Honestly, people. It really shouldn't be this hard.
With this week's release of Fox's Fantastic Four, we now have three separate origin movies for Marvel Comics' First Family in just over twenty years. (Though, granted, one of those wasn't even released.) Less a bold new vision of a well-known brand than a mercenary attempt to retain a prized Marvel IP by hook or by crook lest it pass back into the comic giant's warm embrace, this take on the team is long on mood and somberness, and short on the optimism and joie de vivre that have been a hallmark of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's legendary creation since their introduction in 1962.
As I noted in my retro reviews this week, while 2005's Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, aren't necessary good, each has aspects that work, and neither was an outright flop. While it used to be that movie studios worked with what they had and made adjustments on the fly when it came to continuing franchises, in this age of the insta-reboot, studios have become the friend I played video games with as a kid who'd hit "reset" if he "died" even once. And so, just ten years after the previous FF franchise began, like Sony and Spider-Man before them, Fox has burned down the crop and replanted the field.
Directed by Josh Trank, who made such a splash with Chronicle a few years ago, this latest Fantastic Four works so hard to go so far off-model that one wonders why they bothered at all if what they were going to end up with was so numbingly unoriginal. Featuring a script by Trank, Jeremy Slater, and Simon Kinberg, the film has teenage prodigy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) unwittingly discover a portal to another dimension, and subsequently invited to join a mysterious think tank called "The Baxter Foundation" by scientist Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathay) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara).
Under Storm's supervision, Reed works with Sue, her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the brilliant-but-disgruntled Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to find a way to transfer matter between the two dimensions. When the group succeeds and it looks like the government (led by Tim Blake Nelson, doing his very best "weaselly bureaucrat guy") will step in and take over, Reed, Johnny, and Victor, along with Reed's best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) decide to beat them to it and take the first steps into the new dimension themselves.
However, their initial joy quickly turns to terror as things quickly go awry. Victor is presumed dead after being subsumed by some kind of green energy, while Reed, Johnny, and Ben materialize back on Earth having been altered by exposure to the other-dimensional radiation. Reed's limbs have become like putty, Johnny's body is now enveloped in flame, and Ben is covered with a rock-like sheath. And though Sue didn't go along with them, her exposure from attempting to retrieve them has left her fading in and out of the visual spectrum.
Naturally the government soon steps in, and while Reed escapes from containment, the other three are put to use to serve as military assets. But when the portal is re-opened one year later and another team goes through, they learn that Victor isn't as dead as they thought. Faster than you can say "fantastic," it's up to Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny to overcome their distrust of each other and band together. Will their combined might be enough to defeat the world-beating baddie and save the universe? Is this a multimillion dollar picture intended to launch a whole new movie series?
It's hard to figure out where to even start when deconstructing this thing. It doesn't work as an adaptation of a beloved property, nor does it work as a completely new interpretation of a beloved property. I'm not saying these kind of flicks need to be chapter-and-verse translations of the original text, but I do think an effort needs to be made to at least preserve its essence, to really figure out what makes that original work. And certainly you should be able to defend any changes as being an improvement, or at least a lateral move.
While the special effects used to bring the titular team to life are probably the best we've ever seen, everything about the pacing and story construction is "off." Of this ninety-minute runtime, the first hour is devoted to methodically (some might say excruciatingly) laying out the origin before barreling into a last half hour (set one year later) that hurriedly sets up the big bad and explodey final confrontation (complete with requisite "ominous blue beam in the sky") almost as an afterthought. It's like the creatives suddenly realized this is a superhero movie, and still needed to include a few sops to the genre.
As far as the cast goes, Teller is fine, but I'm not sure what's gained from making the confident man of science Reed Richards, a genius patrician with grey temples to boot, and turning him into an awkward teen in the Peter Parker mold. As Alex Pappademas said in a recent piece at Grantlant, "Something about the idea of a 'young Reed Richards' therefore voids an essential aspect of the character in the same way, say, 'young Gandalf' would." I couldn't agree more, and to me it's such a fundamental change that it makes me wonder if Trank and Co. were even really interested in making a Fantastic Four movie.
The rest of the cast all put in more effort than anyone should expect given what they're trapped in, but none of them really makes much of a mark (though Jordan probably fares the best). There's no reality to their interactions, with a rote, pre-fab feeling to the proceedings. While I feel bad for all of them to some degree or another, poor Toby Kebbell has it the worst of them all. So brilliant as Koba in last year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Kebbell spends the last third entirely unrecognizable in some kind of metal-gauze thing that's meant to evoke iconic villain Doctor Doom (minus the nobility, motivation, and characterization -- seriously, you'll be pining for Julian McMahon's version after this).
To reiterate, this goes beyond blind fealty to source material. It's about telling a story that justifies the use of said source material as more than just a lure to bring in unsuspecting audiences who might recognize the title. More than that, and perhaps most frustrating of all, is how in the post-Marvel Studios world, where Captain America, Thor -- Ant-Man, for goodness sake! -- have been brought to the screen successfully while retaining the essence of their comic book counterparts, here we have a version of the Fantastic Four that borders on recognizable. In trying to be dark, dour, and "serious," they've emerged with something that's the furthest thing from fantastic. D
For more thoughts on Fantastic Four, as well as our take on Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and more, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via the embed below!