Fantastic Four was already possibly the most reviled film of the year – certainly in geek circles – long before the damn thing was projected onto a single movie screen. Now that its day in court has arrived, the verdict that can probably be levied against this troubled production is not murder, but involuntary manslaughter.
Fantastic Four is not an outright bad film; it’s not a great film, and it’s not a terrific take on these iconic Marvel characters. It’s a decent if bland sci-fi tale for its first two-thirds that starts to become a bit compelling in its second act, only to scuttle any moderately successful revisions it was aiming for by jamming a half-assed superhero adventure into its final half-hour.
As documented over the course of the film’s creation, director and co-writer Josh Trank’s (Chronicle) version of Fantastic Four is based on the Ultimate Marvel variation on the team’s origin story. And make no mistake, this is an origin story that starts from the ground up, opening with a 10-year-old Reed Richards (Owen Judge) and his childhood friend Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) experimenting with matter teleportation in Reed’s garage. There’s an actual sense of wonder at work here, as well as some nice groundwork laid for the classic friendship between these two, born in this version out of their mutual dysfunctional relationships with their families.
We next see Reed (now played by Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) at their high school science fair, where their continued work on teleportation puts them on the radar of scientist Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara). The Storms, it seems, have been working on teleportation themselves and recruit Reed to join them at the Baxter Institute, while poor Ben vanishes from the film for the next 20 minutes or so.
Also invited to join the proceedings are Franklin’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) a brilliant hothead who would prefer to race cars than build telepods, and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a former protégé of Franklin’s with a vague lust for Sue and a distrust for everyone else that’s never clearly explained.
The team launches a successful teleportation of organic matter – a monkey – to a planet located in an alternate dimension, but before they can even celebrate, the head of the institute (Tim Blake Nelson) declares that it’s time to get NASA involved and send some astronauts over to the other side. Chagrined at the idea of being booted to the side, Reed, Victor and Johnny decide to go first – without telling Sue or Franklin, but with Ben coming along for some reason. The mission ends, as we all know by now, in disaster, with Sue caught in the aftermath as well.
That’s where this version of Fantastic Four is supposed to branch off from previous incarnations and stand on its own: instead of immediately putting on costumes once they discover that they’ve come back altered and with incredible new powers, this movie tentatively advances the idea that becoming changed in this way might be a terrible ordeal for these teens. There are moments in the film’s middle section – such as watching Ben, now transformed into the rock-encrusted Thing, struggle painfully to his feet when visited in his room – that capture this. Moral questions are also briefly raised – like Sue’s refusal to become a “tool” for the military, which is what happens to Ben – that might have also added a layer of drama and complexity to the movie.
But then someone – whether it was Trank or the studio heads who ordered six weeks of reshoots on the movie – decided that this had to be a superhero slugfest after all. The last half-hour features the return of Doom, who was left for dead in the alternative dimension and has been transformed into an eerie fusion of human and metal with extraordinary powers of destruction. As poorly motivated now as he was earlier in the story, he goes on an inexplicable rampage, cueing explosions, blasts of light and that now-standard visual trope of superhero movies, the column of energy poking a hole through the sky.
This grand finale feels rushed and half-baked, and even when Reed, Johnny, Ben and Sue finally realize that the only way to defeat Doom is as a team, the build-up has been so lackadaisical that it never feels like the transcendent moment it’s supposed to be.
Part of the problem is that the dynamics between the cast members never come together. Although Reed and Ben are supposed to be friends, they have precious little screen time together through the middle of the film, while any romantic sparks between Reed and Sue are severely muted. Reed himself, despite a valiant effort from a miscast Teller, never comes across as the kind of visionary that the others would want to follow.
Worst of all is the relationship between Johnny and Sue. While the ugly racist brigade out there might twist this to their own disgusting ends, the truth is that there is no chemistry between the two that suggests that they are brother and sister. It’s not the actors (although Mara is rather boring) nor their skin color; it’s the thin material they’ve been handed.
Behind all this lies the biggest question of all: what kind of film did Trank, co-writer/producer Simon Kinberg and Fox want to make? The movie wants to avoid the colorful, joyously weird vibe of the original Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four comics and boy, does it: there’s scarcely a laugh or dash of color to be found in the picture, which takes place mostly in the lab and is composed almost entirely of muted blues and grays. Yet it doesn’t want to go all the way either with its character study of five young people who are irrevocably transformed into new beings with powers that, on the surface, are quite hideous to reckon with (How would it feel to be on fire most of the time, like Johnny? That’s a question that could be explored in a truly radical take).
Instead we get something that shows flashes of originality, but is more frequently hampered and ultimately trapped by the conventions of the genre it is part of, setting up so much and delivering very little beyond an advertisement for a theoretical sequel. Watchable but soulless, the movie lacks the heart and humor of the Marvel Universe films, the mythic power of the Dark Knight trilogy and the exhilaration of the early Spider-Man movies. It’s notable that the adjective “fantastic” is uttered only twice in the film, and never in conjunction with the word “four,” since the movie itself never really seems to know whose story it is telling.