-By Daniel Eagan

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The latest in Fox's adaptations of Marvel superheroes features one of the comic-book company's most successful franchises, the Fantastic Four. Precursors to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four obtained their mutant superpowers in a cosmic storm in outer space. Their neuroses famously played as large a part in their stories as their heroics, while their personal animosities could often be exploited by their enemies.

Like the first Spider-Man, Fantastic Four goes into great detail about how the four become superheroes. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), an absent-minded professor, has lost his girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) to his rival, billionaire entrepreneur Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). Sue's brother Johnny (Chris Evans), a pilot, and Reed's friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), an astronaut, join the other three on the fateful space mission.

As a result of the cosmic accident, Reed becomes Mr. Fantastic, able to stretch his body into any shape. Hotheaded Johnny becomes The Human Torch, a fireball who can fly. Sue becomes an Invisible Woman capable of throwing force fields. Blue-collar Ben turns into The Thing, a rock-like mutant with super-strength. But superpowers don't solve any of their personal problems; in fact, they seem to aggravate the hostility between Ben and Johnny.

What's worse, Victor turns into Dr. Doom, whose skin barely encases a metallic skeleton. When he loses his company as a result of the accident, Doom vows revenge against Reed.

Director Tim Story (Taxi, Barbershop) keeps things moving, but doesn't inject much personality into the story. The director often seems at the mercy of technicians whose work is really the dominant feature of the film. Fantastic Four is a special-effects extravaganza, but its plot is mired in issues that only schoolboys care about. After all, how tragic is it that Reed can't get to first base with Sue, even though she all but throws herself at him?

The actors for the most part suit their characters, although Gruffudd lacks the rueful maturity that marked Reed Richards in the comics, and McMahon chooses to camp up Dr. Doom too broadly. Despite being encased in prosthetics, Chiklis (TV's "The Shield") manages to convey a real person behind The Thing. (Is it worth noting that, of the four, The Thing has the only true superpowers? And that the others have severely limited crime-fighting capabilities?)

When the effects work, as during the cosmic storm sequence, they are spectacular. And one eight-minute scene on the Brooklyn Bridge, during which a series of disasters cascade out of control, is a textbook action sequence, making superb use of acting, effects and breathless pacing. But too often, Fantastic Four settles for visual overload at the expense of an involving story.
-Daniel Eagan

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