Fantastic Four may not have hit the big-time, but there are the seeds of a good story there. It’s just a shame they didn’t work out into the final draft…
The film rewrites the history of Marvel’s First Family. Opening with Reed, a child genius who wants to teleport, it shifts us forward in time to Reed’s success – one that opens the way to another dimension. When Reed, Victor Von Doom, Ben and Jonny travel to the other dimension, things go horribly wrong, and three of the four return with superpowers; the flare of energy as they arrive back home gives Sue superpowers too.
The military, of course, are deeply interested in these superpowered individuals, and strive to get back to the other dimension. All of which leads to their discovering that Doom has survived – and he is wrathful…
The biggest problem with Fantastic Four is that it’s not one film; it’s two. Broadly speaking, the opening two-thirds are an exploration of a bunch of kids who are smart but not wise, and wind up in over their heads in interdimensional travel. The last third is a staple superhero battle, complete with trite dialogue and a fairly one-dimensional supervillain. All this results in an oddly mismatched film, one that has the potential to be good, but that fails to fulfil it. Even that potential is for a film that just doesn’t quite feel like the Fantastic Four that fans know and love – it’s more like Josh Trank had a good idea, and was wandering around trying to find a film that would allow him to do it.
You can tell almost on first view which parts were original, and which were inserted into the movie later on, after social media reaction led to Fox losing confidence in Trank’s directing. Doom’s presence in the research team feels like an intrusion, and the plotting around how Sue gets her powers (when Doom takes her place in the inter-dimensional trip) is awkward as a result. I mean, Ben, Reed, and Jonny get their powers from being in the other dimension; Sue gets powers because, conveniently, there’s a flare of other-dimensional energy as she brings her three friends back. I’m fairly convinced that, had she been on the trip out there, she’d have played a more fundamental role to the story. By the time scouts in the other dimension have found Doom, the tone and style of the movie is shifting, and the film has lost its intriguingly offbeat soul completely.
This much I will say; the cast is superb. Owen Judge completely sells it as young Reed Richards, leaving me vaguely wishing we got to see his adventures with Evan Hanneman’s young Ben Grimm. But I understand that wasn’t the point of the story, however much fun it would be, and that Reed had to grow up. So we get Miles Teller selling it well as Reed Richards, managing to convey depth and guilt effectively. Unfortunately, his role in the climactic battle with Doom falls flat, with Teller failing to convey the confidence of the dialogue.
Michael B. Jordan’s Jonny Storm is picture-perfect too, and Jordan pulls of an entertaining relationship with Reg E. Cathey’s Doctor Franklin Storm. Jordan’s casting may have been controversial, but race has never been a core component of the Human Torch’s character, meaning I barely noticed. Besides, once the four have been irradiated, he spends most of his time as a fireball – the quality of special effects are high.
Jamie Bell’s Ben Grimm works well; the relationship between Ben and Reed has real depth, and the two play off one another excellently. Again, the special effects – which had caused some controversy – are satisfactory, and the use of shadow is intriguing. The Thing is vaguely sinister, just as he should be (comic book fans forget – he’s called the Thing for a reason, because people tend to see him and run away). The moment when he declares Ben’s famous catchphrase, “It’s clobbering time,” is one of the few highlights in the last third of the film.
Rounding out the four, Kate Mara pulls of an impressive Sue Storm, both before and after her transformation. I like the redesign of her innate abilities, giving her the skill of pattern recognition, and the film uses those abilities effectively; they’re not just a throwaway. The nice touch is that the interaction between Sue and Reed feels mostly natural, although I think there should have been a lot more difficulty between the two after Sue’s skills get him captured. Still, by that point the film was racing toward a conclusion, trying to get itself over and done with. Sadly, you’re left with the sense that Sue in particular could have been used far better – and probably would have been, if not for the rewrites.
The problems are found with the other characters. I wasn’t sold on Franklin Storm, who at first felt like little more than a second-rate Nick Fury trying to bring a team together. Toby Kebbell, too, was unconvincing in the role of Doctor Doom, which had been drastically rewritten due to social media outcry. It was pretty clear that neither Kebbell nor Josh Trank were particularly comfortable with the redesigned role, meaning almost every scene with Doom in it was at risk of sounding an off-note. His infatuation with Sue, when there's a clear age-difference, is disturbing - but led to a wonderfully awkward moment between Doom and Franklin Storm, in which you got a real hint of internal conflict within Cathey's character.
All in all, Fantastic Four shows all the signs of a brave director trying to do something unique, but getting straightjacketed by a studio who were more interested in starting a franchise. As a result, the film is one of the weakest superhero movies I’ve seen in a long time, and deserves much of the flak it’s getting. Ironically enough, it's pretty certain to fail to fulfil Fox's goals, too - I can't see there being a sequel or an X-Men tie-in anytime soon.