The Good: Decent effects, Good set-up, Most of the performances
The Bad: Plot/character progression
The Basics: Fantastic 4 gets a reboot that has been taking flack . . . which is largely undeserved until the film's latter portion.
When it comes to super hero films, the market has been pretty well saturated the last few years. With the monumental success of The Avengers (reviewed here!), it is understandable for studios to want to try to replicate the financial success of movies like that. But from a fan perspective, it is hard not to feel burned out. The plots have become formulaic, the characters have very minimal differences and in team scenarios, they tend to fall into "types" pretty fast. So, when a studio works to reinvigorate one of the fallen franchises, it is unsurprising that there would be some blowback.
In the case of Fantastic 4, the production and hype has been an uphill battle. Fantastic 4 is struggling to reboot the franchise that was killed by Fantastic Four (reviewed here!) and Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (reviewed here!). Fox invested quite a bit of money in one of the most lucrative (at the time) comic book franchises with its attempt at Fantastic Four. That it was not the box office knockout Fox wanted was hard to swallow and given that they had invested money in the rights, it made a lot of sense (from a business perspective) to make Fantastic 4. So much has been said about Fantastic 4 and how it stacks up against the comic books and people's perceptions that I decided to make a bitch-free review of Fantastic 4. As someone who was not a reader of Fantastic Four, I felt that gave me the ability to write a pretty pure review of the film and I managed to avoid all spoilers and previews of the film.
Going in with low expectations, what instantly impressed me about Fantastic 4 was that there was a sense of philosophy to it. While others have devoted a lot of time kvetching about how Johnny and Sue Storm are adopted brother and sister in Fantastic 4, it is hard to take such whining seriously when the writers spend so much time on Dr. Franklin Storm (their adopted father) in the first part of the film. The writers covered their bases in establishing the Storm pater's commitment to science and the way he has recruited for his projects at the Baxter Foundation. Dr. Storm openly acknowledges that his generation made some big mistakes that have left the world ruined (say what you will about the Millennials, they weren't the ones who created the hole in the ozone layer or the immense wealth disparity that resulted from the destruction of the middle class!) and that it will take applied young minds working together to solve those problems. Thematically, there is a lot in common between Fantastic 4 and Iron Man (reviewed here!) and the result is not terrible.
Opening in Oyster Bay, New York 2007, Reed Richards does a report in elementary school explaining how he wants to create a usable teleporter. He properly meets Ben Grimm when he tries to steal a power converter from Grimm's family junkyard. Years later, Richards attempts the same experiment with his (and Grimm's) more refined teleporter. While it does not go very well, it is enough to get the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm of the Baxter Foundation. Storm recruits Reed to the Baxter Foundation to work on their teleportation project. There, Reed Richards is told by Sue Storm that Richards actually punched a hole into another dimension with his teleportation project and the Baxter Foundation is building up to a mission to that other dimension. With the help of Dr. Victor Von Doom (who started the project independent of Richards years before) and Johnny Storm (who is a mechanical genius), the Baxter Foundation successfully creates the interdimensional teleporter and sends a test monkey there and back again.
When the government gets involved in the project and wants to turn the teleporter over to NASA for a proper manned mission, Reed Richards gets drunk with Von Doom and suggests that they go before NASA can take over. Contacting Grimm, Richards, Johnny Storm and Victor Von Doom hijack the teleporter and go over into the alternate dimension. Disaster strikes in the other dimension when the team discovers a crater with an energy (or fluid, it's not entirely clear) that reacts to the presence of the human invaders. Victor Von Doom is lost there, but Sue manages to rescue the other three. Unfortunately, the team that returns is mutated and taken to Area 57 for examination by the military. Reed Richards is stretched, Johnny Storm is trapped in a state of being engulfed in flames, Grimm has turned into a giant rock-covered creature and Sue (who was splattered with matter from the other dimension) keeps flashing in and out of the visual spectrum. After a year of training, Grimm and the Storms have managed to use their powers to aid the military, while Richards has gone on the run. The military wants to figure out how to cure the four and weaponize their powers to benefit the military, while Reed just wants to help people, most notably his friends. When Richards is returned to the Baxter Foundation, they recover Von Doom - who is still alive - and his transformation convinces Richards that the alternate dimension must not be accessed by the military.
