Fantastic Four review: An average TV pilot disguised as a feature film
When I review a movie, I avoid other reviews of that film like they were the videotape in The Ring. Given our clickbait heavy world, however, I couldn’t avoid seeing headlines that boldly claim the new Fantastic Four (technically it’s Fant4stic, but that is very silly and I refuse to refer to it like that) is worse than the Tim Story versions.
That’s ridiculous. Those films were god-awful. This film is just bad. Pretty easy bar to make it over.
Director Josh Trank’s (Chronicle) Fantastic Four tries to do something different, and that’s laudable. It doesn’t work, but at least it’s something slightly different. There have been a lot of stories about Trank losing control behind the scenes, but if you are a fan of Chronicle you can see exactly why he was hired.
Trank recently claimed that his version would have been great, suggesting that the final product wasn’t his. Whatever the truth, whoever is really to blame, the final result is a disjointed mess.
Like Chronicle, the superhero aspect of Fantastic Four is secondary to the toll the powers take on the characters. Ben Grimm isn’t a blue collar smartass, he’s a victim trapped in the body of a monster. Johnny Storm isn’t a brash showoff, he’s a weapon. It’s an interesting take inspired by the darker Ultimate comics version of the team, but it isn’t given enough room to develop.
And if you are a fan of the original Fantastic Four comics and team, you’re probably going to hate this new version right from the start.
The team was originally created as a group of adventurers. They were explorers, held together by a familial bond. It was a classic idea born during the days of properties like Lost in Space. The new version is moodier in tone and appearance.
The film seems to rebel against that notion. There are several parts, especially towards the end, that feel like a PG-13 horror movie. That too could work if you put aside all preconceived notions about the Fantastic Four, but again it isn’t given enough time to explore that and stand on its own.
The worst part of it is that you can see where the film was going. And it may have worked really well. We’ll never know.
The story begins with a young Reed Richards basically being called a nerd by his teacher for developing a working teleportation device. It’s something of a scathing indictment of the Oyster Bay, NY public school system, but it allows Richards to befriend a young Ben Grimm.
A few years later, an older Richards (Miles Teller) is still working on the device when he is offered a scholarship to the Baxter Institute, kind of a more exclusive version of M.I.T. There Richards begins to work with the brilliant Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and the arrogant Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). They are joined by Sue’s brother, the reluctant engineer Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan).
Then one night they all get drunk and travel to an alternate world.
The weird planet imbues them with powers, and they return to Earth changed. The military is cool with it, and takes the team in with promises of a cure. The nefarious brass want the team to fight enemies, and the bosses need help rebuilding the device to create new super soldier. And then spoiler, spoiler, spoiler.
Fantastic Four feels like three separate films. The first is the story of Richards meeting the team. The second is the team coming to grips with what happened to them. The third is the inevitable fight between the FF and Doom. The problem is that the three don’t mesh well together, and they all feel like different movies.
On their own, none of the three are egregiously bad, but together they are a complete mess.
Most superhero films these days are fairly long. Avengers: Age of Ultron was 141 minutes, Ant-Man was considered short at just under two hours. Fantastic Four is just 100 minutes, and it shows – the pacing is disastrous.
The first act is long, but the characters have a little time to breathe and grow. The second part is too short, and ignores character development to move the story along in the most superficial way. The third section though, that’s where things really fall apart.
I won’t go into the way the character of Doom is depicted. If you have no idea what the character is like from the comics, you may even buy into it, at least a little. The problem again goes back to the pacing. Doom shows up, he fights with the team, and the movie is over. The entire climax feels like it’s just a few minutes long – because it is.
The epilogue then quickly and illogically sets up the future of the team, which makes the entire movie feel very much like an average pilot for a TV series. It leaves you just interested enough to be curious about where it could go, but not enough to leave you satisfied.
One of the frustrating things is that the cast is so good. Teller may seem like an odd choice for Richards if you are only familiar with the traditional version of the character, but he comes off well. Mara plays nicely against him, but her character suffers badly from the lack of development and so she comes off unevenly. The two have chemistry, but it’s unexplored, and once the action starts she has maybe five lines, none of which are particularly important.
Jordan is a star and turns in a predictably good performance, but he too is badly underutilized. His entire screen time may add up to ten minutes, but that’s just a guess. Grimm (Jamie Bell) does what he can under the CGI of The Thing, and the character has some good moments, but the early promise of a man horrifically changed forever is forgotten quickly enough.
Kebbell does the most with the least, but ultimately he is a victim of an unsure vision. He hints at so many things at the start of the film, but they ultimately fizzle, and the film then just buries the character of Doom.
Fantastic Four is an experiment, but it’s one that is conducted in a poorly run laboratory, where half way through someone changes things around and forgets to properly document their work.
It’s still better than the Tim Story films. Man, those movies sucked.
Fantastic Four review conclusion
Fantastic Four is a film that will forever be haunted by what ifs. What if Trank was allowed to make the film he wanted. What if the film was 30 minutes longer. What if Marvel and Fox had let a movie with superheroes not be about superheroes. We’ll never know.
There is no clear driving vision to Fantastic Four. It’s an inoffensive film, but an incomplete one. The cast is strong enough that a second film might be worth the effort, but something fell apart at the conceptual level of Fantastic Four. On the plus side, maybe Fox will finally realize that it has no idea what to the Fantastic Four property, and will finally give it back to Marvel.
Fantastic Four is rated PG-13, with a running time of 100 minutes.