If you're looking for a fast-paced, entertaining, effects-filled spectacle, but you don't want the angst and artistic aspirations of Batman Begins, or the dispiriting devastation of War of the Worlds, then Fantastic Four may be the summer movie for you.

But those who prefer comic book movies with substantial storytelling, fully-realized characters, thematic depth, and respect for the source material—something along the lines of Spider-Man 2, the X-Men films, or Christopher Nolan's bat-blockbuster—seem disappointed by this rather frivolous feature. One critic in particular, a die-hard fan of the phenomenal foursome's colorful comic book history, is outraged by what he considers to be an insult to the legacy of the Fantastic Four's creators.

Regardless of the reviews, Tim Story's adaptation of one of the most beloved Marvel Comics series has opened to big box office numbers, almost guaranteeing that a sequel will be made. Newcomers Ioan Gruffudd, Chris Evans, and Julian McMahon, and TV stars Jessica Alba ("Dark Angel") and Michael Chiklis ("The Shield") may not have seemed like big enough names to topple Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds from the top spot, but fans of the comic turned out in large numbers across the nation this week, surprising the studio and reportedly ending the box office slump.

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) applauds the movie. "Fantastic Four succeeds in spite of its faults. It's often silly, but it's still somehow all palatable and acceptable. Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men are all great films, but they tend to rely on heavier drama and angst. Fantastic Four plays more like a television program that's both sitcom and soap, mixing comedy with action and drama." He adds, however, that even The Incredibles "carried more weight and emotional resonance than this."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) feels differently … to say the least. "To call it a train wreck would be putting it politely. It hasn't the drama, spectacle, or human interest of a train wreck." There's more. He finds fault with every single central characterization, and ultimately concludes, "Had the filmmakers deliberately set out to insult, demean, and trample upon [Stan] Lee and [Jack] Kirby's legacy, they could hardly have done a more efficient job."

He's not the only one giving the movie a 'thumbs down' vote. "Fantastic Four … is anything but fantastic," writes David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "At times it borders on schlock, though it's not a complete failure as summer popcorn entertainment. There have been far better comic-book adaptations such as Spiderman and Batman Begins." He specifically criticizes "ham-fisted dialogue, bad acting, chintzy sets and, at times, cheesy special effects."

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Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "For older teens and adults … it's a fun summer popcorn movie with positive things to say about family, calling, self-sacrifice and teamwork."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Tim Story … gives us most of the requisites that we demand of a superhero flick: interesting but conflicted heroes; a dastardly villain; and amazing visuals. But he doesn't tie them all together sufficiently to transport us to the Marvel-ous world of comic book fantasy."

Kenneth Morefield (Christian Spotlight) agrees with many of the criticisms. "The characters are one dimensional and often act for no discernible (or contradictory) motives, the dialogue is wincingly bad (though no more than Revenge of the Sith's), the adult characters act like adolescents … and the crowds have often been shot separately from the principles, creating the typical disconnect that can occur when actors aren't sharing the same space." But he "couldn't quite raise myself to the level of indignation and outrage held by many of my friends and peers towards this film." He argues that it shouldn't be faulted for failing to elevate the series to something superior, the way Batman Begins does.

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) calls it "a fun, campy science fiction flick that not only entertains, but also asks some good questions." But she is bothered by one aspect of the story. "The scientists got their power not from a loving Creator who had a divine purpose for them, but from a random, freak accident. And when the Fantastic Four did prevail, the glory and accolades seemed to fall short when it was just about them, and not about honoring a supreme ruler or advancing a Kingdom in power and divine order." (For the record, you're not likely to find any Fantastic Four comic books where the heroes suddenly start praising God either.)

Mainstream critics rate it as a disappointment, but spare it the ridicule that they hurled at stinkers like Catwoman and Elektra.

Dark Water: A rare horror movie that wins Christians' respect

Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), playing a troubled single mother named Dahlia, guides us through a nerve-wracking remake of a Japanese horror flick, Dark Water. Directed by Walter Salles, who brought us 2004's powerful The Motorcycle Diaries, the film also features talented actors like John C. Reilly and Tim Roth. It follows the nightmarish experience of Dahlia and her daughter as they find out their new home is full of spooky surprises. What results is a troubling exploration of parental neglect and its consequences.

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Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) finds both strengths and problems in the new version. "It is as though [the filmmakers] wanted to be more suggestive and evocative than the typical scary movie—and that is a worthwhile aim in its own right—but they pulled one too many punches. At the same time, they sensationalize things a bit more."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a stylish and smartly crafted psychological thriller that is both sophisticated and suspenseful." He explains that the film is really about "a mother-daughter relationship. It also explores themes of isolation, abandonment and parental anxiety. The film's symbolic use of water should resonate with Christians; only here it is not a sacramental signifier of grace and cleansing, but—black and ominous—a metaphor for madness, sin and despair."

Caroline Mooney (Christian Spotlight) says, "I loved it—not just the story, but the actual mechanics of the film, the way it was made. The film drew me in. … I enjoyed it thoroughly. But when I sit back and think about the content as a professing Christian, I do have some problems with the language, the use of drugs, and the overall idea of life after death … at least as a ghost."

Eric Rice (Crosswalk) says it's "a well-made movie. It is more suspenseful than horrific, with no gore, or blood, but lots of chilling, 'Don't open that door!' moments.Since it is a ghost movie, there are ghosts, but there is nothing satanic or ritualistic about it. … To the filmmaker's credit, there is a powerful theme that is reinforced several times … abandonment of a child, divorce, and the long-term effects it has on an adult. Jennifer Connelly … does a masterful job as the troubled mom trying to hold a difficult situation together."

