I did not want to see this movie. I’m not a fan of the Fantastic Four, I never held out any hope that the film would be good, and I can’t remember the last time I willingly sat through a film with a Tomatometer in the single digits. But then I sat down to put my thoughts on the Fantastic Four to keyboard. And before I knew it, I had already typed out a whole blog entry before I had even seen the movie. So I guess I don’t really have a choice.
For those who don’t have the time or inclination to read through my previous blog entry (probably the geekiest thing I’ve ever written, which is saying something), let me try and sum up. On the one hand, the Fantastic Four have such a crucial role in Marvel history that Marvel as we know it would not exist without them. Save only for Captain America and Namor, absolutely EVERYTHING that we know and love from Marvel came about as a direct result of the Fantastic Four’s success. On the other hand, a huge reason why the Fantastic Four were so successful is because the team was very specifically tailored to expectations of the time. By which I refer to the same conventions and stereotypes of the Silver Age that comic book fans and publishers have been trying to shake off for the past several decades.
Thus the Fantastic Four have been the source of a constant dilemma for so many years. How is it possible to make something relevant when it’s so hopelessly outdated? How could anyone use something so preposterous and goofy while still giving it all due respect as a cornerstone of comics history?
Marvel, 20th Century Fox, and Constantin Films (who still at least partially own the rights after the infamous 1994 unreleased film) have been trying and failing for years to make the Fantastic Four relevant again. Aside from the ill-received Tim Story films, perhaps the most notable case in point came with the Ultimates line. For those who aren’t familiar, Ultimate Marvel was a line of comic books that attempted to create a new Marvel continuity with updated and reimagined takes on their characters. The goal was to bring in new readers by modernizing the Marvel stable of heroes and villains, presenting a new continuity that wouldn’t require years of comic book history to catch up on. The experiment eventually failed for a variety of reasons, but that’s another story.
Getting back to the Fantastic Four, the Ultimates version of the Four debuted in 2004 and lasted for five years in print. The heroes (and this version of Dr. Doom as well) were now prodigies in their teens and twenties, and their powers now came from a teleportation experiment — rather than a mission to outer space — gone wrong.
From the moment the cast was first announced, it became obvious that this was the version the latest film reboot was going with. Even better, the cast was loaded with such exceptional young up-and-coming talents as Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell. We also have director Josh Trank, who previously made his debut with the dark horse superhero hit (not to be confused with a Dark Horse superhero hit), Chronicle.
Yet even with all of that talent, I was not expecting this film to be anything good. Hell, nobody was expecting this film to be any good. But then the movie opened, and imagine my surprise to find that Trank and company — for all their many, many failings in making this film — somehow managed to score one very small victory.
When we first meet Reed Richards (played as a grade schooler by Owen Judge and as a college student by Miles Teller), he’s already a mad scientist. Kid’s a prodigy driven to build technological wonders out of scrap metal because everyone says he can’t do it. He’s so far above everyone else’s level that nobody believes he can actually build a teleportation machine or a flying car. Nobody else understands him or wants anything to do with him, yet he refuses to be brought down to their level. So Reed has a chip on his shoulder and nonexistent social skills, which in turn means that no one will give him a chance no matter how brilliant he is.
Until someone finally does give him a chance.
It turns out that Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) has also been working on how to crack interdimensional travel, and Reed has somehow figured out a missing part of the equation. And so Reed is recruited into the Baxter Institute, a college of the most brilliant young minds, all given government funding to learn their trade and develop the next great innovations and breakthroughs. In the case of interdimensional travel, that could potentially mean anything from finding new sources of energy to discovering how life on this planet began.
Let’s pause for a moment and think about the source material. The Fantastic Four made their debut in 1961, mere months after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space. Everything about the Four — their origins, their personalities, their powers, their rogues gallery, pretty much everything — was borne of a certain fascination with science unique to those peak years of the Space Race. It was a time when we didn’t know what was waiting for us up there, and there was no telling what new wonders could be made possible with the next breakthrough of science and technology.
Latching onto that fascination with science was a brilliant move. The film shows an optimism for a better world and celebrates our compulsive need to keep inventing and exploring. All of that is very timely stuff that perfectly meshes with the source material. Trank and company actually found something about the Fantastic Four that can be made relevant in the 21st century, and that is to be applauded. Moreover, even if the science in this film is total bunk, it’s the principle of the thing. Anything that can get kids interested in science and eager to keep looking for that next great discovery is something that should be encouraged.
But then the first act ends. And the whole film starts to unravel.
Just after the accident happens and our four heroes (plus Doom) get their powers, all of that stuff I mentioned about science is completely forgotten. Which means that the most powerful and novel theme in this movie, the driving motivation behind the entire first act, is never once brought up again. And what is it replaced by? A whole lotta nothing.
