Between the unspectacular efforts that it was a reboot of, the widespread derision that every aspect of this films promotional material garnered from the “community” (by which I mean websites, forums and other media sources claiming to represent “nerd” and “geek” sub-culture), the alleged on-set antics of director Josh Trank, the panic-induced editing frenzy of the studio and the probably justified feeling that the entire production is meant more as a license retainer than an attempt at legitimate franchise creation, Fantastic Four had a hell of a lot going against it.
And that seemed to be reflected in the way that critics did react to it, the film holding an astonishingly low 8% on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing. But there was something about those early reviews – most of them describing something lacklustre as far as I could see, as opposed to a train wreck – and subsequent “second wave” pieces that are always a little more reasonable, that got me interested. I’ve never been a fan of the comic books and had little time for the Tim Story films, but in the end I just couldn’t resist going in to see this one afternoon. I guess I just wanted to see if the critical dogpile was deserved, or maybe I was attracted to the idea of a darker themed superhero movie, that happens to have a really brilliant cast that have all been in things I loved, from Whiplash to House Of Cards to Friday Night Lights. Is Fantastic Four as bad as they say, or is it, upon mature appraisal, redeemable?
Scientific prodigy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is brought into the prestigious Baxter Foundation by Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) to pursue the dream of achieving viable teleportation to another dimension. Working alongside Storm’s daughter Sue (Kate Mara), son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and protégé Victor von Doom (Toby Kemmel), and eventually bringing in former assistant Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Richards makes teleportation possible. But, after a disastrous first mission, Reed and the others are irrevocably changed, exhibiting powers and abilities beyond their understanding.
This is a really strange one for me, because I can’t bring myself to say that Fantastic Four is a good movie. At best, I’d say its average, the very definition of “Two Stars”, coming with a host of very evident problems. But I find myself in a situation where I feel compelled to defend it, this 98 minute mediocrity, because it is my belief that the critical drubbing it has taken is not justified. This is no 8% movie.
I mean, I could go on and on for quite a while about everything that it does wrong. An opening featuring a young Reed and Ben experimenting with garage-built teleporters could have been endearing, but I found the introduction to Richards more obnoxious than fascinating, and the friendship between the future Mr Fantastic and Thing was set-up and executed alarmingly fast (notwithstanding that great “Reed, you’re insane” “…Thanks” exchange). It continues into the next scenes, as everyone acts remarkably blaze about Reed and Ben’s actual working teleporter, Richards invited by a rapidly introduced Franklin Storm to come join him at his prodigy-filled lab. The film is so break-neck in the first 15 minutes, that you’re left wondering what the rush is. Unlike many others, I enjoy a good origin story, and I can appreciate it when a film takes its time with one.
But then suddenly Trank’s film turns the tempo way down, and a well-paced and patient origin starts to play out, and it’s in this section – I suppose the 20-50 minute mark – that Fantastic Four shines the brightest. Our five central characters are introduced to each other and actually get a chance to bounce off each other, with Kemmel’s unique version of the ridiculously named antagonist, a nihilistic but accessible young man struggling with a lack of direction and a subtly explored attraction to Sue, one of the stand-outs. But everyone is doing right in this section: Miles Teller brings a passion for scientist Reed, Mara gets her best moments as Sue, Jordan makes you really like the fiery (hey ooo) Johnny while, for a time, even Bell’s straightforward and stoic Grimm is endearing. A brief montage of the group working together and becoming friends, without any dialogue, does more to establish these characters and the bond that will define them than the entire first 20 minutes. Superhero films have really failed to take onboard the lesson of The Incredible Hulk, which is that reams of characteristion and backstory can effectively be told in this way, and fast.
But even I was starting to think that things were moving a bit too slow by the time that the central plot-forwarding event actually occurs. It must have been on or after the half-way mark, and that’s just simply too far into the narrative for the superhero origin to come about. Imagine if Peter Parker got bitten by that spider an hour in, or if it took one and half acts for the Wayne’s to get shot down. And that’s an ironic complaint, given the sudden ramp-up in tempo and narrative speed as we move forward.
