20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Josh Trank. Screenplay by Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Trank; based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby. Produced by Gregory Goodman, Simon Kinberg, Robert Kulzer, Hutch Parker, Matthew Vaughn. Music by Marco Beltrami, Philip Glass. Photographed by Matthew Jensen. Edited by Elliot Greenberg, Stephen E. Rivkin. Production designed by Molly Hughes, Chris Seagers. Starring Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathy, Tim Blake Nelson.
In the halls of Marvel Comics, the original superhero team The Fantastic Four holds high honors. In the realm of movie adaptations…eh…not so much. There was that laughable 1994 Roger Corman-produced feature that was slapped together at the last minute (literally made within weeks in order to capitalize on a licensing agreement). And there’s the better-known (if not well-received) pair of mid-2000s pictures designed as star vehicles for Jessica Alba. To say the bar was low for a reboot to improve this franchise is exceptionally fair. What a shock, then, in this age of bare-minimum competency in superhero epics, to see a movie as inept as 2015’s Fantastic Four, which not only is one of the worst superhero movies in over a decade, it feels like it was made over a decade ago. Like, say…1996. One sincerely wants to review the film and not the widely-publicized turmoil behind the scenes (including, reportedly, onset strife, alienated directors, and massive reshoots), but how can you when the results are this compromised, sloppy and inconsistent? Forget the “fantastic” label; Fantastic Four doesn’t feel finished.
In a break from colorful Fantastic canon, this movie reconceives the team’s origin as a cosmic horror story, and that idea has merit. The early scenes, where young Reed Richards befriends Ben Grimm, and together they construct an interdimensional teleporter, hold promise. But when Reed and Ben grow into Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, and Reed is scooped up by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathy) and his brainy daughter Sue (Kate Mara) to join a think tank of engineers, things go awry. The tone becomes ponderous and subdued, and the pacing so lethargic that key player Ben disappears for a good half hour. Eventually we collect Dr. Storm’s rebellious son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), but it’s a full hour before we get superheroics, and while in theory that would allow welcome character development, it doesn’t work out that way. Everyone is allowed a single trait (Reed is smart, Sue is introverted, Johnny is impulsive, Ben is loyal), and, aside from the movie’s attempts to balance the wilder elements with a grounded reality (which come across as either listlessly drab or hilariously bipolar), and dialogue that reads like an explosion at the exposition factory, that sums up Fantastic Four‘s utterly joyless first hour.
Eventually, there’s a scientific expedition to a parallel dimension (Planet Zero–a green lava/rock world), and that’s when the origin story kicks in, more or less: our heroes are bathed in radioactive goo that gives them super-powers: Reed can stretch, Johnny becomes the flamboyant Human Torch, Sue is the force-field-throwing Invisible Girl, and Ben becomes a talking rock pile called The Thing. These moments are played for brief, low-key Cronenbergian horror…and then they kinda get over it during a time elipsis. Yes. One team member, it should be said, is accidentally left behind on the alien planet, and that’s Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). He becomes a villain, although I’m not sure what other options there are for a guy named Victor Von Doom. He spends a year on the lava planet and, when found, has adopted murderous telekinetic powers and also brainstormed a plan to destroy the universe. Must have been some year.
This is typical of Fantastic Four’s approach, which is to skip over scenes that require any heavy lifting at all. Character relationships are built over montages. Major developments are conveyed entirely offscreen. There’s literally no second act. Reactions to major events are kept as brief as possible (or, in Sue’s case, not depicted at all). The potentially joyous scenes of characters honing their abilities–the reason we as audiences keep going to origin stories–are discarded entirely. Motivations remain murky (or just flagrantly contradictory), details don’t add up, major choices don’t make sense, character arcs are begun and then don’t continue, and aside from some establishing shots, we have our ping-pong locations some dark soundstage and some other dark soundstage. The movie races to a lazy and perfunctory climax–arguably its very first action scene (no joke). Once there, characters begin shouting Screenwriting 101 clichés (go ahead and mark “We have to work as a team!” on your Bingo card right now) against a greenscreen backdrop of off-the-shelf planet-destroying McGuffins, all the while supplying pay-offs for setups from nonexistent script pages–or maybe those also got left on Planet Zero. Even the closing, hysterically optimistic, stab at setting up a sequel feels like an embarassed cough more than franchise building. Let’s not kid ourselves, here. Fantastic Four isn’t a “disappointment.” It’s a disaster.
Teller, Mara, Jordan, Bell, Kebbell: these are fine actors, clearly doing gimme-the-paycheck work, and all of them deserve much better than this (Cathy, too, for that matter). The production is so ill-made that they look completely lost, unable to generate a shred of chemistry due to incompetent plotting, dialogue and staging. The character dynamics are central to the Fantastic Four (one of the things that readers love about them is that they become a true family unit), and the film’s biggest sin is that it sketches relationships between the four, but in such frail terms (with such timid and unmemorable dialogue) that you never buy them. Jordan, a naturally charismatic actor, is maybe the best thing in the film (and a black Johnny Storm is a-ok with me, for the record)…but neither he nor Mara successfully make you believe that these two people grew up in the same house. Mara and Teller’s down-the-road romance is signaled here mainly through thin smiles and nods. The movie’s heart is supposed to be the relationship between Reed and Ben “The Thing” Grimm, but if there is a way for an actor to have a meaningful heart-to-heart with a rock monster, Teller, gifted actor that he is, doesn’t find it. Meanwhile, Kebbell, as Doom, is off in a SyFy Channel movie of his own, and when he intersects with the main cast he brings them all down to his level.
What happened here? Someday, a very sad book might tell us. The director of record is Josh Trank (Chronicle); both Trank and the studio have publicly pointed the finger at each other in terms of ultimate responsibility for this turkey, so who’s to say? The movie has all the hallmarks of a project wrestled away from a filmmaker–for whatever reason–and desperately given to a frenzied salvage team. It was all for naught; this is a bad, bad, bad movie, one that comic fans will probably remember for a while, no matter how strongly 20th Century Fox will want them not to. The first family of comics deserves better than this, once again. It’s possible in the future someone will figure out how to properly adapt the Fantastic Four, although, at this rate, by then we might actually have interdimensional teleporters.