The first time I had to present a paper in front of an audience of Hemingway scholars, I was quaking in my boots. Director Tim Story must have felt the same way trying to bring life to four comic-book superheroes for an expert audience that knows, lives, and breathes comic-book heroes and their exploits. Plus, you have "Spider-Man 2" hovering out there like a gigantic zeppelin with a sign on it that says something like, "Can't Catch This."
Maybe I'm easily amused, or maybe it's just been too long since I've reread all those Fantastic Four comics that I saved from my childhood in a box somewhere in the attic, but I thought Story's live-action attempt was entertaining enough. Yes, it's no "Spider-Man 2" or even "Spider-Man," but it's also not even close to bottom-of-the-barrel films like "Elektra" or "Catwoman." And I'm guessing creator Stan Lee, that legendary Marvel guy, agrees with me. Lee was onboard as an executive producer for this film, and it couldn't have struck him as being that far off the mark, or else he wouldn't have signed on to be a part of "Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer" that's now in production.
If you've listened to any of the commentaries on previous superhero films, you know that the hardest thing for filmmakers is to do an "origin" film. So much of the story has to be devoted to telling how these ordinary people become superheroes that it's like spending most of an afternoon with Clark Kent instead of Superman--not nearly as fun, and not nearly enough camera-time for those villains we love to hate. For that reason alone, I'm guessing that the sequel slated for 2007 release will get off to a faster start and maintain the momentum. I'm guessing too that Story ("Barbershop") will have learned a few things in the process of filming his first superhero film.
The plot in "Fantastic 4" is pretty simple. Brainiac Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) approaches hyper-rich Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to fund a trip to space to gather data from a cosmic storm he hopes will provide secrets to decoding human DNA. His astronaut driver of choice? Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), who accompanies him to the penthouse office where Von Doom sits like Dr. Evil . . . or a corporate CEO. Von Doom agrees, but insists that Ioan's old flame, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) go along, and that she be accompanied by her brother, soon-to-be-new-"flame" Johnny (Chris Evans), who washed out of NASA. Oh, and Van Doom is going too.
In space, Reed's calculations turn out to be off and they're all blasted by the storm--Ben, the worst. Back on Earth, they start to develop symptoms that turn them into freaks. Reed develops an elasticity that makes him a stretchy, bendy Gumby kind of guy who'll come to be known as Mr. Fantastic. Sue, meanwhile, can turn invisible (though, bummer, her clothes can't), and she appropriately bristles when her brother and the media start calling her the Invisible Girl instead of "woman." Johnny, the impulsive daredevil hothead, can turn a flame on quicker than a Bunsen burner and streak through the air as the Human Torch. And poor Ben? His body mass becomes so dense he's as big and solid as one of the guys on Mt. Rushmore--a permanent transformation that spares him his life but costs him his wife. Von Doom predictably turns into a superstrong guy who's gradually turning into metal alloy. The four good guys appear in public once and become known as the Fantastic Four, while Von Doom, a suddenly superstrong guy who's gradually turning into metal, turns into the villain for the episode. There's no grand plan to take over the world or blow up a city, and no saving citizens from rampant crime--just a venomous personal battle between Von Doom and the Fantastic 4.
Could the plot and action have been more exciting, more over-the-top, more breathtaking, more comic-book in tone and craziness? Sure, and that's one of the things I'm guessing Story will attend to in the sequel. He needs to learn that understatement and restraint aren't qualities appreciated by comic-book fans. They want Stan Lee and comic-book creators to throw the kitchen sink at their favorite heroes, and we don't get quite enough of that in the first installment. What's here is a decent-enough plot with decent-enough special effects, but give the fans more and I think they'll be happy.
Story won't be able to do as much about the film's other weakness, which is that, with the exception of Chiklis as Ben, the actors and their characters just don't seem charismatic enough or larger-than-life. Alba is perhaps the most bland, with her "Beverly Hills 90210" training. These people need to loosen up and have some fun, and remember that they're not live-action characters, they're comic-book characters. As with the plot, the level of their performances is average. With a different cast, I could see this film taking on a different feel, one which would elevate it from "entertaining enough" to a film you talk about afterwards. Who knows? Maybe the actors will have learned a few things too, and give us a livelier foursome the second time around.
While HD-DVD fans have been gleefully contentious over Blu-ray's allegedly inevitable doom, the fact remains that studios like Fox keep putting out products, and both formats deliver pictures that are considerably superior to standard discs. "Fantastic Four" has a fantastic picture, with great color saturation and black levels that make the action scenes and pyrotechnical stunts look real as can be. The 1080p HD resolution picture (2.35:1 aspect ratio) was transferred using MPEG 2 technology at 18 MBPS onto a 25GB single-layer disc.
The audio is also fantastic, with English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio and a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 option, with subtitles in English (CC) and Spanish. I especially enjoyed the natural-sounding movement across the rear speakers and from the front-to-rear, and vice versa. Some of the mixes separate sounds just for the sake of involving all 5-6 speakers, but this soundtrack had Foley effects that moved with a sense of inevitability.
The only extra is a commentary track by Gruffudd, Alba, Evans, Chiklis, and McMahon. But, big surprise, just as Chiklis was the most interesting actor/character in the film, he's the most engaging on this commentary. During the commentary it comes out that Alba wasn't a big fan of the comic books. Hopefully she became one before filming started on the Silver Surfer sequel, which stars comic-book film veteran Doug Jones (Abe Sapien, on "Hellbody") as the precious metal dude.
John has his "wife-o-meter," and I respect my wife's instincts too. She enjoyed "Fantastic Four" better than "Superman Returns," and I liked it better than "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Neither one of us thought it was anywhere near as bad as the press it's gotten. Like John, I felt this one could have been better--but as a parting thought, can I just say how impressed I was with the look of the Thing?