Hey! If you haven’t heard: Fantastic Four isn’t that, erhm, fantastic.
Neither is it good. Or bad. It’s the absence of those grades. It’s a dissertation on nothingness. A long, semi-pleasant look into the void. And the abyss stares back too, but with an apathy that I almost have to respect. This is the Hollywood version of a coloring book.
You can consider the swarm of poor reviews the proverbial cherry on top of a very odd and much maligned milkshake. From the first announcement of Josh Trank’s appointment as director the movie suffered from a steady acclimation of strange tidbits and quotes, pieces of (mis)information that at times seemed hoax-like.
Where to start? The choice of Trank is the natural beginning (if we ignore happenings in 1961 and 2005, which we will, for now). After the surprising and profitable Chronicle, his debut feature, the choice of Trank both seemed peculiar and also encouraging, an indication FOX was willing to take chances with a important, dormant franchise. Soon after, Trank casted Chronicle breakout star Michael B. Jordan in the role of Johnny Storm and the move drew ire from the fanbase. The outcry centered on the race swap of the character, a reaction perpetuated by two sects, dumb racists, and foolish soldiers of comic book continuity.
In quick succession the rest of the roles filled in. Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, (the white) Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Toby Kabbell as Victor Von Doom. It was obvious the studio/director vision of the movie was to lean very young and with the found-footage, coming-of-age Chronicle representing his entire filmography it was quickly speculated, even near-confirmed, that Trask was basically making the same movie except with Marvel’s First Family.
More troublesome quirks followed. Mara revealed that the cast was discouraged from reading the comic books in order to approach the characters from a fresh perspective. Teller cocksurely detailed that he was the one and only choice for Mr. Fantastic, that is, no one else auditioned. A news story hinted that Kebbell played a computer hacker with a Doom-ish surname, a report that the actor firmly refuted in an interview. Jordan penned an open letter for EW commenting on the backlash in regard his casting and stating that the Fantastic Four was “a family movie about four friends”. Within a day of the movie’s release Trank distanced himself from the negative reviews by implying heavy studio influence, and subsequent reports have heavily hinted at burdensome meddling by FOX.
These pellets of information often had me thinking the cast and director were instructed to misinform the press in order to keep the film’s secrets secret. After the successes of Marvel Studios, after the pretty decent The Wolverine and Days of Future Past, how could any of this stuff be true? The blueprint for a quality superhero movie has been lain. What was FOX, et all, thinking?
I’m here to report I still have no goddamn clue what they were thinking.
Fantastic Four is one of the most unique superheroes movies to date. It’s a flavorless effort made to satisfy on a base level and offend few. It takes liberties with the source material and also tries to abide by it, an honorable mix of ambitious and afraid.
It begins by examining the origin of Reed Richards and Ben Grimm bromance, an elementary school partnership that sprouts when the young scientist successfully teleports a Matchbox car to another dimension. Flash forward nearly a decade and Reed and Ben have improved the invention and submit it to the high school science fair, the occasion for an introduction to Dr. Franklin Storm and his adoptive daughter Sue. The doctor quickly recruits the young brain and no one questions why a mind of Reed’s caliber apparently doesn’t understand his invention is a watershed moment in physics and deserving of award ceremonies outside of a gymnasium. It’s also not really addressed why Dr. Storm is there openly recruiting employees for his teleportation project. That’s OK though because it sets a trend of this movie not giving a flying fuck about any type of follow-up.
Jamie Bell is dismissed at this point, back to his junkyard home, never really delivering any type of memorable line or indicating the utility of the Ben Grimm character. He’s replaced with Johnny Storm, a tumultuous mechanic who works on the teleportation project to appease his dad. Von Doom is thrown into the mix, a glib genius with a thing for Sue. He’s not a hacker but he’s got a cool computer setup.
From there the movie kind of fondles itself, attempting to build the relationships between the characters as the shadow of tragedy looms. When the team of inventors are told their promising project will be shipped to a government agency Reed, Victor and Johnny get drunk and decide to use the machine to travel to the other dimension, you know, in the glory of discovery or something. Now if you’ve ever seen The Fly you know Jeff Goldblum got all slimy and scaly by mixing alcohol with self-experimentation. You do not fuck with science.
