If you ever wondered if 20th Century Fox for some reason sold their Fantastic Four movie rights over to Warner Bros. instead of Disney, and what an eventual reboot would look and feel like set in that dark “gritty” Man of Steel universe, look no further than this flatline re-imagining that sorely misses the mark on too many levels.
The latest big screen version of Marvel’s First Family from director Josh Trank, who helmed the 2012 found footage cult gem Chronicle is a surprisingly charmless sci-fi romp rather than a creative crowd pleasing new take on the iconic superhero quartet.
There will always be the Marvel versus DC movie debates. Now the competition for your box office dollars is on the Marvel versus Marvel battle field. Fox owned properties (X-Men, Wolverine, Deadpool) are now taking on the Disney owned Avengers franchise characters (Sony threw in the towel and sided with Disney to split the profits with Spider-Man). There is obviously much more at stake with the rivalry between the studios than the fans. No matter what though, fans and casual movie goers want these films to be good, and it’s a damn shame when they’re not. With this being technically the third movie interpretation of these characters, it looks like it could be a lost cause for these comic book icons.
We first meet Reed Richards in 2007, he’s a grammar school child prodigy pitching his theories about teleportation to his befuddled teacher and classmates (plus insert flying car reference for the comic book fan contingent) and has a working device in his garage that opens a gateway to another dimension. Along with his friend Ben Grimm, Richards manages to send a die-cast toy car to another world, while also managing to cripple the power grid all the way from Oyster Bay to Manhattan.
Flash forward seven years later Richards (Miles Teller) is recruited at his high school science fair by the Baxter Institute’s Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) to help finalize a fully operational teleportation device. Joining the research team also are Storm’s hot head son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) in retribution for crashing his car during a drag race and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who more importantly pioneered the institute’s breakthrough tech that discovered the alternate dimension.
Needless to say with Richards, Von Doom and the Storm siblings working together with the limitless Baxter resources at their disposal, the device is completed. Once a successful trip to Zero World (not the Negative Zone like in the comics) is made by some labratory chimpanzees, the government immediately seizes the technology and robs the eager team of their dream of being the first humans to brave inter-dimensional travel. Since the history books remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, not the techs who built the Apollo crafts, after some flask passing and a recruitment call to Grimm (Jamie Bell), Richards, Johnny Storm, Von Doom and Grimm hijack the device to make their own unauthorized journey to Zero World.
Things don’t go as planned for the travelers when they explore the primordial planet. Unstable ground leads to Von Doom getting engulfed in a lake of glowing green ooze, and the others are bonded on a molecular level with the last minute factors that invade their pods as they transport back to Earth. Sue Storm, who’s back in Baxter HQ and does not join the rest of her future superhero team mates across dimensions, helps jump start the device to bring them back. Though to explain her super powers, she’s hit with a wave of other world energy upon her colleagues’ return.
The first slow burn 45 minutes of the film play off as low key science fiction and horror, especially as we witness the shocking manifestations of the return trip’s effects to the team. But the script barely allows you to get into the heads of the leads as far as these horrible physical transformations are concerned. The government of course quarantines and trains them for military combat, but besides a few frowned faces and some surveillance combat footage of Ben Grimm tearing foreign enemy armies to shreds, we’re barely given any insight to the why they just go along with becoming science project weapons.
Once Richards sees his childhood chum Grimm transformed into a living rock creature, runs for the hills and disappears for a year while his friends are imprisoned as military lab rats. The deepest exchange between these kids’ on their unwanted powers is between Richards and Grimm. Richards asks Grimm if being encased in moving rock hurts. Ben responds grimly that he’s gotten used to it. That’s about as deep as it gets.
By the time the team is assembled as a cohesive unit, with Reed Richards rejoining them after his time off the grid on the lam, the film goes headfirst into a rushed paint-by-numbers FX heavy final act pitting them against a seemingly unbeatable super powered and pissed off Victor Von Doom. Their colleague attained god-like powers and wants to destroy Earth to ensure he can rule Zero World.
