Fantastic Four is a disaster. There’s no other way to describe it. Whether this is the result of behind-the-scenes chaos generated by clashes between director Josh Trank and Twentieth Century Fox or whether the film was a misguided take on a beloved comic book property from the beginning, I don’t really care. All that matters is that Fantastic Four is dead-on-arrival. It’s a cinematic half-birth devoid of fun or personality, despite the young talent involved.
Based on the iconic Marvel comic book, Fantastic Four tells the story of Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his unconventional family of superheroes. In Trank’s film, Reed isn’t a world famous scientist with white-streaked hair, but instead an eager young man with a knack for science. After creating a rudimentary teleportation device in his garage with his best friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Reed is recruited by Professor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) of the Baxter Institute, a government-run organization that develops young science prodigies, to go to work on a larger one. There he meets Professor Storm’s two children, Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), as well as the brilliant young scientist Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Working alongside Victor, Sue, and Johnny, Reed completes the machine and uses it to explore another dimension that exists parallel to Earth. However, while there, things go wrong when Victor is apparently killed and Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben (whom Reed inexplicably brought along for the ride) are gifted with bizarre superpowers. When they return, the government wants to use them as weapons, but they only want to reverse the changes and return to their normal lives.
This plot is a variation on the basic origin story of the Fantastic Four, darkening the tone, upping the sci-fi factor, and lowering the ages of the characters to presumably appeal to the Young Adult demographic. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, but in practice it is dreadfully dull. Two thirds of the film’s runtime is devoted to an origin story that the most novice comic book fan will be aware of. Not only that, Trank and company don’t use the extra time to deepen the character’s relationships or find interesting ways to explore the Fantastic Four in a “realistic setting,” as the presumed intention is. Instead, it puts the characters through the motion of getting their powers and getting to the action climax, with no psychological investigations or character conflicts to enliven the proceedings.
For instance, Sue and Johnny are brother and sister, but we never see even a flicker of their familial intimacy in the film. One scene finds Sue welcoming Johnny back to the Institute after his attempts to make it on the outside as a street racer fail, telling him he belongs there, but it holds all the warmth of a January night in the Arctic. You’d think Sue and Johnny were distant acquaintances reigniting a professional relationship, not a brother and sister finally working side-by-side.
Nothing is motivated in Fantastic Four and yet everything is explained. Beyond the dullness of the storytelling, or how the dark, “realistic” tone poorly fits the source material, the fatal flaw of Fantastic Four is how it never shows and only tells. The entire film consists of people talking, endlessly, through motivations, character conflicts, and even the nifty superpowers they gain. There are probably three instances where said superpowers are demonstrated, and even then it’s mostly during a montage of government footage that is used to catch us up after a time jump. I’ve never seen a superhero film so hesitant to show off its characters’ powers.
We never see anything interesting in Fantastic Four, nor do we see the characters demonstrate their personalities or their relationships. Reed and Ben are supposed to be best friends, but we’re only told that, we don’t see it. Johnny and Sue are siblings, but that fact only registers because they share a last name. Professor Storm insists that the other dimension holds the secret to solving various problems on Earth, but we’re never shown what those problems are nor do we learn how the alternate dimension can cure them.
By the time the dreadful third act arrives, wherein Victor von Doom reappears with metallic skin and ill-defined superpowers, the film has long lost the viewer’s investment. It only regains any interest by the viewer’s bafflement at the abrupt left-turn the tone has taken. Presumably disinterested in action sequences, the film jettisons any of its science-fiction trappings in favour of the blandest action climax in recent history, where the heroes fail to defeat the villain and then realize that through teamwork they can maybe just beat him, and then promptly do so with little effort. The entire scene lasts probably five minutes, and three or four punches are thrown throughout.
Perhaps the lazy ending is the best indication of the rewrites, reshoots, and behind-the-scenes chaos that plagued the film’s production, but Fantastic Four was already a dud before Doom reappeared with an unexplained desire to destroy the Earth. It’s a dreadful film and a cautionary tale for aspiring filmmakers who want to work in Hollywood. Aside from the perfect casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch, every creative choice is the wrong one, and every attempt to correct the missteps of past incarnations of the characters drives the film further into the abyss.
Some bad movies have the consolation prize of being fun. Fantastic Four doesn’t even have that. It’s possibly the worst film the superhero genre has yet produced.
1 out of 10
Fantastic Four (2015, USA)
Directed by Josh Trank; written by Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg & Josh Trank, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; starring Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Reg E. Cathey, Toby Kebbell, and Tim Blake Nelson.