They bring Ben Grimm along for whatever reason, and that’s works well because he was just laying around in bed fully dressed, so Ever-lovin’ Blue Eyes was all set to go, apparently. The trip quickly spirals into a disaster scenario, and powers are promptly bestowed on Reed, Ben and Johnny after Victor is lost to some volatile green lava. It’s actually a pretty gnarly scene, intense, fatal, and in some spots horrific (you know, for the families!). It has added impact because it’s the first action sequence and embedded deep in the second act, so it kind of shocks you out of the malaise.
Maybe it’s a compliment the movie decided to leave Sue back at home base for this scene. The implication being that she wouldn’t get buzzed and elope to other dimensions like her colleagues. She receives her powers by being kind of close to the explosion caused by the other three returning and it’s important not to think too much about that because you have things to do and I’ve already wasted your time. All four are immediately imprisoned/prodded, by the military (because of course they are) then Reed escapes.
Then the story jumps a year. It jumps a year!
It’s a move designed to accelerate the plot, and by showing that Ben is a loyal solider and that Johnny and Sue can adequately wield their powers it spares us some of the growing pain scenes. I appreciate that because the whole first act was just that. Update the idiom. “Too little, four late”
I present you King Kirby genius paired with Stan the Man brilliance.
That’s how quick it takes to get give the Fantastic Four powers. Their origin, though novel and lasting, is not the fantastic part of their appeal. The franchise is built on so much more than this page, or the content of Fantastic Four #1, or hell, even everything in the first one hundred issues. Fantastic Four has an aggregate greatness to it, and this movie pulls from none of it, keeping the entire scope inside a science lab, a military complex and a ghostly CGI wasteland called Planet Zero (because Negative Zone would have been too risky for the everyman).
The rest of the movie toys with the idea that the characters are heroes. The highlight might be a scene where Johnny speaks to his dad about willingly going on missions due to an underlying sense of duty. Per his fatherly charge Franklin dissents. He doesn’t have to worry about Sue though, she don’t give a roach’s ass about helping the government. Sue was cool in this. I liked Sue.
Reed’s return provides the best action scene in the movie, and it reboots the plot. A trip to the Planet Zero side prompts the return of Victor who is, holy crapballs!, melted to his containment suit and imbued with great power. Doom quickly works to eviscerate Earth in a dual quest to enact revenge and protect Planet Zero from humanity.
Armed with Phoenix-level telekinesis Doom explodes heads and acts out Darth Vader fan-fiction. He tears through everything and creates a black hole that the Fantastic Four must stop. In the ultimate scene Reed and the rest devise a plan to thwart Doom by employing a succession of hijinks that I’m still working out in my head.
In the denouement the quartet recover from their adventure, negotiate their autonomy, and finish out the joint by standing around laughing about being a team.
Let me show you something.
Three panels. It took Stan Lee and Jack Kirby three panels to go from,” we have powers” to “things will be different” to “let’s be good people ’bout it”.
That worked in 1961 because readers already knew characters with powers were either good or bad; superheroism was a given, a part of a social contract with the audience. In fact the origin in Fantastic Four #1 is told as a flashback, the team is already formed and called to action by first page. The same social contract exists today with the world movie audience.
The movie Reed, Ben, Sue and Johnny don’t really pick a side or a stance, they wallow in their various situations for a year. Brooding Ben Grimm punching regular human beings in the face, Sue floating around working on her craft, Johnny eager to be a stooge for the system. I’d say Reed has a redemptive arc but an arc needs to have an end point, right? There are hints of interesting qualities crammed somewhere in these characters, but the script and/or editing refuses to reveal them.
More importantly, there are only faint sinews of familial connections. The strongest by far is the Reed/Ben friendship, but the movies most significant romance is Doom/Sue, which is ugly because Doom’s motivation has rarely, if ever, been Sue’s heart (OK, yeah , Secret Wars, but that’s more about Doom wanting to be Reed) .
