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Cast carries not-so ‘Fantastic Four’

Marvel's first family of superheroes takes on Dr. Doom. By John Hartl

In the mid-1990s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s decades-old Marvel Comics classic, “Fantastic Four,” inspired an animated television series (newly available on DVD). Last year “The Incredibles,” Brad Bird’s Oscar-winning feature-length cartoon about a secretive super-powered family, used animation to tell a remarkably similar story.

Now the official “Fantastic Four” are the subject of a live-action movie, and they seem a little lost without the animation. The casting seems just right, the early scenes develop quite a bit of good will toward the actors, but there’s a slackness that limits even the best scenes.

The director, Tim Story, hit with “Barbershop” (2002) and missed with “Taxi” (2004), and falls somewhere between with “Fantastic Four.” Although he quickly establishes a goofy, playful tone for the picture, he often doesn’t seem to know how to move from one scene to the next. Momentum is missing, and it’s difficult to brush off the feeling that we’ve seen it all before — and quite recently.

The plot involves the transformation of four heroic astronauts and one greedy bad one after a spectacular “cosmic storm” hits their spacecraft. Back on Earth, they discover that they’ve been exposed to radiation that has given each of them superpowers.

Ioan Gruffudd plays Reed Richards, who becomes the elastic Mr. Fantastic, capable of stretching his arms to skyscraper lengths. Jessica Alba is his ambivalent ex-girlfriend, Susan Storm, aka The Invisible Woman, who controls force fields and disappears altogether on some occasions.

Chris Evans is her high-flying younger brother, Johnny Storm, an unapologetic hedonist who is transformed into The Human Torch. Michael Chiklis plays Ben Grimm, whose physical transformation is so extreme that he becomes The Thing, a rock creature who really knows how to throw his weight around.

Also affected by the radioactive storm is Dr. Victor Von Doom, played by Julian McMahon with an appreciation of the character’s deliberate cruelty that suggests James Mason at his most diabolical. Suddenly Dr. Doom, who wants Susan simply because she is unavailable, is capable of turning people into ashes, and he clearly delights in the opportunities for revenge.

The movie is likely to be cited as a career high point for Chiklis (from television’s “The Shield”) and Evans (star of last year’s sleeper, “Cellular”), who develop a camaraderie that already exists before their characters are transformed. Once they start playing with their new powers, they’re like a couple of kids in a sandbox, teasing each other to see how far the other will go.

Screenwriters Michael France (“The Hulk”) and Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks”) occasionally tap into unexpectedly strong feelings, especially when Ben’s girlfriend gives him back his ring and Johnny and Ben almost get into a murderous fight. Perhaps the movie would have had more resonance if it had taken these emotions more seriously.

As it is, “Fantastic Four” comes off as primarily a special-effects showcase that contains hints of something stronger and deeper. It’s not bad, but it could have been so much braver.