Adapting The Fantastic Four was never going to be easy. Any Fantastic Four film has to respect the beloved characters at the team's core, the first fruit of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby collaboration which—alongside Lee and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man—revolutionized comics in the early '60s by introducing problem-ridden heroes. Following the source material means establishing four distinct personalities, getting the family-like team dynamic right, making sure there's action, throwing in some laughs, creating convincing special effects, and getting the origin story out of the way while still making room for an adventure. That's a lengthy checklist. Fantastic Four puts half a click next to a single box.
To focus on the positive, Tim Story's Fantastic Four—the product of a decade of development, countless screenwriters, and several directors who drifted in and out of the project—comes alive whenever the focus shifts to the relationship between the Human Torch (Chris Evans) and The Thing (Michael Chiklis). After encountering a cosmic storm while working alongside Julian McMahon (as a business tycoon who spends the film slowly turning into Dr. Doom), Evans, Chiklis, Ioan Gruffudd (playing the stretch-tastic super-scientist Reed Richards), and Jessica Alba (playing the Invisible Girl) return to Earth with strange—and in Chiklis' case, disfiguring—powers. Chiklis becomes destructively depressed; Evans, as probably the least angst-ridden comic-book hero ever created, can't wait to take to the skies, show off for girls, and perform motorcycle stunts. (That last part doesn't make a lot of sense, but a trip to the X-Games provides plenty of opportunities for product placement.) Chiklis conveys a real humanity beneath his none-too-impressive monster suit, and Evans makes it clear that his constant teasing is, in its own way, an attempt to keep his buddy from plunging into despair. It's nicely played by both actors.
Then there's the rest of the movie. The obvious product of countless revisions, Fantastic Four jumps from character to character and scene to scene with little logic and gives everyone but Evans and Chiklis a single defining character trait to go with their powers: McMahon is megalomaniacal. Gruffudd is dull. Alba is, well, the girl. Sure, the characters should be iconic, but they don't have to be living action figures. There's a spark-free love triangle between Gruffudd, Alba, and McMahon, and eventually, everyone starts stretching, disappearing, flaming, or clobbering as the plot dictates. Then the film ends with the promise of many more adventures to come. But who would want them? Not comic-book fans, who've been spoiled by too many good movies like Batman Begins and the Spider-Man series. Not action fans, who will wonder why the fireworks fizzled. And not the morbidly curious looking for the truly terrible film that the early trailers promised. Instead, they'll find something much worse: A garish mediocrity.