Marvel Comics' first family of superherodom, the Fantastic Four, hits the big screen in a light-hearted and funny adventure. It begins when down-on-his-luck genius Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd, Horatio Hornblower) has to enlist the financial and intellectual help from former schoolmate and rival Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, Nip/Tuck) in order to pursue outer-space research into human DNA. Also on the trip are Reed's best friend, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, The Shield); his former lover, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba, Dark Angel, Sin City), who's now Doom's employee and love interest; and her hotshot-pilot brother, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans, Cellular). Things don't go as planned, of course, and the quartet becomes blessed--or is it cursed?--with superhuman powers: flexibility, brute strength, invisibility and projecting force fields, and bursting into flame. Meanwhile, Doom himself is undergoing a transformation.
Among the many entries in the comic-book-movie frenzy, Fantastic Four is refreshing because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Characterization isn't too deep, and the action is a bit sparse until the final reel (like most "first" superhero movies, it has to go through the "how did we get these powers and what we will do with them" churn). But it's a good-looking cast, and original comic-book cocreator Stan Lee makes his most significant Marvel-movie cameo yet, in a speaking role as the FF's steadfast postal carrier, Willie Lumpkin. Newcomers to superhero movies might find the idea of a family with flexibility, strength, invisibility, and force fields a retread of The Incredibles, but Pixar's animated film was very much a tribute to the FF and other heroes of the last 40 years. The irony is that while Fantastic Four is an enjoyable B-grade movie, it's the tribute, The Incredibles, that turned out to be a film for the ages. --David Horiuchi
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is another entertaining romp for the Marvel-superhero franchise. Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), is treading on thin ice when his fiancée, Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), thinks he's more interested in a series of cosmic phenomena occurring around the earth than in the preparations for their upcoming wedding. Sorry, ladies, but Reed is right. The disturbances are caused by a surge of cosmic power from a mysterious being called the Silver Surfer (an all-CGI creation, modeled by Doug Jones and voiced by Laurence Fishburne), who not only zooms around the skies on his board, but also has enough power to fight the FF, sometimes by turning their own power against them, not only mixing up Sue and Reed, but also Johnny Storm, the Human Torch (Chris Evans), and Ben Grimm, the Thing (Michael Chiklis). But that's not the worst of it. The Surfer is only an opening act, a herald looking for planets that his master, Galactus, can consume for his sustenance.
With its initial installment, Fantastic Four established itself as the superhero franchise that didn't take itself too seriously, and that continues here. There are numerous moments of laugh-out-loud humor, and the most angst they suffer is whether Sue and Reed will ever be able to live a normal family life. (That, and whether they'll ever really get married, of course.) If Fantastic Four were a normal superhero franchise, the ending would be a knock-down drag-out war with Galactus, featuring the FF in a colossal battle for the planet Earth and the lives of everyone on it. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer just doesn't do that, and we don't quite get the payoff we expected. Effects are dazzling, but the Surfer looks too metallic, more like a skyriding T-1000 robot. --David Horiuchi
X-men: The Last Stand
X-Men: The Last Stand is the third installment in the popular superhero franchise, and it's an exciting one with a splash of fresh new characters. When a scientist named Warren Worthington II announces a "cure" for mutant powers, it raises an interesting philosophical question: is mutant power a disease that needs a cure, or is it a benefit that homo superior enjoys over "normal" human beings? No surprise that Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants resist the idea that they need to be cured, and declare war on the human race. But it's a little tougher for the X-Men, led by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Storm (Halle Berry). If you're Rogue (Anna Paquin), for example, your power means you can't even touch your boyfriend, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). To compound matters, someone previously thought dead has returned, and might be either friend or foe.
With director Bryan Singer having moved on to Superman Returns, the franchise passes to the hands of Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), whose best work is done in the big action sequences such as a showdown between mutant armies. But it's difficult to manage the sheer volume of characters when adding longtime comic-book stalwarts such as Beast (Kelsey Grammer) and Angel (Ben Foster), and one character in particular deserved better than an off-screen dismissal. And fans of the original Dark Phoenix comic book story might be underwhelmed by the movie's resolution. X-Men: The Last Stand is presumably the last film in the series, but the ambiguous ending leaves possibilities open. Look for the two writers most responsible for making the X-Men who they were, Stan Lee and Chris Claremont, in early cameos. --David Horiuchi