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Scott Bowles USA Today

Filming was about to begin on a crucial scene of “Fantastic Four” when pandemonium erupted.

Jessica Alba’s pug bolted from the actress to tangle with a mutt. Director Tim Story cheered on the fight.

A few yards away, Michael Chiklis cursed at “the rack,” a plywood board he perched on to ease the burden of his 60-pound costume.

But all was not as it appeared. The pug and mutt were only playing. Chiklis was just joking about the discomfort of his outfit. And Story was all business when cameras rolled.

Somehow, stars and filmmakers found a way to relax, despite a mountain of pressure to deliver a hit.

“Fantastic Four” hits theaters today, and a lot is riding on the shoulders of the quartet who gain superpowers after a radiation accident.

For a record 19 straight weeks, movie ticket sales have lagged behind last year’s totals. Even Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg couldn’t end the slump. Although their “War of the Worlds” managed $77.6 million over the Fourth of July weekend – the second-best total ever for the holiday – it wasn’t enough to conquer the jinx.

And few films this year have come freighted with more expectations. Fans have been waiting decades for a “Fantastic Four” movie. A campy 1994 Roger Corman movie was made so Constantin Films could keep the film rights, but it was never released. Directors and writers have been dropped from the project over creative differences.

Already, distributor 20th Century Fox has committed to two “Fantastic Four” sequels. At least 60 companies have merchandising tie-ins with the film. And Hollywood is hoping it can finally get a new comic franchise off the ground.

The going has been rough of late for a genre once considered golden. Though “Spider-Man,” “X-Men” and now “Batman” are proven moneymakers, films with new comic heroes such as “Punisher,” “Catwoman” and “Elektra” landed with a thud.

But if the stars and director of “Four” felt any pressure, it didn’t show on the set.

“You can’t control whether people are ready for another comic book story or any other type of genre,” Story (“Barbershop”) says of his first big-budget film. “I know we have the goods.”

But are audiences in the market?

“(I)t’s one of the first superhero comics. People want to see it on screen,” says Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Mr. Fantastic Reed Richards.

“There’s always some concern that the ship has sailed on comic book movies,” says Chris Evans, who plays the Human Torch. “But I think we’ve done something that a lot of comic book movies haven’t done lately. Which is have some fun.”

Unlike the latest crop of sullen comic heroes, the Four have a sense of humor.

“They are just like any other dysfunctional family,” says Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios. “They argue, they tease. But they’re always there for each other.

“This isn’t like the other (comic-book) movies,” adds Arad. “It’s not so dark. It’s funny. It will be the feel-good movie of the summer.”

Says Alba, who plays Invisible Woman Sue Storm: “This really is a family movie. A lot of comic book movies these days are for adults. It’s nice to have something you can bring kids to.”

“Fantastic Four” creator Stan Lee says the primary reason his comic, launched in 1961, resonated with fans is his orange-rocked character Ben Grimm, aka The Thing (catchphrase: “It’s clobberin’ time”).

Wisecracking, sarcastic and at odds with his new body, Thing “has always been my favorite character,” Lee says.

Arad says “Four” “is going to live or die with Thing. The movie is on his shoulders.”

The filmmakers learned from 2003’s “Hulk,” assailed for being too dark and the Hulk too obviously computer-generated.

So Chiklis endured two hours each day to get into his latex suit and have a mask glued to his face to capture his expressions.

“God, that thing was hot,” Chiklis says. “Now I see why Thing could get so cranky.”

Chiklis got a little cranky himself when he realized a favorite “Four” scene would get the ax because it was similar to one in 2004’s “The Incredibles,” in which a cat is saved by being shaken from a tree.

“I loved ‘Incredibles,’ ” he says. “But I remember taking my kids to see it and thinking, ‘Damn.’ I spent four days shaking an oak tree for nothing.”

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