Director Josh Trank along with fellow screenwriters Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg likely made their intended movie: A dark cold revisionist story that treats Marvel’s First Family as freakish victims of a science project gone wrong rather than following a more familiar superheroes journey. But running at a little over 100 minutes, Fantastic Four hardly feels like the necessary big bang reboot you need when it comes re-jump starting an established franchise. It certainly seems odd to me that all along the development and production processes, the decision makers were all thumbs up that the somber route was the way to get people back on board with Fantastic Four, hardly one of the darker properties in the Marvel line-up.
It’s not to say Fox shouldn’t prioritize burying all memory of the two previous family friendly Fantastic Four movies starring the perfectly cast Chris Evans, the mis-cast Jessica Alba and poor Michael Chiklis who lumbered around in an embarrassing prosthetic rock suit, only to embrace WB/DC’s “dark gritty” big screen formula. But just because there is the need to completely re-visit the origin story, it doesn’t give the film makers an excuse to treat the intro arc simply as a necessary evil and expect the next film to deliver the relatable dysfunctional family aspects typical of a Fantastic Four story.
There is so little charm, humor, chemistry or accessibility present in the characters you can’t help but appreciate the aspects of the source material the previous two films managed to actually capture compared to this reboot. The familiar characteristics of Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben are buried so deep to keep in line with the dark tone of the film, it really makes you care very little about any of them.
You can’t blame the talented assembled cast, they are given what’s on the page, and there’s very little as far as the traditional hero factor is concerned. At 100 minutes, the film too often breezes over things it seems the folks in charge hope you don’t have time to ask the crucial motivational questions that demand answers.
There’s something to be said about getting out of a lackluster film as quickly as possible, or conceding to yourself that an additional 15-20 minutes of necessary character development in that film would have made for a deeper story. I can’t imagine there weren’t major unexpected major cuts going on in the edit room, but this is such a cold introduction to a unique film franchise it’s unfair to expect movie goers to just take this for what its worth and wait for the well rounded story in the sequel.
What’s to admire? The visuals of course. Jamie Bell’s The Thing is amazing in full CGI (but let’s not talk about the film’s no pants policy). Thing towers over his cast mates, decimates everything in his way, and makes you wish someday he’ll go toe-to-toe with the Hulk on the big screen (if there weren’t conflicting movie studio rights to nix it). Jordan’s Human Torch and Mara’s Invisible Woman powers are presented more as freak factor abilities that need to be contained and tamed rather than glorious super powers. However the visuals are impressive in terms of seeing a man engulfed in flames flying or a woman projecting force fields that allow her to defy gravity and avoid harm. Teller’s Mr. Fantastic powers are tough to get behind on the big screen, and by the final battle with the god-like Doctor Doom, a stretchy punch from Reed Richards seems lackluster next to the abilities of his super powered team mates.
There’s some clunky dialogue throughout the film, mostly in the all too rare “hero” moments. Expected catchphrases like “It’s clobbering time,” and “Flame on” are treated as mere necessary inclusions rather than applause worthy call backs. Plus it’s still kinda eye roll inducing to hear a character on screen addressed as Von Doom, on the same lines of hearing Sinestro and Draco Malfoy, but source material is source material and they chose to keep true to this part.
In the shadow of the Disney/Marvel tent poles and Fox’s shared universe X-Men films, Fantastic Four ultimately proves to be a cold underwhelming re-introduction to Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch, The Thing and Doctor Doom. Is there the promise of better things to come? Sure, there’s no where to go but up from here, but that doesn’t mean you write off the entire origin adventure as obligatory backstory. Give us a reason to like these characters and earn their place alongside Fox’s other big screen stars in the X-Men series.
There’s a lot of room to go forward from this misguided re-launching point, but it’s hardly the banner new start worthy of these Marvel icons.
Fantastic Four hits theaters on August 7th.
REVIEW RATING: ★½★★★★
Director: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell
Screenwriters: Josh Trank, Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Running Time: 100 minutes