casYou can’t help walking into a movie with expectations. You’ve seen the ads, you saw the trailer, maybe you’ve read the snarky commentary we have added to the news here about the movie. Usually you can be pretty sure that you won’t come out of the theater too surprised. It happens, of course – although mostly on cable, since you probably aren’t paying  to see a movie you don’t think will be any good – but it has rarely happened to me with the force that it did with Fantastic Four.

I dreaded going to see the movie. My dread was only slightly alleviated by the fact that I figured this movie looked so terrible that it could be funny to sneer at. When the film was over I was stunned walking out of the theater – it just wasn’t that bad. I even… liked it.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a terribly good movie. It’s full of problems, from top to bottom, and it has flaws both serious and minor. But there’s something about the tone and spirit of the film that made it work for me. Fantastic Four is the ultimate antidote to Batman Begins’ dourness – it’s light, it’s a little bit silly, it’s not afraid to have a little bit of fun. In short it captures the feeling of the early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics perfectly.

The film gets off to a really shaky start. Ben Grimm and Reed Richards come to the opulent offices of Victor Von Doom, seeking funding for a space project. It seems some cosmic storm is approaching and it may hold the key to – well, whatever. It’s not important. There’s this long and not terribly interesting scene in Von Doom’s office where Reed convinces his old college classmate to hook him up with a trip to the Von Doom space station. It turns out that Von Doom’s right hand woman is none other than Susan Storm, who used to date Reed in college. And her brother, Johnny, who was once under the command of Ben Grimm back in NASA, is piloting the mission.

And right there is where the movie clicked for me. It’s a film about the relationships between these characters, and the script wisely begins with them all knowing each other. It’s an origin movie, but not for the friendships and antipathies. That’s sort of refreshing, having everyone walking in with their own histories.

I also liked the fact that Fantastic Four is set in a mildly sci-fi world – not one all that removed from this one, but one where Victor Von Doom has a personal space station and shuttle. This is the kind of world where crazy shit can happen, and so when it does people notice but we don’t have to have our characters spending a lot of time freaking out. Well, except for Ben Grimm. But that’s his story.

The two films that Fantastic Four reminded me most of, tone-wise (and only in tone – the first person who sends me an email complaining that I think this movie is as good as either of the two following flicks is getting punted in the head), are the second half of Richard Donner’s Superman and Ghostbusters. Fantastic Four is pleasantly square in the same way Donner’s Superman was – there’s no question that these guys will ever use their powers for anything except helping people whenever possible. Even Johnny Storm, who uses his powers to meet girls and make money early on, is quick to put his life on the line to save people. They’re just Good Guys. That may not be terribly popular anymore – we need our heroes brooding and troubled and tempted by darkness – and that’s too bad. It’s refreshing to see people who are in the superhero game simply because they figure they should be.

The Ghostbusters feeling comes in with the superheroes as celebrities aspect of the film. The Fantastic Four never have secret identities in the film, and the people of New York love them right away. To me that was always the gratifying thing about Ghostbusters as opposed to Ghostbusters 2 – it just seemed to me that this town would go nuts over something as weird as spook hunters or super powered astronauts. casThat’s part of the reason why you live in New York in the first place. There’s also a touch of Ghostbusters in the way the characters get along and bump off of each other.

If there were only good stuff in this film I would be giving it a much higher rating than 7.1, though. First off, Tim Story proves himself to be a competent director, but not much more. The film has little panache, and almost no specific style. The images just sort of trundle along, with very little standing out. It’s too bad, because he has such striking characters with such interesting powers, and he’s making a movie whose tone is essentially like Alan Moore’s 1963 in a lot of ways, but he never takes visual chances.

Jessica Alba is pretty terrible as Sue Storm. And Ioan Gruffud, besides having a distractingly bad American accent and really looking the part, is pretty much non-existent as Mr. Fantastic. On one level I’m not shocked – these two characters were always the weakest in the FF comics. The Human Torch and the Thing got all the spin offs and guest spots. If someone told me, in all seriousness, that Reed Richards or his wife the Invisible Woman were their favorite character – well, I would be dumbfounded.

Still, these two are poor. Gruffud is additionally hamstrung by a script that decided to give Reed an arc where he goes from being a wishy washy wimp to the leader of the team. Not only does the actor never successfully make that transition, the script posits Sue as the stronger of the two so you wonder why this guy needs to lead them in the first place.

Of course Sue is the strongest of the two in concept only. Alba’s unable to summon up much by way of acting, although she’s pretty good when doing brother/sister arguments with Chris Evans as the Human Torch. She looks good in the Fantastic Four outfit, I suppose, and in a bra and panties while getting the hang of going invisible. Beyond that I can’t say much nice about her.

