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Review: Fantastic [sic] Four

Tim here. The best and maybe the only compliment I can pay to the new Fantastic Four, the third unsuccessful attempt at bringing the oldest of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's creations at Marvel Comics to the big screen, is that it's not obviously the worst one yet. Its insipidities, and it is very insipid, aren't inherently worse than those of the ghastly 2005 big-budget version. That film heralded the end of the "brightly colored larks that are wholly insubstantial but also not much fun" era of comic book movies; time alone will tell if its 2015 sibling will similarly ring down the curtains on the "ludicrously dark and serious-minded exercises in bitterness and misery" era, though I think we should be hopeful.

How much of the film's misery and internal confusion is due to the awkwardly visible fencing match between director Josh Trank and the executives at 20th Century Fox is beyond our ability to say for certain. It does feel like a movie that wants to be anything other than what it is. There were rumors that Trank was hoping to make PG-13, summer-friendly body horror, and there are vestigial traces of that conception; it would have been better for the film to have gone all the way, for at least then the bleakness of tone would have felt like it had some actual purpose. [More...

As it is, the movie doesn't have any clear intentions or personality, flattening everything into a single mood of aimless, sullen detachment, not caring about anything but just grinding through its leaden 100 minutes and getting it the hell over with. If it is possible for cinema to suffer from clinical depression, this is exactly what it would look like.

The film laboriously reworks one of the most well-known origin stories in superhero comics: high school senior and science genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell, devoured by his painful attempt at an American accent and later by CGI) have just about solved the problem of building a matter teleportation device. This brings them to the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), director of the Baxter Institute, and here Reed finds himself working alongside Franklin's son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), as well as the former prodigy Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). They succeed in cracking the technology necessary to travel to the alternate dimension Planet Zero, but things go wrong, leaving Victor stranded. The other four are mutated with the usual suite of powers: Reed can extend his limbs far beyond their normal range, Sue can phase out of the visible spectrum and create force fields, Johnny can set his entire body on fire, and Ben is an invulnerable rock monster. (fair is fair: the Thing effects are pretty terrific).

They are immediately taken by the U.S. government in the form of Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), who hopes to weaponise them.

Origin stories are all well and good, but this one is exceptionally methodical; it's a distended first act that fleshes out backstory with three times the fullness it requires, and generally using expository dialogue on the principal that you can never be too specific and it's better to have characters say everything germane to the moment all at once than to make them sound like human beings. Unsurprisingly, this means a film full of compromised, indifferently-performed characters: to look at the highs and lows of their respective careers, one might not think that Teller, Jordan, Mara, and Bell would all end up underplaying their roles in more or less exactly the same way, each of them walling themselves off from the other three and completely failing to make the connections that the "modern families can look weird but still be loving" conceit that the script absolutely demands.

Mara and Jordan have a prickly dislike between them that's especially damaging given what a big deal the film makes about their polyglot family, while Teller responds to Mara with hostile chilliness in all the places that the script indicates that they should be flirting.

Worse, Fantastic Four turns on itself the second that it puts its characters through their mutation. I can't recall if there's ever been a major big-budget superhero movie that breaks down so quickly and so completely as this one does after a "One Year Later" title after Allen gets his mitts on the not-yet-named Fantastic Four. We know that whole sequences were ripped from the film, we know that much of it was re-conceived and re-shot, but it doesn't take following the gossip rags to sense that something went deeply wrong in putting the film together: Reed's escape ends up serving as nothing but a parenthetical, the return to Planet Zero is rushed and Doom's return and the battle to stop him abrupt and confusing, and the whole last 40 minutes generally ape the shape of a superhero movie without having any kind of meaningful content.

It is, all told, a greatly joyless film, without any purpose to that joylessness. The homogeneity of recent superhero movies has very little to recommend it, but it means a certain level of basic competence: films this bad in that genre have been driven almost to the point of extinction. Hopefully, the failure of Fantastic Four on all fronts will be enough to finish the job.

