All the pieces were in place for a refreshing entry in the superhero genre, but Fantastic Four completely unravels at the halfway point.
In Fantastic Four (2015), Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a young genius whose scientific pursuits are light years ahead of his teachers. An under-appreciated outcast, Reed forms an unlikely partnership with classmate Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), the only person to encourage young Reed’s single-minded scientific pursuits. For half a decade, the pair work toward building a teleportation device, demonstrating their prototype in a local science fair – which courts scorn from the local science community, but catches the eye of the brilliant Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who believes Reed’s invention is the key to cracking inter-dimensional travel.
Storm recruits Reed to join his own son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and eccentric tech-prodigy Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) in creating a Quantum Gate, in hopes of using the devive to travel into uncharted worlds where humanity can harvest new energies. However, when Reed and his fellow inventors decide to journey through the Quantum Gate ahead of schedule, an accident on “Planet Zero” leaves each of them with horrifying genetic mutations – which, when used for the greater good, affords the young inventors the power to become a team of superheroes.
Despite underwhelming reviews and (now) dated effects, Tim Story’s Fantastic Four adaptations from the mid-2000s were a box office success, earning 20th Century Fox over $500 million at the global box office on a combined $230 million series budget. Pressed for time to produce a new Fantastic Four movie (lest the rights revert to Marvel Studios), Fox commissioned Chronicle director Josh Trank to take-on a reboot of the franchise – hoping the young filmmaker would be able to bring the same balance of fun, drama, and spectacle that made his freshman debut a hit. Unfortunately, with the Fantastic Four reboot, Trank’s reach has over-extended his grasp, resulting in a film that’s uneven in every way imaginable (character, story, and special effects). Worst of all, Fantastic Four fails at the most basic goal of any superhero adaptation: thrilling entertainment.
The film starts out on a strong foot as a contemplative sci-fi origin story, aside from a few on-the-nose caricatures (especially from the adults in Reed’s life), and it builds unique and sincere relationships that Trank initially invests in. Rather than forcing Reed and Sue into a comic book romance, Fantastic Four explores the pair’s budding friendship and shared thirst for discovery. Similarly, while the casting of Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara as brother and (adopted) sister proved to be controversial online, the actual dynamic between the characters, along with their father, is genuine – reflecting the diversity that exists in many modern families. Despite Victor von Doom’s guarded and cynical persona, Trank provides subtle glimpses into the charm and intelligence that made Victor an asset to Franklin Storm’s team, as well as a reflection of Reed, rather than a bland pre-evildoer caricature.
Still, once the actual accident occurs and the titular heroes discover their abilities (in a smart moment that embraces the real-world horror of what these friends have suddenly become) nearly all of the careful foundation that Trank laid is undermined by fast-moving training montages and convoluted character evolutions. Action set-pieces are nonexistent until the final battle, which is also painfully brief and, believe it or not, less creative that the 2005 film.
In a genre that has become overstuffed with empty style-over-substance CGI spectacle, a grounded Fantastic Four film (with a heavy emphasis on characters instead of super-powered fights) could have been a welcome change of pace; yet, after the mid-way point, Trank struggles to payoff anything he intially setup, with melodramatic interactions, undercooked storytelling, and uninventive implementation of the powered foursome.
The unraveling quality of Trank’s film is especially disappointing in that the cast brings an authenticity to the traditionally cartoonish heroes – with nuanced performances from Teller, Jordan, Mara, and Bell. In a longer cut of the film, where the narrative actually examines the fractured friendships, insecurities, and coping mechanisms that come in wake of their Quantum Gate accident, the actors could have challenged the bar for complex (and modern) inter-personal drama in superhero stories (similar to what we’ve previously seen in The Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel, and Captain America: The Winter Solider, among others). Instead, Trank injects his protagonists (and antagonist) into a bland second half that is wrought with clichés, eye-rolling dialogue, goofy supporting work from Tim Blake Nelson (who spends just as much time chewing gum as he does chewing the scenery), as well as wasted use of Toby Kebbell’s Doctor Doom (regardless of chilling costume design).
Easily the biggest disappointment of the film, Kebbell’s biting portrayal of Victor is squandered once the character reappears as Doctor Doom – reducing one of Marvel’s best, and most intelligent evildoers, into an uninspired crazy person with bizarre motivations – a villain that does not reflect or evolve core themes or the team’s bonding process. Doom’s part in the third act is made even worse by an overly-complex plan that does not set the stage for a rewarding final battle, or make much use of the titular heroes and their individual abilities.
A 3D post-conversion release of Fantastic Four was cancelled one month ahead of opening weekend, meaning that Trank’s film is only showing in standard 2D. Given the movie’s restrained building of its characters, rather than sweeping CGI pandemonium, viewers should temper their expectations for big screen spectacle. In keeping with the rest of the film, use of CGI is also uneven – varying drastically in quality from powerful imagery to outright hokey and ridiculous effects and stunt work.
Johnny’s torch effect and The Thing model (a far cry from Michael Chiklis in a rubber suit) are both convincing, but despite Invisible Woman’s namesake, Sue’s iconic ability isn’t particularly striking (and is rarely used). Instead, Mara spends most of her CGI screen time maintaining floatable force-field bubbles – an effect and ability that, within the movie, makes little impression. Finally, Reed’s flexibility (and stretching) is adequate in moderation; though, steady close-ups of the character, especially his skin, crash into the uncanny valley with downright dated CGI. That’s all to say: even for viewers who simply want to see fun big-screen superhero action, there isn’t enough spectacle or slick visuals to warrant an actual trip to the theater.
To his credit, Josh Trank faced unreasonable backlash during Fantastic Four‘s production and may not be entirely responsible for Fantastic Four‘s clumsy theatrical cut, but after an intriguing first act, the reboot is still a disappointment. Any goodwill the filmmaker earns early on is crushed by a messy finale – where interesting characters and imaginative science fiction ideas are forced into a bland, convoluted, and flat-out cartoonish comic book template. All the pieces were in place for a refreshing entry in the superhero genre, but Fantastic Four completely unravels at the halfway point. Select viewers may be able to look past all of the film’s shortcomings, relishing in the reboot’s (squandered) potential, but this 2015 reboot does not differentiate itself in any meaningful way from the current swell of superhero movie offerings – and, in its ambition to be different, fails to provide even basic (read: forgivable) popcorn entertainment.
Fantastic Four runs 100 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and language. Now playing in theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Fantastic Four Spoilers Discussion. For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Fantastic Four episode of the SR Underground podcast.