Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Josh Trank
Written by:
Screenplay by Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg & Josh Trank. Based on the Marvel Comics characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.
Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan
Length:   100 minutes
Released:   080715
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and language
“...the movie as a whole seems like the unhappy marriage of competing agendas."

“Fantastic Four” is so sharply divided against itself that you can hardly believe its two halves belong to the same film. The first, superior half is what you want from a “Fantastic Four” film: more than any other superhero team, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s quartet is all about family, so it follows that Josh Trank’s reboot starts with the relationships between its heroes long before they suit up. In stretching back to 2007, when Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are a couple of fifth graders attempting to crack teleportation while toiling in a basement, it understands that this group has always been a bit of an odd family brought together by strange circumstances. Reed’s an awkward science geek, misunderstood and ridiculed by parents, teachers, and classmates, yet he shares an outcast’s bond with Ben, a roughneck kid raised in the shadow of a salvage yard.

Even with only a handful of scenes and a 7-year leap in time, an appreciable commitment to relationships comes into focus. As high school seniors, Reed (Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) still fail to impress judges but catch the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathy), who immediately offers Reed a scholarship and entry into the Baxter research program. His triumph comes with a twinge of sadness: while he moves to a high rise dorm room in the Baxter Building, Ben is left stranded in the neighborhood, unable to continue the journey started years ago.

A sense of exploration and discovery straight from comics guides the stretch where Reed teams up with Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and smoldering wunderkind Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to perfect inter-dimensional travel. Trank (along with co-writers Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg) operate with a keen understanding that this group is more than a collection than super-powered individuals, so their origin story is pitched to intimate, personal stakes.

Framed as a tale of millennia's attempting to right the wrongs of previous generations and of scientists fending off the overtures of shady government interlopers, “Fantastic Four” feels like a calculated attempt to separate itself from the superhero tableaux. Where most stretch across wide, digital canvases, Trank’s nestles in the cluttered interiors of libraries and laboratories, intently focused on characters from disparate backgrounds banding together to become explorers of a new, cosmic frontier (sadly dubbed Planet Zero rather than the Negative Zone, but it has a cool sort of low-budget, retro sci-fi artificiality to it all the same). They want to make a difference, sure, but they also don’t want to become footnotes in history, much like the anonymous scientists who toiled away on the technology that sent more famous men to the moon.It’s with this in mind that the guys (Sue is sadly, infuriatingly sidelined) take matters into their own hands. At the urging Doom and aided by liquid courage, they hijack their own machine, travel to Planet Zero, and encounter an accident that leaves the survivors afflicted with strange physical gifts—or deformities, really. Doom is presumed dead.

The story is a familiar one for fans of the source material, if only vaguely so. Trank has truly taken the skeletal outline of the lore and considered it more of a suggestion than scripture and molded into the sort of superhero picture that feels anachronistic in the wake of Marvel Studio’s four-color, four-quadrant reign: it’s grounded, draped in shadows, and a little unsure about embracing the silliness of the comics (there’s an off-hand joke about Reed inventing a flying car), almost as if the “grim and gritty reboot” algorithm gained sentience and spit out its platonic ideal.

But the soul of The Fantastic Four rests somewhere beneath the outward doom and gloom, scattered about in small moments between characters, like the awkward, introductory chatter between Sue and Reed, or the barely concealed antagonism developing between Victor and his future nemesis. You need these moments, even if they’re sparsely deployed, almost obligatory outline points to keep the plot functioning. Either an underwritten script or an overly-hacked edit tasks the actors with picking up the slack and imbuing the film with life via sheer chemistry, an approach that actually works in spite of itself.

As unfamiliar as the surroundings are, these characters are recognizable as The Fantastic Four. Teller’s Reed doesn’t have the square-jawed wisdom that comes with a streak of grey hair, but you sense Richards’s perseverance and sense of responsibility, particularly when disaster strikes for his friends. Everyone surrounding Reed registers on a scale of “I wish we could see more of this guy” to “holy crap, are they taking the Invisible Woman nickname literally for Kate Mara?” Jordan, Bell, and Kebbell veer to the left of this scale in that they at least have a presence that dissipates more or less in that order as the film progresses.

