By Matthew McKibben | August 9, 2015
Director: Josh Trank
Writers: Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, and Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller, Jamie Bell, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson
With Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies treating Spidey’s world with a high degree of respect, Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies receiving high critical acclaim while showcasing a depth unseen in comic book movies, and with Christopher Nolan completely changing the comic book movie game with Batman Begins, Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movies seemed out of place and out of time. They were too jokey, too lightweight, too loaded with product placement, and too paper thin. I’d say they were easily digestible and then easily forgotten, but there’s a fair amount of scorn associated with those movies. They weren’t awful, per se, but they didn’t do any favors to the Fantastic Four property or to the era in which they were made.
But make no mistake, Tim Story’s Fantastic Four is better than Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four in nearly every single way. I am not an expert on all things Fantastic Four, so I can’t vouch on which movie gets more stuff “right”; but as a movie, Story’s first Fantastic Four works in ways that Trank’s doesn’t. While being razor blade thin, Story’s plot made sense and was easy to follow. While laughable, each character was given a backstory and had motivations for what they were doing on screen. All of these basic, simple things are not present in Trank’s Fantastic Four.
It’s still unclear whether 20th Century Fox or Trank are to blame for this mess. At this point, depending on which gossip site you’re reading, Trank was either a genius who had his movie ripped out from under him by prying studio heads… or he was a problematic jerk on set and rightfully had the movie taken from his control when the studio saw how much of a mess he’d made of the movie. Regardless of what happened, they’re tethered at the hip for this one. A pox on both of their houses.
The movie starts off really well, showing a young Reed Richards (Owen Judge, then Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann, then Jamie Bell) working on a teleportation device in Richards’ garage. The beginning had kind of an 80s Amblin feel to it, and I found it easy to relate to both Reed and Ben. Young Reed’s teleportation device attracts the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), and he recruits him to come study with his children at the Franklin Institute, kind of like the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, but since it’s devoid of mutants, it’s pretty lame.
It isn’t until Victor Von Doom (Tony Kebbell) enters the movie that things start going off the rails a bit. There’s nothing wrong with Kebbell’s portrayal of Von Doom, so I’m going to give him a pass, but this may be the the weakest villain I’ve ever seen in a comic book movie. He has, almost literally, no motivation to be bad. He was ostracized from the Franklin Institute for reasons unclear, and only gets pulled back into the school when it’s looking like Reed’s teleportation device is going to actually work. I liked the notion that the Fantastic Four and Von Doom were peers and that they all had a friendly relationship with one another, but you’re given almost nothing in the way of motivation to show why he’s at their throats an hour later.
But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself… When Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) promises to sell off the fully functioning teleportation device to the military, the Fantastic Four plus Von Doom decide to take it for a joyride first. They teleport to the parallel dimension, land on Planet Zero, get zapped by some kind of green energy goo stuff, and before you know it, they’re the stretching, invisible turning, fire flinging, rock dudes that we all know and love. Except for Von Doom. Poor guy was presumed dead and didn’t make the return trip home.
Although it’s a total mess, you can see glimpses of a good movie. I’ve read that Trank was inspired by David Cronenberg’s Scanners and The Fly, and you can definitely see glimpses of a Cronenbergian body horror vibe. Part of what makes this movie so hard to write about is it’s unclear whose to blame for the rapid and sudden tonal shifts that take place throughout the movie. The movie has the feel of a movie where there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Someone read Trank’s script, green lighted the movie, and probably liked what was being filmed. But then it almost seems like people above that person got freaked out by the bloody mess they were seeing in the movie’s second act, and came in and slowly killed off the movie.
While I may not have completely liked the first two acts, it was at least interesting to watch and unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. What you’re seeing with the final two acts, though, is a studio euthanizing its own property. Regardless of whether 20th Century Fox was fed up with Trank, had changed its mind on the tone of what they produced, or actually ended up salvaging a movie that was in worse shape than Trank fans would let on, the end result is a pretty awful final two acts.
The Fantastic Four members are kept sequestered away from the public in a top secret military compound while Dr. Franklin Storm works on ways to transform his children back into their normal states. Reed (Miles Teller) escapes to go do some independent research on how to transform his friends back, but his fleeing drives a wedge between him and the rest of the team. We’re then shown a few montage shots of how the military has been using Ben Grimm/The Thing (Jamie Bell) and Johnny “the Human Torch” Storm (Michael B. Jordan) to wage covert wars across the globe. That paragraph is probably more interesting than anything we’re shown in the movie, though. Seriously. We see a shot of the Thing taking out a tank and Johnny Storm taking out a drone. Pretty [un]thrilling stuff.
Meanwhile, the military has fixed the broken teleportation device and travel to Planet Zero. There, they discover that Von Doom has been alive the whole time; he now has telekinetic powers and is not all too happy at having been left by himself for all that time… or perhaps he’s jealous of Reed’s intellect… or perhaps he’s jealous of Reed and Sue (Kate Mara) flirting with one another. Again, Dr. Doom has no real motivation. Sure, the things that happen to him are bad, and it’s no fun seeing a person you have a crush on flirting with a new dude — but those aren’t sufficient reasons to go on a PG13 boundary pushing, head exploding killing spree when you get home. That being said, and context excluding, the scene where Dr. Doom walks around the military compound, popping soldiers and scientists’ heads as it they’re bubblewrap, is one of the highlights of the entire movie.
The cast does well with the material they have to work with, but you’re mainly seeing hints of what-could-be instead of what-is. Before the movie goes off the rails, each of the four protagonists have moments that show what could have been. Miles Teller and Kate Mara have a natural chemistry with one another, but the script largely fizzled any sizzle either one had going. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell clearly thought they were making different movies than the one that ended up on screen — but if there is any element of this movie that could be considered fun, it’s usually involving one of these two characters.
If by some miracle this movie gets a sequel, I hope to see the reins loosened a little. Or, I hope if they decide to go darker, embrace the material they have, and fully allow whatever director they get (it won’t get a sequel, don’t worry) to explore the themes that seem inherent to the property itself. But, as it stands, this is one weak effort by both Trank and 20th Century Fox. This is the weakest superhero movie I’ve seen in quite some time… perhaps ever. As I said above, any movie that elevates Story’s Fantastic Four movies is clearly doing something really, really wrong.