Parents Beware: Nothing Incredible about Fantastic Four

A “funny family action film.” That’s the studio spin on the cinematic train wreck that is Fantastic Four — far and away the worst comic-book super-hero movie since Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin.

An Insult to Family Audiences

The logic seems to be, since no adolescent comic-book fan, let alone adult, could possibly enjoy this movie, the only thing left to do is reposition it as a kiddie film. It’s the Kangaroo Jack strategy, and it’s an insult to family audiences. Our kids deserve better than Hollywood’s garbage.

Yes, I said garbage. It may be based on a nearly fifty-year-old comic book that for nearly five decades has gotten away with calling itself “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” but this Fantastic Four is decidedly on the opposite end of the spectrum. In fact, it’s such a total zero that it would hardly be worth mentioning — except that the marketers seem to have had some success persuading family audiences that the film might be worth their time.

Let me assure you: It’s not. The fact is, when I called it a train wreck, I was flattering it. This Fantastic Four hasn’t the drama, spectacle, or human interest of a train wreck. Ironically, it hits theaters as Batman, whose last two or three films were so terrible that they almost killed the super-hero genre altogether, has returned triumphantly to the screen in the brilliant Batman Begins, one of the best comic-book movies ever.

To be sure, Batman Begins isn’t a family film (it’s too scary for kids under 10 or 12). Then again, neither is Fantastic Four. The film’s relentlessly one-note portrayal of Johnny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch, as a randy, insufferably egocentric tomcat and glory-hound makes sure of that.

The Torch is referred to at one point by another character as “the underwear model.” The filmmakers would know. From the Invisible Girl stripping to her skivvies in a completely pointless scene (theoretically the movie needs her to be invisible at that point, but next thing we know she’s getting dressed again after accomplishing nothing), to Ben Grimm’s fiancée leaving her apartment to meet Ben on a darkened New York street in a silk teddy, to the glamor-puss nurse who turns on a dime from taking the Torch’s vitals to going on a quickie ski trip with him and maybe (the movie coyly implies) indulging in some hanky-panky on the slopes (not to get bogged down in details, the Torch winds up naked and spends much of the subsequent scene with only the nurse’s pink parka wrapped delicately about his hips), underwear models and general trashiness are part and parcel of the film’s milieu.

Unquestionably, though, the Torch (Chris Evans) is the film’s biggest liability. He’s the first movie super hero ever to make the case that super heroes are no more worthy of our attention than any other celebrity. He’s a male Paris Hilton, without the pathos. And he never gets any better — never has a moment of growth or moral awakening, a flicker of sympathy for another human being. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve plumbed the depths of Johnny Storm’s character development.

Characters: Boring and Miscast

If none of the other characters is quite as insufferable as the Torch, none of them is much more interesting either. In fact, every character has one and only one note, and nearly all of them are thoroughly miscast.

Ioan Gruffudd (of King Arthur, also terrible) is bland and boring as Reed Richards, the elastic Mr. Fantastic. His one note is that he’s serious, diffident, and indecisive. Also, he doesn’t know how to talk to women. Not that Reed’s romantic rival, Victor von Doom, a.k.a. Dr. Doom, is any great shakes in the sweet-talking department either. Fantastic Four may be the first movie this year with more cringeworthy romantic dialogue than Revenge of the Sith.

Reed and von Doom vie for Sue Storm, a.k.a. the Invisible Girl, played by Jessica Alba (TV’s “Dark Angel”) in glasses to make her seem intellectual. Her one note is that she’s serious and boring, and undresses a lot.

Michael Chiklis comes the closest to retaining any shred of dignity as Ben Grimm, the Thing. His one note is that he’s gruff and tragic. He also gets a couple of lines that suggest that he’s angry with God, such as when a pigeon mistakes him for a statue. Later he declares that God, if He exists, must hate him. Here is the profound response of another character: “She is not so into hate.” This is Alicia, in the comics a major supporting character, here reduced to a funky blind lady who has about 60 seconds of screentime to help Ben Grimm get his groove back.

For three-quarters of the movie Ben Grimm is saddled with being the voice of common sense — until it needs him to suddenly trust the one man he least trusts in the world and turn on his lifelong best friend, which he readily does. Not that this stops him from later chiding his teammates for ever having thought the bad guy might not be so bad.

That would be Dr. Doom, played by Julian McMahon. In the comic books, Dr. Doom is a towering iconic figure in armor and a cape, like Darth Vader — in fact, he may be one of the inspirations for Darth Vader. This Fantastic Four reduces him to the stature of a younger, duller version of Donald Trump, with super powers.

Check Under Your Seat for the Plot

The storytelling is so inept, you’d hardly notice there’s a plot at all — if the plot didn’t keep tripping over itself to remind you of its existence. Otherwise, it’s just a series of banal vignettes. See Reed Richards stretch for a new roll of toilet paper without leaving the bathroom! See Sue turn invisible and grab for a towel when Reed walks in on her after a shower! See Johnny Storm pop popcorn with his hand! (Actually, this kind of gag can work, if the filmmaker is smart enough to have the onscreen characters know how to react. The filmmakers are directed to X2 for further instruction.)

Had the filmmakers deliberately set out to insult, demean, and trample upon Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legacy, they could hardly have done a more efficient job. Yet with a production this thoroughly inept, it’s actually hard to know who to blame. It would one thing if the director were an experienced, well-established hack, such as Joel Schumacher. Yet when a Tim Story, whose only other credits are a pair of comedies featuring Queen Latifah (Barbershop and Taxi), presides over a mess like this, you have to wonder: Who greenlighted this film for this director? Who made the decision to entrust the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine to the director of Taxi?

If you want to see a truly funny family action film about a quartet of super-heroes consisting of a super-stretcher, a super-heavyweight, an invisible girl with force fields, and a blazing young lad, pop The Incredibles into your DVD player. The heroes’ powers may be more than a little reminiscent of their Marvel counterparts (even Frozone is a straight knockoff of Marvel’s Iceman), but their film is as fresh, funny, wholesome and heartfelt as this Fantastic Four is moronic, inept, tedious and crass.

If your kids desperately want the Fantastic Four, check out the new DVD release of the two-season 1990s animated series. The second season is quite good, and even the lame first season is better than this film.

And if you really need big-screen super-hero action this summer, my advice is run, don’t walk, to Batman Begins.

(c) 2005 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.

For complete ratings for this film and hundreds more visit the Decent Films Guide website.

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