The third time attempting to make Marvel’s long-running comic Fantastic Four a movie franchise is not the charm. It almost works, starting as a straightforward attempt to situate fantastical developments within something like a real world. But by the end, it becomes merely a halfhearted and mediocre version of every CGI comic book slugfest we’ve ever seen. For most of its runtime, it’s a relatively low-key sci-fi drama about ambitious scientists whose work leads them straight into a body horror scenario. Its broad strokes are every superhero origin story. We meet some characters, watch them fall into a tragic moment that births their strange powers, and then let the effects of those powers lead them to do good. At least it starts from a place of awe about scientific discovery and nods towards serious contemplation about what it’d be like to suddenly wake up a freak. The follow through is what’s missing.
Opening moments play like slick speculative thriller, like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby rewritten by Michael Crichton. We meet a science prodigy, Reed Richards (played all grown up by Miles Teller). He’s out to make a teleportation device, recruiting a classmate, Ben Grimm (eventually Jamie Bell), to be an assistant, since the boy has access to a junkyard. Years pass. A government scientist (Reg E. Cathey) recruits Richards to assist on a top-secret teleportation project. The budding genius joins new peers Susan Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) in making his hypothesis a reality. This is what leads to the multidimensional gobbledygook and eventual mutation, turning Richards into a stretchy-limbed man, the Storms into an Invisible Woman and Human Torch, and Grimm ends up a lumbering, naked (although neutered) rock pile Thing. Doom disappears into green goo, but with a name like that, you’d know what he becomes even if there weren’t fifty years of comics pointing the way.
Setup is handled briskly with cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s nice industrial blue-and-gray palate and a pace set to ominous dread. The percolating score by Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass helps keep things on the edge of unsettling. Director and co-writer Josh Trank’s debut feature was Chronicle, the found-footage horror riff on superpower development. There he tapped into a feeling of teen angst and bullied vengeance, bending a metaphor around familiar tropes in some surprising ways. You can see in Fantastic Four a movement in that direction simply by how dourly and seriously he treats the concept despite how dutifully it hits origin story beats. He finds naturalism amongst the cast as the actors play real emotions instead of comic book posturing. Cathey has a gravely paternal countenance. Teller gives Richards a shy overconfidence, while Mara and Jordan share a relaxed sibling dynamic. Kebbell and Bell have intriguing inferiority and jealousies that dovetail. There’s enough there to wish there was more.
A better movie would flesh out these relationships, and turn their powers into more successful monster-movie metaphors. The central contraption sends off The Fly vibes. Yet by the time their powers are bestowed, the film’s decline has irreparably begun. There are initial creepy moments, as Teller sits with his limbs stretched unnaturally across a wide room, Jordan burns, Mara shimmers in and out of sight, and a boulder blinks with Bell’s eyes. But the movie is already poised to become something ordinary, turning characters’ sci-fi trauma into grist for the blockbuster mill. It’s obvious every moment of the narrative is dragging towards beats that must be hit. It’s not a matter of character or design, but rather corporate planning. The suits simply must have a recognizable superhero team before the end of the second act, no time to stop and linger in the material’s potential for character or ambiguity.
This Fantastic Four succumbs to achingly dull cliché so suddenly and incongruously, turning off the path of slow-burn characterization into stereotype in the blink of an eye. Character dynamics are no longer explored. Relationships are never satisfyingly resolved. Conflicts introduced between them are never teased out, instead foreshortened or forgotten. Themes of determination in the face of opposition and sacrifice in the name of science are thinned out and ultimately taken to dead ends. Everything initially intriguing about the movie is thrown out for the sake of yet another expensive movie ending with a bright blue beam of light zapping into the sky threatening to end the world. It goes from an admirable – and refreshingly different! – small-scale human-level superpower story to a big bland apocalypse. It’s almost as if it almost wasn’t a usual superhero movie and someone slapped together a new ending on the fly. Maybe that’s what actually happened.
I’m sure the inevitable behind-the-scenes tell-alls will be worth reading. Even if rumors of creative differences and a troubled production hadn’t leaked out over the course of its making, it’d be easy to tell the final product feels worked over, compromised. It starts as a slightly atypical look at overfamiliar material and ends abruptly as an underwhelming repetition of typical tropes. Without inside knowledge it’s hard to stand back and point out what to pin on Trank, and what to spot as contributions of co-writers Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater, not to mention any number of producers and creative consultants. No matter how it got there, what’s on the screen – obvious reshoots and all – lost my interest steadily as it became clear every avenue for drama, tension, and creativity was closed off to better streamline potential complexity into one quick, limp marketable action sequence. I don’t know if some hypothetical version of this movie would be better, but if it was doomed to fail, at least it could’ve failed interestingly.