Adam R. Holz and Jamie Maxfield (Plugged In) write, "In the end, the spiritual perspective of Dark Water majors on communicating with the dead while wholly excluding any mention (except profane ones) of a God who's greater than life and death. And that's reason enough to exclude this film from your summer viewing list.

Mainstream critics can't find a consensus—it's sufficiently spooky for some, but not for others.

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March of the Penguins chills audiences … in a good way

Morgan Freeman seems to be campaigning for the role of America's Narrator. After his Oscar-winning performance as the storyteller of Million Dollar Baby, he's now narrating Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds and a documentary about flightless waterfowl … March of the Penguins. Apparently, the story he's telling here is a compellingly cool and delightful summertime escape. It's a documentary about penguins pushing their way through rough conditions to one of the most forbidding places on earth, following instincts that leave human beings shaking their heads in awe.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "The film should find an especially appreciative audience among younger children and their parents. There is something naturally funny about penguins—the way they waddle as though their pants won't stay up, the way their elegant appearance seems at odds with their clumsiness—and the children at the screening I attended found it all quite amusing. For parents, the educational value of the film (it's produced by National Geographic) is a definite bonus. … Visually, the film is a remarkable scientific documentation of penguin life; and if it tilts toward fable or parable, there is still something noteworthy here."

Mainstream raves are piling up here.

Critics call Rebound an "airball"

Will Ferrell's soccer comedy Kicking and Screaming is still in theaters, and there are previews for Billy Bob Thornton's The Bad News Bears playing everywhere. But this week, it's Martin Lawrence's turn to play the coach of a kids' sports team. Rebound follows the misadventures of a kids' basketball coach who … well … you can probably guess the basics.

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "This movie literally sweats cliché s. … Rather than give the formula a twist (as Will Ferrell did earlier this summer in Kicking and Screaming), Rebound doesn't attempt a single shot that hasn't been tossed up a hundred times. That said, it's nice to see Martin Lawrence making a family movie with some redemptive value."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a diverting, if formulaic, crowd-pleaser. … Sure, it would be nice to see an idea for a kids' movie that was fresh, intelligent and inoffensive, but, even though this one lacks the first two qualities, having one out of three ain't bad these days."

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Bob Rossiter (Christian Spotlight) lists a lot of problems. "Rebound is a positive movie with few objectionable scenes, but it isn't as exciting as many other films. There are some funny parts, but much of the comedy falls flat. There also aren't any twists and turns in the story line, so it is predictable." And yet he concludes, "This is a decent watch for families."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "the cinematic equivalent of an airball."

Mainstream critics are calling it one of the worst "family films" of the year.

More reviews of recent releases

War of the Worlds: David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes that the movie is "a dark, scary and distressingly violent thrill ride that delivers edge-of-your-seat excitement and knockout action sequences. Sure, it's basically a 1950s' B-movie dressed up with an A-movie cast, director and budget. And, yes, the script has problems … . But as summer popcorn fare it succeeds where so many other blockbusters have failed. It is also arguably the most impressive of Spielberg's recent films."

Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) is unimpressed. "What I have come to appreciate most about Steven Spielberg's films is the sense of wonder and awe they fill me with. Nothing can describe how I felt when I first saw the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and most of his films have some new, exciting element that sets them apart from films made by less accomplished directors. But, that feeling is missing from War of the Worlds. The movie may just as well have been directed by the guy next door, and in that case, I probably wouldn't have bothered seeing it." He concludes that it is "a huge disappointment."

Felix Tallon (Relevant) agrees. "Except for the solid camera work and excellent performances, War of the Worlds might as well have been directed by someone else. … In so many ways, War of the Worlds shows a complete indifference for the basic rules of storytelling."

Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Family is always an important theme in Mr. Spielberg's films—but it's not always clear what he's trying to communicate, nor does he often find a way to rise above sap. But as a demonstration of Mr. Spielberg's enormous gifts in storytelling—he has a rare confidence in both himself and his audience—and as a refreshingly sincere attempt at summer blockbuster thrills, War of the Worlds is unlikely to be matched soon."

Mad Hot Ballroom: Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a generally appealing documentary. The film feels a bit long. … But the joy of the transforming experience and the music … transcend the physical drabness of the urban public school setting."

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Howl's Moving Castle: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says it's "as essential and timeless as anything in the Miyazaki canon. … Howl's Moving Castle, like all of Miyazaki's films, is a strong testament to the animator's rich, unrelenting imagination. It's filled with so many bizarre characters, delightful plot twists, and astonishing visuals that it makes George Lucas' enduring fame and Miyazaki's relative North American anonymity seem cruelly unfair."

Batman Begins: Michael Leary (The Matthew's House Project) writes, "As what is slated to be the first of a few Batman films seemingly determined to rescue the franchise from the slapstick excesses of previous attempts, its fierce pacing whets audience appetites for more. Christian Bale's perfect performance deserves a few sequels as his brooding Batman far outstrips Keaton's roguish charm, Kilmer's bland affectations, and Clooney's inability to nail the part. Bale reminds us of how serious and thought provoking a comic hero can really be."

Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Michael Leary (The Matthew's House Project) writes, "As a bit of a screwball comedy, the film revels in its snarky descriptions of gender differences. And though it pokes fun at itself, it does end with husband and wife finally coming to grips with their respective roles. It is just a pity this pointed humor doesn't extend to other elements of the storyline."