This film has received a truckload of negative criticism already, and there’s likely very little I can say here that hasn’t already been said elsewhere to express fandom’s at-large disappointment with 20th Century Fox’s latest effort to adapt Marvel Comics’ First Family, the Fantastic Four. Still, it’s a film that stands as a very interesting experiment. One thing that can be said for certain — at least from my perspective — is this: for a while there, Fantastic Four flirts with greatness.
Right from the opening scene depicting two of the main characters in their younger years, Fantastic Four feels like it has a strange sense of reality that most comic book films dealing with interdimensional gateways can’t lay claim to. The young actors have an earnestness in their performances, and as cheesy as these scenes could have been, they actually seemed to work. Then, after a jump ahead in time, we meet all of the principle players involved. We see how Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) have grown into solid friends, and we’re also introduced to Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her father Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), and the disgruntled Victor Von Doom (Tobey Kebbell) before meeting Franklin’s son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan).
It was easy to surrender to the journey the movie was taking us on in this early going, as you see these capable minds and craftsmen work to accomplish something that no human ever had before. There was decent humor in the scenes where they all work in the lab of the Baxter Building, emphasizing Reed’s awkwardness, Johnny’s attitude, and Sue’s determination. Even after having walked into the theater after the wide critical reception was very well-known, an impression was embedded into me: I was enjoying this.
Then, like a sharp gust of cold wind strong enough to blow out even the Human Torch, the entire movie changed dramatically.
It’s astonishing how different Fantastic Four becomes after the event which gives the characters their signature abilities. The movie went from a somewhat interesting exercise in weirdly realistic fringe science fiction in the first act, before ultimately throwing out so many superhero cinema clichés that it became an almost unrecognizable film when compared with how it started. Immediately after things calm down in the aftermath of the characters’ changes, one of them deserts the group entirely — without sufficient explanation — before the remaining three basically become government assets. Two of them are actively being used by the military against enemies of America, before a contrived and abrupt “breakthrough” causes the deserter to be brought back to the team by force. In the middle of all of that, the film jumps forward in time a full year, which just makes the character who left seem more cowardly, and that time jump doesn’t even pay off their absence with anything substantive whatsoever.
The real problems arise, though, when an entirely unnecessary supervillain — Dr. Doom — enters the picture. Being a film that’s already revolved so heavily around the personal relationships of the core characters and the government’s misuse of them and their abilities — that last part which already feels tacked on — you throw in an iconic comic book supervillain with a rich history in the source material to serve no other purpose than to create a final fight. A fight that certainly looks spectacular, but offers no emotional investment, nothing remotely out of the ordinary, and stakes that are, at best, nebulous, just for the mere fact that they come out of nowhere before slamming the audience and characters in the face with all the subtlety of a Mack Truck.
Director Josh Trank is a capable filmmaker, as evidenced by his previous work, and he’s already basically disowned this film by hinting that studio interference ultimately crippled what it could’ve been. I’m inclined to believe him, because for the briefest of moments, Fantastic Four looks like it could be something special. It plays with the fundamental rules of a comic book adaptation, builds up interesting extrapolations of familiar characters, and seems to set up a solid dynamic between them. For better or worse, though, it tried far too hard in the end to stand in-line with the rest of the pack instead of standing apart from it, and that ultimately makes it tragically forgettable.
In my view, the most positive thing that could come from this is that it gets us one step closer to a film where Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, and Reed Richards all work in a lab together to come up with a way for the Avengers and Fantastic Four to save us all from Galactus. We can dream, right?
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