Created by Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby back in 1961, the Fantastic Four were the first superheroes of Marvel’s “Silver Age”. They pioneered the company’s style, storytelling style and ideas for years, with many of the most endearing characters starting in the pages of “The World’s Greatest Comic’s Magazine”. Even the Marvel movies of today use a lot of ideas and concepts from the Fantastic Four; for example, Ronan the Accuser, the main villain from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy? Originally a Fantastic Four villain!
Despite this legacy though, the characters have had a pretty rough time of it in terms of film incarnations, which partially comes down to issues with the rights. In 1994 Roger Corman infamously produced a version of the FF for less than $2million, purely so the rights holders could keep hold of them; it was never officially released. Then there were the two films from the mid-2000s, which weren’t great, with the second one in particular getting some well-deserved stick for how it treated one of the most memorable characters from the comics, Galactus. Now comes this new version directed by Josh Trank who previously gave us the clever found-footage superpower movie Chronicle. Really, this film mainly exists because if it didn’t, Twentieth Century Fox would have to give the film rights back to Marvel Studios. But does the finished product transcend these mercenary motives and give us the film that the First Family of Marvel truly deserve? Well…
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has been experimenting all his life with a potential method for teleportation, only to discover after being headhunted by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) that it’s actually a form of interdimensional travel. So, recruited to a research team including Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordon), adoptive daughter Susan (Kate Mara) and his arrogant protégé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed is able to crack a full scale version. Thus the team decide to investigate this new world that the dimensional gate leads to, with the help of Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). But there are strange forces on this other Earth, and when the expedition returns, they have been changed in the most fantastic ways…
The set up for this version takes a lot of its cues less from the original comics and more the Ultimate Fantastic Four reboot comics from Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Millar, which also went to interdimensional rather than space travel. It’s the early segment of the film, leading up to the Four gaining their powers, that works best. In particular, the very first few scenes with Reed and Ben as kids has a feel reminiscent of Joe Dante’s Explorers, as they make an early version of the gate in the garage. For the present day scenes though, there’s another obvious inspiration, and one that you wouldn’t necessarily think of inspiring a superhero film; David Cronenberg’s The Fly. There are a lot of similarities in terms of set up and plot (even down to the decision to try the new technology being made when the main character is drunk.) but the most important one is the focus on character in these scenes. It’s here where the characters are properly allowed to be developed, with the feelings between Reed and Sue and Victor’s ego issues being set up. The build up to the fateful moment they take that journey is great… what happens next is where the film hits a brick wall.
Once they actually get their abilities, most of the characters personalities dry up, and none of them really get to interact in a way that makes that set up worth it. Ben in particular is barely in the first part of the film except for scenes with Reed, and when he becomes The Thing, he’s still isolated from everyone else. (Incidentally, the decision to remove The Thing’s trunks is really distracting, it just looks wrong!) Victor returns fully powered as Dr. Doom, but all his ego and charisma are gone, he’s just got an incredibly shallow ‘destroy everything’ motive, an awful looking mask, and powers from another Cronenberg movie, which will surprise you in terms of what a 12A film can get away with these days. The film also takes a jump forward in time, which means all the scenes of the characters properly learning to use their powers (which is the main reason one does an origin story) happen off screen! There are some interesting plot threads in this section teased, but all are left unresolved, as Doom turns up just to go ‘nope, climax time’ and just beams the Four to the final fight, which is literally the first time all Four characters are on screen at the same time, barely ten minutes before the end!
That highlight’s the film’s biggest problem; there’s hardly any of the Fantastic Four in the film! Oh, the characters are around from beginning to end, but in terms of them actually as a superhero team, not a whole lot. In fact, this may set a new record for the superhero team with the least superhero action compared to the runtime. So much time is spent on the set-up, on the details of the dimensional gate experiments, that there’s not only barely any left for action, but the little there is is pretty short and unsatisfying. Even the full action climax, with them properly working together co-ordinating their powers, feels like it’s over and done with in barely a minute. It also lacks a lot of the feel, heart, and scope of the comics. While there are plenty of character references and details gotten right (even down to points like pointing out that Ben Grimm is Jewish), it just doesn’t feel like the Fantastic Four. The opening act has some nice character beats and moments of humour (although revealing that the Thing’s “It’s Clobbering Time!” catchphrase was something said by his bullying brother is a major misstep), but after that, it’s just so grim and serious. The four don’t get along, mope, break apart entirely, and even when they do get together, there’s no sense of victory, even the final epilogues are dour. Also, this is probably a complete coincidence but a lot of aspects of the climactic fight are very reminiscent of Big Hero 6 earlier this year… only not as good.
This is a shame, because there’s a lot of talent working on this film, but once the film stops being a sci-fi and starts being a superhero tale, they get nothing to work with (although Michael B. Jordan is fun to watch the whole way through). It’s so grim and dark, pretty much the antithesis of what the comic’s Fantastic Four are all about. Above everything else the film commits one of the worst crimes of this sort of blockbuster; it’s BORING! The early set-up bits are nice, but once it’s clear none of that’s going anywhere, it feels like a waste of time. The whole thing seems like they were so sure that a full franchise is coming from this (and indeed a sequel has already been announced) that they didn’t bother to make sure the first film could stand on its own. Part of the problem may be down to overediting and reshoots; there’s at least one major gag from one of the trailers entirely absent from the finished film, so perhaps a stronger “director’s cut” is possible? As it stands though, of all the Fantastic Four films, this strays the furthest of all of them from Stan & Jack’s style and vision of characters, especially in terms of the fun. The best FF film ever made is still, officially, The Incredibles. Skip this one.
Oh, and there’s no Stan Lee cameo or a thing at the end of the credits. In Marvel film terms, that probably carries the death penalty!