No other bonds are formed, it’s fairly egregious. Sue and Johnny don’t act like brother and sister, more like workplace associates. Ben and Johnny don’t have an interaction until one final line at the end, their infamous affectionate rivalry left merely a hint. Reed and Sue seem to be into each other but not enough to drop the pretenses. The core essence of the family concept is omitted by the writers or director or producers or studio. These people are supposed to love each other, annoyingly so, and the only thing that gets in the way of that are freakish aliens, insect armies, underground folk and sea royalty trying to steal your girl.
What’s really rough is the acting is not atrocious, not in the least. First, this a beautiful cast, OMG, so many babes. Kate Mara, yeah sure, but Toby Kebbell too. He makes the tragedy of Doom’s face melting off feel so real.
Reg E. Cathey as Franklin Storm steals the show, a surprisingly crucial presence in the film and a great character for Reed, Sue, Victor and Johnny to bounce off of. I’ll admit I was an annoyed (non-vocal) fan of the mixed race Sue/Johnny dynamic, the whole adoption thing just felt unnecessary, possibly problematic. Make the Storms any race, just the same one. However, the film handled it well, and Cathey’s participation made it a strong point.
Of course Michael B. Jordan’s performance will be discounted by the vapidity of which it is housed. He plays an angrier Human Torch, a neat change from the jovial Chris Evans version. Johnny is in no way a terribly complex character in the comics, so it’s not as if he had a huge task, but nonetheless, Jordan did as well as anyone.
Mara was more than fine as the strong-headed and scrupulous Sue, and Teller was adequate, charming even, despite Reed acting a little too sleepy about the whole thing.
Bell and Kebbell share a similar dilemma, their CGI forms are far more interesting than their human selves. The Thing’s journey is the most complete and comic-accurate thread of the whole damn endeavor. The diminutive Jamie Bell doesn’t excel at a human Grimm but his voice acting portrayed a good bit of what fans love about one of comic’s best creatures.
Of course, of course, Dr. Doom is a problem. The character is a monolith. Fabulously layered and a giant part of the appeal of the Fantastic Four. What can I say? Did Trank and co. deliver a perfect Doom? No. Hell no. Was it better than the last iteration? By parsecs. I was giddy when he ‘sploded Tim Blake Nelson.
Naturally, the Thing’s computer animated body is the centerpiece of the scenery. He’s awesome, towering and melancholy, and, generally, the big four’s powers are fun to look at. Still, the execution on the special FX end of things is unspectacular, yet serviceable. The dark aesthetic has been noted as one of the prime indicators of a big directional mishap. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, Jonathan Hickman had a frequently shadowy run as depicted by Steve Epting , Sean Chen and Dave Eaglesham, Paul Mounts and more.
Dark can work, this is merely dim. The rumblings regarding the movie’s inspirations were rumored to be borrowed from the Ultimate version of the Fantastic Four. That seems true in a very loose sense, the only real tonal ingenuity is a touch of modernization and a harder sci-fi feel. Elements like the teleportation origin and Dr. Storm’s presence are there but any energy that was contained in the 2004 comic fails to show up on the reel. Frankly, Ultimate Fantastic Four was never a much-lauded work, and if it had any merit it’s because it really asserted itself in subsequent volumes. It’s not exactly a vital story to draw from, at least not in the way of Ultimate Spider-Man and The Ultimates. I will say this, Miles Teller would make an unbelievable Maker.
The natural bouncy of the FF brand never really forms. The 2005 Fantastic Four had lightheartedness in spades and this project countered that by emphasizing the adventurer, high-danger aspect. I liked that gist, I craved it actually, so this wasn’t all bad.
Fantastic Four is a wonky movie, and what surprises me the most is that it appalls as much as it impresses. Maybe it was that early string of nasty media or the wave of reviews proclaiming flaccidity but I went in expecting little and I came out feeling the same.
The movie doesn’t disrespect the Fantastic Four, it just horribly adapts it. Vanilla is not applicable. That’s dessert, this is air. Better luck next time, FOX, and I truly mean that.