Published Aug 06, 2015Josh Trank's attempt to make an effective Fantastic Four movie is, and has been, riddled with obstacles. As it appeals primarily to a particularly vocal demographic, the project has been under scrutiny since the casting stages. Rumours about production problems and studio concerns about the finished product have further fueled a collective opinion that was formed long before the film had been screened.
It's also a moderately introspective story about science and family dynamics that doesn't quite fit in to the current superficial cultural ethos or the litany of pre-packaged and formulated Marvel superhero movies propelled by one-liners and endless CGI action. Of course, this isn't to suggest that Trank's throwback sci-fi exploration admonition is a misunderstood work of brilliance; it's just not quite as awful as the loudest voices might suggest.
Though not specifically based on a particular comic, this origin story does follow the basic Fantastic Four storyline, and attempts to mirror the tone and thematic preoccupation of its source material. It starts with Reed Richards (Miles Teller) as a preteen working in his garage on a makeshift teleportation device. Along with best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), he ultimately manages to bring it to fruition, garnering the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kata Mara), who bring him into their high tech scientific research lab to collaborate with the curmudgeonly inventor Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), on an interdimensional teleportation device.
Initially, this setup works for what it is. Richards' and Grimm's backstories, though glossed over, hint at abuse and neglect, explaining their connection and providing a framework for further developments in potential future chapters. Though the tone struggles to reconcile the goofy with the bleak and mundane — the latter clearly being Trank's influence, as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the tone in Chronicle — there is a hint at developing substance and a darker vision. This continues when Reed Richards and Sue Storm develop a budding romance driven by his attraction to her shrewd analytical abilities and refusal to indulge in social inanity.
The problem with Fantastic Four is that this setup then fizzles out and sits there unused for the latter portion of the film. After we get a glimpse at some potentially interesting characters and the familial dynamics that the source material flourished on, it falls by the wayside in favour of exposition and rapid plot progression. In a way, the advent of the teleportation device and the onset of the various superpowers is where this thematically disjointed odyssey ultimately implodes.
At its core, Trank's version wants to examine what happens to a group of damaged, non-conformist outsiders when they allow their imaginations to extend beyond their tolerance for risk. The idea is that these hurt people would have found some sort of connection in a world that otherwise eschews them, only to be transformed into the monsters that they feel like on the inside. But once the montages start up towards the end of the second act and the need for contextualization and explanation takes over, all nuance is thrown by the wayside. This means that Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), who isn't introduced until late in the film, isn't even given superficial characteristics. Similarly, Grimm is left out of the picture during the development stages, meaning that we don't get enough time with either of these characters to care about them or understand their overall place in the constructed social hierarchy.
This means that the eventual climax — which starts out with dark, horrific potential, only to wind up being a lame green-screen rock-throwing match — holds very little power or relevance. Though tragic events ultimately occur, shaking up the Storm family, there's just no reason for us to care. It's also problematic that themes of alienation and existential woe (What does it mean to have the power to destroy or change the world?) are tossed to the sideline in favour of some tacked on environmental babble that hadn't previously been given any sort of setup or context.
Ultimately, Fantastic Four feels like too many people with conflicting ideas were involved. Although, oddly, it does still have enough of a foundation to make sequels that could potentially be quite strong, and for its many faults and contradictions, the fact that some risks were taken and that Trank tried to do something different with a troubled franchise is admirable. It's also far more engaging to watch a failed experiment like this than endure the sort of patronizing, cutesy, bland, formulaic pap that was Marvel's Ant-Man.