Why can’t anyone make the Fantastic Four cool? It’s a question that doesn’t just dog Hollywood, but Marvel Comics as well. Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes are some of the company’s most well-known, and yet the comic consistently fails to connect with readers and attempts to bring them to the big screen have been a disaster. And the thing is it doesn’t seem to matter what the approach is. Ignoring Roger Corman’s super low-budget version from the ”90s that never go released, there were two Fantastic Four films in 2005 and 2007 that were largely forgettable, even though if one were to look at them now they resemble the mainstream playbook followed by Marvel’s Avengers movies. But this new Fantastic Four film from Chronicle director Josh Trank appears to be trying to follow the grim model set forth by Christopher Nolan, and that approach doesn’t jibe with these characters at all. To try and do so shows a fundamental misunderstanding that the film has no hope of recovering from.
This is only Trank’s second feature, but still there were a lot of expectations based on the success of his first film. Chronicle was, basically, a superhero origin story about teens who acquired fantastic powers they couldn’t understand. It was simple, smart, and balanced sci-fi with teen angst in a way that made him the perfect choice to direct a rebooted and much younger-skewing Fantastic Four. And yet the end result feels spliced together like some weird lab experiment; taking pieces of great ideas and doing absolutely nothing with them.
Clearly, Trank’s vision was to do something similar to Chronicle, and at the film’s outset it captures a similar sense of wide-eyed wonder. We meet Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his best bud Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) as kids, tinkering in Reed’s garage to build a makeshift teleportation machine. The two are completely different yet they find common ground in their unstable home lives. Reed is a genius whose parents don’t understand his intellect, while Ben is a rough ‘n tumble kid scraping by in an abusive household. In fact, it’s there that his famous battle cry “It’s clobberin’ time!” makes an inauspicious debut. While their invention fries electrical circuits it manages to be a marginal success at the school science fair, which captures the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adoptive daughter Sue (Kate Mara), leading to a job offer at the Baxter Foundation where Reed can take the experiment further, teleporting living beings rather than toy cars. Assisting in the teleporter’s construction is Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a reclusive genius who discovered the secrets of teleportation first, only to have Reed show up and improve them, causing all kinds of envious looks. There’s also Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), Franklin’s biological son and resident hot-head who can’t avoid run-ins with the law. He’s just as much of a brilliant mind as the rest of his family, and fits in at the lab like a glove. After succeeding in teleporting a terrified chimp to “Planet Zero” (Fox should’ve tied this in to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), the group decides to head there themselves with Ben in tow. Naturally things go terribly wrong; Victor is lost in a tidal wave of strange glowing energy, and the rest of the group is bathed in its mysterious power as well, granting them each incredible powers
In Trank’s attempts to eschew the typical superhero model, he’s made Fantastic Four a dull and dreary experience. There’s nothing wrong with his plan to focus on the characters rather than flashy powers and fight scenes, but character development gives way to seemingly endless amounts of exposition. Once the team gets back home and in government possession, the time frame jumps ahead a full year so we don’t even glimpse how they come to grips with their new powers. Instead we see them already fully experienced with using their gifts as weapons for the military, taking out threats around the world. In theory, Trank’s approach isn’t a bad one and is similar to what Ang Lee tried to do with his Hulk movie, making it more than just the Hulk smashing things. But fans HATED Lee’s Hulk film, just as they will likely hate Trank’s Fantastic Four because…well, it’s pretty boring. There are some interesting ideas, like exploring those whose powers are a curse (like poor Ben Grimm), but Trank never commits to anything. There are long stretches where it seems like nothing happens at all, and with Doom out of the picture there is absolutely no conflict.
And it becomes obvious towards the film’s rushed finale that someone at 20th Century Fox realized the lack of tension, because suddenly an all-powerful Doom emerges with a plan literally out of nowhere to destroy the planet. It leads to a fairly dull battle in an ugly CGI mountainous locale that will make you wonder where the $100M+ budget went. The bulk of the film takes place in a lab. Sure, Johnny Storm looks cool when he flames on, but Thing looks like walking peanut brittle and the other power effects are unimpressive. Overlooking the mediocre effects would be easy if the film were as fun as a Fantastic Four movie should be. The earlier movies may not have been very cool by current standards, but at least they were colorful and tried to match the adventurous spirit of the comics. They’re called Marvel’s “First Family” for a reason, but those bonds are largely an afterthought, hammered home haphazardly in one of Franklin’s many monologues.
For months there has been speculation of a troubled production, even going so far as to claim that Trank was removed as director. That may or may not be true as all sides refute it, but what’s undeniable is that the screenplay by Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Trank is a jumbled mess of tones. You can easily see where Trank’s contemplative vision abruptly ends and others try to no avail to inject more humor and action. None of this is the fault of the actors, who all do their best with one-note characters. These are not the kind of smart, funny geeks anyone wants to hang out with. They’re the kind that should be sealed away in their labs with the microscopes. Certainly they aren’t characters we want to see again in a sequel, although the film ends with an obnoxious attempt to set up a franchise nobody is going to be asking for. That’s not to say a sequel would be awful now that the lame origin story is over, but Fantastic Four may just be a comic better left in the funny books rather than on the big screen.