Review: Fantastic Four desperately doesn't want to be a superhero movie

Director Josh Trank drains the life out of Marvel's First Family

How do you solve a problem like the Fantastic Four? Created back in 1961, Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing were Marvel Comic’s first great superhero team, predating the Avengers by two whole years. They’re the foundation, paving the way for icons like Spider-Man and the X-Men in pop culture. So it’s incredible that, despite the series’ pedigree, there has never, ever been a good Fantastic Four movie. One completed in 1994 never saw theatrical release. Two more in the mid-2000s were both critical failures.

In 2015, Marvel’s “First Family” is ready to try again. Director Josh Trank takes the team in a new direction for the big screen this year, offering up a darker origin story that’s more mad-science-gone-wrong thriller than comic book blockbuster. Trank already managed a subtle but effective deconstruction of the superhero genre with Chronicle in 2012 by grounding his characters in the ordinary, so when he took the reins for Fantastic Four, it was easy to assume his approach would breathe new life into the franchise. But stepping out of the shadow of the past has been difficult, and the film’s troubled production, hampered by reshoots and marketing problems, has been well documented. Despite all the heartache, does Fantastic Four finally succeed where others have failed?

A franchise with a troubled past

I wish I could say it does. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of its cast, Fantastic Four fails to come together because Trank seems so unwilling to make anything resembling a Marvel superhero movie. And that would be fine, if not for the fact that it’s not very clear what he does want to make.

The movie begins in on Long Island in 2007, where a grade school-aged Reed Richards shares with his class his dream of being the first person to master teleportation. It’s a quiet scene that introduces us to Reed’s world and his ambitions, and we learn quickly that he’s uniquely gifted. He and his best friend Ben Grimm actually manage to build that teleporter out of spare parts in his garage, and when they manage to actually teleport a toy car, an aghast Ben says, "Reed, you’re insane." It’s then that we realize that this Richards boy is both a genius and potentially dangerous.

This, then, is Reed’s movie more than any other character’s, and that’s Fantastic Four’s first problem. Fast forward to the present day, and Reed (now played by Miles Teller) is still working on perfecting that teleporter with Ben (Jamie Bell). He’s still a genius. He still wants to change the world. And, on his own, he’s not especially interesting. The movie gives him a personality only as it relates to his being a solitary intellectual devoted to bettering mankind, without offering much depth beyond that. It even goes out of its way to liken him to Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, but we never see him reach for Nemo’s intensity. Teller does manage to bring some quirky, affable charm to the role, but there’s a drabness about the character that Teller never overcomes.

That same drabness pervades much of the movie. After Reed and Ben meet Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue Storm (Kate Mara) at a high school demonstration of their teleporter, the pair are invited to continue their work at the Baxter Foundation, a government-sponsored think tank. From there, a lengthy portion of the movie is spent within Baxter’s monotonous bluish-gray interior, introducing the remaining core characters and pointing them toward the fateful accident that gives them their fantastic powers. There’s Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), Dr. Storm’s hothead son who loves fast cars. Then there’s Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a rebellious hacker with a superiority complex who also managed to create a teleporter but fell short of Reed’s breakthrough. And from there, Trank proceeds to trap them inside to stare at computers and build equipment for what feels like half the movie.

Reed Richards

In spite of that, though, the actors’ performances and chemistry actually make the film somewhat engaging, especially where Jordan and Kebbell are concerned. Reed has an easy rapport with Ben, and develops a funny, "I’m the nerd of the group" relationship with the Storm siblings. Meanwhile, he, Victor, and Sue fall into the kind of love triangle that’s never overt but instead simmers beneath the surface. Even though every character is just as underwritten as Reed is — they each want to do cool things for mostly vague, undefined reasons — the real fireworks happen in the character moments, and that’s the most welcome improvement from the more cartoonish portrayals of previous outings.

There is one singularly great scene in Fantastic Four, shortly after the defining accident, in which we see each of the characters completely transformed: Reed’s body stretches; Johnny is on fire; Sue is phasing in and out of visibility; and poor Ben is a rock monster, crying out for help. It’s genuinely startling, its grotesqueness approaching body horror. At that point, even after all the table setting, it seems as if the film is finally ready to take off.

Instead, the cast retreats back to yet another research facility, this time to figure out how to reverse the effects of the accident. And from that point on it’s clear that Trank’s not out to convey any sense of joy or wonder. It turns out that main element he decided to port in from Chronicle was that film’s organic sensibility, which comes off as dull and sullen in this context. He puts smart people in a room with a common goal and lets them make things. And when things go wrong, he forces them to try to unmake them. There’s action, sure. The Thing throws a tank and the Human Torch throws fireballs. But many of these scenes are brief or shot from a distance. Trank clearly wants us to care more about the people than their powers. They’ve all gone through a traumatic experience, and being a hero is hard. But in a Marvel superhero movie reboot, where the mythology is established and a certain amount of spectacle is expected, steering in the opposite direction winds up crippling the entire enterprise. Where a Cronenberg film could afford to take a slow-burn tack, taking that approach with a Marvel movie drains the fun right out of things.

Johnny Storm

After all this build up, the finale should be a welcome reprieve. Victor, now super-powerful and calling himself Doom, returns and sets out to destroy Earth. The Fantastic Four must suddenly band together to save the world. The oddest thing about all this is that, for a movie that took so much time getting to the superheroics, the final battle feels rushed, maybe even studio-mandated. Punches are thrown, the Thing shouts, "It’s clobberin’ time!" and Doom is defeated. It starts and ends so quickly, and is so out of step with all the development that came before it that one wonders if Trank was even behind the camera for the scene. Reed isn’t the deliberate man of science we’ve been watching for hours. He’s suddenly someone who can stretch to dodge flying debris and energy blasts. It makes so little sense that you’re left asking what happened? As in what happened to this movie that had so much potential?

2015's Fantastic Four is ultimately lifeless

There’s a moment in 2005’s Fantastic Four that, in hindsight, exemplifies this reboot’s core problem. There’s a scene where a pre-Captain America Chris Evans rides his motorcycle over a ramp for a live crowd. He transforms into the Human Torch mid-jump, melting his gear in the process. But when he reveals his Fantastic Four outfit, the crowd goes wild. It’s a fun scene, and that kind of fun is completely missing in this year’s version. That first film is still a bad movie, but 2015’s Fantastic Four is lifeless, and that somehow hurts more. Trank had an interesting conceit, but that conceit would have worked much better in a different movie. Here, it falls completely flat. Marvel’s First Family deserves better.

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