There’s a long-standing snarky line amongst comic book movie fans that Pixar’s The Incredibles is the honorary best screen adaptation of the Fantastic Four. Writer-director Brad Bird may have invented his Parrs from a radicalised version of Marvel Comics’ beloved First Family, but the gag is that they’ve been in three real movies of their own, none of which are seen to have got the characters quite right.
The first, 1994’s The Fantastic Four, was an unreleased Roger Corman production that was famously churned out on a low budget in order to meet a contractual deadline on their option for the property. The second and third, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis, were produced by 20th Century Fox a decade ago and made over $600m between them.
That series stalled with the second instalment, Rise Of The Silver Surfer and back in 2009, Fox announced that they would reboot the franchise and after no end of internet scuttlebutt and negative hype, Chronicle director Josh Trank’s new take on the series has finally arrived in cinemas.
The film has a much younger cast than previous screen iterations of the Fantastic Four and when we begin, they’re even younger. Boy genius Reed Richards (Owen Judge) wants to be the first person to teleport through space but neither his classmates nor his teachers give any credit to the idea. But it does capture the attention of Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) and he pledges himself to help Reed as much as he can, starting a fast friendship between them.
Flash-forward seven years and Reed and Ben (now played by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell) are noticed at their school science fair by Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey) and his adoptive daughter Sue (Kate Mara). Reed is invited to help realise his dream at the Baxter Building and crack the key to inter-dimensional travel.
With the help of Franklin’s son Johnny (Michael B Jordan) and resentful former protégé Victor, (Toby Kebbell) the team develop a machine that can hop into another dimension – a so-called planet Zero that is in approximately the same condition as prehistoric Earth. But when the youngsters pay a visit, they come back changed and each of them must adapt to their new abilities.
We’re not sorry to disappoint anyone who’s expecting a hatchet job on Fantastic Four. A film is not dead on arrival based on negative hype alone and even if you have to take the bad with the good in this new movie, it stands on its own as a radicalised take. All of that said, The Incredibles still looks pretty comfortable there as the best Fantastic Four movie in all but its name.
For better or worse, the film that this Fantastic Four reboot most resembles is The Amazing Spider-Man. Both were made just over a decade after a successful start to a previous adaptation and in both cases, the new film distinguishes itself largely by elaborating upon points that the first take got through more quickly. Tim Story’s Fantastic Four isn’t as formidable a forebear as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but Trank’s take matches The Amazing Spider-Man‘s pace in re-telling an origin story.
The near-fatal flaw with this version of the Fantastic Four is that they don’t really have much chemistry with one another. In this regard, Michael B Jordan may be the stand-out player of the group, bringing the same laidback charm he exhibited in Chronicle to the cocksure and wayward Johnny Storm. He has an easy rapport with his co-stars – the best character moment in the whole movie comes in a scene in which he sees Reed for the first time in a while. The same applies to Cathey as a stoic, endlessly patient mentor figure, but the others struggle in any scene that doesn’t feature either Franklin or Johnny.
Teller and Mara have a couple of attempts at bonding – the second and best of these feels more loose and improvisational, which works. But their first scene involves Sue talking about her music fandom as Spock might talk about love, while Reed clunkily tees up a Jules Verne reference for later. Neither comes out of it looking like a character, let alone that there might be the mutual attraction they had in the comics.
Elsewhere, there’s a rock-solid foundation for the friendship between Reed and Ben, but that ironically comes to an end the second that Bell turns rock-solid. The childhood scenes between the two are a lovely set-up for an arc that never comes to fruition and Ben becomes much less interesting once his voice has been modulated and he’s buried in CGI (but it’s still undeniably better than the rubber suit Michael Chiklis donned in the last go-around.)
Each of the principal cast members fulfils their basic character types – Teller as the prodigy, Jordan as the hothead, Bell as the bruiser and Mara as the mature one – but when the time comes for them to work as a team, it only really comes out of being around that time in the movie.
It’s an odd disconnect, especially as one of the defining character traits of the villain of the piece is that he has always felt alone. This is the area in which the negative hype has been the most off – the early rumours that Doctor Doom had been re-imagined as a meddling blogger could not be further from the genuinely menacing villain that appears here. He’s given a great deal of character by Kebbell before his transformation and he quickly dispels any and all memories of Julian McMahon.
Doom’s power level is on a par with that of the comics from the moment he first fully manifests himself and it’s clear in a moment that no one of our quartet of heroes could take him alone. Trank shows this in a very un-12A scene with some innocent bystanders that genuinely made my jaw drop. You may have heard that before, but you’ll see and maybe you too will be looking up what the BBFC considers to be ‘injury detail’ these days.
For some, that could be a problem. The swear jar is fuller than that of a Marvel Studios production (but stops short of the F-bombs in recent X-Men films) Reed and his friends get drunk right before meeting their heroic origins, and there’s a whopping big dollop of body horror for good measure.
Even horror maestro Raimi didn’t go as far in his Spider-Man movies as Trank does with some of the stretching, flaming and er… Doctor Doom bits on display here, as the characters mostly react in horror to the transformations to themselves and each other. Composers Marco Beltrami and Phillip Glass have a few horror movie motifs in their score to match, alongside the more generic superhero adventure cues.
It’s certainly a film that tries lots of different things, but doesn’t quite stick the landing on all of them. At 100 minutes, it’s shorter than the 2005 movie and there are a couple of abrupt tonal bumps in the narrative that suggest the editing room may have had some cowboys in.
We really aren’t going to comment on any of the rumours and petty controversies around the film except where it relates to the film itself, but we don’t think it would be out of line to suggest that this could have something in common with the Roger Corman film.
The rights to Daredevil reverted to Marvel Studios a couple of years ago after sitting doing nothing at Fox since 2003, and of course, we’ve learned that Spider-Man will be slotted into Marvel’s cinematic universe within the next couple of years. Whatever the reasons for green-lighting this at the studio level, the film is too rushed for us to get a real handle on Trank’s vision, and it’s not just because of the running time. So much of the film feels as if it’s in a holding pattern, with characters building arcs early on that fail to pay off before the rushed climax.
The arrival of Doctor Doom distracts from that momentarily, but there’s a vague feeling that the film is treading water for a sequel that has already been pencilled in for June 2017. There’s no hint of the mooted shared universe with X-Men, nor an end-credits stinger clip (which drew huge groans of disappointment from the Marvel-savvy viewers at our screening) to suggest that they’ve got bigger plans for this brave new take. It’s just the origin story again, although it admittedly takes way more risks than The Amazing Spider-Man did.
Fantastic Four comes out more removed from the previous pair of adaptations than their detractors could ever have dreamed. The controversial casting yields strong results, particularly in the cases of Michael B Jordan and Toby Kebbell, and it’s really nothing like any other screen version of the source material. But on the flip side, it’s not a big crowd-pleaser and, in a market where Ant-Man is still playing, fans and casual viewers alike may find themselves disinclined to come back for the next instalment.
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