FANTASTIC FOUR — ** — Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba; rated PG-13 (violence, vulgarity, profanity, brief gore).

Thanks to the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" movies, and now "Batman Begins," we've come to expect great things from movies based on comic books.

Unfortunately, "Fantastic Four" doesn't come close to living up to the standard set by those films, or to those set by "The Incredibles," which "Fantastic Four" resembles to a small degree. (Though, of course, the comic book came decades before last year's Oscar-winning animated feature.)

"Fantastic Four" is not as horrid as early trailers made it appear. It's sporadically entertaining but never amounts to more than "Mediocre Four."

This science-fiction adventure is based on the long-running Marvel Comics series about four humans who gain superpowers after being exposed to cosmic radiation. In this version, they're aboard a space station during a solar storm. Afterward, hot-headed pilot Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) possesses the ability to throw flame, turning him into a Human Torch. His sister, genetic researcher Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), becomes the Invisible Girl. Her inflexible ex-boyfriend, scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), has turned into the super-stretchy Mr. Fantastic. And rock-steady Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) finds himself covered in a rocky orange "hide."

While Johnny is thrilled by his new abilities, Reed is desperate to find a way to cure them — especially Ben, who's miserable as "The Thing." But, unbeknownst to them, their former benefactor, the power-hungry Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), has also been affected by the storm and wants revenge on all of them.

Too often the film shows the limitations of its budget, which was reportedly between $60 million and $70 million (pretty small for this type of production). Several of the effects look unfinished and chintzy.

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Mark Frost and Michael France's script also borrows heavily from other superhero films, including material taken directly from the first "Spider-Man" film and "Superman II." And the romance between Alba and Gruffudd's character is groan-inducing (both actors give stunningly awful performances).

Where it works best is when it's trying to be more light-hearted. The verbal sparring between Johnny and Ben is easily the highlight of the film. (Thanks to Evans and Chiklis, who seem to be the only ones having fun here.)

"Fantastic Four" is rated PG-13 for some strong scenes of superhero action violence (including fistfights, vehicular violence, violence against women and some explosive mayhem), some humor referring to sexual and other bodily functions, scattered use of profanity, and some brief gore. Running time: 110 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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