The Frustrating Folly of Fantastic Four

Movie poster for Fantastic FourWith the current tsunami of comic-book heroes heading to the big screen as fluffy popcorn entertainment, the latest version of Fantastic Four dares to be different. At least, that’s what director Josh Trank was aiming for when Fox chose him for the project. He saw something more to the characters than just the goofy superheroes they’d always been portrayed as. After all, the foursome were originally scientists before acquiring their powers—it seems like a rather large jump in professions. Wouldn’t it be more intriguing to view being on fire or covered in rocks as more fearful and horrific? It’s a fascinating aspect that we almost get to see.

For most of the film, Trank builds up the characters with a multitude of setup (perhaps too much). Our four destined heroes are established as young and plucky with varying personalities. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is our boy genius who aspires to create a matter transporter. It turns out his invention is better than he thought, as it can actually send matter to a different dimension, and his breakthrough attracts Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who spearheads the funding to make Richard’s dream a reality. The team assembled for the project includes Storm’s scientist daughter, Sue (Kate Mara); his troublesome son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan); and the bitter scientist Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell)—and yes, he uses that actual name. Also, Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) is there because . . . well, we needed to have someone play the Thing.

The characters slowly come into focus as the giant transporter nears completion. Once it’s finished, successfully transporting a monkey, the stuffy bureaucrats squabble about what to do with the newly discovered planet on the other side (named Planet Zero) and who to send over. While they feud, the proud team behind it decide to use the machine themselves in a drunken bit of congratulations. The alien world they visit is strange and mysterious with its volcanic and unstable landscape. And then—wouldn’t you know it—they all get splattered with ooze, and now they’re mutants. Don’t drink and use transporters, kids.

Upon awaking with their new powers, they’re all terrified. And why wouldn’t they be? Finding your limbs stretched out on a table or your skin constantly aflame wouldn’t quickly garner a reaction of “Whoa, cool.” It’s disturbing and horrific the way the story takes a turn, similar to The Fly. You don’t normally see this tone out of $100 million superhero films that aim for more simple action than deep body horror. This certainly seemed to be the direction the movie was headed toward.

But then the third act arrives, and all the buildup is for nothing. The movie cuts to a year later, when the characters are all comfortable enough with their superpowers that they’re ready to fight Doctor Doom and his big blue laser of death. All the conflicting emotions and character development built up in the first two acts? Gone. In its place is a far-too-standard superhero picture in which the characters are less unsure and in fact entirely confident about cracking jokes and uttering catch phrases amid fighting a supervillain. Was it a requirement of the script to make sure Ben Grimm says that it’s clobbering time? Do the four really have to stand around their new base and debate about the name of their superhero group? Does the dimension-destroying laser always have to be blue?

It’s rather depressing to see a superhero film aim to be so different and then crumble under the weight of bad decisions. It’s very clear that there was some major backpedaling in both the story and the tone about midway through the production. The result is a film that’s completely uneven, not even trying to balance between a sci-fi picture and a quippy superhero outing. There are some decent moments that seem as if they could form a pleasing cross-genre experience if allowed to progress. But no, it must follow the same template set up by Marvel Studios in which a villain must be fought and a big weapon must be destroyed. For light superhero fluff, it’s a structure that works well. For a darker approach to superhero comics, it’s completely out of place. Both the director and the screenwriter agree that this was not the movie they set out to make. It makes for a unique tale soon to be divulged as the most alternative Marvel movie that was never completed.

For what little it may be worth, this is the best Fantastic Four movie I’ve seen yet. It’s still a bad movie, but at least it failed trying to shoot for something different.

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