THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
20th Century Fox's attempts to get a Fantastic Four movie right are emblematic of everything that's wrong with the cinematic superhero culture. Their first attempt was 2005's Fantastic Four - a box office hit, although no one seemed to love it, especially critics and hardcore comics fans. For the sequel, 2007's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, they tried to address complaints that the original was too kiddie and lame by introducing the popular Silver Surfer character. It, too, did respectably at the box office, yet didn't seem to please people any better than its predecessor. The film was still viewed as cheesy, and some griped that it got the Surfer “wrong.” Superhero movies have become all the rage since then, thanks to the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So now Fox goes back to the drawing board with a “darker, grittier” reboot - which is to say, a desperate attempt to deliver something that satisfies the often hazy demands of fans. Somewhat surprisingly, it's even less satisfying than the first two.
Miles Teller plays science whiz Reed Richards, who has invented a machine that allows him to teleport matter from our dimension to a mysterious one somewhere else in the galaxy. This invention has earned him a full college scholarship. He continues to develop his invention with the help of fellow students Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her brother Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). When it comes time to test the thing out on themselves, something goes very wrong and everyone - including Reed's childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who has inexplicably been brought along for the ride – is given some kind of special power. Reed can stretch, Johnny can light himself on fire, Sue turns invisible, and Ben morphs into a rock creature. Von Doom is left behind in the other dimension they visit, but shows up again later because, well, there needs to be some kind of villain.
It's pretty obvious that Fantastic Four was designed to be the first entry in a franchise, because it takes almost ninety minutes to do what a good superhero movie would accomplish in 30-40 minutes. For a while, it's an acceptable, if sluggish, character study, showing how the team members come together to work on a potentially earth-shattering science project. Then, after the accident, the story oddly jumps a year into the future, where Sue, Johnny, and Ben are all working in conjunction with the military – something that seems totally out of character considering how they felt in the movie's earlier scenes. Reed, who has left for reasons never made clear, reunites with the team, and they go on to fight Von Doom, who's good and pissed in the other dimension. That fight is at the very end of the movie. In other words, you don't see the Fantastic Four become the Fantastic Four until it's almost time to go home. A good origin story develops the background in the first half, then goes on to show the hero(es) using their skills for a purpose. This one is 95% build-up.
The tone is weirdly dour, too. Comic book movies are supposed to be fun and energetic. Fantastic Four treats things that should be thrilling with all the excitement of a trip to the grocery store. There's no sense of peril and even less explanation for why Von Doom is to be feared. In the second half, the character development that was set up initially is abandoned, which is a big part of the reason why suspense is non-existent. Ben, for instance, is initially very bitter about his predicament. But then he just forgets all about it. (Why? Who knows?) Von Doom, meanwhile, acts like a typical villain, without ever revealing any philosophy behind his evil. We very quickly lose sight of how these strange, new-found powers impact the humans in possession of them, which, by all rights, is the one thing a movie of this type should fundamentally be about.
The way Fantastic Four establishes things and then abandons them is kind of shocking, especially since it doesn't abandon them for something better. You'd think that perhaps the big showdown at the end would deliver some entertainment. You'd be wrong, as it's the worst part. At one point in the brief battle against Von Doom, Reed says to his teammates, “This better work!” What, exactly, they're doing that needs to work isn't even explained. With no clear establishment of the factors motivating the heroes and the villain, all the action is rendered context-free, and therefore painfully generic.
Director Josh Trank previously directed Chronicle, an enjoyable-enough science-fiction movie that trafficked in cliches, but did so with enthusiasm. Despite featuring a superhero group that has had popularity for decades, there is precious little enthusiasm in Fantastic Four. The film simply can't decide what it wants to be, beyond the kick-off to a franchise. Every effort seems calculated to move away from the Jessica Alba/Michael Chiklis pictures. Sadly, no one seemed to have any better ideas to advance the series forward, resulting in a dull, disjointed film.
Fantastic Four is Catwoman-level awful. It wastes a great cast and cool source material. If there is to be a cinematic future for these characters, someone needs to come along and just tell the story they want to tell. Forget about fan demands, commercial considerations, and whatever Marvel Studios is doing at the moment. Just love these characters and come up with a plot that reflects what's special about them. For now, we're left with this mess.
( 1/2 out of four)
Fantastic Four is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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