On the other hand Evans and Michael Chiklis as the Thing are great. Most of the movie rides on them, and they do a fine job. Evans in particular is a find – Johnny Storm is a brash dickhead, and Evans manages to tread the line of being a complete jackass and being likeable. It was Evans’ stuff in the earliest footage from the film that really had me worried – all the “X-Treme sports” stuff. But when viewed through his character I think it works. It also occurred to me that if there had been X-Treme sports around in 1961 Jack and Stan might well have worked it into their comics – early Marvel was about meeting the culture, not denying it.

Chiklis really wins as the Thing. As Ben Grimm he’s fine, if a little shrimpy. But in the Thing outfit he seems to find himself. His voice starts off grating and I don’t know if I got used to it or if it improved, but by the end I didn’t mind it at all. The Thing’s story is played out more or less perfectly, with him as the reluctant member of the team and cursing the cruel fate that put him in that orange rock body. The outfit, by the way, more or less works. In the trailers and early footage the Thing costume seemed silly. I still don’t like how it’s based on the earliest permutations of the character when he seemed more like a molten lump, but having Chiklis in a suit does wonders for the interplay between the characters. Every now and again there’s a sound effect of rocks scraping laid in when the Thing moves, and I have to admit it’s touches like that which tickle me most when seeing a comic book brought to life. The suit could be better, but it’s never so bad as to distract, and generally I liked it.

I wish I could say the same of most of the other effects. It’s bad enough that Fantastic Four suffers from acflat direction, but it really gets into TV movie territory with the shoddy effects work. Some of the Mr. Fantastic stretching shots are downright embarrassing, and the way that Sue Storm’s powers are visualized is often dumb. I remain on the fence about the Human Torch – he’s fine in long shots, but in close ups he looks like someone placed a Photoshop filter on him.

Fantastic Four, interestingly enough, faces the issue of costumes head on. I don’t mean the heroes themselves – their costumes, which I like, are made of unstable molecules that can stretch, burn or go invisible with them, so they have a utilitarian function (bizarrely the movie has Victor Von Doom, or his corporation, inventing the fabric. The movie doesn’t give Reed enough opportunities to show off his world class smarts and this, one of his better moments, is handed off to the villain. I honestly couldn’t figure out why they would go with that). In the film Dr. Doom gets a costume for pretty much no good reason. Now, in comic books that’s just what you do. Step one is get super powers, step two is to come up with some flamboyant skintight outfit. Dr. Doom always had a reason for wearing a mask in the comics (it’s strongly diluted here, one of the few serious missteps with the character – purists will be happy that Latveria gets more than a shout out), but the rest of his outfit was just because he was apparently a little fruity. Same here – Victor Von Doom puts on some weird cloak and armor for absolutely no reason at all.

This is interesting because fanboys have bitched time and again about films that take liberties with costumes. This film takes few liberties with Doom’s outfit, yet you may wish it had. The effect is cheesy, and it’s doubled by Julian McMahon’s voice. As Victor Von Doom I found the Nip/Tuck actor often sublime – he embodies forty years of Marvel continuity that paints the villain not as an evil guy but as a jealous and damaged and twisted guy. But his voice is all wrong for the full on Dr. Doom effect. He should have lowered it an octave.

It seems like for every thing I liked about the movie there’s something I didn’t – one example is that the Thing/Human Torch relationship is pitch perfect, but then again one of the great scenes before them is set in front of one of the worst orgies of product placement in history. Fantastic Four is a movie that could have been a lot better – but it could also have been a lot worse. For me it keeps coming back to the tone.

Here’s an example: The Fantastic Four are in quarantine while Reed tries to figure out how to undo their powers. Johnny is going nuts, he hates being cooped up. Finally he sees some sort of X-Treme motorbike thing on TV, snaps and leaves. He goes to the same event he was just watching on TV, gets a bike, and does some stunts. Back at the Baxter Building headquarters of the team, Ben Grimm sees him on TV and gets furious as he gives them all their codenames during an interview (Sue is the Invisible Girl, by the way). Angry, the remaining three march out to confront him, still at the biking event. This just feels like the kind of loose logic from a comic book where time and space between panels are completely malleable. It’s a logic borne of stories that have to be told in 22 pages, where the collaboration between the artist and writer is structured as free form as possible. It’s the kind of logic and tone that built the House of Ideas.

Fantastic Four’s a reasonable start for a franchise. The next film could easily open with Reed showing the team his new portal to the Negative Zone, and it wouldn’t feel out of place in the universe that’s been created. In our world where dark has come to equal mature somehow, where the current huge events in comic books involve murder and rape and misogyny on an epic scale, I like the back to basics approach Fantastic Four has taken. It’s a family film about a family.

7.1 out of 10