It may not be the end of the world as we know it, but the cinematic world is all the poorer (the real world will remain, as it should, completely unaffected) by the Fantastic Four, a badly conceived, poorly executed attempt to reboot a franchise that petered out almost a decade ago after only two, semi-disappointing, if modestly successful films (commercially, not critically), ending not with the proverbial bang, but with a decided whimper an entry short of the expected trilogy for superhero franchises (or any series franchise for that matter). A troubled production history, major reshoots, and most recently, director Josh Trank’s (Chronicle) complete disavowal of the finished product arriving in multiplexes this weekend, expectations were never particularly high for the Fantastic Four reboot, but the hopes of sincere, non-cynical comic-book fans certainly were. They shouldn’t have been. One day in the not-too-distant future, Fantastic Four will be taught in film school as an object lesson on how not to make a contemporary comic-book adaptation.
The problems begin with an unnecessary prologue set in 2007 (the year, incidentally, the second Fantastic Four film, Rise of the Silver Surfer, arrived in theaters). It tells us nothing we don’t know or learn through the present-day set scenes. Reed Richards (Miles Teller), a brainiac of the highest order — and as such, socially awkward in the clichéd manner of all brainiacs ever put on film — and his best friend/muscle, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), try to build a teleportation device, the dream of every science geek (or maybe a few) a few decades ago. They try and only partially succeed both as preteens and later as high-school seniors at a science fair, blowing out their town’s power supply (as preteens) and creating a minor shock wave (as almost adults). At least, that seems to be the case. Despite actors in their late twenties, we’re expected to believe Richards leaves high school (or graduates offscreen) for a super-selective gig at the Baxter Institute, a private-public scientific think tank run by the sonorously voiced Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey).
Both paternal and paternalistic, Dr. Storm has two children of his own, Sue (Kate Mara), and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan). They’re brilliant, if not Reed Richards’ brilliant or, again, we’re told, not shown. Sue basically hangs around, stares at computer screens, and looks deadly serious when she’s in typing mode. Apparently, she has a super-special ability to see patterns where others can’t (or something). Johnny, a hothead (points for non-subtlety, of course) with a car/racing fetish that makes him a kindred spirit with the gearheads and racing enthusiasts of the Fast and the Furious franchise, can’t get along with his well-meaning, if authoritarian father. Johnny’s also somewhat estranged from his more studious sister, one of the few points of inter-character friction and conflict in Fantastic Four where both are badly needed. Grimm doesn’t have anything close to Richards’ mega-brainpower, so he’s left behind to run the family business, a junkyard.
Dr. Storm brings Reed, Sue, Johnny, and a brooding, misanthropic former protégé, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), with an unhealthy fixation on Sue (he calls her “Susan” for no reason, but their respective age difference suggests his obsession goes back into her teen years) to complete Reed’s teleportation device, except it’s not really a teleportation device, it’s a gate or portal into another dimension and another, seemingly primeval world. In one of Fantastic Four’s many under-motivated scenes, Victor, Reed, and Johnny decide to test the quantum gate themselves, a move contrary to the wishes of the Baxter Institute’s ethically and morally challenged benefactors (the U.S. government is, once again, evil as a practical matter, if not in intent or purpose). Through a typically transparent plot device, Reed decides he won’t go without his lifelong friend, Ben. What happens next should as no surprise to anyone familiar with the comics or the earlier series: a green, pulsating energy wave (c.f. the Green Lantern) transforms Reed into the Incredible Stretching Man, Johnny into the (In)Human Torch, and Victor into … something else entirely. He disappears, presumed dead (he’s not, of course), but his powers seem to focus on telekinesis. Sue? Despite being left behind, Sue gets an energy blast too when the others return from the other dimension. She phases in and out of existence (invisible) and can create/control force fields.
At least initially, they don’t take to their superhero powers, seeing them more as a curse than a blessing. While Ben can certainly make that claim (once a rock monster, always a rock monster), the others can shift into and out of their superpowers with relative ease, negating Trank’s pre-release claim that he wanted to focus on Cronenberg-inspired “body horror.” If he did, the mid-production rewrites and reshoots muted his intention of putting a different spin on the superhero genre. Then again, we already saw the other side of superpowers in his first, justly celebrated film, Chronicle. We don’t need to see it a second time, especially not with Marvel’s so-called First Family. And even if we do, underwritten, under-motivated characters, underused actors (charisma and chemistry can only get you so far), sub-banal, functional dialogue, and a rushed, chaotic third act (likely the result of studio interference) featuring a predictable battle to save the Earth (because only saving the galaxy or the universe involves bigger stakes), and poorly rendered visual effects, not to mention a dreary, dire tone (it’s not 2005 or 2008 anymore) and an enervating grey-blue color palette, add up to a complete and utter failure.