A cursory browse of the Internet suggests that the new Fantastic Four may as well be one of the worst films ever made: an Adam Sandleresque score on Low Hanging Fruit, unusually harsh user rating on the Internet Males Database, and widely reported tales of production woes and public handwringing, as though somehow humanity’s worst crime was to deliver a superhero film that failed to please its precious audience. Yet such is the power of the stunted fanboys and clickbait movie “journalists” fueling discussion of popular cinema in 2015: a depressing forum in which a perceived unsatisfactory Marvel film must be analyzed like the coming of the cultural holocaust, rather than simply being ignored for the unremarkable—and completely familiar—corporate bowel movement that it is.
What is disappointing is that the film is directed by Josh Trank, whose teen superpower debut Chronicle, while no masterpiece, was a better movie than the last decade of the—ugh—Marvel Cinematic Universe in all its grim entirety. Where most of its mega-budget studio brethren treated its characters’ freak agencies as vehicles for brand extension, Chronicle was the rare work that managed to convey a sense of the burden of those powers, at least until it decided to become a tentpole showreel, anyway, which is probably why we’re here. Trank should’ve moved on; certainly, rebooting a franchise that Fox seems intent on flogging to little avail wouldn’t appear to be the best use of his talent. That alone puts Fantastic Four at a disadvantage, because much of what it does feels like a diluted version of his debut feature.
Things begin nicely enough with a backstory depicting the childhood of Reed Richards and his pal Ben Grimm, two junkyard-scavenging dorks who invent a teleportation device and ruin the school science fair in scenes that fondly evoke Joe Dante’s Explorers (though not so much, perhaps, Trank’s Brundlefly for kids, but you can see where he was going). The teenage Reed (Miles Teller) soon gets poached by a top-secret nerd lab run by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), where he’s put to work developing the big-time interdimensional version of his toy, for a project instigated by the moody Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Trank and his co-screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater don’t do anything remarkable here, but there’s a reasonable rapport between the actors, with Kate Mara’s Sue Storm (who enjoys schooling Reed on Portishead, amusingly) and Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny Storm doing what they can with the rote dialogue.
To be fair, and despite the absence of personality, the first half of Fantastic Four isn’t a bad science adventure in the gee-whiz mode of Fantastic Voyage, with an apparently genuine curiosity about interdimensional travel and the odd, welcome corny touch—like Reed’s passion for Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When the scientist kids decide to collectively test out the Quantum Gate teleporter—drunk, at that—the alternate world that they land in has a hint of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, all patently fake backdrops, retro space costumes, and geysers of green ooze. If you’re unfamiliar with the characters, you might not think you were watching a superhero movie at all after the first hour.
Naturally, that sensation doesn’t linger. Where Fantastic Four had only slowly been bleeding away traces of originality for its first half, once the characters get mutated into their superhero selves, the film’s vision, such as it is, rapidly hemorrhages. Within the space of a couple of sequences—in which the team barely adjust to their life-altering new afflictions before agreeing to be co-opted by the military-industrial complex—the movie abruptly changes tone and rhythm, as though Marvel’s directorial software had assumed control, right down to effacing Philip Glass’s fleeting soundtrack compositions in favor of Marco Beltrami’s standard droning hackery. The best that might be said of the film’s climactic showdown, though possibly shot on a do-it-yourself greenscreen at a mall, is that it mercifully involves no demolished skyscrapers, smug one-liners, or Nick Fury recruitment ads; which is a small consolation, at least.
Trank was probably foolhardy in thinking anything approaching a authorial voice could exist in one of these films, just as anyone who believes Fantastic Four to be an inferior product to the rest of Marvel’s garbage is puzzling—at least to this writer. The saddest aspect is that the echo chamber of feedback means the studio knows the public will keep feeding from the trough, for better or worse, and that there’s already a reboot being concocted in whatever evil dungeon where they keep Stan Lee’s rotting head on ice. As F4’s villain aptly puts it (with all apologies to Zuul), “There is no Victor, only Doom.”