It’s becoming increasingly difficult to judge most movies on their own merits. Thanks to the omnipresence of copious marketing tools, behind-the-scenes gossip, and predispositions due to an adaptation’s source material, it takes a lot to be able to walk into a theater and leave your expectations and preconceived notions outside. No other mainstream film in recent memory has made this more challenging than Fantastic Four, a film that seemed doomed (this won’t be my only pun. Apologies) before it ever had a chance. But, when the curtain rises and the lights dim, all you should judge a film on is what’s presented before you.
And in that regard, Fantastic Four is by no means a bad movie, but it is a frustrating one. There’s an obvious attempt to experiment with the limitations of what a “superhero” movie should be, and a lot of that works. This is a science-fiction movie scamming the system by taking advantage of a comic book title, and the majority of the film’s running time is sans superheroics. I can see this coming off as boring to many viewers who have become accustomed to a certain kind of experience from these properties, but the focus on exploration and the film’s deliberately slow pace came off as refreshing to me. There’s little bombast in Fantastic Four, and that’s going to be a big line in the sand for audiences.
An even more divisive aspect will be the film’s tone. I’ll admit to no allegiance or even interest in the comic book versions of these characters and their world, so I don’t take umbrage with the film’s grounded approach like I‘m sure many will. However, there’s this muted quality throughout the entire movie (until the end, which I’ll get to) that becomes something of a double-edged sword. While I enjoyed the quieter mood when it came to the characters and their environment, it undermined a lot of the more fantastic (nope, this ain’t the last one) elements. The film doesn’t seem interested in a whole lot of levity where these characters’ abilities are concerned (although most of their powers, especially Reed‘s, are admirably showcased). That’s not to say that the film is humorless. I laughed quite a few times at some nice interactions between characters, but the grim(m. Okay, I’m done) demeanor permeating throughout the running time sucks some of the potential joy out of the film.
That same half-and-half quality is also reflected in the four leads. Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan are both likable as Reed Richards and Johnny Storm respectively. They both have interesting character flaws that feel relatable and well-developed. Kate Mara’s trademarked chilliness does her no favors as Sue Storm, and it’s sad that she could be taken out of the movie with barely any repercussion. Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm is given the most pathos, but aside from looking astounding as The Thing, his immensely restrained performance clashes with his outward appearance. Sadly, the worst member of the cast is Toby Kebbell as Victor Von Doom. It’s not so much Kebbell’s fault as it is Doom’s. The character is thinly sketched and eventually serves a single purpose: to turn the film into a superhero story instead of the science-fiction film it has been.
That’s why the final act of the film doesn’t work at all. The showdown between the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom is undone by a movie that doesn’t want to be a superhero film. The movie functions when it’s steeped in science-fiction (and even brief attempts at horror. The first time we see the effects of the team’s accident is played as something truly terrifying, and Dr. Doom’s escape from the science facility is actually disturbing), but the sharp shift in the last fifteen minutes to something jaunty and cartoonish is the worst kind of abrupt. It feels like something out of a completely different movie. That being said, I think there is a decent foundation in place to take this iteration of the characters to a more jovial place. The ending scene is even a good promise of that, but it feels just as unconnected to the film as the climactic battle.
Fantastic Four is a failed experiment, but at the very least it is experimenting. With the exception of that out-of-place finale, there’s nothing currently in the realm of superhero cinema quite like it (except for director Josh Trank‘s own Chronicle, but I don‘t really classify that as a superhero film). It’s hard to argue against people who want their superhero movies to be fun, and I can’t honestly say that Fantastic Four is fun, but it is unique and risky. This property probably shouldn’t have been the one taking the risk, but I can’t help but commend its attempt.