Grade: D

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Reader Comments (9)

I have a deep love for these characters from childhood and the only time I've been excited to see them onscreen was during that brief period when Peyton Reed was trying to get a movie going. He had a kind of retro concept i thought would work really well. It's a pity that the casting each time seems to miss the whole appeal of that group in terms of dynamics and familial warmth.

reading about the lack of chemistry makes me think that even Tranks original vision would have made for a terrible film.

August 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

My older brother asked me which film I thought was worse: This or Green Lantern. Sadly, I told him FF was easily the weaker film. While GL had a lot of issues (and worse CGI), it at least felt like a cohesive film and some of the actors had chemistry. Here, it just seemed like everyone in front of and behind the camera couldn't connect. I think you can MAYBE salvage these actors as the FF if you put them as supporting characters in an X-Men film/Crossover; but would Fox want to link their X-Men franchise to a pretty clear bomb? I don't know. Anyway, I don't like ripping into this film - especially given the hell this production seemed to be for all involved - but there's not much about this review I disagree with.

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Tim: But the former kind of bad superhero movie at least means they're TRYING to understand the genre. The latter kind of bad superhero movie is being actively embarrassed at the genre. When Tim Burton and Nolan betrayed they didn't REALLY get Batman (or superheroes in general), they at least gave us second films that were both independently amazing, where the only flaw was in being a modern Batman movie. (Thought experiment: If The Joker and Mad Hatter were all operating at the same time, and Batman didn't have sidekicks, who should Batman go after first? I'll wait...

If you said Joker, you're a freaking IDIOT. Joker may be generally written as more dangerous, but Hatter is way more likely to target civilian children, even if they don't share Batman's gender. But NONE of the big budget cinematic Batmen would clearly make that decision, as Burton's and Nolan's are big picture utilitarians and Schumacher's probably is as well.)

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I incorporated a huge mound of blank space in that comment to approximate a massive "I'll wait" beat. Kind of sad it didn't save into the thread.

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

So should we wait 50-60 years for a proper version of this film? It seems like Fox could never get it right.

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Isn't the common problem among the three most recent "F4" movies just a lack of a proper story to tell?

It seems like comic fans are aware of differences in tone and types of stories among different superhero franchises, but Hollywood keeps boiling down the main distinction to Powers and Costumes. So at its worst, the superhero movie trend focuses on Icons rather than Stories, which kind of reinforces negative assumptions about what comics are and do in the first place. Flat out, none of the Fantastic Four movies have come up with anything distinctive for these characters to actually do.

August 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I was never going to see this theatrically, as this version sounded like a disaster in the making to me from day one. Mind you, I liked Chronicle a lot, but as a 60-year-old Marvelite, I have a deep and abiding love for the original Lee/Kirby FF.

As I said back in 2005 when the Tim Story film managed to get A FEW aspects of the FF right despite being mostly lousy, the Fantastic Four are literally the first family of Marvel, the origin point for all of Silver Age Marvel. This story deserves RESPECT and careful treatment. I believed then - and I believe now - that the best way to handle it would be as a Kennedy-era period piece, from somebody who can really bring the wonder: Spielberg or Cameron, maybe.

Of course, Marvel Studios would do a much better job, as they've mostly shown real inspiration in the casting and writing/directing of their films. They have shown with Thor and Guardians that they can go outside the mainstream comics ideas and handle more difficult characters and themes. (That they managed to make Thor and its mythic/magical stuff as vagugely believable as the pseudo-science of Iron Man and Captain America is no small achievement.) And of course, they've hewed to the understanding that the original stories/characters of classic comics have WORKED for decades and should be retained as much as possible.

Anyway, maybe the great FF film will be made someday - I have no doubt there will be more attempts. These characters are beloved for very good reasons.

August 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Doctor Strange: Yeah, I like Chronicle, but this director makes little to no sense for this material. It'd be like hiring Mel Gibson for Squirrel Girl.

August 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Flattening everything to a single mood. Perfectly said sir.

August 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Zitzelman

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