If you weren’t a fan of Tim Story’s campy-bad 2005 Fantastic Four film and its somehow even more inferior 2007 sequel, then there’s a lot to like in the newly rebooted Fantastic Four. Unfortunately, that’s swiftly followed by a whole lot more to dislike intensely, as this second attempt by Fox (third, if you count the shelved 90’s Roger Corman version) to bring the great Jacky Kirby and Stan Lee’s trailblazing comic to the screen just completely implodes under the weight of an unforgivable identity crisis.
Before that epic soiling of its own bed though, director Josh Trank (Chronicle) and writer/producer Simon Kinberg (X-Men franchise, Sherlock Holmes) offer up a solid superhero sci-fi drama where the “superhero” bit is practically as washed out as the intentionally grim colour palette. Gone is the charming cosmic cartoonishness and colourful unfiltered creativity of the classic Kirby/Lee comics – you don’t even get the cheesy codenames and costumes – as Trank and Kinberg look to the more modernized and relatively realistic “Ultimate Fantastic Four” incarnation as the main source of inspiration here.
Rather than the family of explorers coming into contact with mysteriously undefined “cosmic rays” of the original texts, the titular foursome of boy genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller), his loyal best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), hothead Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and his more responsible half-sister Sue Storm (Kate Mara), as well as brooding rival genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), here develop superpowers after being exposed to exotic energies while traveling to another dimension through a teleporter built by Reed and Victor for a military think-tank run by Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey).
But the creators take it even further than just borrowed origin story details in their reimagining though, with this Fantastic Four tonally doing for “Ultimate Fantastic Four” what it did for the classic comic. It takes a solid 40 minutes before the first action beat kicks in, as this time around we get a very deliberately paced sci-fi tale. And when the four first exhibit their powers, instead of hopping straight into superheroics, the film takes on a Cronenberg-ian body horror texture that’s very effectively realized: Reed is capable of stretching his body in countless ways, but cannot contain/control his limbs; Ben becomes a tragic creature trapped in a body of unfeeling rock and stone; Sue has the ability to become invisible, but her lack of control leaves her stuck in a mercurial state; Johnny is constantly engulfed in flames, turning to cinder everything around him. These types of growing pains are normally found in superhero origin stories and usually played up for laughs, but here Trank turns them into the stuff of nightmares.
And even when our leads finally manage some restraint over their abilities – and in the case of Johnny, some actual enjoyment of them, while Reed learns to use his abilities in an incredibly unexpected martial sense – it’s still admittedly dour, dramatic stuff, totally devoid of the “Gee whizz!” sense of zany adventure that popularized Kirby and Lee’s comic. Fantastic Four also takes the “Ultimate” angle of casting young for its four leads, which means that there’s no romantic subplot between Reed and Sue, no established family dynamic in play yet. Because of these factors, a part of me actually wishes that this movie was called anything other than Fantastic Four, as anybody coming into this expecting that sense of poppy family friendly ebullience that the classic title conjures up is going to be disappointed.
What Trank and Kinberg have delivered instead is their brave vision of a disassembled comic book movie. It’s not perfect by a long shot though – it totally fumbles the relationship between Reed and Ben, writing the latter out of the script for long unnecessary stretches; Johnny’s endearing brashy cockiness gets replaced by angsty daddy issues, losing a lot of his infectious charm; and the way Sue gets her powers is handled in an odd manner that almost excludes her from the rest of the dude-bros. But even with those problems, I was still engaged and enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would.
And then it all transforms into a mountain of fly-buzzing excrement.
In a creative about-face so drastic that it’s sure to leave audiences with whiplash, every single comic book movie genre trope that Trank and Kinberg had held at bay and actively avoided for the first half of the movie, unceremoniously comes crashing down in the worst way imaginable. No, even worse than that. Established character beats are tossed aside, plot threads are jettisoned, and just about everything takes a terminal nose dive in quality as it all turns into a hamfisted CG-driven cartoon filled with sloppy, uninspired action and very little else, as there’s zero payoff to any setups that had occurred previously. And the character that suffers the most is Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom.
Already forced to battle through a godawful character redesign, Fantastic Four’s version of Doctor Doom – considered by many, myself included, to be Marvel’s greatest villain – shows off approximately 20 seconds of the badassery you would normally associate him with, before turning into a green-glowing farce that would be horrifically insulting if it wasn’t so sad. The talented Kebbell is utterly wasted onscreen as he becomes more woeful cliché than character. At least the rest of the equally skilled cast get to turn in solid if not particularly challenging performances.
Compounded with the long list of other affronts committed in Fantastic Four‘s final 40 minutes, nearly every shred of good will built up by its promising opening is completely ejected, only to be replaced by angry frustration and bitter disappointment. The bar for a Fantastic Four feature film had been set so low by the previous entries in the franchise, and yet this latest reboot – while it had a good run-up – still ends up faceplanting in the most ridiculous manner possible. Just about the only positive point that can be made about Fantastic Four‘s absolutely travesty of a second half, is that it’s over fairly quickly as everything is rushed through at a ludicrous pace. The downside of course being that everything is rushed through at a ludicrous pace!
Last week Trank tweeted out an insinuation that the cut of the movie we’re seeing is not his own, as Fox allegedly took the film from him to do their own thing instead of allowing him to produce his “fantastic version”. And while I can’t guarantee his hyperbolic assessment of his own work, I am inclined to believe that some meddling definitely happened here as what you get in Fantastic Four is very clearly two movies – one different to the source but solid and filled with promise, the other a messy, unfunny cancerous abomination that retroactively infects the first bit with its poorness.
Last Updated: August 11, 2015