There’s a period after the inevitable disaster that what must have been Trank’s personal vision comes to the fore the most, or at least I think so. Fantastic Four suddenly transforms into less of a superhero origin story, and more of a horror movie. The titular team are transformed utterly, and the framing and direction screams terror as opposed to wonder. They’ve been altered against their will, and the reaction to it is one of blind fear and desperation. And while I am no horror fan, I loved these moments. It’s such a fresh way to approach the superhero idea, in a market that was saturated long ago. These people don’t want their powers initially, they want their lives back, and the feeling is strong in some more than others. Jamie Bell successfully moves from live-action to CGI/voice work for the Thing, whose horror at his initial condition is effectively turned into a stoney-faced (hey ooo) coldness towards all around him. He even gets the best line of the film: “I’m not your friend…you turned me into something else.”
The horror continues right into the final act, but by then other problems have reared their heads. An inexplicable and badly thought out time jump occurs, placed way too late in the narrative and resolved remarkably quickly. The speed is on if Fantastic Four is going to get just over that 90 minute mark it seems, and the production just powers through its last act, where the main antagonist, while chillingly effective (a sequence featuring Doom demonstrating his powers might be the films best) is far too absent from the screen. A generic “Earth in peril” angle is slapped together, and a traditional superhero/supervillain battle erupts, lasting only a short time, any previous aspirations of anything more unique largely discarded. The film wraps everything up very quickly – way, way too quickly – with a closing scene that is as slapdash as it was unpalatable. The tempo and tone of Fantastic Four is all over the place, at its best when slow and cerebral, and at its worst when trying to pander to younger, less attentive, movie goers.
This film should have been two hours, at least. That extra 25 minutes could have given the film a lot more: the chance for a slower approach to the titular group getting their powers, more with a transformed and villainous Doom, maybe an action scene for the mid-section (badly needed, it’s still a superhero film after all) and a method to simply relax the frantic pace of the last act. Just a scene here and there, and this would automatically have added up to a better product. But that simply does not occur, and the signs of finicky studio editing is all over the final cut of Fantastic Four like a bad rash.
Whatever the stories of Trank’s behaviour on set and off it during production, I can appreciate the effort he put in here. The masses and the “community” spend a large amount of time decrying anything that has a dark colour palette when it comes to superheroes (while, you know, giving Man Of Steel over $200 million in pure profit) but I like it, and I liked the way that Fantastic Four looked. Right from the off, in Reed’s dingy little classroom, the overall mood is one of grey and dark blue, with the brighter colours of Tim Story cast away, a more realistic, almost militaristic, look to things, from the sets to the uniforms. Fantastic Four was made, relatively speaking, on the cheap, with mostly indoor locations and green screen, but I never felt like that showed. When Trank’s own vision for the film is playing out, like in that great Doom introduction or in the more patient moments in the first act, the camerawork is done with poise and skill. Elsewhere, it’s all a bit more rushed and unsatisfying, and I guess we’ll never really know who was responsible for what. The script, that Trank is partially responsible for along with X-Men alum Simon Kinbeg and relative newcomer Jeremy Slater is similarly hit and miss. You’ll groan over Sue Storm’s lame pop psychology interactions with Reed during the start, and you’ll despise that closing scene. But elsewhere, especially with a pre-catastrophe Doom, the interactions between the elder and junior male Storm’s and the attempts to place a wonder of science at the forefront, there is better, more carefully crafted wordplay on display.
Some brief spoiler-talk follows.
-Grimm as the quiet reserved guy next to Reed’s more overt scientific craziness could have worked very well if it had been handled just a bit better. But Grimm gets a little hard to like when he’s so stoic that he fails to exhibit the proper reaction to the creation of the teleporter, actual teleportation, or his first look at “Planet Zero” all of which he does with a look on his face of “Oh, this is nice”.
-I’m sure there was something to Tim Blake Nelson’s character constantly chewing gum – even in his quarantine suit – but nothing ever came of it.
-I can’t have been the only one put off by the plot point of Reed, Johnny, Victor and Ben going on their teleportation expedition sozzled. It didn’t exactly make them endearing.
