Sunday, July 10, 2005

MOVIES: Fantastic Four

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Well, I'll be damned — the "Fantastic Four" movie may not be the highest achievement of the cinematic art form, but it's really not all that bad. After the awful reviews and bad pre-release buzz, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to see it, but for the most part, I had an enjoyable time at the picture show. I walked out with a grin.

"Fantastic Four" is no "Spider-Man," but in its own way, it's solid popcorn summer-movie fun, with action, humor and decent effects. I'm not sure what the critics are reviling it for -- and I have to say, the constant comparisons to "The Incredibles," a movie that "FF" only has the most superficial of resemblances to, is a pretty lazy crutch in most of the reviews I've read. "The Incredibles" is about parenting, really - this is about friends.

Is it perfect? Hardly. But it gets the job done. I appreciated its lighthearted tone, and that's why this movie is going to turn out to be a rather unexpected hit (completely unexpected, if you go by the armchair Internet prognosticators). Kids are loving this movie. The pre-teens at my show seemed to dig it like it was by Pixar. It made a pretty amazing $20 million Friday alone, meaning it should clear $50 million easy for the weekend - which, shockingly, will be more than "Batman Begins" made in its first weekend. Who woulda thunk that?

Even though I quite liked "Batman Begins" and its dead-serious take on Batman, and it's definitely a better movie than "FF," I was ready for a more joyful comic movie. After the gritty, sometimes dour takes like "Hulk," "Elektra," "Daredevil," even the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" movies to lesser extents, it started to feel like every hero is shrouded in shadows and self-loathing. I also was very glad this movie didn't fall back on the movie comic cliché of modern times, the big ol' technological doomsday device that will destroy the city/area/world if it isn't stopped. (Even "Batman" was guilty of that one.)



The good:
Chris Evans as the Human Torch and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, The Thing, just make the movie. They're both right on in capturing their characters' essences, and Internet quibbling aside, I think the film gave them a decent look. Evans gets all the movie's best lines, and his arrogant, cocky Johnny Storm is the most dynamic of all the characters.
• Does the Thing look silly? Well, frankly, he's going to look a bit goofy no matter what - he's made out of ORANGE ROCKS, people. I liked that they didn't go with some soulless CGI and instead put Chiklis in a pretty effective suit. He looks as good as a live-action Thing possibly could. And for the few scenes when he's fully "on fire," Evans looks cool as hot can get.
• The movie did manage to capture that sense of bickering family that has been a perennial of the comics for years. They love each other, and they hate each other sometimes, too.
• I also felt like this movie really worked on making us care for the characters. Ben Grimm comes in for the hardest treatment adjusting to his monstrous new form (the scene where he gets dumped by his wife - twice! -- was hard to watch, yet fully plausible). The Fantastic Four here are all people first, heroes second (well, except maybe for Johnny Storm, who's all boy, all the time).

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The less good:
• As Mr. Fantastic, Ioan Gruffudd is just kind of adequate (my dream casting for Reed Richards? Tim Robbins). He lacks any real presence and overplays Reed's nebbish, unassertive side. And unfortunately, the "stretching" effects of his character probably are the movie's least realistic (again, like the Thing, it's something hard to pull off).
Jessica Alba sure looks purty but I don't buy her for a second as the Invisible Woman. This woman's a scientist? She can act, kinda, but there's no real strength in her words. The relationship between the two would've had a lot more weight with stronger actors.
"Dr. Doom" in this movie bears so little resemblance to the comic Doom, I'm calling him "Earth 2 Doom." A combination of the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" version and Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street," this Doom is just kind of OK as a sneering zillionaire villain, played with oily menace by Julian McMahon, but he gets real close to plain silly when he puts on his armor for the movie's climax.
I don't mind changing things from a comic if they stay true to the essence, and the comic book Dr. Doom's origin is way too complicated to do well in a 90-minute movie. But this Doom lacks any of the imperious presence, power or intelligence that has made him one of comic books' best foes for decades. This Doom - well, he's just another deranged madman out for revenge. Didn't ruin the movie, but didn't really help it, either.
• The dialogue is often comic-booky to the extreme, but sheesh, have you ever tried reading Stan Lee's classic "Fantastic Four" dialogue out loud yourself? For the kind of movie it is, few lines left me cringing. (OK, "I'll get a second opinion" was a bit lame.)

Now I'm going to go ahead and just toss my comic blogger credibility out the window to the street below and say that the recent Marvel comic movie this most reminds me of is "Daredevil" - and that's not a criticism! I, alone in the cosmos, liked "Daredevil," even if it too was flawed. I honestly think Ben Affleck was not that bad, the mood was nicely dramatic, there were no technological doomsday devices and I liked the villains. The hard-rock soundtrack stank, yeah, but I honestly feel like the movie "Daredevil" was true to the essence of the characters, details aside. I had fun watching it, even if I didn't get a warm feeling in the gut like I do watching the near-perfect "Spider-Man" movies or "Superman II."

I'll buy the "Fantastic Four" DVD, and if they make a sequel, I'll check it out too. It may not be "Fantastic," but it's at least a solid "B."

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