the five scientists on board find themselves changed. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) finds he can stretch his body to incredible lengths, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) has the power to turn invisible and project forcefields while her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) can become a living man of fire. While their friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) has gained superhuman strength, his skin has also been transformed into a hard, rock-like substance. The fifth scientist, and financial backer of the expedition, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) finds that his skin is slowly turning metallic and he has the power to throw lightening bolts. When Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben save a firetruck from falling off of a bridge, they find themselves reluctant media stars. Victor, however, finds that the accident on board the space station has given his business opponents the leverage they need to wrest his company from him. Faced with bankruptcy and his own horror at the changes he is going through, Victor sets out to kill the four.
Comics fans will be glad to know that the movie does capture some elements of the comic books fairly well. The rivalry between Johnny and Ben plays out nicely, especially in a scene involving Johnny’s sports car. Evans and Chiklis also handle their solo scenes their characters have with equal aplomb. There are numerous small moments that should have comics fans smiling while still playing well to the uninitiated.
However, for every moment where the film succeeds as either an adaptation of the comics or on its own as a movie, there are at least an equal number of instances where it fails. Gruffudd and McMahon do an adequate job as rivals Reed and Victor, though the script never really gives their relationship a real meaty moment. Alba is the real weak link in the cast, never really showing us why Reed would hold a torch for her the years they were apart. We are told that she is an accomplished geneticist, but Alba’s Sue never exudes anything that would make us believe that she was of that intellectual level. Instead, she comes off as the worst cast sexy scientist since Denise Richards’s bimbo nuclear physicist in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough (1999).
The screenplay, which had gone through numerous drafts over the years the film was in development, feels over-scripted – from working over time to connect all five main characters at the beginning with a multitude of tangled backstory to the numerous “coincidences” that seem designed strictly to move the plot and characters along to the next place they need to be. There are also a few déjà vu moments in the film. A story point near the end is lifted from (and done better by) Superman II (1980), while the film’s final moments want to suggest a sequel but only succeeds in recalling a similar dénouement from Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).
For a summer blockbuster about superpowered beings, there are very few action set pieces to show them in action. In fact, there’s a grand total of two: the bridge rescue sequence and the final confrontation with Victor Von Doom. Unfortunately, Tim Story, who has previously directed the similarly lackluster action/comedy Taxi (2004), seems to have no discernible visual style. The action sequences are rather blandly presented and, with the exception of a few short moments, don’t impart any thrills. Compared to similar sequences presented by Sam Raimi in the Spiderman films or Mark Steven Johnson in the otherwise mediocre Daredevil (2003), the action in Fantastic Four is just second-rate. As fun, escapist summer fare, Fantastic Four is not fantastic, just barely adequate.