It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that the Fantastic Four reboot by Fox has been nothing short of a critical, commercial and financial disaster. It’s been the subject of memes, internet derision, some of the lowest ratings on internet movie review sites in history, and plagued by numerous reports of a fractious relationship between the director Josh Trank and the studio and the cast. However, there are remarkably, a few bright spots.
Fantastic Four relies heavily on the Ultimate version of the characters and focuses early on the relationship between Reed Richards and Ben Grimm. Each is the counterpoint to the other; Reed brilliantly intelligent but oblivious to human intimacies, and Ben earthy and robust, yet trusting and loyal. Adding to this are the adopted siblings of Sue and Johnny Storm and their brilliant scientist father Franklin. These four are the building blocks of the Fantastic Four as comic book readers have come to know them (until very recently as Marvel has now infamously not only cancelled the title but broken the team up and put them in other books) and should have enough diversity to draw in most viewers.
Out of all the cast, Jamie Bell (best known as Billy Elliot) shines as Ben Grimm. He shows Ben’s vulnerability and desire to protect and understand Reed, and upon his transformation into the Thing, his sense of betrayal and confusion, willing to do anything to return to his human self. Even in his CGI form, Bell remembers the physicality of his character, and his eyes are his own which adds to the innate pathos which is the essence of Ben Grimm.
Almost capturing Reed Richards is Miles Teller. By almost, I must stress here that when the script and time allows, Teller conveys Reed’s awkwardness with other people but also his loyalty and sense of moral justice. But these moments are achingly few and far between and more often than not, Teller’s Reed is a cipher of a character who flukes his way into being the team leader by having a plan.
Micheal B. Jordan (who worked with director Trank in his debut film Chronicle) is a somewhat average Johnny Storm. An astute podcaster noted that for a film that touts Johnny’s ability to repair anything, the first time we see him on screen is during a scene where something he has made fails. Spectacularly. Instead of Chris Evans’ wisecracking, impulsive Johnny Storm, Jordan’s Storm seems to be more of an angry young teen who, even with his father’s guidance, seems determined to make wrong choices.
Kate Mara’s Sue Storm bounces from capable scientist to practically forgotten about supporting character. The essential chemistry needed to have a believable pairing with Teller’s Richards is non-existent and they play more as friends than potential romantic leads. She herself is given a lacklustre backstory and as the Invisible Woman, she’s just that. Invisible. Far from being the heart of the team, Mara’s Sue is seemingly along for the ride for most of the movie, reacting rather than being proactive for much of it.
Toby Kebbell’s Victor von Doom is massively underwhelming, from his introduction as precocious hacker (with lip service given to his background) to nihilistic villain, neither of which is convincing. Kebbell is never convincing as someone with good motivations turned bad, and even less as ‘Doom’. His motivations are never fleshed out and his rationale even less. Disappointing is the best way to describe him.
Tim Blake Nelson (last seen in a Marvel film as Samuel Sterns in The Incredible Hulk) and Reg E. Cathy as Franklin Storm deserve mention for at least trying their best in small roles. Nelson pulls off a convincing if not predictable turn as someone motivated by profit and power and Cathy provides a good counter-balance as the ethical Dr. Storm, who cares more for his children than science, but realizes this almost too late in the piece. Both are fine actors, but are dispensed with (literally) far too quickly.
And quickly is the essence of this film which feels like it has suffered a schism. It often does not know what it wants to be, be it a body horror film, a superhero movie or a science fiction movie. Much of this can be attributed to the behind the scenes friction during the film’s production; many reports attribute Matthew Vaughn (a producer on the production) having to replace a drunken Trank for a number of scenes and these are clearly visible. Where Trank’s movie is dark, both in terms of writing and cinematography, Vaughn’s scenes are brightly lit, energetic and kinetic.
However, the script is lethargic and bloated. Too much time is spent establishing Reed and Ben’s friendship, and more than two-thirds of the movie is setup for the origin of the Four’s powers. When the superhero action does take place, it is brief, not often very well realized and largely unimaginative. It looks, feels and plays as being forced and this reviewer personally suspects the ending was forced upon the production, as rushed as it is.
I had mentioned a bright light earlier, and aside from Jamie Bell, it is remarkably the darker tone that Trank attempts with this movie, turning it into a body horror science fiction along the lines of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, where Fantastic Four shines. Most superhero movies of late sidestep the downsides to what it means to gain abilities that makes those who gain them different. Here, Trank emphasises the horrific nature of unwanted and uncontrolled powers, and when ‘Doom’ is introduced, we see that horror externalized in truly shocking and brutal ways. But these comprise two tiny segments of the movie and are completely undercut or contradicted by the scenes around them. However, they offer a tantalizing glimpse of a very different kind of movie.
Ultimately, Fantastic Four is a failure. With no room to breathe in the running time, no sense of telling a concise story on screen (a subplot involving Reed is dispensed with entirely, leaving one to wonder why it was introduced at all) and a deeply uneven sense of tone and even continuity, it’s no wonder this movie has fans calling for the return of the movie rights to Marvel Studios. Arguably, Josh Trank’s Hollywood career is over, having a movie lose over 100 million dollars US in his first outing. All of this and any potential crossing over with the more successful X-Men franchise is gone.
This is not, amazingly, the worse superhero movie ever made. But it’s understandable why many think it would be.