Fantastic Four Review (Spoilers)

Not so Fantastic Four...Not so Fantastic Four...

Fantastic Four Cast:

Miles Teller as Reed Richards
Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm
Kate Mara as Sue Storm
Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm / The Thing
Toby Kebbell as Victor Von Doom / Dr. Doom
Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Franklin Storm
Tim Blake Nelson as Dr. Allen
Dan Castellaneta as Mr. Kenny
Owen Judge as Young Reed
Evan Hannemann as Young Ben
Chet Hanks as Jimmy Grimm
Mary-Pat Green as Mrs. Grimm
Tim Heidecker as Mr. Richards

Directed by Josh Trank

Plot Summary:

“Fantastic Four,” a contemporary re-imagining of Marvel’s original and longest-running superhero team, centres on four young outsiders who teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe, which alters their physical form in shocking ways. Their lives irrevocably upended, the team must learn to harness their daunting new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.

Review:

First and foremost, it’s fair to say that I am a comic book fan. I’ve read way more X-Men comic books than I am comfortable mentioning in public. It’s true that the Fantastic Four have never exactly been my go to superhero team, but I’ve read and loved enough of them that I have a healthy respect and appreciation for those stories. They’re the original superhero team; the (future) foundation that Marvel was built on. Marvel’s film franchise has taken off and it’s sad to see the Richards family left behind at Fox. As such, I was pretty optimistic for the relaunch of this series, and the chance to set right the wrongs of the middling Tim Story efforts. So, does Josh Trank’s 2015 instalment do any better? The answer is a big fat resounding, no.

I think the first misstep was casting young. There’s something stately about these characters and going youthful with the casting negates that in a profound way. Reed Richard doesn’t have the same authority in his mid-20’s as he would in his mid-40’s. Also, what these characters thrive on is their family dynamic. Doing an “origin” story as such, diminishes that. They’re not yet a family, so they can’t have that dynamic, and ultimately, that’s lacking here.

There are a few nice touches in the opening moments of the film. I thought the establishing of Reed’s scientific expertise at a young age was heavy handed, but the development of Ben Grimm and Reed Richard’s friendship was fine. They set up Ben’s motivation through a simple yet effective scene with his brother and we get to see Reed’s scientific mind at work. The science fair that takes place shortly thereafter, where Reed looks to demonstrate a homemade teleporter made in his garage, provides a rare moment of levity and light-heartedness, which the rest of the film is sorely lacking. From there, Reed is invited to a think tank located at the Baxter Building to continue his work alongside Dr. Franklin Storm and adopted daughter Sue.

Things meander along from there, introducing Victor von Doom and Dr. Storm’s street-racing, couldn’t give a damn son, Johnny Storm. Johnny’s introduction and inclusion on the team simply do not work in the slightest. We’re told he is smart, without any evidence to support it, and that’s about it. The casting of Michael B. Jordan was heavily publicized and criticized by some. Of course, Johnny Storm is traditionally a white character, whilst Michael B. Jordan is African-American. He is also a terrific actor and has all the qualities, in my opinion, to play that role. That being said, you don’t get to see that for large stretches of the movie, because there’s not enough substance in the material. He’s loosely defined with the hot-headed and arrogant attitude and never really evolves beyond that. His relationships with Sue and his father are pretty much non-existent, in fact, I can barely recall one scene where he actually talks to Sue in a familial or meaningful manner. The only way you’d know they were a family at all, if you were unfamiliar with the franchise, would be through ham-fisted, expository dialogue explaining as much. Also, a large part of the character is his antagonistic relationship with Ben Grimm. That’s absent entirely here, save for one glib remark in the movie’s closing moment. It’s not miscasting by any means, it’s simply a missed opportunity.