Right off the bat, what is easily the most impressive aspect of Fantastic 4 is the acting of Miles Teller. Teller plays Reed Richards and before this project, I had mostly seen Teller in roles where he played a redneck, like Footloose (reviewed here!). It's a pretty huge leap to go from a role like that to being one of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe. While Teller is not given the diction needed to truly sell it (that's a writing problem, not an acting one!), he credibly plays the scientific and precise Reed Richards. In fact, his posture and bearing and the way he projects a sense of confidence, is entirely different in the role of Richards than anything he has been in before.
The rest of the performances in Fantastic 4 are largely the subject of good casting. Kate Mara picks up the mantle of Sue Storm and her experience on House Of Cards (season one is reviewed here!) makes her casting ideal. Mara has the ability to emote well opposite blank screens (on House Of Cards, it was smartphones, here is it monitors and bluescreens) and that ability to control her face and eyes. That helps her characterize Sue as a cerebral character whose real ability is pattern recognition.
Similarly, Reg E. Cathey's role as Dr. Franklin Storm allows Fantastic 4 to have a level of instant credibility. Cathey finds the right balance between emotionally realized and paternal and intellectually curious. The rest of the cast is adequate, but not exceptional. Tim Blake Nelson does not have the screen presence as the suit who starts using the Baxter project for the military to be completely credible. Jamie Bell, Michael B. Jordan and Toby Kebbell are not Andy Serkis and director Josh Trank is not using them the way Peter Jackson used Serkis and special effects. While Trank does an excellent job of not overwhelming Miles Teller with special effects (for the most part), Bell, Jordan and Kebbell are eventually overwritten entirely by the CG needed to embody their characters.
Ultimately, the problems that arise in Fantastic 4 come almost exclusively from conformity to the established material (which is ironic given that most people's issues are with how the film diverges from it). In making Fantastic 4, the writers and director are trapped with their perception that Sue, Johnny, Ben and Reed have to end up as the heroes, opposite Von Doom as the villain. As a result, they create an unfortunately typical super hero film that unites the four against Von Doom to save the Earth.
But, the problem is that that dialectic does not at all fit the story being told. Fantastic 4 has a very natural progression up until the moment Victor Von Doom is "rescued" from the alternate dimension (where he has been living contendedly enough over the year since the accident). At that point, Von Doom begins a ridiculous attack on Earth that is utterly uncharacteristic. The writers are stuck trying to make Von Doom conform an the result is as inorganic as the Romulan villains in Star Trek: Nemesis (reviewed here!) and Star Trek (reviewed here!). In Star Trek: Nemesis, Shinzon is tortured for years by Romulans and allies himself with the Remans . . . so it is entirely inorganic for the character to have a beef against the Federation (the writers concocted a ridiculous reason to have him go after Picard) as opposed to attack Romulus. Similarly, in Star Trek, Nero is tortured by Klingons for decades and had the desire only to save his homeworld, so the fact that he doesn't lay waste to the Klingon Empire and save Romulus, as opposed to going off on a half-assed mission of revenge against Spock plays as just stupid (the writers of the Star Trek franchise have, apparently, forgotten how to make a compelling film where the heroes come to the aid of another group of people who are not human). To bring the point around, the writers of Fantastic 4 get trapped with a similar problem based on how they began the movie.
Fantastic 4 has a completely sensible ending based on where and how the story begins. It is that after Reed Richards is betrayed by Sue and Ben and returned to the Baxter Foundation, Richards either destroys the interdimensional device (which cuts Von Doom out entirely) or he is compelled to help rebuild the machine, the military sends its team over and recovers Von Doom and Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom work together to return Von Doom to the alternate dimension and then destroy the device. Instead, Victor Von Doom in Fantastic 4 begins a half-assed attack on Earth from his adopted planet in the alternate dimension. This makes no real sense as Von Doom just wants to be left alone and get away from the Earth that humans have ruined. Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom actually have the same goal and with about thirty seconds worth of conversation could have worked together to achieve that goal.
The problem, of course, is that would fundamentally redefine the Fantastic Four. It's the three on two and it's a harder story to resolve than the two geniuses working together to stop the military and protect an alien planet. The three writers on Fantastic 4 seriously could not figure out a way to make that work?! But, in truth, that's the only real problem with Fantastic 4. It's going along doing its own thing surprisingly well when all of a sudden, it takes a nonsense turn toward the conventional to be like virtually every other super hero film and that's when the film just falls apart.
While it never becomes truly as terrible as the prior two outings, though the need to fit in the line "It's clobberin' time!" comes close, Fantastic 4 is mostly just guilty of not living up to its potential. It is set up as a complicated and surprisingly smart and aware story that degenerates into the obvious conceits of the genre instead of telling its own, unique, story.
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Lila & Eve
No Way Jose
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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