And they were doing so well, too: X-Men and Spider-Man, X-Men 2 and Spider-Man 2. Then, somewhere around Daredevil, the Marvel Comics To Successful Movie bandwagon started to lose its wheels. Elektra. The Punisher. And now, sorry to report, Fantastic Four. On this evidence, Spidey 3 can't come quick enough.
Created in 1961 by Stan Lee and the late, great Jack Kirby, The Fantastic Four has always been Marvel's Number One family - family being the operative word, with all the sniping, bitching and bonding that implies. Unlike other superheroes, the Fab Four don't have secret identities to hide behind. What you see is what you get with Mr Fantastic (big-brained and stretchy), Invisible Woman/Girl (blonde and see-through), Human Torch (hot and fiery) and The Thing (gruff, orange and rocky). And despite their powers, they remain very much human.
All of which makes for a lot of backstory. Which in turn makes for a film with too much set-up and too little action - - strange considering the characters' heritage has been bastardised, with Victor Von Doom aka Dr Doom now tagging along for the life-altering cosmic ride... just to speed things up. But that complaint is for the fanboys. More worrying is the tone, with Fantastic Four's big-screen jaunt aimed squarely at pester-power kids ("Mom, can I get a Thing lunchbox?").
Thankfully, however, it's not all bad news - - and we're not just talking about Jessica Alba's slinky catsuits. Fantastic Four is bad, but it's a long way from Catwoman bad; the crass, cheesy dialogue and cheap-looking sets achieving an intentionally tongue-in-cheek tone, while a Brooklyn Bridge pile-up is exactly the kind of wham-bam-slam set-piece you want from a summer blockbuster.
It's just a shame there's not more of them, the movie listlessly treading water 'til the climactic showdown between the spandex foursome and Dr Doom eventually limps into play. (Why does Doom hate our heroes? Because he's short of a few bob and Reed steals his girlfriend. Boo-hoo.) And, when it finally comes, it's clunky and monotonous, devoid of sweaty-palmed excitement. Which is what you get when you hire the director of Barbershop instead of Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi.
Most of the cast's plastic performances are similarly underwhelming: Gruffudd lacks the maturity of Reed Richards; McMahon is a sneering, camp, one-note villain with weirdly plucked eyebrows; and Alba, sizzling as she is in tight-fitting lycra, looks nothing like a research scientist, a real blonde or Johnny's sister. Still, at least Evans hits the right note of cockiness and swagger ("Am I the only one who thinks it's cool?") as his hot-bod Johnny Storm sets about bagging the babes. And Chiklis' Thing is straight out of the comic, all grouch and granite.
But that's your lot. The rest is comprised of corny dialogue, uneven acting, mediocre effects and huge gaps where the action should be. Despite that $56 million opening weekend, it's hardly the best way to kick-off a franchise.