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What surges the plot into action is the decision that the team won’t be the first to travel through the interdimensional portal. Now, the plot is fine in theory, but there was nothing to suggest this would be the case prior to the scene happening, so it comes straight out of left field. As a viewer, it’s hard to take anything that follows seriously. Why would a group of young adults be sent to this newly discovered dimension ahead of highly trained astronauts? If these characters are as smart as we’ve been led to believe, surely they would have already known this, or at least foreseen it as a possibility? I feel like a whole chunk of the movie is missing where this was explained away. Maybe Victor and Reed got together and decided not to finish the project unless they were assured of being the first to go through and explore the other side. Maybe Johnny, in an attempt to impress his father, also volunteers. It’s a logical misstep in my mind, and that misstep serves as the catalyst for the entire second half of the film.

Another logical misstep is why exactly Reed invites Ben. Sure, they’re friends, but if my friend woke me up with a drunken phone call in the middle of the night inviting me to another sodding dimension, I wouldn’t be so eager. It again comes from left field, and it doesn’t have to. One scene here, another scene there, you can explain this and give some depth to it. Perhaps a scene between Reed and Sue, where Reed tells her of how Ben protected him from bullies, and how he in turn helped Ben pass some sort of science class. Maybe he even expresses guilt at leaving Ben behind in favour of attending the Baxter Institute. You could have Ben make a phone call to Reed only for Reed to ignore it because he’s too busy working etc. I feel like I put more thought into this in ten seconds than the writers did when piecing together the script. The film did a decent job of establishing their friendship (albeit in a hackneyed sort of way) but did nothing to maintain it. Ben hadn’t been seen for a good twenty minutes of film at that point, and by the time he’s turned into the Thing later on, you’re left wondering why you should care at all.

Once Ben arrives at the Institute and the others are sufficiently hammered, they embark on their journey to Planet Zero. Of course, things go wrong and the group are immediately put in jeopardy. What that jeopardy is, I have no idea, as no steps are taken to really explain what’s going on. The ground just begins to crack, green lava appears, and that’s that. Victor falls in, Sue manages to save the others, only for the machine to explode, altering the remaining four irrevocably. I appreciate the use of the Negative Zone (or Planet Zero in this case) and utilizing the comic’s Ultimate Universe origin in favour of the space exploration of the original source material, but that’s probably the best thing I can say about it. There’s no stakes, no drama, no sense of urgency, no feeling of any kind to be had during the whole sequence.

By the time the film skips forward a year, I wanted to bang my head against the nearest wall. There are some decent moments as the group wake up individually in another dark, drab, facility, discovering that they’ve been altered somehow. Johnny waking up on fire, Ben emerging in his rock form from the shadows, and Reed strapped down to a table, his arms stretched out at his sides, are all visually interesting and worked on some level, but the immediate follow-up to that is to skip forward a year in time. That may seem like a good idea, in theory, but a year after the fact, the group have already moved past what happened to them and are adapting to life with their powers. That’s a lot of natural drama and emotion to sacrifice, especially for the story they tell in its place.

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This iteration of Fantastic Four decides to make Reed Richards a fugitive. That’s baffling all on its own, but the resolution to this little jaunt is even more baffling. We’re told Reed has been on the run for a year after escaping the medical facility he woke up in. He blames himself for what happened and has been tortured by it ever since. Supposedly anyway, as he mentions it all of once and quickly moves on to more pressing plot points. Sue is enlisted to track him down and manages to do so in a rather elongated scene that calls-back to an earlier conversation the two shared. After all that, Ben is sent to retrieve him and does so within one punch. Bear in mind, a good five minutes was spent setting this up and a further ten establishing the remaining three are being used as government pawns, and Sue’s reluctance at this (another plot point that seemingly doesn’t have any consequence to proceedings). That really sums up the entire film in a nutshell. All setup and absolutely no delivery.

Reed is brought back on board and for one reason or another, is coerced into opening another portal to Planet Zero. Reed’s motivation for doing so is obvious, he wants to cure himself and his “friends”. I’m not sure what the government’s motivation for wanting another portal opened is, as, by this point, I had well and truly zoned out. Nevertheless, they discover Victor is still alive within Planet Zero and stage a rescue. Victor has been fused to his spacesuit, has summoned up the smallest hint of the tyrannical dictator/megalomaniac/all-around psychopath elements that comic book fans love and revere him for, and is hell bent on taking it out on pretty much everyone who steps in his way. Again, the whole sequence lacks any sort of drama, because once Victor was out of sight, he was completely out of mind.

