I know there are some people who think that when reviewing a movie, you should focus solely on what’s up there onscreen, not talk about the backstory of how the film came into being. I’m inclined to agree with this, but then again, you sometimes have situations like this new Fantastic Four movie.
I can’t pretend I don’t know about all the many reported problems this film’s production went through in coming to the screen, and struggle to divorce this from the film itself when writing about it. Similarly, I can’t ignore the fact that director Josh Trank has essentially disowned it now, strongly implying that the final product is one of heavy studio interference and hasty re-shoots. To cap off its immensely troubled production, the film’s also already performed disastrously in the US, opening to terrible box office and dismal reviews, earning comparisons to the notorious Batman & Robin and more. Can it really be all that bad?
For the first half-hour or so of Fantastic Four, I found myself rather baffled at how it had been received. Sure, you can accuse it of going the bemoaned “gritty reboot” direction, offering a darker, modern take on Marvel comics’ “first family” but still, it’s not immediately awful. In fact the first half offers a fairly decent alternative interpretation of the Fantastic 4’s origin.
We first meet Reed Richards and Ben Grimm as kids, when Reed is working on some ambitious science project in his garage. Grimm’s family owns a scrapyard so he can hook Reed up with some parts he needs to finish it up. Skip forward a few years and they’re presenting the latest version of this teleporting machine at a high school science fair, where they’re spotted by Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara).
Now you do kinda need to get past the fact that the now teenage Reed and Ben are played by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, two familiar actors who look like, and both are almost thirty (they’re a lot better than the child actors anyway), but from then on Fantastic 4 presents a fairly interesting set-up for a modest sci-fi movie. Reed is hired by Storm and taken to the prestigious Baxter Foundation in New York City where he can work further on developing the teleporter with Sue, her more reckless brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and previous employee Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell).
This is all reasonably standard superhero set-up here, but a lot of it is handled fine, and Josh Trank clearly has an eye, there were a few occasions I found myself impressed with the framing and editing on display. Everyone should know where this is headed though, and once the team decide to use the machine they’ve built, everything starts to fall apart.
As I said, I personally found a lot of the early material here to work as a newer version of these characters, but I’d find it hard to argue with someone who thought this to be a completely inappropriate direction to take this usually light, colourful superhero team in (I have very little connection with the comics myself). Take for example the sequence where they first gain their powers. For starters Sue is quite literally left out, she doesn’t go through the dimension jump with the rest of them, she’s only included by way of being knocked over by a blast initiated by their return. Getting past that, the scene quite deliberately plays out like a body horror film; Reed slowly drags himself across the floor trying to reach Ben, who he thinks is trapped under a pile of rocks, only to look back and see his feet are still caught and his legs have stretched across the room. Taken by itself, it’s a pretty good scene, but it’s out of place not just in this movie, but for this property. Were I a parent who’d taken their 7 year-old to see this I’d be rather alarmed by such a scene.
All the reasonably promising set-up in the early stages only works though if it’s paid off in a satisfactory manner, and Fantastic Four completely fails to do this in every possible way. The scene mentioned above when they discover their powers honestly concludes with a “One Year Later” title card, cutting out a load of potentially interesting material. If it had then cut to the 4 working as a superhero team perhaps it could have worked, but as it is nothing from that moment onwards make a lick of sense.
We get clips on screens within the film that were obviously intended to originally be part of other larger scenes. What follows is a messy, disjointed rush-job that sees all team members sporadically appear but rarely together (at the start Reed is off on a pointless jaunt to Central America). The plans of both Reed, and the military that now control the teleporter are fairly ridiculous in their aims, and then later when Dr Doom shows up his evil scheme is totally absurd. It’s as if they felt the need to suddenly add a world-threatening element onto the movie to match it up with the current superhero trend but didn’t have enough time or money to film it properly so instead tried to cobble it together from bits of existing footage. The ensuing superhero battle is one of the most inept action scenes I can recently recall seeing in a big-budget movie.
Even so, you probably won’t think that the big finale is actually that while its playing out, it feels like there should be a whole other section of the film to follow but no, it just ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily, just after the four deliver some cringe-worthy team naming dialogue. It’s deeply, frustratingly anticlimactic.
Some of the film’s mismatched nature also comes from the adopted aesthetic too, the fire powers Johnny gains can easily be drawn in comics but in his early scenes here he just looks like a man burning to death. The serious tone doesn’t help much with the translation too, as some of the sillier comic- book elements like say, a character called Victor Von Doom just sound ridiculous here. Indeed Doom is pretty awful in this movie for the most part. There’s no real explanation as to exactly what happens to him but once he becomes the villainous ‘Dr Doom’ he’s just a homicidal maniac hell-bent on killing everyone in sight, resulting in an overly violent scene involving exploding heads.
It’s hard to blame the actors for the poor way these characters ultimately come across, we know they’re a talented bunch who’ve been good on screen before. There’s not one obvious thing you can point to as the primary source of this film’s downfall, it’s just bad all round here. You get no sense of the family bond between Johnny and Sue whatsoever. Johnny Storm should really have been a break-out role for Jordan (while the 2005/7 Fantastic Four movies weren’t up to much, they certainly helped Chris Evans’ career) yet he’s completely forgettable here. Similarly, the romance between Reed and Sue is seeded but then never developed and the film draws almost nothing from the supposedly long-term friendship between Reed and Ben. The one positive thing I can say is that it takes the exact right approach to non-traditional casting for Johnny and Franklin – making absolutely no deal about it whatsoever, I just wish this was a better film to demonstrate that.
I do think there are signs that there was maybe once a better movie within Fantastic Four than the mess it ultimately is, whether that would have been a good film I guess we’ll never know. What’s there does point to it being more of a competent sci-fi horror film than a superhero one though. Honestly I’m not sure where this franchise will go now, this wants a sequel but it seems doubtful one will appear. This film’s latter half is sufficiently abysmal that I think one needn’t possess any behind the scenes knowledge to see that something went terribly, terribly wrong. For now I suppose The Incredibles will remain the best on-screen iteration of the Fantastic Four we’re likely to see.