AS A KID with little pocket money in England in the late 1960s (as I recall, I got one shilling and sixpence a week, or "one and six"), I had to resort to outright theft at the local news agent's to feed my almost daily need for comic books. So I had important decisions to make. Steal this week's "Batman"? Sure. "Iron Man"? Definitely. "Spider-Man"? You bet.

"Fantastic Four"?

[Ticking clock here, as a pint-size comic book klepto agonizes.]

Maybe wait till next week's pocket money rolls in.

The thieving didn't last long, I should tell you. A word of advice: When stealing comic books, don't let the corners stick out the top of your shirt when you're leaving the store.

Bottom line: The Fantastic Four never topped my personal short list, as far as comic book heroes went. You know the gang from Marvel comics, right? There was Sue Storm, known as the Invisible Girl (now politically corrected to Invisible Woman), who also had the power to create force fields of protection. Her boyfriend was Reed Richards, a scientific geek whose alter ego was the very stretchable Mr. Fantastic. There was Susan's emotionally excitable brother, Johnny Storm, who could ignite into the Human Torch. And finally, there was Ben Grimm, better known as the muscle-bound, pre-Mike Tyson creation, the Thing.

How did they get to be this way? Radioactive rays from outer space zapped them on a scientific mission and changed their DNA. Made them into weird superfreaks with great powers. Not a bad concept, but still. . . . Didn't rock my world that much. Maybe that was a factor in my underwhelmed reaction to "Fantastic Four" the movie, which stars Jessica Alba (as Susan Storm), Michael Chiklis (the Thing) and others. Or maybe it wasn't.

The movie, directed by Tim Story (whose biggest directorial credit is "Barbershop"), certainly fulfills the details of the original series. We go through the opening history and learn the quick shorthand details of each character. But the whole thing lacks oomph and identity. Despite some nice moments of computer-generated imagery, which includes the aforementioned human fireball and a well-done scene on a Manhattan bridge in which the Thing uses his brute strength to stop a fire engine from plunging into the water, this "Four" ain't so "Fantastic." And the less said about the dialogue the better. ("Direct exploration within the cosmic radiation could advance our understanding of energy fluctuations tenfold," intones Reed. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.)

"Batman Begins" had its dark profundity. "Spider-Man" had a sort of effervescent innocence. But "Fantastic Four," which includes Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic, Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Julian McMahon as Victor Von Doom (who morphs into the evil Doctor Doom), feels like a rote adaptation. So for those unscrupulous thieves in so many corners of the world who sell pirated DVDs and videotapes of first-run movies, this one ain't worth your immoral trouble. Take it from a reformed thief.

FANTASTIC FOUR (PG-13, 105 minutes) -- Contains intense action and some sexual suggestiveness. Area theaters.

Michael Chiklis, clockwise from top left, as the Thing; Chris Evans as Johnny Storm; Jessica Alba as Susan Storm; and Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic.