Sorry, True Believers, but it looks like 20th Century Fox has done it to the “First Family of Comics” once again.
Their latest effort to bring Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby’s first superhero team to the big screen, simply entitled Fantastic Four, is an uneven, joyless exercise in science fiction film, a misguided attempt by director Josh Trank (Chronicle) to take the Christopher Nolan/Dark Knight approach to superhero film making, which means essentially stripping the property of the qualities that make it “superheroic.” Add that highly incongruous tone to very poor pacing and editing that leads to main and supporting characters’ individual story arcs feeling unresolved and the film’s effects-laden action feeling rushed and obligatory, and you have a film that, while not all bad, shouldn’t fail to disappoint just about everyone, no matter how low your expectations might have been going in.
Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Whiplash) plays Reed Richards, who in the fifth grade builds a machine in his family’s garage that he believes is capable of teleporting objects from one location on the planet to another. With the help of his classmate and best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Reed perfects his design over the next seven years, until his work draws the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), the head of an R&D think tank comprised of young geniuses working to find and perfect real-world applications for their innovations. Dr. Storm adds Reed to a group that includes his adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara), his rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), a one-time protegé of Storm’s whose intellect is outstripped only by his arrogance and pessimism regarding the people funding their work and how it will be applied.
Together, the four construct a machine capable of far more than what Reed had originally conceived, a device capable of transporting objects and people not just to another place on Earth, but to an world in another dimension entirely. An unsanctioned trip into that other dimension leads to one member of the team seemingly lost and the rest radically altered and given powers they initially can barely control. Guilt-ridden for his role in the journey and its results, Reed undertakes to make things right, but confinement, Dr. Storm’s bosses and the U.S. military minds interested in potentially utilizing the group’s abilities for nefarious ends around the world all stand in his way. It will take the help of those who’ve been affected most negatively by his ambitions as well as all his intellect to get them to the only place where a cure for their condition might exist, the planet where the energies that affected them came from. And once they get there, they’ll face an even greater foe, one born from the evils of Earth and the primordial power of the alien world itself.
The folks at 20th Century Fox’s last two attempts to bring the familiar heroes and villains of the FF comics to the big screen, 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2007’s Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, while financially successful, were each regarded poorly by critics and as mediocre properties at best by audiences when compared to the more successful superhero films of the time, the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films and the early X-Men films. Whether you liked or disliked those earlier Fantastic Four movies, its hard to argue that the film makers and performers involved tried to present a modern take on the FF while honoring the well-known personalities and relationships of each of the characters to one another, as well as the high-flying, sci-fi adventure tone of the Lee/Kirby comics. They were lighter in mood and campier in execution on purpose, and while that approach didn’t lead to overwhelming box office success or enthusiastic acceptance by critics and audiences, it at least lead to end products that were recognizable as the Marvel properties they purported to be. In fact, the performances delivered by Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/The Thing and a young Chris Evans as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch were often cited as the best features of those films because they so capably distilled the essence of the comic book characters that inspired them.
In the new film, however, it often feels as though Trank and fellow screenwriters Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg (X-Men: The Last Stand, X:Men: Days of Future Past) went out of their way avoid including anything remotely resembling the 60’s-inspired campy space adventure tone of the comics in order to produce a more grounded film that might potentially resonate with more than just hardcore comic book fans. They choose to build the film around the character of Reed, building into him the same sense of pioneering ambition that fueled characters in other “harder” science fiction films such as Contact and Interstellar, an ambition that, while well-meaning, can lead to naiveté in regards to dealing with actual living, breathing people and taking dangerous risks in the name of progress. To bring their version of Reed to life, they cast Teller, a bright and compelling performer whose work in Whiplash last year especially put him on the “keep an eye on” list of young and promising Hollywood talent, and tasked him with carrying the film.
The problem here isn’t necessarily Teller, although he certainly doesn’t deliver his best work — in fact, in the film’s second half his take on Reed is downright wooden and flat. The problem is that Reed, for all that genius and soaring ambition, never has been and never will be the most interesting or compelling character in the Fantastic Four. Depending on who you ask, that character is either wise-cracking, exuberant Johnny Storm or the ever lovin’, cigar-chompin’, Jimmy Durante-sounding Ben Grimm, whose battle cry “It’s Clobberin’ Time” is easily one of the most iconic in comics history. These are the characters that bring the “fun” to Fantastic Four, and they’re the characters that get the shortest shrift from this film’s screenplay in terms of development. Trank and company seem to set up interesting character arcs for them in the early going — Johnny’s troubled relationship with Daddy Storm and Ben’s rage at Reed for his physical transformation — but those plot threads are quickly dropped once the film awkwardly attempts to shift into superhero action mode in its third act to try to pay off almost 90 minutes of exposition and set-up. The clunky transition reeks of hands other than Trank’s involved in the film’s final cut, but regardless of who really is at fault, it simply doesn’t work.
And then there’s the aforementioned problem of tone. Truthfully, had Trank and company been simply making a science fiction film about four young geniuses whose invention transports them to another world and who find themselves struggling to cope with how the journey changed them, tone probably would not have been a problem at all (although being accused of simply remaking Chronicle might have been). But when that film happens to be titled “Fantastic Four”, and those four young people are, in fact, iconic superheroes associated with over 50 years of beloved comic book history and the expectations that come with them, then taking the “re-invention” approach with deliberate disregard for the source material is quite possibly the most foolhardy of approaches. Put simply, it’s an approach proves to be incompatible with the basic spirit of adventure and fun that characterizes what the Fantastic Four is all about.
Is it all bad? No. Is it the worst superhero film you’ll ever see? Certainly not, especially if you haven’t treated yourself to Roger Corman’s 90’s attempt at the FF, or more recent superhero travesties like Catwoman and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Once you’ve endured those, you’ll know what the bottom of the barrel truly is, and you’ll see that this film certainly isn’t anywhere near that.
No, this is more akin to how Warner Bros. botched Green Lantern years ago — a flawed concept and script put in the hands of a director with no sense or feel for the superhero genre’s tone and how to balance humor and escapist fun with character depth and drama. Most likely, it will end up being regarded much the same way as Green Lantern, too — a cautionary tale for studios planning big-budget sci-fi superhero films and a pop culture punchline for fans and even performers. After all, Ryan Reynolds got to make fun of his time wearing the green power ring in his upcoming Deadpool film.
Maybe Miles Teller will have that chance years down the road, too.
Starring Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, and Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Josh Trank.
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and language.