By Jarrod Jones. Look, it’s not fun for me to tell you this, but everything you’ve ever feared about this movie has come to pass. I see that look of doubt in your eyes (“Everything?“), and I’m telling you. Yes. Everything.
It’s not difficult to understand what went wrong with Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. 20th Century Fox saw the Disney wolves at the door and decided to act, and in their haste they made one of the worst superhero films in years. (Sometimes the easiest explanation is the correct one.) Seems in their “we can manage just fine, thank you very much” attitude, Fox somehow made a Fantastic Four movie that casts Tim Story’s one-two punch of oft-reviled films — at least in terms of optimism, a saturated color palette, and (god help me) ambition — in a celestial, Kirby-cracklin’ light. It’s grand opera in comparison.
That makes this whole dubious enterprise all the more perplexing, especially when you realize that every Marvel project Fox has in the pipeline is an exercise in sheer fan appeasement. How it’s possible that a film as dour, self-serious, and downright boring as Fantastic Four could come from the same studio as the upcoming Deadpool — a project that’s yielded so much goodwill in a mere two and a half boisterous minutes — is anyone’s guess. But in one hundred murky minutes Fantastic Four has all but seen that goodwill undone. It happened. So let’s talk about it.
Miles Teller is Reed Richards, an amateur scientist who works tirelessly to transcend parallel dimensions from the sanctity of his parent’s garage. (That’s about all the steam this film’s plot has behind it, but somehow it keeps going.) Despite his cartoonish fumbling (one of the film’s few attempts at actual humor) Reed is actually on to something, so Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adorable daughter Sue (Kate Mara) swipe the plucky kid up and toss him in the Baxter Foundation, a swanky Manhattan highrise where the film dawdles most: Reed’s genius contends with interfering government lackies (perhaps a dig at Fox from Mr. Trank) and the pissy lectures of Tobey Kebbel’s Victor von Doom (“Doctor Doom over here,” Mara snorts). He snaps selfies of the team’s progress for his buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), while developing a strained bromance with Sue’s, um, hot-headed brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan).
It’s in the film’s first half where we’re given the most to work with, and Trank’s screenplay (co-written by Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg) throws all it has — which isn’t much — into these moments: there’s some lip service about team-building and the importance of family in between severe expositional bouts of science jargon that would make a seventh-grader blush; then there’s the mounting presence of Tim Blake Nelson’s vaguely menacing governmental shill, who may or may not have something to do with Victor’s presence in Storm’s laboratory. Then again, probably not: the film alludes to a sinister collusion — which might have given Nelson an opportunity to redeem himself after being similarly marginalized in Marvel Studios’ The Incredible Hulk — only to drop it entirely, along with several other potentially crucial plot points.
What about the superpowers? you might be asking. That’s really the only reason anyone would go see a movie called Fantastic Four in the year 2015, right? Isn’t that what the masses want: superheroes? The film gets to that, eventually, after patently horrific sequences featuring the team’s newly acquired abilities: Jamie Bell gets pummelled by rocks, the camera lingers on Jordan’s burning carcass for three beats too long, and Teller is doped to the eyeballs with painkillers to dull the pain that comes with his hyperextended limbs. (Which, ew.)
Kate Mara’s Sue seems to have it easiest out of the whole bunch, as her ability to disappear matters the least and occurs in the most happenstantial way: while the boys get to sate their pioneering urges in the astral plane (Grimm gets to tag along, because friendship), Sue Storm is left to stare pensively at computer screens while Portishead booms in her earbuds. So the film’s not only brainless, it’s insulting too. (Then again, sapping Sue of any agency is the film’s one example of consistency.)
Who’s to blame for all this? To be honest, the fault isn’t difficult to place — Fox’s heavy-handed interference, coupled with Trank’s inability to overcome it, is why most everyone is working overtime to forget this ever happened. The careers of Teller, Bell, Mara, and Jordan will all survive this fiasco, and Fox’s mutant ambitions will continue to keep the studio in the black. The only thing that might suffer more than Trank’s dwindling future in Hollywood — which appears to suit him just fine — is any hope for the cinematic future of Marvel’s First Family. And that’s what hurts the most.