Fox’s new superhero reboot Fantastic Four had a rocky production, to put it mildly. There were rumors of rampant studio interference, director Josh Trank butting heads with the producers and writers, and even reports that X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn was brought in for reshoots. These last reports were roundly denied, though that doesn’t exactly bode well for a movie. Building up to the release, both producer Simon Kinberg and star Miles Teller have used the phrase, “not a disaster,” to describe the film, and it’s not, at least not entirely.
The heavy hand of the studio is certainly felt, nowhere more than the very end, in a scene that is so tacked-on that it plays like a post-credits sequence (of which there are none). Trank’s troubles have been well documented, including his subsequent departure (firing?) from the Star Wars Anthology film he was supposed to direct next, and Fantastic Four feels very much like a young filmmaker, working on a scale he’s completely unaccustomed to, simply out of his depth much of the time.
A new origin for Marvel’s First Family, the story is straightforward. A group of young scientists, and one of their buddies who runs a junkyard, teleport to an alternate dimension where they are physically transformed by the environment and given powers. When they come back, the government wants to use them for military purposes, and they eventually have to come together to fight a former friend who is now an enemy.
The film actually starts out strong, which makes how far it comes off the rails later on that much more frustrating. Characterization wise, what they do with Reed Richards (Teller) actually works well. He’s not a dashing hero or leader, he’s a socially awkward genius, the kind of guy who would walk into traffic because he has his head in a book. Early on, he and his childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) have a strong bond that helps engage the audience. When Reed gets a scholarship to the Baxter Institute, and Ben drops him off, it may only be 40 minutes away, but it’s a different world. It’s a touching, bittersweet moment, to which Reed is totally oblivious.
Reed joins a team that includes the brilliant but guarded Sue Storm (Kate Mara); Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), her equally gifted, but rebellious brother who would rather be street racing than in a lab; and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), another smartypants, though one with an anti-authoritarian streak and some serious trust issues. Together they crack inter-dimensional travel. Go team.
In the set up is where the movie works the best. The characters aren’t super deep or developed, but the actors are all good enough that they’re compelling to watch on screen, the pace moves along at a swift clip, there are some sweet science montages, and Fantastic Four is decently entertaining for a time. Then everything changes, both for the characters and the movie, and not in a positive way.
When the team comes back transformed, the movie begins to spiral out of control. Stock government goons who just want to weaponize everything, led by a wasted Tim Blake Nelson, try to coerce the kids to use their powers for military purposes. Johnny can burst into flames and fly, Sue can turn invisible and create force fields, and Ben is a super strong rock monster known at The Thing who runs black ops and clobbers America’s enemies in secret. Reed, who can now stretch out real long, escapes the military compound and goes on the run.
In this section there are hints at greater conflicts between the characters that are never expanded upon. Sue thinks they’re being exploited, Johnny believes he’s using his powers for good, and Ben, feeling betrayed by Reed running away, is a reluctant tool of the government. His friend is gone, he’s a big ass rock monster, and while he doesn’t like what he does, what the hell else is he going to do? At least you think this is what they’re going for, because none of this is ever fleshed out in any real, meaningful way.
After muddling around in this quagmire in the middle, Victor shows back up as Doom (they drop the “Dr.” moniker, aside from one quick joke), and Fantastic Four finally gets to an underdeveloped, half-assed climax. There’s a tedious speech about working together for the greater good, and the film races to the end. It’s like they suddenly realized that, holy shit, they needed to wrap this up.
Even visually the film, which had a huge budget, looks kind of cheap, especially the scenes in the alternate universe, which hit the screen like the backdrop from a John Ford Monument Valley western given a sci-fi makeover. I can’t for the life of me figure out if this was an intentional move, designed to give the action a throwback, almost exploitation style aesthetic. I want to say yes it is, because that would add an element of fun, of playfulness, but that would clash with the overall seriousness and attempts to be dark and gritty, so I think it as an accident. Some of the effects do look good, especially the Thing, when he’s not sulking in the shadows. But then there’s Doom, who looks like absolute garbage, though that’s more a design issue than anything. With his powers, he’s basically a Scanner, and there is a fun nod to David Cronenberg’s psychotronic horror classic, which may have been the moment of the movie for me.
All in all, Fantastic Four builds, but never gets anywhere. It feels like one of those dystopian teen stories based on a book that was split into two movies, and this is the first part. Though it starts off strong, the film is such an obvious set up for more that it watches like they forgot to write anything but the beginning. [Grade: C-]