Fox’s latest stab at the Fantastic Four movie franchise was hobbled early on by bad buzz, lack of fanboy interest, and rumors of behind-the-scenes conflicts. The good news is that writer-director Josh Trank’s take on Marvel’s original superteam isn’t the worst comic book movie ever made; the bad news is that it nevertheless sucks.
It’s biggest fault is the hodgepodge of tones that reeks of studio meddling. It starts off as an ’80s-esque whiz kids sci-fi adventure, veers into some mild high-tech body horror thriller territory during the middle act, and then stumbles into an underdone generic comic book movie action climax. The result is far less than the sum of its parts.
It’s one thing to tinker with these properties in order to modernize them, broaden their appeal, or just make them more interesting, but the choices made by Trank and company seem arbitrary at best, and ill-conceived more often than not. Super-scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a genius teenager recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) after the former builds a teleportation device in his garage. Reed joins Dr. Storm’s hot-tempered son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), adopted daughter Sue (Kata Mara), and embittered protegé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) in building a machine that can travel to primordial other dimension.
The project is perhaps too successful, and when the investors decide to hand it over to the government Reed, Johnny, Victor, and Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) get drunk and decide to take it for a spin while they still can. Tragedy ensues, Victor is lost and presumed dead, and Sue and the boys are physically altered with abilities that they can barely control: Reed’s body can stretch like rubber, Sue can turn invisible and generate force fields, Johnny’s body burns with a fire that doesn’t consume him, and Ben is changed into a hulking brute with stone skin. Reed flees as the others become wards of the government.
Trank deserves some credit for making the characters more grounded and sympathetic, and for attempting something more mature than the usual genre antics. Unfortunately, the Fantastic Four don’t lend themselves to that sort thing. The team was conceived as a dysfunctional superhero family rather than a group of disaffected teenage outsiders (that’s what the X-Men are for), and they’ve always been a bit campy at the core. Going full-grit with them sucks the life out of the movie, and DC/Warner Bros. may want to take note and reconsider their “no-jokes” grimdark policy as they move forward with their own universe.
Worse, the movie commits the cardinal sin of cinema: it’s dull. Very dull. Origin stories by their nature are often slow burners, but Fantastic Four plods along for 80 of its 100 minutes. It doesn’t help that the characters are reduced to generic qualities: Reed is the awkward nerd, Sue is the aloof smart girl, Johnny is the black sheep rebel-without-a-clue, and Ben is the blue-collar bruiser (though he does get the only real character arc in the movie). Von Doom gets the worst of, having been recast as an insecure sad-sack during the first half of the film and re-appearing as a completely undeveloped super-villain during the finale. Only Cathey comes through unscathed, and his scenes give the movie more gravitas than it deserves.
While watching Fantastic Four one gets the feeling that Fox was trying too hard to distance themselves from their previous FF failures. It’s as if they’re embarrassed by the material and decided to make a movie about the Fantastic Four that wasn’t actually a Fantastic Four movie, and have only succeeded in delivering something that won’t appeal to either hardcore fans or casual moviegoers. If there is anything that the unlikely success of movies based on such goofy characters as Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy has proven, it’s that practically any of these properties can be made into an appealing feature film, but only if the studios embrace the material rather than half-ass it.