In terms of film, it is hard to find a superhero franchise with a more unfortunate track record than the Fantastic Four movies. In 1994, a hilariously bad (good?) Roger Corman adaptation was slapped together at the last second on a non-budget to maintain the film rights, and in 2005, we got a version with Jessica Alba that was stupid enough to spawn a sequel with Doug Jones as the Silver Surfer. And yet, those two versions still got some things right that were mostly or completely missing in the latest and, perhaps, even worse movie: (1) the tone and (2) the team dynamic. In this new Fantastic Four movie, the first time we see all four of the eponymous Marvel Comics heroes in the same room together is during the climactic battle
Even if that weren’t the case, it is so uncharacteristically dark and depressing in its depiction of these beloved characters that it feels like one of the overly gritty DC movies we’ve been seeing lately. If I tell you that Ben Grimm in this version got his catchphrase “It’s clobbering time” from something his abusive brother used to say before beating him up, that should tell you enough.
The main heroes are Miles Teller as isolated dweeb Reed Richards, Kate Mara as the level-headed Sue Storm, Michael B. Jordan as the reckless Johnny Storm, and Jamie Bell as the troubled Benn Grimm. As with many reboots/reimaginings, certain changes have been made here. For instance, the heroes are now college (?) kids instead of fully grown and experienced researchers, Sue and Johnny Storm are still siblings in spite of one being black, and as for what they did to Doctor Doom, well, I’ll get to that.
The film’s plot is kicked off when an almost-working teleporter, constructed by childhood friends Reed and Ben, catches the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue at a school science fair. Franklin believes that Reed may be useful to a project he’s running, which involves inter-dimensional travel and science gibberish. Franklin brings Reed along to his lab, where they use his knowledge to perfect the machine they need to travel to a whole new dimension that they’ve only barely managed to come in contact with. Here’s where Reed also meets Johnny, plus a humanity-despising young man who mostly sits inside his lab and listens to Mozart, named Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Yeah, a much more gritty and serious take on the source material yet they still kept the silly name of the main antagonist. Interesting.
After the teleporter is tested and completed, but the team isn’t permitted to actually use it since they aren’t astronauts, Reed (the “smart one”) decides to say “screw it” and brings along Von Doom, Johnny and Ben for a quick trip over to the new dimension. Here they infer that the smartest thing to do next is walk out on a bunch of unstable rocks that are emitting some sort of green ooze, which eventually starts exploding all over the place and without any explanation in particular grants our heroes their superhuman abilities and seemingly kills Doom. Notice that Sue was never with them on the trip, but it’s okay, she gets some of the super-goo on her when trying to bring the others back to our world.
So now they all have their signature powers – invisibility, fire, rocks, ya know – and are in government custody until Reed uses his powers of becoming stretchy to flee and go off the grid. What’s next? Oh nothing, we just abruptly cut to one year later when the other three are all working for the government and being forced to use their powers for war. Then not much of anything interesting happens until Reed suddenly comes back and the movie remembers that, oh right, it’s supposed to have the Fantastic Four fighting a villain at the end, at which point the portal to the other dimension is re-opened and the stereotypical evil government dude (Tim Blake Nelson) notices that Von Doom is still alive and more misanthropic than ever. This is all done so that Doctor Doom can be a “sudden bad guy” for 10 minutes at the end and try to suck up our entire dimension in the portal to fuse it with the other one because he hates humanity… or… something. With this, I can finally start talking about how the characters look this time around.
It is no secret that this movie bears little visual resemblance to the original comics, even less so than the 2005 movie. Instead of Doctor Doom’s iron mask and green cloak, his skin has now become grotesquely fused with a melted spacesuit and some of the green ooze can be seen shining through cracks in his armor, making him look like the charred, radioactive corpse of C-3PO. The blue Fantastic Four suits that are designed specifically to match their powers have all been “updated” and none of them look cooler thanks to it. For example, in order to stretch himself more easily, Reed apparently needs to wear a suit that looks like it has slinkys for arms and legs. Also, Ben Grimm wears no pants now so there’s that.
I went to see this movie with my brother and father. Dad wanted to see it mainly because he was a huge Fantastic Four fan in his youth and wanted to see how badly they messed it up this time but also because he’s friends with one of the VFX lighting guys, while my brother and I saw it because Tim Heidecker is in it for a little while. And probably also because all the negative reviews that this film’s been getting in such a short time got us curious. The director, Josh Trank, who made a much better superhero film in 2012 called Chronicle, is not entirely to blame, however.
Anyone who knows how Fox operates behind the scenes won’t be surprised to learn that this movie is mostly their fault, as the director has gone on record saying the studio botched his film. Right on the very day it was released, Josh Trank took to Twitter and told all of his followers that they may have liked his movie had they seen what it looked like one year ago. Although, Trank himself allegedly showed up on the set both drunk and high as a result of having his movie ruined so there may be more to it.
I should point out that I’m not trying to say that the imagery in this movie isn’t effective; it just felt so wrong that it was associated with the Fantastic Four. If this had another title, possibly starting with “David Cronenberg’s”, I might have liked it fine as a sci-fi body horror film. But as I know the Fantastic Four, they’re supposed to be a fun and loveable bunch. I’m not sure what’s fun about seeing Ben Grimm scream in agony and beg for help as he transforms into The Thing for the first time. And if that’s not enough, wait ’til your eyes get a taste of a version of the Human Torch that looks like a demonic harlequin baby.
Disregarding the fact that it’s just such a grim and disturbing take on the source material, though, the film itself still isn’t very good. Some of the effects are pretty lame (the “other dimension” looks completely artificial and The Thing’s eyes are really weird) and the acting feels emotionless and awkward, mostly during scenes where the characters are supposed to be happy, almost as if none of the actors liked being there. The best performance in the movie is that of Kate Mara, who is infinitely more believable as the mature no-nonsense scientist Sue Storm is supposed to be than Jessica “All This Science Better Not Ruin My Hair And Make-up” Alba ever was. I also enjoyed the guy who played Doom just fine, even if the character hasn’t got much to do with Doctor Doom.
Certain things in this movie are really good, such as the sound design (that caused ripples in the movie screen at my theatre), some of the effects, and a promising intro that made me think of either a classic Spielberg movie or just “Primer with kids”. But if you don’t think you could stomach a Fantastic Four movie where the climactic battle between the heroes and the villain feels like a rushed afterthought, the heroes themselves hardly ever interact, the villain is much more over-powered than in the comics (and ironically more goofy due to how overly dark he is), or where everything is just plain sad and scary, then go rewatch the Roger Corman movie instead. Or hell, watch the Jessica Alba movie. I can’t promise either of those will be better, but at least you won’t feel depressed after watching them.