Fantastic Four may not be as hateful as some recent Hollywood reboots, but you know something’s wrong when a film’s own director says it’s bad.
If we examine Fantastic Four as a standalone work, ignoring the countless cynical executives and talentless filmmakers who created it, it’s quite a sad little film. Lost, all alone in the universe with no substance, no destination, nothing but negative press and a hell of a lot resting on its weak back. It tries really, really hard to be a gritty drama about the life of the outsider in the guise of a superhero adventure. In reality, it’s nothing more than a superhero adventure acted out by children in the 1970s who haven’t watched any contemporary comic-book movies and don’t expect anybody to judge what they make. We shouldn’t judge Fantastic Four, for it’s offending no-one. The same cannot be said of 20th Century Fox, however….
Desperate both to retain the rights to what, in theory, should be a massively successful big-screen property, and to expand their in-house Marvel-verse beyond the world of the X-Men, Fox hired director Josh Trank – hot off the excellent Chronicle – and X-Men stalwart Simon Kinberg to reboot “Marvel’s First Family” in a darker film consistent with the X franchise. What they forgot was (a) the X-Men films aren’t actually that dark and (b) the Fantastic Four consist of a man with absurd stretchy arms, a woman who can float around in a magic purple bubble, a dude who bursts into flames and a giant talking rock. Not exactly a recipe for Dark Knight-esque drama, eh? So, the grit was Fox’s first mistake. The second was hiring Trank. When you’re making a film for purely business reasons, you shouldn’t hire a legitimately intelligent young director who might- y’know- fancy themselves as an actual artist. It is now clear that Fox’s cynical, cheap attitude to the film and Trank’s ambitions of making something unique and memorable clashed, with the result being something that is neither well-made nor capable of bringing in audiences. A true disaster. The nightmare of all modern film-goers: a blockbuster without any blocks to bust.
Trank recruited four superb young actors as his Four: Whiplash‘s Miles Teller, House of Cards‘ Kate Mara, Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordan and relatively established indie actor Jamie Bell. The good news is that these four escape from Fantastic Four fairly unscathed. They all do their best with the material (which, itself, isn’t awful) and, frankly, already have stable careers that this film shan’t be able to destroy. Trank, on the other hand, will likely never work again in Hollywood, having not only helmed what will likely be one of 2015’s biggest flops, but having publicly slammed Fox for interfering with his work process. One can’t blame him for speaking out. It’s believable that this wasn’t his fault. He most likely wanted to make an intelligent, intense superhero film that would stand out from the summer pack. Sadly, he chose the wrong brand to conduct his experiment on. On a side note: Fox’s own Deadpool reboot, which arrives next year, is almost the polar-opposite of Fantastic Four in its destruction of franchise cliché and blockbuster norms. They’re not total idiots.
Fantastic Four‘s most immediately visible filmmaking problem is its pacing. Its pacing is horrendous. For over 40 minutes, there isn’t a single moment of action, and we merely get to enjoy the four leads working in a science labs and flirting amongst themselves. It is how well the cast carry themselves during this slow but passably watchable period that allows them to leave the film looking all the more talented. Tim Blake Nelson shows up as Boss Scientist, with his primary characteristic being that he is shown chewing gum in every frame of the film (when something quite bad occurs to the character in the final act, I quietly whispered to myself “He ain’t chewing now”). When the characters eventually undergo their transformation into the strange, poorly-CGI’d beasts they are destined to become, the scenes move even slower. There is no fighting nor display of powers until the last 20 minutes, which will be known for many years as one of the worst finales of a blockbuster this century. The sheer ridiculousness of every shot makes Tim Story’s 2005 and 2007 Fantastic Four films look like genuinely great summer movies. Toby Kebbell is wasted as villainous Victor Von Doom who has few notable qualities but resemblance to a discarded prop from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the motivation of a crush on Mara’s Sue Storm/Invisible Woman which, since it was never established properly, doesn’t register at all. There is little to no consistency between scenes, and what there is is so terribly overplayed it’s fist-poundingly infuriating.
However miserable an experience it is to suffer through Fantastic Four‘s amusingly short 100 minutes, it’s not a hateful film. Sue Storm is the least sexualised female superhero in recent memory (likely intentional following Jessica Alba’s supermodel-like Sue of 2005/2007), and there’s nothing on screen to compare with the laziness of Terminator Genisys. The directing, in general, isn’t that bad. There are moments of Spielbergian murk in the opening act, and the Philip Glass score is impressive. Nonetheless, nothing is the slightest bit fantastic.