There’s a faint subplot for each, with Johnny Storm’s standoffish relationship with his father proving to be the meatiest (which is to say the meat is barely dangling off of visible bones, a shame since Cathy's paternalism is the true heart here). In only a few short years, Jordan has developed a magnetism that serves this film well. Introduced during a reckless street race, his Johnny Storm is only a bit of a hothead; more obvious—and relevant—is his compassion and a sense of justice. A scene where he and Reed reunite after being estranged is small but resonates as one of the purest Fantastic Four moments in the film. In a movie that often finds itself in need of a spark, Jordan is there to provide it, at least when it will have him.
Bell is perhaps the most interesting and unexpected casting choice as Ben. Lacking the physicality usually associated with Grimm, Bell nonetheless has a coiled energy lurking beneath a loyal, almost unassuming veneer. Grimm’s relationship with Reed is an entry point for the film that’s unfortunately stranded once things begin to crumble, which is sort of the recurring theme for all of the characters.

This is especially true of Mara’s Sue Storm, whose superpower is to remain sidelined until someone needs her to track someone down or, quite literally, act as a transport. Given how otherwise committed this film is to developing relationships, this is a ghastly treatment for the lone woman of note. At one point—and exactly one point since it’s never mentioned again—she becomes an object that possessive ex-boyfriend Doom feels has slipped away from him and into Reed’s hands. This movie often feels so much better than that.

Besides Sue, Kessell’s Doom is the embodiment of an ultimately distracted script’s tendency to divert and forget about what it’s set up. In the tradition, this Doom is a bit of a pariah, albeit one who hasn’t quite graduated to naming himself God Emperor Doom, nor has his installed himself as the ruler of an Eastern European nation. But he does have the sort of smarm and contempt that leads you to believe he’ll get there someday; the problem here is that the film expects him to shoot straight there before its credits roll.

Above all else, this truncation stifles Trank’s small-scale, character based approach, which is scrapped shortly after the four reemerge with their new abilities. Depicting their transformation in Cronenbergian, body horror terms plays like a the last gasp of an original vision, as the imagery here—while jarring for a film carrying the word “fantastic” in the title—is an uneasy, weird take on this property. Faithfulness feels like an unnecessary virtue when the departures are this intriguing, particularly since this turn remains grounded to the same, personal stakes. Watching these young kids suddenly get stranded in one of those early, conspiratorial Cronenberg movies where men in suits loom ominously is staggering in a way these movies rarely dare to be.

Which is why it’s so galling that the film takes a nosedive so pronounced that it almost feels like intentional sabotage. Little from the text itself—though there is plenty of extra-textual hearsay surrounding the film’s production—explains its decision to skip out on its second act and all but forget who its true villain is. From the outset, it’s clear that the government cadre is the true antagonist here, one that’s always lurking and threatening to co-opt Franklin Storm’s humanitarian endeavors for military purposes. After a rushed transition, they make good on that promise, only to have the script completely, utterly cop out. It’s evident that someone had little confidence in having the Fantastic Four face off with such a nebulous, almost faceless foe (Tim Blake Nelson features as the head honcho in a couple of scenes), so it summons a maniacal Doom as the worst sort of deus-ex-machina.

Only a shot of Doom gliding through the facility and exploding everyone’s heads feels like it remotely fits what came before. Suddenly, a film that was doing everything it could to avoid typical superhero trappings free falls right into them, like a wounded duck trying to stay afloat. Imagine a car that hums along well enough despite hitting some potholes but suddenly bursts into flames, trapping and suffocating some valuables within. “Fantastic Four” has plenty of worthwhile material (its cast chief among it), but is it even worth sifting through the wreckage and attempting to recover it? Can a film truly be that disastrous if you feel like it needs more footage? Nobody can guarantee that this would salvage “Fantastic Four,” but it doesn’t feel like a leap to suggest that it feels incomplete and underwhelming as is. Given how absorbing its first half is, the final product even qualifies as a disappointment. I’m reminded of “The Wolverine,” another superhero movie that spent most of its running time defying genre conventions only to relent to them.

There is little solace in declaring this the best version of “Fantastic Four” to hit the screen, as it comes on the heels of previous attempts that range from disastrous to mediocre. Trank’s attempt has to settle for mediocrity too; what’s frustrating is that it really doesn’t settle there so much as it’s jerked there, its wings clipped after it dared to fly too close to the sun--or, perhaps, because it refused to. Those who are able to divorce Fantastic Four from the source material may be more forgiving than long-time aficionados of one of Marvel's oldest series. As a superhero movie, it falls into the "adequate" range of the spectrum - neither memorable nor forgettable. There are hints of a more compelling story but they are never developed and the movie as a whole seems like the unhappy marriage of competing agendas. Yet as failures go, this goes into the interesting category.

FANTASTIC FOUR © 2015 20th Century Fox
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2015 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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