When attempting to accomplish some sort of goal, it’s always been said that “the third time is the charm.” Sadly, this doesn’t apply to the latest film adapting Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Not only does Josh Trank’s iteration miss the mark, it doesn’t even make it up to bat. It’s tough to decipher what went wrong with this film given all of the rumors about various production troubles. Whomever is to blame left us with an overly serious and dour film that’s composed of eighty percent banal origin story and twenty percent abysmal climactic superhero action. I honestly don’t even know if I can choose this over the unreleased Roger Corman film from 1994.
I’ve always argued against origin stories in superhero films because all of them reach the same conclusion. The titular characters acquire some sort of gift they are unsure of how to use at first but ultimately decide to use their powers for the greater good. The most glaring issue with Fantastic Four is that it’s entirely an origin story. It’s nearly identical to the problems with the 2005 Fantastic Four directed by Tim Story. I would be willing to forgive this decision if something even mildly interesting was applied to the conceit. Outside of character names, powers, and the title of the film, there’s nothing that remotely resembles the source material. I am not saying that adapting a comic book requires absolute devotion and faithfulness. Plenty of superhero films have successfully interpreted decades of material without being entirely faithful. I got the sense in this film that no one even bothered to read an issue of Fantastic Four. Instead, it seems as if they just used the brand to capitalize on the wave of superhero films we’ve gotten over the past several years.
While the entire film is purely set-up, the first half hour is at least watchable. Science wizard Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and partner Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) successfully create a device designed for interdimensional travel. While attending a science fair, Reed catches the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara). He accepts Storm’s offer to work under him on another interdimensional transportation system. We also meet Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), the former project leader who reluctantly agrees to come back. After the project is completed, the group uses the machine and comes back with superpowers.
Even at a runtime of 100 minutes, the film feels both rushed and tedious. After the group returns with their powers, the movie moves from a walk to a sluggish crawl. The best scene in the film is immediately after they discover their powers, to horrifying results. It’s one of the few instances in which I saw the influence of David Cronenberg, whom director Josh Trank stated was an inspiration. It’s a subtle nod that gets under your skin in the way Cronenberg made you uncomfortable with his trademark brand of “body horror.” The other tribute to Cronenberg is a blatant homage to the famous “head explosion” from Scanners. These are moments where I saw untapped potential. It made me wish for a film more focused on the pros and cons of advanced science and less on expository set-up.
For having such a talented cast on paper, it’s rather extraordinary how everyone seems either uninterested or sleep deprived. They’re supposed to be a team, but they’re barely given any screen time as a collective unit. When they are, all of these actors have no chemistry with one another. It’s even more insulting because Sue and Johnny come across as if they’ve never met, and they’re supposed to be siblings. The performances don’t even resemble the characters to any discernible measure. Johnny Storm is a fun-loving playboy in the comics, but Jordan always looks either annoyed or like he’s wincing in pain. Sue and Ben take a backseat throughout the entire film, to the extent where Ben is called out of the blue to travel to the other dimension. The biggest compliment I can give to these characters are that the effects showcasing their abilities are better than the previous films. Considering how low the bar has been set, that is not something worth celebrating.
Now we come to Reed and Victor. Miles Teller has proven to be a charismatic presence on-screen, and in a way, he’s the character I gravitated the most towards. What I didn’t gravitate towards was how he leaves his compatriots behind to be subjects for the military. I understand that changes need to be made for the sake of film. However, they shouldn’t come at the expense of essential character traits. Early in the film, Victor is shown to be hostile towards Reed. It’s understandable, given how he’s being asked to come back to a project under new management. I can buy that he would want revenge for what happens to him during the film, but Doom’s return spells doom for the entire movie. The climactic twenty minutes is a rushed showdown that feels incredibly manufactured and hollow. It’s almost as if Trank and company forgot they were making a superhero film and half-heartedly threw together a big fight to appease fans. There’s nothing worth investment because of Doom’s hackneyed motivations and a lack of established teamwork on the part of the other four.
In a way, Fantastic Four has the exact same problems as the film from a decade ago. Both films are origin stories that are entirely set up for an anticlimactic battle against the villain. The difference is in the pacing and visual composition. There’s never a clear direction in tone to take, and there’s an absence of imagination in designing the set pieces. Half of the film takes place in either a densely lit warehouse or a dirt planet filled with lackluster special effects. Unlike the 2005 film, there’s no Michael Chiklis or Chris Evans to provide worthwhile character motivations. Despite all of the rumored development problems and negative word of mouth, I went into Fantastic Four with a fair disposition. When it was over, I left feeling disappointed and the complete opposite of fantastic.