[A version of this review appears in the Aug. 13, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]
The Fantastic Four just can’t seem to pull it off on the big screen. This latest installment, directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle), is the fourth film and third reboot from Fox Studios in its ongoing effort to build a franchise around these characters. Unfortunately, the film falls far short of capturing the thrills, humor, and sense of adventure that has been the hallmark of Marvel’s First Family for more than 50 years.
The plot of the film is straightforward and unexciting. A group of young scientists build a machine that opens a door to a new dimension and exposes them to a mysterious energy that imbues them with superpowers. The government predictably intervenes to do sketchy government stuff. A villain emerges to threaten all life on earth. Superheroes save the day. The end.
As a big fan of Marvel comics, I’ll be the first to admit I hold these cinematic adaptations to a higher standard than the average viewer. That said, I am not unreasonable. I accept that a certain amount of creative license needs to be taken when condensing a half-century of story into a two-hour block. But those choices must both make sense and remain true to the spirit of the original text. Here Fantastic Four misses the mark.
Here there choices seem almost antagonistic in their disregard for the source material. The result feels like a YA reboot that strays so far in tone and characterization that it begs the question, why not just write something completely original instead of bastardizing something that’s already beloved?
The cast does a decent job with a lifeless script co-written by Trank, Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater. The performances are serviceable if uninspired. However, it’s difficult to judge since the characters here are so removed from their comic book analogues they are barely recognizable.
Miles Teller (Whiplash) plays Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, and manages to capture the obsessive nerdiness of a teenage Reed. Kate Mara (House of Cards) is fine as Sue Storm/Invisible Woman.
Jamie Bell (Billy Eliot) is an underdeveloped Ben Grimm/Thing. Ben is supposed to be the heart of the team, the buoyant soul who’s ready to brawl and crack wise in the face of adversity. Here, however, he is a brooding rock monster, who’s trademark “It’s clobberin’ time!” catchphrase is only ever uttered by his abusive older brother while beating him. (Seriously, that happened.)
Perhaps the most discussed cast member has been Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights, Chronicle) as Johnny Storm/Human Torch. When Jordan, a black man, was cast, purist fans decried the move as an example of diversity casting run amok. It’s a stupid complaint, and those people should just be quiet. Jordan is a lot of fun here, and does a fine job capturing Johnny’s brash, daredevil personality.
Rounding out the cast is Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Victor Von Doom. So we have to talk about Dr. Doom. Dr. Doom is the greatest villain in Marvel Comics history. Hands down. He’s a scientist, a sorcerer, a monarch, and a total badass. He is not your run-of-the-mill, mustache-twirling baddie. He’s a hubristic megalomaniac who delivers grandiose, third-person monologues. Like the best villains, he is a complex character with a distinct worldview and specific motivations.
In the film, he’s none of these things. He’s a snide, petty, fatalistic scientist and anti-government anarchist who, after gaining his powers, turns into a sadistic version of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.
None of this is Kebbell’s fault. The script jettisons everything that made Doom great and replaces it with generic bad-guy clichés. His stated desire to destroy the Earth is entirely out of step with the Dr. Doom character. Doom wants to rule humankind not annihilate it.
His powers, meanwhile, which are pretty much telekinesis with green food coloring, are used to shockingly violent effect. The powers also present a classic super villain plot hole: if you can kill people with your mind, why don’t you just kill the heroes, too?
My biggest problem, however, is the film’s decision to age the characters down to teenagers. It’s a blatant attempt to appeal to younger audiences and a huge a mistake. First, it requires you to suspend a hell of a lot of disbelief to accept that any credible research institution would allow a bunch of teenage scientists in training — one literally recruited from a high school science fair — to experiment with technology capable of ripping a hole in the fabric of space-time.
At one point, that issue actually comes up, but it is quickly and unsatisfyingly waved away. I know this is comic book stuff, but come on; the adults in this film are either shockingly irresponsible or incredibly stupid.
More important, the Fantastic Four is a team of adults who deal with adult issues. The relationship between Reed Richards and Sue Storm is essential to this team. That tension between Reed’s two great loves — science and Sue — is integral, as is his compulsion to put himself and others in harms way in the name of discovery. In the film, his monomaniacal ambition is touched upon, but his relationship with Sue amounts to nothing more than playful flirtation.
Visually, the special effects are up to snuff. Everything looks good, especially Thing’s rocky exterior, despite his lack of pants. But for all the CGI, there is not much to look at. Action sequences and fight scenes are intermittently fun, but mostly lack energy or creativity.
What has made the Fantastic Four such a great comic is its boundless sense of adventure and awe. Early in the film, Reed names Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as one of his favorite books. It’s a great detail that makes a lot of sense. Reed is not only a genius inventor; he’s also a fearless explorer. Of course, he finds inspiration in Jules Verne. (It’s worth noting that Verne was also a favorite of Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, and who is Reed Richards if not the Doc Brown of the Marvel Universe?)
It’s sad, then, that the film doesn’t follow through on that promise of a similarly fantastic voyage. Rather, we are presented with a dull, predictable origin story that tumbles into an entirely contrived conflict that resolves itself too quickly and easily to be at all satisfying. What’s the point of making a Fantastic Four film if you’re not going to make it feel fantastic?