Poor Fantastic Four. They haven’t really had a good time of it in cinema history, have they? Following an unreleased film in the ’80s and a rather depressing two-film Marvel outing in 2005 and 2007 respectively, Marvel’s First Family are back this year in yet another self-titled adventure, which also serves as yet another reboot for the franchise.
For anyone who’s seen the 2005 iteration of Fantastic Four, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis and a pre-Captain America Chris Evans in the title roles, this year’s instalment is pretty similar – at least in its overarching plot. Science genius Reed Richards (Whiplash’s Miles Teller) develops a teleportation device which takes him, Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny Storm and Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom, as well as Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) over to an alternative reality, where they are exposed to some radiation which bestows upon them superhuman powers. Reed becomes Mr. Fantastic, who can contort his limbs as if they were elastic; Grimm becomes The Thing, a huge rock-like creature who (inexplicably) doesn’t seem to wear any pants and Storm obtains the power to turn his whole body into one massive fireball, which somehow also means he can fly. Von Doom doesn’t fare so well, however, as he gets trapped in the alternative reality and later returns as the Big Bad of the film, the imaginatively-named Dr. Doom. Completing the Fantastic roster is Johnny’s sister Sue Storm (House of Cards’ Kate Mara), who gets blasted by some errant radiation as the team are returning from the alternative reality, giving her the power of invisibility, thus earning her the moniker of The Invisible Woman.
The problem with Fantastic Four, then, isn’t with its plot – it’s one that’s been used before and (loosely) follows the same origin story as that of the franchise’s corresponding comics. No, the issue we had with this film is pretty much everything else – the, quite frankly, lazy direction, the ham-fisted, cliché-ridden script and the awful pacing, which sees the majority of the action taking place inside one laboratory or another, with lots of people fixing things and talking science, whilst the rest of the cast look on rather uninterestedly.
Fantastic Four seems to reside in a confused state. It’s quite clear that director Josh Trank is trying very hard to not make a superhero film, instead trying to replicate the success of his previous film, 2012’s Chronicle, which we here at Screening Towers rather liked. The problem with this attempted ‘grounding’, however, is that everything else gets completely lost in translation – tongue-twisting scientific terminology and white lab coats just don’t go hand-in-hand with characters who have elastic limbs and who look like walking orange mountains. This clash of ideals is painfully obvious, with Trank seemingly trying to make a completely different film to the one Marvel execs must have been pushing him towards – attempts to humanise the characters through their relationships and interactions almost push the film in a different, more interesting, direction, but those moments are few and are gone just as quickly as they arrive in favour of more science mumbo-jumbo that just fails to hit the mark.
Similarly, the pacing of the film makes it seem like one complete set-up, with little-to-no payoff. As we’ve mentioned, a lot of the film takes place in science labs, with a brief interlude in the middle just after the heroes get their powers where Richards runs off to a jungle with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. There’s a sniff of a subplot which could have seen him trying to get back to the alternative reality by himself, but again, that moment’s gone before it’s even been given time to settle in your mind, as he’s whisked back up by the government who take him back to (you guessed it!) a laboratory to continue his experiments. By the time the final battle rolls around, it’s at such tonal loggerheads with the rest of the film that you have to wonder whether Trank was taking some time off when it was scripted and filmed!
As far as saving graces go, the cast have to be applauded, as they surprisingly do a pretty decent job in their roles and have clearly made the best of a bad script – it can’t be easy when you’re spouting lines like “he’s stronger than any of us” / “yes, but not stronger than all of us” and “Victor is no more, there is only Doom”. Given the opportunity to shine more and become unencumbered from the limits of their lines, Fantastic Four could have been a strong character piece, which has to be down to the casting of the leads. It’s a shame, then, that the only visible relationship given any depth is that between Grimm and Richards, which actors Bell and Teller handle very believably. Remaining on the theme of alluded-to subplots, there’s a brief hint at a love triangle between Sue Storm, Von Doom and Richards, but it’s only evidenced in one scene which we can remember and is, sadly, another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
This film, then, should be a fun and enjoyable outing. In any attempts to make it into something else, we get a parody of a comic book experience. It’s dark, dingy and confusing, transforming superheroes who should be exciting, interesting and vibrant into two-dimensional, wooden slaves to a clunky script.
Overall, Fantastic Four is a bad film, there’s really no getting around it. It struggles to find its identity amidst a mishmash of genres and you can’t help but think that the whole film is one big ‘almost there’ – it often jogs up to the precipice of being a half-decent film, before it wildly swerves in a different direction with no consistency whatsoever. With the unparalleled success of the MCU in its rear-view mirror, it’s shocking that this film was ever released in the first place – it may not be an ‘official’ film in the MCU, given that its from the same studio as the X-Men franchise, but cinema audiences have been barraged by a stream of consistently excellent comic book films over the past decade, starting with 2005’s Batman Begins, and in comparison, this laughable excuse of a film just doesn’t hit the mark.