In recent years, big-screen comic-book adaptations such as Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies have happily acknowledged their "adult" fan base, giving the grown-ups much to ponder, even as the kids shriek and cheer at the pyrotechnics. Now, after the jet-black tones of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (the most intelligent and ambitious of this summer's blockbusters), Tim Story's emptily colourful Fantastic Four drags the genre back to a state of infantile arrest.
Covering the quarrelsome quartet's creation (by an interstellar storm with transformative genetic powers) and perfunctory battle with their nemesis Dr Doom, this plays like a lavish join-the-dots doodle, an introduction to an anodyne franchise heavily laden with product placement. Solidly unremarkable computer graphics allow our heroes to bend, burn and vanish with uninvolving ease, while a rock face of latex prosthetics turns Michael Chiklis's Ben Grimm into a cuddly caricature of The Thing. Yet despite the angsty outsider undercurrents of the source material, these not-so-Fantastic Four rarely experience anything vaguely resembling pain.
Instead, it's frothy fun all the way, mechanically ticking the blockbuster boxes (action, adventure, romance, toilet break) without ever troubling the cerebrum.
In America, the howl of critical derision that greeted Fantastic Four, combined with a beezer opening weekend box office, has been cited as proof that critics have lost touch with audience expectations. Certainly, the only sensible way to evaluate Story's mechanical romp is as a seasonal popcorn phenomenon - a single kernel of an idea (comic books plus movies equals money), overcooked until it explodes into a frothy mush, covered in sugar, but basically full of hot air. Yet even as a cynical crowd-pleaser with a family-friendly PG certificate, this cartoony whimsy leaves a lot to be desired. Most obviously, one wonders what the point of a Fantastic Four movie is in the wake of The Incredibles, well-worn DVD copies of which now adorn every family home in the land. In the shadow of Pixar's dysfunctional anti-heroes, the fiery, stretchy, invisible antics of these preening pin-ups seem somewhat po-faced.
Worse, the young girls in the Fantastic Four audience are sold down the river by the pulchritudinous Invisible Woman (played by Sin City's Jessica Alba), who is required to present her bosoms and strip down to her underpants at every opportunity. While the much-maligned Thunderbirds movie managed to provide ass- kicking role models for boys and girls alike, Fantastic Four peddles the dated notion that men can be disfigured and attractive, but women need to flounce around in push-up bras - even if they've got a PhD in genetic engineering. Crucially lacking the secret identities or schizophrenic alter egos that lend a fractured emotional core to so many comic-book heroes, the Fantastic Four are "daytime heroes", the bland, sunny counterparts to Batman's Dark Knight. Ironically, this shiny happy sheen leaves a gaping black hole at the centre of the film. One risible scene, in which Ben's wife (dressed, naturally, in a skimpy negligee) abandons him because he's turned into Mount Rushmore, barely skims the surface of its characters' internal conflicts, merely emphasising the shallowness of the proceedings.
Nip/Tuck's Julian McMahon does his best to inject an element of menace as Victor Von Doom, doing a scene-stealing impression of Kevin Spacey, albeit with more hair and fewer wrinkles. But Story's apprenticeship on the plodding comedy Barbershop and the turgid action film Taxi has taught him little about dramatic tension, leaving McMahon to chew the scenery fiendishly, while everyone else simply gets on with their handsome lessons. Elsewhere, extraneous action set pieces offer James Bond-style skiing, snowboarding and motorbike stunts, keeping things moving along while neatly sidestepping anything as contentious as character development.
While Ang Lee's disappointing Hulk adaptation (with which this shares a scriptwriter) failed because it couldn't reconcile its adult themes with its immature visuals, Fantastic Four simply sells short the artistic ambitions that have underwritten the best of Marvel's screen ventures. As a summer fantasy spectacular, it's far less challenging than Steven Spielberg's surprisingly downbeat War of the Worlds, and less visually arresting than the Korean sci-fi anime Sky Blue. OK, so it's nothing like as squalid as Catwoman, which united audiences and critics in mutual loathing. But in blending a kindergarten narrative with "moderate fantasy violence and sex references" ("Can Mr Fantastic make any part of his body grow . . .?"), the makers of Fantastic Four in effect do the dirty on adults and children alike. Call me out of touch, but speaking as a critic, a parent and an enthusiastic consumer of popcorn, I'd give this a less-than-fantastic four out of ten.