Before engaging in a review of Fantastic Four, a brief mention must be made of its troubled production. Director Josh Trank tweeted his frustrations that the final product was botched by interference from the studio Fox. Had Trank aired his opinions or not, it is clear from all the press detailing the numerous reshoots for this reboot that the there were many visions for the movie that were not easily reconciled. The result is confused. As the credits began to roll it was readily apparent that those on screen signed on to do a movie all too different from the one I’d just seen. In fact, the infamous reshoots were so extensive that there are two sets of credits.
The premise is simple enough. Gifted student Reed Richards (Miles Teller) builds a crude teleport device and is talent scouted by Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara). He is then conscripted to build a larger working model for the mysterious Baxter Foundation. Having succeeded, he and three others travel to another planet, possibly in another dimension. On their travels, the team encounters trouble for which there is fallout in the form of super powers.
The problems with this movie go back to the script – or scripts. In the first place, very little happens. That much should be made clear from the synopsis above. Added to the minimalist plot, the dialogue is often thick-eared, occasionally to the point of pastiche. Reg E. Cathey is the actor who gets landed with these lines more noticeably than the rest of the cast. The mere fact that his delivery is at least engaging, though not entirely convincing, is a credit to his skill, a skill which deserves better.
Next to dialogue, the plot and pacing is such that the interpersonal relationships between characters often stretch credulity. Early in the movie, the tensions in the father-son relationship of Franklin and Johnny Storm (Reg E. Cathey and Michael B. Jordan respectively) demonstrate this. Although the set up is good, or at the very least solid, it is under developed. With these two characters sharing too little screen time, the overall effect is very trite.
The same can be said of Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) and Reed Richards (Miles Teller). Ben Grimm is Reed Richards’ best friend. Ben also helps Reed build the original device in which Dr Franklin and Sue Storm take an interest. Said interest leads Reed to change schools while he leaves Ben behind. Having grown up acutely aware of Reed’s great potential, one might think Ben had a grudge. Having gone away for school, Ben might conceivably feel abandoned. Therefore, when their underlying relationship tensions finally emerge it seems so overdue that it isn’t convincing. Indeed, if we give Ben the benefit of the doubt and assumes he has never been jealous of his friend, there are still problems. Again, it is a question of screen time. As a result of Ben and Reed being separate for large sections of the movie, Jamie Bell isn’t on screen long enough to imbue that relationship with the significance it requires.
Yet my biggest problem is the subtext that the movie attempts to tackle. When it comes to satire and subversion in Marvel movies, the water mark has been set by films like Iron Man (2008) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). One could add titles like The Dark Knight trilogy or The Hunger Games movies, for other comic book adaptations and big budget sci-fi more generally. In comparison, the ill-conceived Fantastic Four can only pale. Words like freedom, responsibility, opportunity are thrown around in a superficial, haphazard fashion, giving the impression that the film doesn’t know what it is or wants to be. The movie wants to have an opinion but it doesn’t know what that opinion is, or even what it is trying to have an opinion about.
Much of this tonal indecision in such matters can be found in the depiction of Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). For fans of the comics, he will likely be the biggest problem. The character makes some vaguely interesting comments about human activities from which he then draws conclusions reminiscent of a college-level conspiracy. Such lazy thinking from a man hailed as a genius is laughable, and not in a good way.
Far more interesting than the movie itself is the story of how it was made. That story will emerge when time has sufficiently elapsed, but even now we can count the film as further proof against a particular approach. Mandated movie-making motivated by corporate greed has never been attractive. Fantastic 4 was made so that the Fox can retain the rights to a specific property. A fluke in copyright law does not a fun film make.
To give some credit where it is due, the cast as a whole is very talented. Alas, they can’t help but be charming screen presences in an otherwise mediocre movie. Also, the special effects are good for the most part, though the shortcomings are more easily noticed for the sheer lack of plot and character development.
The sequel to Fantastic Four has already been announced, yet whether that will come to anything is difficult to say at present. Alonso Duralde from The Wrap surmises:
“With all this tedious Tinkertoy origin-story business out of the way, there could certainly be some entertaining ‘Fantastic Four’ adventures in the future with this ensemble. Whether or not audiences will want to gamble another 100 minutes of their lives on subsequent chapters, however, is another matter entirely.”
Frustrated film – Definitely.
Franchise film – Not a clue.