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Fantastic Four is the opposite of Batman Begins -- and I mean that as a compliment. Instead of following the current chic for brooding heroes and pompous story lines, director Tim Story (Barbershop) bases this superhero extravaganza on giddy wish- fulfillment and rapscallion humor. He spins refreshing variations on the basic comic book fantasy that with one fateful push even the sorriest personality can become a glorious legend.

The movie has a welcome offhand air about special effects and flights of fancy; the sequence that sets up the formation of the Fantastic Four has the same breezy shock as the outer-space opening of James Bond's You Only Live Twice. Scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) wants to study a cosmic storm comparable to one he believes triggered the evolution of life on Earth. To do so he must partner up with corporate giant Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), Reed's rival for scientific glory and for the hand of gorgeous and brainy Sue Storm (Jessica Alba). Along with his strongman sidekick Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Sue's extreme-sportsman brother Johnny (Chris Evans), Reed prepares to observe the radioactive hurricane from Von Doom's private space station - a glass-bottomed beauty comparable to Captain Nemo's submarine. But the storm hits early.

The movie's magnetic, often farcical appeal centers on what happens next: The cosmic particles work an unexpected black-and-white magic on these misfit voyagers. Not-so-tragic flaws change into super-strengths. Reed had been all too reasonable and flexible, even when Sue begged for his attention. So it's gratifying to see him turn into an elastic man, as malleable as Silly Putty and far more amusing to watch.

The cosmic dust transforms Johnny into a literal hot shot, able to click into flames and become a soaring incendiary warrior. Ben morphs into the Thing, a jolly orange giant to his friends, a fearsome monster to his enemies - especially Victor Von Doom, whose drive for power achieves an awful perfection when an indestructible metal subsumes his flesh and bones. Victor becomes that Ph.D. of electroshock and malevolence, Dr. Doom: the arch-enemy of Reed's Mr. Fantastic, Ben's Thing, and Johnny's Human Torch, who with Sue's Invisible Woman make up the Fantastic Four.

As embodied by Alba, you may feel Sue is just about perfect to begin with. But as the Invisible Woman, with the ability to bend light waves and create force fields and finally get Reed where she wants him, she epitomizes what the male writers probably think of as benign feminine wiles. (Michael France and Mark Frost did the script from the original story and characters cooked up by Marvel Comics' Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; Simon Kinberg contributed an uncredited rewrite.)

Of course, Alba has her own interpretation: Sue often felt invisible as a brilliant female among egotistical men. That's OK. Part of the fun of Fantastic Four is watching vivid pop performers like Alba take charge of their far-out roles. There's something inescapably charming and funny about seeing this unaffected action gal model the group's form-fitting costume and announce that it's made from unstable molecular material.

Story wisely keeps the comedy and melodrama unstable, too; it teeters pleasurably on the borders of superhero vaudeville and heterosexual camp. Chiklis' big, sloppy emotionalism has never been more likable than when he roots it in the Thing, who loses a drab fiancee because of his new ugliness, then gains the affection of a knockout, the blind sculptor Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington). Although Chiklis does the crying-clown bit well, it's his game attitude that's infectious. You feel like cheering when he finally brings himself to say "It's clobbering time!"

Blessedly unimportant, Fantastic Four cruises along on modest yet genuine comic-book pleasures: colorful signature lines like the Human Torch's "Flame on"; pop parodies of Larry King or of product placement; set pieces done in elemental splashes of earth, wind and fire; amiable groaners like Dr. Doom asking Mr. Fantastic "Why the long face?" when his elastic jaw drops. As Mr. Fantastic expands Gruffudd grows into the role, and McMahon makes Dr. Doom an ideal pulp villain.

Evans' hyperbolic exuberance as Johnny sums up the attraction of the movie. In his first flush of self-discovery the Torch burns a hole in a ski slope - and without losing a beat invites his fetching nurse-companion to splash into this instant hot tub. (She does.) Fantastic Four just wants us to have fun. The cast and crew make it easy to join in.

Fantastic Four

Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Kerry Washington, and Julian McMahon

Directed by Tim Story

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG-13

Time 105 minutes


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