Editor’s Notes: Fantastic Four is currently out in wide theatrical release. For another perspective on the film, read Fantastic Four: A Nakedly Commercial Exercise in Cultural Vandalism by Greg Hill-Turner.
Can we all just finally admit that the Fantastic Four is a dumb property? The book was never that good and was cancelled this year, partly due to poor sales and partly because Fox refused to give the movie rights back to Marvel/Disney so in a form of pettiness they cancelled the book so there would be no promotional tie-ins with the film that Disney and Marvel wouldn’t be making any money from (something they couldn’t do to the X-Men franchise because they still sell well, so they just killed Wolverine and stripped most of the mutants of their powers). Their powers are some of the most ridiculous in a universe awash in a sea of ridiculousness with more interesting supporting characters and villains than the heroes are themselves. This new film, the third released attempt to bring the quartet to life (not counting the Roger Corman film from the early 90s that never saw the light of day, despite being publicized in Wizard and other publications), proves that these characters don’t work onscreen nearly as well as they did on the page, and there they were only barely workable. The only time the team works onscreen is when they are mercilessly parodied on The Venture Bros.
The film is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the pacing. For a 100 minute movie, director Josh Trank (Chronicle) paces it like its 150 minutes.
The film starts with a 10 or 11 year old Reed Richards (Owen Judge) who is already a genius and trying to crack bio-matter transfer, or teleportation. He befriends Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), son of a scrap yard owner. The two work on the project with varying degrees of success until they are 17 or 18 (Reed is now played by Miles Teller and Ben by Jaimie Bell) and attempt to enter the design in a science fair. They are kicked out but the project is noticed by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) who work for the Baxter Foundation. Dr. Storm states that Reed’s design solves a problem they’d been having with the same experiment, advises that it is not just bio-matter teleportation but inter-dimensional travel, and gives him a full scholarship to attend school at the Baxter Foundation.
Once there, he is teamed with former pupil Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbel), who had originated the project ten years prior and walked away from it, and Dr. Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), a troubled youth that ‘can build anything’. Once completed and tested on a chimp, the Board’s director Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) says it’s time to bring in NASA to begin sending people through the inter-dimensional gateway. Reed, Victor and Johnny decide they should be the ones to go first, since they built it, so drunk they decide to get in the thing, but Reed won’t go without his best friend Ben. Once Ben arrives, they get into their containment suits and go but notice something strange when they get there. Tragedy ensues and the four, along with Sue who was monitoring the trip after a computer alarm was triggered, are imbued with strange powers (well, Victor is presumed killed in the other dimension). Sue can turn invisible and create psionic force-fields, Johnny’s body is covered in flame and he can fly, Reed and stretch and conform his body to any shape (even molding his face differently to avoid detection) and Ben is turned into a living rock. Of course, at this point Dr. Allen decides he can weaponize these four and send soldiers to the other dimension to also become super-powered.
The film is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the pacing. For a 100 minute movie, director Josh Trank (Chronicle) paces it like its 150 minutes, extending the backstory so long that the conclusion where we actually get to see them work together as a super team is stuffed into the last 20 minutes or so. Lots of time is spent on the building of the device and their coming to grips with their powers and that would be fine if the movie weren’t so short. It would also be fine if they’d used that time to develop the characters instead of just showing them not really get along at first then suddenly the fervor for the work takes over and they’re all friends. No one is developed beyond what we get from their introductions and we’re forced to be there with them not developing for most of the film. When the team finally does get their powers, there is artificial conflict injected as well as BS stakes just thrown in that don’t mean anything to the audience. Trank also seems to feel like the best way to tell this story is through montage. I can’t be sure if there was just one really long one or a series of them, but whatever the case I had the impression that most of the middle of the film was completely constructed with them.
The script, by Simon Kinberg (writer of X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse and a Star Wars stand-alone), Jeremy Slater and the director Josh Trank, never really takes off and labors under the delusion that the time spent in the lab is actually helping to develop the characters instead of boring the audience. If they’d spent actual time with their characters and built more than baseline personality types, the film may have been salvageable. Their intent to play the long game and set up a franchise is clear, given how little time we see them with their powers and working together. Its lazy writing to shrug off the main reason people would go see a film and decide to cover it in the sequel. The trouble with films that start off as if they’re meant to continue is that they seldom do because the film feels half-baked, as this one does.
This cardboard script also proved to stifle two of the most gifted young actors working today, Teller and Jordan. This film is slightly better than the last one they were in together, last year’s That Awkward Moment, but that’s not high praise. Teller tries his best with what he’s given but he’s forced into a corner with the character of Reed Richards, the notoriously bland super-scientist. Teller gives Richards somewhat of a personality but he doesn’t have much to work with so that personality rises and fades throughout the film. Jordan on the other hand is saddled with a barely non-stereotyped character. He’s phoning this one in for the paycheck and it’s noticeable (but at least that could mean that he’s got a meatier part he’s doing for him next, if he follows Ben Affleck’s advice from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).
The film overall isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. It’s just disappointing. If you don’t have children and want to know what your parents meant when they said “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed”, watch this movie and it will all become clear. I just hope that Fox isn’t adamant about making a sequel and they decide to relinquish the rights back to Marvel so the characters can show up in the MCU but not have their own films. This film proves that the Fantastic Four just aren’t meant for the big screen (or the small screen either, come to think of it. Their cartoon from the early 90s wasn’t that good either). The team just doesn’t have a screen presence and I hope Fantastic Four teaches that lesson to those that need to learn it.
The film overall isn’t bad, but it isn’t good either. It’s just disappointing. Can we all just finally admit that the Fantastic Four is a dumb property?