The name Fantastic Four suggests a certain joie de vivre, a delight in its own comic book silliness. When Marvel’s first family were translated to the big screen by Tim Story in 2005, and again for a 2007 sequel, that lightness of touch unfortunately slipped into kitschy smugness, with the excessive focus on camp humour sucking the characters dry of believeable humanity. As oversaturated as the blockbuster movie scene has become with reboots and reimaginings, Fantastic Four presented a worthwhile opportunity for Fox to do right by the characters with the same balance of wit and sincerity which made Joss Whedon’s first attempt at The Avengers such a rousing success.
Unfortunately, the studio decided that rather than going for a balanced approach, they would instead push to the opposite extreme, banishing all joy and warmth in favour of something closer in tone to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. It doesn’t take much of a comic book fan to point out that Batman and Fantastic Four couldn’t really have much less in common, unless one were to look back to the Bat’s loopy silver age incarnation at a stretch (no pun intended, Mister Fantastic). Consequently, this latest Fantastic Four is a movie perpetually at war with itself, unable to reconcile the fun suggested by its title and its characters with the miserable tone the writers inflict upon them.
Director: Josh Trank
Release Date: August 7th, 2015
The movie is an origin story to the extent that few movies have been origin stories before. Tim Story’s 2005 version pushed through the core character dynamics and roots of the Four’s powers in about twenty minutes before starting towards the main smackdown with Doctor Doom. Trank’s version dedicates virtually the entire movie to setting the stage for how the characters get their powers and eventually come to terms with them, leaving the ultimate showdown – more or less the only real action sequence – squished into what amounts to little more than ten minutes at the end. In fact, Toby Kebbell’s Victor probably gets no more than fifteen minutes’ total screentime, with his introduction every bit as rushed as his exit. Considering Doom is supposed to be one of Marvel’s most fearsome and complex villains, we’re offered little sense of the character beyond a dash of petulance and hints at unrequited feelings for Kate Mara’s Sue. Of such meagre ingredients are great supervillains not made.
What we’re left with for the remaining 80-odd minutes is a tedious and mostly plotless trawl through a series of events telegraphed so blatantly that even those not spoilt by the trailer or arriving with any knowledge of the comics will have a clear idea where it’s heading. It might have worked as a character piece had the characters been given any greater definition than the cursory outlines on show. Reed Richards is the clever one. Johnny Storm is, boom boom, the hotheaded rebel. Sue is, um, a less brilliant version of Reed, with a weird fascination with musical patterns that exists for no other reason than to give her a single, lazily-written scene she can call her own around the midpoint. Ben is Reed’s best friend and a bit angsty. Only Reed and Ben give off the faintest sense of humanity, mostly because the movie gives their friendship a little backstory. As for Reed and Sue, they spend what little time they have together making snide comments and being annoyed with each other… so maybe a perfect set-up for a married couple after all.
The script offers nothing to the reasonably talented cast, who flounder trying to create any semblance of chemistry. This is in no small part down to them spending so little time together as a foursome, to the extent that there’s little reason to believe Ben has even met Sue until the very end. The familial relationship between the Four is often cited as what makes their superhero team different from others, yet the movie goes to great lengths to keep them apart. Ben departs the story once Reed joins the Baxter foundation, only returning when Reed drunk dials him (not joking) to come along with him, Johnny and Victor on an unsanctioned first journey in their pan-dimensional travel machine, leaving Sue behind. When they return, Victor abandoned, the four are segregated all the way through to the climax, at which point Reed starts talking about the importance of working together even though, as far as viewers are concerned, it seems as though they barely know each other.
The first half of the movie is significantly better than the second – a glimpse of an N64 controller is maybe the highlight of the entire thing – at least feeling as though it is building towards something even if it’s patently obvious what that something is. Everything thereafter descends into a disorganised shambles, hitting one or two solid grace notes – an emphasis on the horror of each character’s condition is well-played, and Doom’s first demonstration of his vaguely defined powers is appreciably nasty, even if the movie has to subsequently forget them to stop him winning too easily – but otherwise spending a lot of time on entirely disposable training montages and grumbles about distrustful governments before hurrying the finale. The CGI is uniformly abysmal, particularly when it comes to Johnny’s weightless human torch mode (which seems to cast little to no light or heat in several instances), Doom’s melted action figure excuse for a face mask and the Thing, trouserless and dickless throughout, barely matching his mouth movements to his speech.
Its present 9% score on Rotten Tomatoes, lower than Jonah Hex, The Spirit and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, puts it among company whose badness is at least interesting, whereas Fantastic Four is merely dull, disjointed and dispiriting. Production troubles may have taken their toll, but it’s hard to credit director Josh Trank’s claim that his first cut was ‘fantastic’ when there’s so little here that even hints at competence. It’s a movie which roots the Thing’s catchphrase in childhood abuse suffered at the hands of his older brother, which should tell you all you need to know. Fantastic Four is a series of compounding misjudgments, resulting in a movie ashamed of its own identity and straining to capture a zeitgeist long since passed. At least half the title is honest. It may not be fantastic, but is a 4/10 movie through and through.