Ever since Marvel Comics loosened their grip on the movie rights to the characters that have made them a household name, filmmaker after filmmaker has struggled (sometimes embarrassingly in vain) to bring them to the screen in ways that live up to the legends. More often than not, the strategies involved taking the characters and their stories very, very seriously, making their realities overly tense and dramatic. Finally someone stepped back and said, “y’know, it’s maybe we should having some fun instead.” It’s about time.
Yes, sometimes comic characters get a far too heavy treatment. That’s not to say that it doesn’t ever work. The Spiderman and X-Men movies have succeeded tremendously at creating strong emotional connections between the audience and the characters by putting everyone through difficult and thoughtful situations related to the human and superhuman condition. Unfortunately, very few comic adaptations are up to the task of creating a movie with a light, lively and fun loving spirit. Enter the Fantastic Four.
Five regular, not so ordinary people with an oddly intermingled history are where our story starts, and their complicated past is only the beginning. Dr. Reed Richards is a famous scientist whose inability to take real risks has cost him his company and his girlfriend, the beautiful and equally brainy geneticist Sue Storm. Reed went to MIT with a narcissistic fellow named Victor Von Doom, a man who wasn’t quite as smart, but far better at the business of taking calculated chances. After dumping Reed for being so non-committal, Sue took a job with Victor’s wildly successful company where she worked close enough with the guy for him to fall in love with her. Along the way she found a job for her younger brother, pilot and thrill-seeker Johnny Storm, who used to serve in the military under Ben Grimm, a man who happens to be Reed’s right hand man and Sue’s dear friend. Oh what a tangled web.
Despite their adversarial but close-knit connections, a joint interest in studying the effects of severe solar radiation storms on human DNA brings the five together. When an experiment on Victor’s space station laboratory goes tragically wrong, each of them is exposed to the storm in different ways, imbuing them with unique and exceptional powers. One of the group decides to use his powers for evil and personal gain and the other four must combine their strengths to stop him. With last names like Grimm, Storm, Richards and Doom, it’s pretty easy to guess who turns out to be the bad guy.
There are no intricate plot twists or overblown emotional overtones to The Fantastic Four. The quirky and highly entertaining relationships between the characters are the foundation for the excitement. Tack on some entertaining action sequences and a healthy dose of light-hearted humor and you get the formula for one of the most entertaining comic book movies yet. It’s full of good natured, fast paced fun, and anyone bothered that the story didn’t get the same theatrical, tragic-hero treatment as X-Men needs to get over it and learn to enjoy the simpler things in life. Not all comic movies have to end with two manly but blubbering mutants embracing each other as they weep the loss of their mutual romantic interest.
The cast are truly the centerpiece of the movie and for the most part they’re ideal to play their roles. Ioan Gruffudd finally gets to play a character iconic enough to shake his Horatio Hornblower moniker. As Mr. Fantastic/Reed Richards, Ioan nails the conflict of a man torn between being a strong leader and someone afraid to take the risks that could either save or endanger others. Invisible Woman/Susan Storm’s portrayal by Jessica Alba is the weakest of the four, but it’s still a tough complaint to lodge. As the lone woman in the crew she’s at her best when she’s yelling at the boys to break it up. Michael Chiklis is the perfect Ben Grimm/The Thing. Between his vocal transformation and ability to emote through that clever sculpted latex body suit, he puts in all the extra touches needed to make the stoney but warm character work. The top notch performance comes from Chris Evans. As Johnny Storm/The Human Torch he revels in every moment of every scene and has created a comic book movie character that will easily be a favorite for fans and non-fans alike. OK, this all may sound a little too glowing, but this ensemble cast is fun to watch from start to finish. In short, like their characters, they’re fantastic.
The movie wraps up in a way that brings things to a nice close, but blatantly sets things up for a sequel. Normally that kind of finish drives me nuts, even in comic book films, but in this case the director, writers and actors have built up an experience I wouldn’t mind enjoying for another couple of movies.
You’d think a summer blockbuster this big could afford an equally excellent DVD release. Not so. In fact, it’s a rather tame package full of second hand material and the sort of limp extras that only DVD reviewers would watch, mainly because we have to.
The only bonus item worth taking in is the cast commentary, but even that gets annoying after awhile. Michael Chiklis is a really nice guy and that comes across in the commentary. Unfortunately he just won’t shut up and let anyone else say anything. Here’s a tip Mike: most people don’t want to hear about your sleeping habits during filming. Jessica Alba also needs to learn that there are better ways of starting a discussion than, “Hey, do you guys remember this day of filming?” Gruffudd has the more interesting tidbits to share, but he’s too polite to try and talk over his more verbose American counterparts.
The making-of-featurettes are, for the most part, rehashed fifteen to twenty minute shorts originally produced as marketing promos for the Fox Movie Channel. They’re interesting on a superficial level, but far too short and too gimmicky in how they approach their topics to be worthwhile. One particular featurette, related to the casting, begins with Stan Lee declaring that he had nothing at all to do with the casting. The rest of it is Stan Lee talking about how brilliant the casting was. Any more excited and he’d be in danger of Oscar mugging for Michael Chiklis to receive best actor in a leading role.
Most DVD packages have token music videos. Fantastic Four has a double dose with an extra commercial for the soundtrack thrown in for good measure. Skip them. There’s no reason for them to be on the disc at all unless the marketing agencies for the bands funded the DVD release. To round things out there’s a completely useless and generally boring video diary produced by none other than Jessica Alba. It’s basically behind the scene footage of the cast backstage at press events for the film. The whole thing might be fun as an after-thought bonus item, but it’s touted as one of the main draws on this disc, an insulting offering.
A fantastic movie deserves a much better release and I have a feeling a superior collector’s edition will roll out around the time Fantastic Four 2 hits theaters (would that make it Fantasic Eight?). Die hard FF fans may want to pick up this package, but the rest of us can easily be contented with a weekend rental.