When Pixar Animation? THE INCREDIBLES was released last Winter, several industry pundits and numerous comic book fans commented on the film? cheeky similarity to the exploits of Stan Lee? seminal classic Marvel superhero troupe the Fantastic Four. With a film based on the exploits of Reed Richards and co in the pipeline, it was looking as if we might be in a wind-out-of-the-sails scenario and the situation wasn? much helped by early reports indicating the film version of FANTASTIC FOUR was a bit of a clunker. Ironic, then, that where THE INCREDIBLES started out as an amusing parody of superhero flicks but evolved into a straight-forward action/adventure the live-action FANTASTIC FOUR turns out to be a comedy with a little bit of spectacle thrown in for good measure. Many recent superhero movies have tried to justify themselves by becoming earnest, angst-ridden efforts with their costumed star wracked by guilt, doubt, tonsilitis and just about every other human torment known to Man. THE FANTASTIC FOUR largely says ?o hell with all that?and sets out to have fun. Lots of fun. It tells the story of a group of people who can suddenly do the most amazing things and, to be honest, they?e generally quite pleased about it when they finally come to terms with it. So whilst, technically, BATMAN BEGINS is a better movie than FANTASTIC FOUR I? here to tell you that this is a more purely enjoyable movie, a popcorn film in the strictest sense, a film you?l be able to sit back and wallow in without worrying about the subtext. Despite the appalling reviews it? garnered in the Press, THE FANTASTIC FOUR is the only film I?e seen this year which actually had a large part of the audience cheering at the end ?and not in a ?hank God that? over?sort of fashion.

There? lots wrong with FANTASTIC FOUR but none of it really matters because, as a film, it? as disposable as yesterday? newspaper. There? not much going on in the plot department, many of the special effects are distinctly under-powered (the early space station sequences in particular) and there? a remarkable lack of spectacle considering the awesome powers our heroes possess. Yet it doesn? matter a jot because the film is so funny. There? an almost Whedoneque level of wry, witty humour in the script with many of the best lines going to Chris Evans, whose exuberant performance as the Human Torch gives the movie much of its energy. Michael Chiklis, buried for much of the movie under a most unbecoming rock-skin Thing suit, has captured the lugubriousness of his comic strip counterpart with an almost uncanny accuracy. Ioan Gruffudd, however, fumbles his chance at international film superstardom by turning in a rather one-note performance as Reed Richards (although he manages some of the comic flourishes quite well) and Jessica Alba is a bit flat as love interest Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman (but she? a fox so we?l let it pass), about whom much of the dramatic tension revolves.

The film takes its cue from the comic strip origins of the characters. Embarking on an expedition to a space station to try an gain a better understanding of evolution by studying a shower of cosmic rays (or something) Reed Richards and his chums (and billionaire industrialist Victor Von Doom ?hmmm, maybe he?l turn out to be the baddy?) are bombarded by cosmic radiation and, on returning to earth, it? clear that their genetic code has been altered. Ben Grimm becomes the inhuman Thing, Reed himself can stretch like elastic, Sue? got the power of invisibility and the handy ability to project forcefields and young Johnny can turn up the heat. Poor old Victor finds his body turning to metal and discovers an affinity for electricity ?for no apparent reason. After an interesting but hardly-spectacular rescue on the Brooklyn Bridge, Reed and co are quickly dubbed ?he Fantastic Four?and are hailed as heroes. Victor Von Doom becomes an evil maniac and the Four have to fight him. They win. The end. That? really all there is for the story and if it sounds a bit lame?ell, it? hard to argue that it isn?. There? really nothing to get worked up about here on the visual front ?the action scenes are acceptable if not exactly state-of-the-art and the Four never really get the chance to show what they can do. There? a definite sense here that we?e watching the first in a franchise and that? fine. By the end of the film the Four are finding their feet and while their battle with Dr Doom seems to involve the usual hurling around of fire hydrants and cars and not really much else happens as the Four start to explore the extent of their powers.

Despite appearing to be the runt of the recent litter of superhero films, THE FANTASTIC FOUR works ?and is so refreshing ?because it refuses to take itself seriously. This is comic book stuff, it seems to be saying, and comic books are a bit silly really. The best thing about THE FANTASTIC FOUR is the suspicion that the inevitable sequel will probably be quite a bit better. As it is, you?l leave the cinema with a big cheesy grin on your face and your laughter muscles thoroughly exercised. And that? good enough for me this time.


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