Some superhero movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s were really bad. The Punisher is my favorite comic book character, and 1989’s The Punisher tanked because it was both a bad movie and a bad adaptation of the comic. The quality of the films with Marvel characters really ramped up with Iron Man and carried forward through a variety of series. These Marvel properties all feel connected because they were designed to be that way, and they all now fall under the Disney umbrella. Unfortunately, some characters are still being controlled by Fox. One of those properties is The Fantastic Four. In an attempt to keep the superhero team in its lineup, Fox rebooted the series after two previous entries with a different cast and creative team. Fantastic Four has so much wrong with it that it almost falls out of the superhero genre entirely and qualifies as merely a bad sci-fi flick.
I would expect better from Fantastic Four with Josh Trank as cowriter and director. Trank directed Chronicle, one of my favorite superhero movies of all time that has nothing to do with comic books and instead details what happens when ordinary people develop powers. Fantastic Four is an origin story, but it’s such a boring one when you compare it to Chronicle and other origin stories. Cowriter Jeremy Slater was cowriter of The Lazarus Effect, and cowriter Simon Kinberg has a long list of writing credits that includes Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jumper, Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is an entertaining X-Men film with a compelling time travel story. I’m not sure what went wrong here. Marvel really needs to buy this property back from Fox if they want these characters in other Marvel releases. The filmmakers seem to have all of the right credentials to produce at least a passable movie. Instead, this comes off as a bunch of college kids in a science lab with their future identities as an afterthought.
Fantastic Four is barely an origin story. I would call it a prequel to an origin story because so much of the movie is spent on how the characters reach the point where they obtained their powers instead of what happens afterwards. Reed Richards (Miles Teller, most recently in Whiplash) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot and many others) are childhood friends who have been tinkering with dimensional travel for years. They have figured out how to send an object to another dimension and bring it back, which gets them noticed by the Baxter Foundation, a think tank that funds a sort of college for brainiacs in New York City. Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey of The Wire and House of Cards) and adopted daughter Sue Storm (Kate Mara) recruit Reed to join them on their similar attempts to teleport to that other dimension. Franklin brings in his hothead son Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan of Chronicle and Fruitvale Station and Teller’s costar in That Awkward Moment) and moody programming genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to round out the team. When Reed, Ben, Victor and Johnny decide to take an unscheduled trip to the other world without Franklin’s and Sue’s knowledge, an accident happens and the four adventurers and Sue gain powers in an explosion.
These events comprise most of the movie. The final third details what happens after Reed can stretch his body, Sue can turn invisible, Ben develops a rocky exterior as The Thing and Johnny can burst into flames and fly. Victor was left behind in the other dimension. You just know how that’s going to turn out. The head of the Baxter Foundatioin (a gum-chewing Tim Blake Nelson) calls in the government, and the team members essentially become prisoners of their own powers. Plot points are wrapped up so quickly that you’d swear that there was more to the movie initially. That might be true; it still doesn’t excuse the lack of excitement of what’s left. Much was made about the switch of Johnny Storm from white to black. Jordan clearly does the best acting in the film. Teller, Kebbell and Mara sort of coast through it, and I’ve enjoyed most of Mara’s work in the past. Bell is simply wrong in all ways for Ben. He doesn’t have the energy or personality, and whether he did the voice for The Thing or not, the character comes off as depressed and weak instead of boisterous and engaging. Nelson is a one-note villain, and like Mara, he has done much better work.
The special effects are the only successful part of Fantastic Four. The film has a slick look from start to finish, and the visuals and other effects are integrated seamlessly into that appearance. In the comics and other incarnations of the team, I never really liked Sue’s invisible hamster ball that she uses to transport people. That unfortunate effect is in this movie. So are a lot of other neat parts like Reed’s stretchy skin and Johnny’s perfect flame effects. The design of The Thing is good, but they got the dimensions wrong. The poster even highlights this disparity with The Thing towering over the other characters although he’s about their size in the actual movie. With most of the action in the labs and the other world, there isn’t a lot of room for effects as far as the team using their powers in creative ways. Where the movie starts to get good is probably where it should have begun.
If I pile on a little bit more, it might help the planned sequel if it still happens. Why does Mara suddenly become more blonde after the explosion? Why is the dialogue so awfully obvious at times with another character spouting out The Thing’s signature line “It’s clobberin’ time” and Sue painfully, casually referring to Victor as “Doctor Doom” early in the movie? Ugh. There was just too much that bothered me about Fantastic Four while watching it that I almost tuned out the problems to see if there was anything redeeming. It’s a treat to see Dan Castellaneta in one of his rare appearances as a human character and not as the voice of the animated Homer Simpson. Thankfully, the movie was not in 3D, which would have made the experience even duller. Fantastic Four is such an underwhelming reboot from start to finish that it only could have been made worse if they had cast Ben Affleck as Reed Richards.