20th Century Fox, 2015
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank
Director: Josh Trank
Out of 5: 2
For decades, the Fantastic Four comics were the place you went for wacky four-color adventures. Intergalactic space pirates, giant aliens threatening to devour the Earth, a hero who liked to announce the arrival of “clobberin’ time,” and all the rest. Real-world social issues sometimes came into play, but usually in the weirdest way possible, such as our heroes meeting actual Richard Nixon (see item #5 in this AV Club Inventory) or a bigoted super-villain who turned out to be literally Adolf Hitler.
Well, forget all that, Fantastic Four says. Someone, either studio 20th Century Fox or director Josh Trank, ordered all of the wackiness to be done away with. Before the film is even five minutes old, one of the four protagonists has been established to be a product of child abuse, and later the film will deliver some creepy violence closer in tone to Alien than any superhero movie. Maybe a grim-and-gritty-yet-successful version of this comic is possible, but Trank hasn’t produced it. Instead, he’s produced something so messy that it may kill the superhero movie as a genre.
The origin of the Fantastic Four is as comic-book as they get: precocious genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) attempts to innovate new ways to travel beyond Earth, but instead he irradiates himself, his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), love interest Sue Storm (Kate Mara), and her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) with cosmic energies that mutate them and give them superpowers. This movie inserts the idea that rival scientist Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) is transformed in the same incident, but into something far worse.
This is all established by the end of Act One, and although the grim-and-grittiness mixes awkwardly with the wild science by that point, nothing has gone too far wrong. Then, the disaster begins.
For reasons known only to Trank and 20th Century Fox, the film skips ahead to “One Year Later,” where the heroes’ powers have all been established and mastered, and a year’s worth of drama seems to have gone on between them without the audience seeing a second of it. It’s almost as if Trank wanted to make two movies – one in which the four protagonists are established and obtain their powers in its final scene, and a sequel in which they learn to use their powers to deal with both an intrusive government and Doctor Doom – but was forced to edit all of his material into one film. After that “One Year Later” title card, the characters are thrown into the middle of an entirely different story, only loosely tied together to what came before by the fact that the actors playing them haven’t changed.
This awkward transition causes a gifted cast to go absolutely to waste. Teller and Jordan have already turned in Oscar-caliber performances in other movies, and Mara possesses a certain je ne sais quois which says, “I’m brilliant but I’m also really awkward!” in a way that few actresses can do. But the film has a shocking lack of drama – because of the strange plot shift, there’s a shocking lack of attempts at drama. Mara and Teller have only three scenes together: the first two suggest a burgeoning love, but the last suggests so much water has passed under the bridge that they’re in a totally different place. We haven’t seen that water. We haven’t seen that bridge. We have no idea what is supposed to be happening.
A bad superhero film can still find its way in the final act, because all it really needs is a solid round of villain-punching with big stakes on the line. Fantastic Four drops that ball also; in fact, the final act might have the worst storytelling of the entire film. Once Doom comes back into the plot, it’s not established what his powers are, what the bizarre device is that he uses to harness them, or how his scheme to rule the world is supposed to work. All that Trank provides are a frenetic splash of special effects – wretched special effects, little more than five actors standing on a green-screen soundstage – along with the assertion that his audience should care.
This is a sad, sad drop for Trank, whose film Chronicle seemed to understand superhero stories in a way that not even Marvel has done. He had an ability to start from the pain and loneliness of the villain and build backwards, until he reached the responsibilities that the hero must shoulder, and allowed for all of his actors to portray that growth on screen. None of that is on display here. Kebbell’s scenes establishing Doom as a brilliant-yet-pained genius are clumsy, and his transformation into total nihilist by the end happens for no reason other than “we need a villain in this movie.”
The great critic Sam Adams collected the evidence: Trank tweeted that he “had a fantastic version of this” a year ago, implying that 20th Century Fox destroyed his creation. That may be true; such things happen every day in Hollywood. Trank later deleted the tweet, so maybe it’s not true, but more likely it’s so true that it would harm Trank’s career to say so. There’s only one certainty: the Fantastic Four that turned up in theaters is so far from good that it’s impossible to imagine Trank’s dream version. What’s on the screen here is nothing short of a disaster.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.