See, because the interdimensional shuttle was built with government funding, Uncle Sam is eager to get a return on their investment by way of — what else? — military applications. Which means that The Thing (Jamie Bell) has been traveling all over the world wreaking havoc on behalf of our brave men and women in uniform, and Human Torch (Michael B. Jordan) won’t be far behind.
Where do I even begin with this?
1. After the accident happens, there’s a one-year time jump. Which means that the heroes’ training, their whole process of learning about their powers and how to use them, happens pretty much entirely off-camera.
2. We don’t want to see the Fantastic Four taking down terrorists in the Middle East. We want to see them taking down supervillains.
3. We don’t even see that, either. Just some brief clips of The Thing in action, playing in the background of a scene, and that’s it.
4. This whole military angle of course means that we get some Pentagon stooge (Dr. Allen, played by Tim Blake Nelson, because it’s not like Marvel is ever going to need him as The Leader at this point), who’s of course played as a two-dimensional weasel scumbag with no redeeming features whatsoever. We all know that character. Nobody likes that character. We don’t need him in an inspirational story about encouraging scientific progress, and we don’t need him in a superhero film.
5. That military douchebag is the one driving the plot. Not the heroes, not the villain, that little sleazeball. Which means that for the entire second act, we don’t get to see our main characters develop into heroes, never mind a team of heroes. And Dr. Doom is absent through pretty much the entire second act, so he doesn’t get any development either.
The whole second act is just an exercise in lazy writing, cliched dialogue, predictable plotting, stupid decision-making, and virtually nonexistent character development, all with barely a single action scene in sight. It’s just a long, boring, plodding march to the third act.
Which naturally means that the third act sucks.
The climax of this film is the very first time that our heroes have ever fought a serious threat. It’s the first time they use their powers together. It’s the first time they meet Doom and learn what he’s about. And by the way, it’s our first time meeting Doom as well (after the accident, anyway), which means that we never learn exactly what his powers are or how they work.
By definition, a climax is the payoff for its story. In this case, there was virtually nothing in the story to set up the climax, so of course the payoff is going to be limp. It really sucks that the film tried to establish a plausible world-ending threat, explicitly showing us that the Fantastic Four was there to save the entire godforsaken planet, and the climax still felt so flat. Boredom should be the absolute last thing anyone feels in that scenario, and yet here we are.
I mean, sure, the third act spends a lot of time harping on themes of family and overcoming differences, both of which are of course key themes of the source material. But that’s not enough — they’ve been used so many times in so many other, better superhero films that their use here only registers as yet another batch of cliched tripe.
I wish I could say that the cast was good enough to keep things watchable, but no such luck. In fact, there are some cases when the casting actively works against the movie. Dr. Allen is such a driving force of the plot that the whole movie would have been improved if he had been played with some measure of charisma and/or morality. Instead of… well, Tim Blake Nelson. As for Reg E. Cathey, the guy might as well have been wearing a great big sign around his neck saying “I WILL DIE AND/OR TURN EVIL.” Such a waste of so much screen presence.
As for Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, and Toby Kebbell, this material defeats all of them. None of them are good enough to redeem these underdeveloped characters, this underwritten dialogue, or the cliched nature of the second and third acts.
It’s tempting to think that the sequel will be better now that all the heavy lifting of the origin is over and done with, but come on. I think we all know better by now. This is a movie made for the sole purpose of getting us good and hyped for the sequel. Which means that if the sequel gets made, it will be made for the sole purpose of getting us hyped for the third film. Same for the one after that and the one after that. That’s how it was with Star Trek (2009), that’s how it was with The Amazing Spider-Man, and that’s how it’s going to be here.
Fantastic Four (2015) starts out with such a promising first act that I was genuinely upset to see the movie fall apart. There’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t have a superhero movie built on the message of inspiring creativity and scientific thought (see: Big Hero 6). Instead, the movie is content to throw all of that away in favor of a plodding second act and a third act loaded down with cliches. It’s upsetting to think that Fox had something genuinely good on their hands, a film that could have brought new energy and new ideas to this crowded genre, but someone behind the scenes just had to be lazy and let it slip away.
As it is, the film doesn’t have nearly enough action to work as a superhero popcorn flick, and it’s too stupid to work as an uplifting tribute to science. It’s very clearly a film made by committee, put together with so many conflicting intentions that the final product inevitably implodes. Though it isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it’s still a bad movie.
The sole good news in all of this is that if a sequel comes, it won’t be for a very long time. For those who aren’t aware, this movie was first announced SIX FUCKING YEARS before its release this weekend. That’s longer than it took Sony to make their last two Spider-Man films, and longer than it took for Marvel to crank out their entire Phase II slate.
Fox is determined to keep hold of these characters for as long as possible. Let ’em. It won’t do them any good, and I doubt it would do any good for Marvel at this point, either.