Fantastic Four

Even the poster isn't very fantastic.
Even the poster isn’t very fantastic.

I admit that, based on the marketing campaign and the trailers, I actually expected this year’s ‘Fantastic Four’-reboot, with its more serious take on the source material and with ‘Chronicle’ director Josh Trank at the helm, to be a good movie. It came as genuine shock, then, to see it get the critical thrashing that it did within the first few days of its release. Still, being somewhat contrarian and desiring to form my own opinions about the film, I wanted to wait until I saw it before condemning it. I wound up catching it last night, the Saturday of its opening weekend, in a theatre with only two other people in it, a sign of how quickly poor word of mouth has spread. And I got to say, I totally understand why people are hating on it.

‘Fantastic Four,’ is a film with spectacular pacing problems, and while it apes some of the beats of better superhero films, it doesn’t really seem to understand the requirements of its own genre.

This has been stated by other critics elsewhere, but the first half of the movie actually is tolerable and works on the level of the lesser Marvel Cinematic Universe pictures. We get adequate, if not remarkable, introductions to the future members of the Fantastic Four as well as the future villain, Dr. Doom (or just Doom); there are some descent character moments on display; and the film does create some interest in the idea of teleportation–its main plot device and for which half of the running time is dedicated to these characters trying to discover. In particular, the movie spends a large amount of focus on Reed Richards and his personal desire to transport matter instantaneously, with the first ten minutes of the picture being a flash back to 2007* when an adolescent Richards first demonstrates that he actually can teleport small objects.

Again, it’s mostly alright; but I have two criticisms about this part of the film: 1) It does go on for an inordinately long amount of time, and after nearly an hour, these people still haven’t gotten their powers yet and remain focused on just trying to teleport; 2) Ben Grimm (the future The Thing), is portrayed in the film as not scientifically minded and is therefore not in on this teleportation team (which has every other Fantastic Four member as well as Doom) and is therefore wholly absent for about half an hour. This does his character, which is already underdeveloped, further disservice.

Eventually our protagonists do figure out how to teleport. Unfortunately, this is also when the movie really starts to fall apart. It proceeds to concoct the most contrived, inorganic reasons in the world to A) get our characters to teleport unsupervised to an unknown dimension, B) get Grimm back into the story so he can teleport with them, despite a lack of any expertise or preparation, and C) have our characters actually get their powers from this new dimension in a completely non-sensical manner.

Upon returning from this dimension, the movie loses any sense of pacing it once had. After some brief horrific imagery, the team gets taken to a secret base, where we get some minor “what the hell have I become?” moments from some of the characters (though again incredibly rushed and having no real impact). Then the film takes a very curious fast forward in time by one year, and we’re shown no real moments of our heroes learning how to use their powers**–the film just jumps to them having sort of already mastered them– thus denying what could have been one of the more interesting parts of this story and a solid basis for character growth. There’s really no emotional or story arcs on display here; things are just sort of happening to keep the movie from stalling too much. What’s more is we still haven’t really had any superhero action yet. We are well over an hour into this thing, and the closest we’ve come to are mere seconds-long moments seeing the future Fantastic Four display some of their powers.  Probably worst of all is the way it almost casually makes Grimm, now The Thing, a killer for the US government, something that goes completely against his character in the comics and never gets resolved in the film.

Anyways, eventually Doom, who had been abandoned in the alternate dimension after things went horribly wrong, returns, but only for about the last 20 minutes of the movie– if that. We find out the character has somehow survived and grown immensely powerful for reasons the film doesn’t really want to delve into. He briefly comes back to our dimension, only to be revealed to be completely psychopathic (again, with no real explanation); goes on a killing spree; returns to his dimension; and tries to destroy the Earth using black holes and very confusing logic. To summarize one of the main issues with this movie, ‘Fantastic Four,’ really doesn’t want to elaborate on any of what it does, even at a basic level. And while grounded justification isn’t a requirement in any superhero film, when combined with the other problems this film has, it only adds to the frustration.

Sloppy as it may be, Doom’s return finally gives us some superhero action in the film, our first real bit of it for this whole movie. Alas, it’s really underwhelming. The battle between the Fantastic Four and Doom is maybe a few minutes long at best, has no real exciting moments, and just kind of ends with Doom possibly or possibly not having died in a beam of pure energy (in the unlikely event that there is ever a sequel, I suspect the answer will be no). Our heroes are finally set up as the Fantastic Four, with support from the US government, only for the film to end. I guess we’ll have to wait for a sequel.

Frankly, though, that doesn’t seem likely. Not only has this film been a total critical flop, but, at least based on opening weekend estimates, a pretty bad commercial one too. It doesn’t seem like we’ll ever get a sequel out of it; the best we might do is a director’s cut of some sort. Director Josh Trank blames the Fox studio for tampering with his film to the point of it being genuinely awful, so it’s possible some decent version of this movie can be assembled from what footage was shot.

Normally, I don’t like to be a part of bandwagon hatred for a movie. But it’s kind of hard not to be frustrated by the missed opportunity of ‘Fantastic Four.’ Fox and Trank, it seemed, had an approach that was really going to work–they had a good cast, a nice new spin on the story, and an overall tone that would have made it seem fresh. Unfortunately, the horrid pacing, lack of sound character moments, and a near complete dearth in action undermined whatever chances this film had of being particularly good. There are some decent moments here and there, but as a whole, in regards to the source material, the budget, the talent working on it, and the expectations for comic book movies in 2015, ‘Fantastic Four’ is an unqualified disaster.

Maybe, at some point in the next thirty years, Fox will try rebooting this again. Maybe it’ll go back to Disney’s Marvel to be incorporated in the MCU. Maybe the rights will get bought by some other company and they’ll start from scratch. Maybe then we might get a good ‘Fantastic Four’ movie, where solid characters, a competent story, and exhilarating action are combined into an entertaining night at the theater. This film, though, isn’t it. And the sting of wasted potential will hang over it for quite some time.

*Was 2007 really that long ago?

**Okay, there are some bits involving Reed first discovering how to use his abilities, but they’re scarcely worth mentioning.

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