You never forget your first love. For me, in the Marvel Universe, that was the Fantastic Four. But it was pretty much the same for Stan Lee himself. Marvel and D.C. Comics were born about the same time in the Thirties and Forties--the Golden Age of Comics. The three stalwarts of D.C.--Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman--are still going strong. The stalwarts of Marvel were Namor the Submariner, Captain America, and the Human Torch. Captain Marvel is, well, complicated.

In 1961, at the dawn of the Silver Age of Comics, someone at Marvel showed Stan Lee an issue of The Justice League of America and said, "Why can't we have a group of superheroes like that?" Stan's response was the Fantastic Four, but they were the kind of superheroes he wanted to see. They had no capes, no secret identities, they made mistakes, argued among themselves, and instead of hiding in a cave or a fortress of solitude, they lived in a New York skyscraper in the glare of worldwide publicity. Two of them were brother and sister and a third was already in a relationship with the sister. They were, in fact, a loving, squabbling family.

The Fantastic Four were a hit, and in a couple of years most of the Marvel stable of grumpy, amoral, or angst-ridden heroes followed, one after the other: The Sub-Mariner, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Ironman, the Avengers, and the X-Men. The Fantastic Four went on in Marvel fashion for years--breaking up and re-uniting, getting new members and losing them, dying and being resurrected. Reed and Sue's son developed powers of his own. Eventually, the origin-story returned in new versions.

The movie version begins with Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chicklis) visiting the building owned by billionaire space-magnate Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) who wants them to join him on his space-station for a major experiment. Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) who has been involved with both Richards and Von Doom, is already working there, one of the pilots will be Ben, and the other will be Sue's hotshot little brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) whom we pretend does not look exactly like Captain America. They are to wear blue space-uniforms made with unstable molecules. The station is struck by a cosmic-ray storm with some of them helpless outside. Von Doom is proposing marriage to Sue, then reveals his super-villain credentials by proposing to leave her friends out in the storm. But everyone is bombarded with cosmic rays.

Back on Earth, Von Doom is all but ruined financially by the experiment's failure, and his backers leave him high and dry. Cosmic-ray-caused symptoms begin to appear in the entire crew. Ski-boarding down a mountain, Johnny Storm bursts into flames and flies. Sue fades into invisibility during an argument with Reed and knocks over a bottle of wine, but Reed stretches his arm out four feet to catch it. Ben basically turns into a rock. He reveals himself to his girlfriend, who runs screaming. Later, Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington) gives him back a reason to live, but right at the moment, despite his incredible strength, he feels helpless.

Sitting disconsolate atop the Brooklyn Bridge, Ben frightens a would-be suicide, who falls in the path of a truck. Ben leaps down to save him and the speeding truck folds up around him, causing a major pile-up on the bridge. Seeing this on TV, the others rush to help and attract even more publicity. Johnny uses his body to shield a child from an explosion, Sue contains and smothers the fire with a force-field, Ben pulls back a fire-truck from plunging off the bridge, and Reed reaches halfway to the East River to catch a falling fireman. In no time, the Press, with Johnny's help, is calling them The Fantastic Four--Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl ("Woman!" she says, to no avail), The Human Torch, and The Thing. Their molecularly-unstable space uniforms even become their trademark costumes.

This doesn't stop their bickering and walking out on each other, until Von Doom begins to change, himself. He is slowly turning into metal, can control electricity, and is losing his mind with rage and jealousy. He proceeds to kill his corporate enemies and goes after the Fantastic Four. The rest of the movie is all about the Four learning to trust each other and work together to defeat the super-villain who now calls himself Doctor Doom.

This is no more silly than most superhero movies, the characters are loveable, and the special effects are beautiful. Even the Thing's body suit, which looks like cooled volcanic rock, seems to work, and Michael Chicklis carries it off. The Human Torch's flames, Mr. Fantastic's silly-putty body, and Sue Storm's fading in and out work fine, though the last is treated rather like a strip-tease. I suppose, with Jessica Alba in the role, this is inevitable. Doctor Doom seems to be wearing a home-made Darth Vader costume, but that's hardly his fault. Doom predates Darth by sixteen years. The movie has often received short shrift in reviews , but seeing it the first time, I flashed back to my Twenties, when I fell in love with the four of them. All I wanted next, I thought, is Galactus and the Silver Surfer.