On the subject of Doom, I’m flabbergasted as to how he’s been gotten so wrong in all of the cinematic outings to date. He’s not a hard character to understand, it’s literally all there in black and white and has been for decades. Why try and twist the character into something else? Throughout the film, he seems to have an environmentalist edge, which doesn’t jive with him at all, and when he spouts off dialogue about the planet and how it doesn’t deserve to be saved, I can’t help but roll my eyes. It’s a piss poor attempt, lacking in solid characterisation, and it’s the most telling (for me at any rate) in a recurring problem with the film. There’s also a shoe-horned in love triangle of sorts between Doom, Sue and Reed. It felt unnecessary given the drab tone of the film, and ultimately serves no purpose. Sue never shows anything remotely akin to interest in either of them, and doesn’t appear to be all that upset by Doom’s apparent death, despite sharing the majority of her scenes with the character after he showed up. She also doesn’t seem particularly fond of Reed, her brother, or anyone else she shares the screen with throughout the entirety of the movie. She doesn’t even seem to be particularly shaken when one of her supposed friends murders her father.

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The climax, if you can really call it one, feels rushed and tacked on, and is far from the movie’s only pacing issue. It’s as if they realized that they needed to end this pseudo-science fiction film with some sort of action set piece to satisfy fans of the comic book and superhero films in general. This is really where the film begins to fall apart because every attempt at a payoff falls short because of the lack of direction and solid build behind it. The dialogue is truly woeful and it’s almost embarrassing seeing the actors try to say it so dry and earnestly. There’s a moment where Reed attempts to rally the troops with a uniting “stronger together than we are apart”, but because we’ve seen absolutely no evidence of this for the prior ninety minutes, it falls completely flat. Nothing is earned in this movie and so there is no reward for the viewer. Although I feel there should be because it’s a wonder I made it this far.

The darker, moody tone, only adds to the doom (excuse the pun) and gloom that this movie creates. Fantastic Four is maddening at times. There are endless continuity issues with Kate Mara’s hair being the most egregious. I understand she had to wear a wig during re-shoots, because she had cut her hair during the interim. Well, it looks every bit a wig, a cheap one at that, purchased from the nearest costume shop. It doesn’t even match her hair colour from previous parts of the film, meaning her hair not only changes style from scene to scene, but also colour. This is never more evident than the final third of the film. It’s so blatant, you wonder how a large budget movie could get it so wrong. As previously mentioned, the film is poorly paced, overloading the first hour with setup and leaving no room to properly tie things up in the final act. I feel like an hour of the movie, at least, is missing, and things are never allowed to grow and develop. The friendship and relationships that are supposed to be formed throughout are loosely defined at best, and as stated, you wouldn’t know they existed at all if it weren’t for the odd line of dialogue.

Overall, I can’t help but wonder if anyone involved in making this film wanted to make a Fantastic Four movie, or were aware they were making one. Outside of the character names, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. The story seems to skip through proceedings at a breakneck place, yet as events are unfolding, it feels as though nothing of significance is happening. There are few nice touches peppered in, such as a reference to the Fantasticar, but ultimately it feels like half-hearted fan service. The real fan service would have been delivering a film that in some way resembles and honours the spirit of the source material. Fantastic Four looks dull as dishwater at times and the story does nothing to elevate the film above that. Visually, it really falls apart in the last act with cheap special effects that feel dated. The cast is one of the few redeeming factors, as they deliver reasonable performances given the misguided material they’re working with.

There’s no recovery for this franchise on film as far as I’m concerned, especially not at 20th Century Fox. I hold some hope that they can strike some sort of deal with Marvel and allow them to do the property justice. I won’t hold my breath. Until then, there’s always The Incredibles.

Rating (out of 100): 20 “Not at all Fantastic”

D. A. Edwards is a (severely disappointed) writer of NovaCritic.com.