-“Planet Zero” was pretty cool, and works a lot better as a plot device than “cosmic radiation”. But not enough time is really spent there. Presumably any planned sequel/will would have gone back to the concept.
-Sue Storm needed more to do in this film. The way she gets her powers is largely passive – she’s just a bystander to the stupidity of the male characters – and after that all she really gets to do in terms of character is be the non-militant one, who tracks down Reed (what the hell was up with that?) and tries to talk her brother down. Lacking the traditional romance plot-line, the film runs out of ideas for her early.
-The “One Year Later” angle was moronic. Somehow Reed is successfully staying on the run, and the other three are given huge leaps in characterisation that we never see. The horror element is lost completely, and it’s hard to stay engaged.
-Case in point, we see brief glimpses of the Thing out on assignment kicking ass and taking names, but it’s all on TV’s in the background. Why not actually have a sequence where the Thing takes on some terrorists or something? Better yet, why not have a sequence where all of the Four do that?
-The angle of Reed being the runaway and being sundered from a bitter Ben had some legs, but got lost somewhere in the morose of the third act.
-I really did like Doom’s look, which was far enough from his traditional appearance to feel new and close enough not to piss all over tradition.
-The sequence where Doom stalks the halls of the military installation, blowing up heads with his mind, was amazingly done, with Trank clearly calling back to the super powered horror elements of Chronicle.
-It was a major step-up in the visual blood stakes though, with little subtlety in showing heads exploding and blood splattering (though they were careful not to make Franklin Storm’s head pop).
-A real shocker to see Franklin Storm buy it. Noooooot.
-That led into the final fight, which was fine on its own merits – individually they fail, but together they beat him, which is surely one of the central tenants you want to get across with this property – but did feel so rushed in many aspects, not least the sudden peril to Earth and the way Doom just disintegrates.
-I did struggle to suddenly buy Reed as the authoritative leader, perfectly able to direct the others and engage with Doom hand to hand. Again, just very sudden characterisation.
-And the tone shifts were all over the place by then. In sequence, we had horror with the origins, then a sort of fugitive story for a while, then back to sci-fi with the return to Planet Zero, then more horror with Doom’s rampage, a bit of family drama in the middle, then traditional superhero showdown to cap it all off. Tone is so important for film, and changing gears scene to scene is never a good idea.
-I do appreciate Reed’s last line to Doom: “I am smarter than you”.
-The US military all too easily agrees to the Four’s demands. I really hated that. Why even have that scene? Also, no one really seems to care all that much that Franklin Storm died.
-The final scene was truly atrocious. I can only imagine the embarrassment on set as they went through the motions on that, all the way up to that dire last line.
Is Fantastic Four a good film? No. Is it a bad film? Not really. It’s average, with good and bad elements. The tone shifts are jarring, the tempo changes way too much throughout, and some characters get unjustifiably side-lined. But the meat and bones of the origin tale are solid, the cast is fine for the most part and the visual direction was interesting. Obviously, I think that whatever Josh Trank’s preferred version of the film would have been a better overall product, but Fantastic Four, as it is, is not the pile of trash that it has been made out to be.
I mean, I think that this film stands up as a good barometer for problems with the film criticism industry. To tell me that Fantastic Four can be 8% on the most referenced review aggregator, while badly written, sexist, and frequently insulting dreck like Jurassic World can be 71%, just seems crazy. Fantastic Four is a better film than Jurassic World, and I have no doubts about saying that. And, though I haven’t seen it, I absolutely refuse to believe that the latest edition of the Adam Sandler comedy swindle, Pixels, is twice as good at 16%.
I fear that the latent hostility of the “community”, that was never interested in giving Fantastic Four a fair shot if we’re all being honest with ourselves, and the tendency of film reviewers to gleefully bring out the knives when even the smallest hint of production trouble rears its head (see John Carter for another appalling example of that) doomed Fantastic Four, as much as any of those aforementioned production troubles or studio interference. Because Fantastic Four is not all that bad. I found myself enjoying a lot of it, and I certainly did not feel like the price of the ticket was wasted. Indeed, if for no other reason than I think that Fantastic Four deserves more consideration from people, I have no problem in recommending it.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).