When Fox’s Fantastic Four unfolds as a space camp saga about brilliant young science nerds united in their pursuit of the unknown, it crackles. As it descends into Cronenberg-esque body horror it soars with confident, gory flair.
So it’s almost tragic to watch the rebooted tale of Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm (aka Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch, and The Thing) sputter out as it mutates, much like shortchanged villain Victor Von Doom, into an empty, cartoonish monstrosity.
The turn comes when Fantastic Four sells out character for forgettable CG action and abridges an otherwise intriguing origin story in the name of lowest common denominator theatrics, the stuff that sell tickets overseas and make for easily packaged marketing mock-ups.
In other words: When it turns into a studio superhero movie.
Directed by upstart helmer Josh Trank (Chronicle), Fantastic Four boasts a gifted cast (Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and the underutilized Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell) that manages to energize the familiar team-up tale, scripted with a few humanizing twists by Trank, Simon Kinberg, and Jeremy Slater.
Teller’s Reed Richards is a socially awkward science dork who builds a teleportation device in a garage with his tough guy BFF, Ben Grimm (Bell). The experiment lands Richards at the high-tech Baxter Foundation, a government-backed research facility run by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey) where brooding prodigy Victor Von Doom (Kebbell) has been trying to build a portal to another dimension. Their team of junior geniuses is completed with Dr. Storm’s two children, rebellious thrill-seeker Johnny (Jordan) and his adopted sister, icy and pragmatic Sue (Mara).
Alas, it’s not called the Fantastic Five. The film builds an engaging group dynamic between the wide-eyed misfits—that is, Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Victor, who leads the team until a moment of youthful defiance sends the boys and Grimm through the portal to the outer-dimensional Planet Zero where everything goes terribly wrong.
In the ensuing snafu, Victor’s left behind and presumed dead while the rest of the squad barely makes it back to Earth, cursed with horrifying new powers. (Sue, who’s not invited along with the bros, gets hit with a residual wave of bad alien energy upon their return.) A second act stretch sees the would-be explorers awakening in an underground lab only to be tricked into working for The Government while harnessing their superhuman abilities, but the film disappointingly speeds through what should have been an emotional existential aftermath to get to the next montage.
Occasionally you can almost imagine what this youthquake-y Fantastic Four could have been. In one captivating horror movie moment, Teller’s Reed awakens to find his body’s been Gumby-fied by Planet Zero’s mysterious green mojo, his stretched-out limbs splayed and shackled like a frog in a science lab. In another, the now-evil Victor (aka Doctor Doom) wreaks havoc with his new powers by exploding heads into bloody bursts left and right with his mind, upping the body count in the otherwise tame PG-13 action blockbuster.
Flashes of freshness are utterly M.I.A. in Fantastic Four’s final act, which is where its human drama is preempted by stagey, CGI-addled superhero posturing. Close followers of the film’s rocky road to theaters will see all those rumors of backstage creative clashes writ largest onscreen in a clunky, jammed-together conclusion that gives short shrift to its cast. Bell barely has anything to do throughout the film, but slighted most of all is Kebbell, whose turn as bad boy misanthrope Von Doom is wasted when he transforms into an unrecognizable one-note villain just to give the Fantastic Four a reason to become heroes.
So who’ll end up shouldering the blame for Fantastic Four, which is already being savaged by critics? Maybe the deck was stacked against it from the start.
Ten years ago, 20th Century Fox brought the Marvel Comics property to the big screen after infamously buying and shelving a 1994 low-budget movie adaptation by B-movie king Roger Corman. The 2005 Jessica Alba and Chris Evans blockbuster scored middling reviews but opened at No. 1 on its way to a $330 million global take and spawned an equally forgettable sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, in 2007, that also raked it in. The series, directed by Barbershop’s Tim Story, also caused a bit of controversy by transforming the stunning Hispanic actress Alba into a blue-eyed, blond white woman—a puzzling move that would provoke even harsher backlash today.
But in our current age of Marvel Cinematic Universe dominance, producing yet another Fantastic Four movie to keep the licensing in the family was the kind of no-brainer Fox had to make—much like Sony keeps telling audiences how Spider-Man started slinging his webs in reboot after reboot. Fox’s grip on the Fantastic Four and X-Men properties sharply fractured the studio’s comic book holdings from Disney’s Avengers multiverse, while Marvel and Sony have negotiated shared custody of Spidey, who will now appear in Captain America: Civil War.
When he got the Fantastic Four gig, Trank was a promising up-and-comer who’d shown he could liven up the superhero genre with 2012’s Chronicle, the $12 million sci-fier that scored $126 million for Fox and starred Michael B. Jordan a year before the actor took off with awards darling Fruitvale Station, along with a then unknown Dane DeHaan. Matthew Vaughn came aboard to produce, as did his X-Men: First Class collaborator Simon Kinberg, who also rewrote the script. Filming on the $122 million Fantastic Four commenced last May. The shade campaign started that fall.
In October, Marvel abruptly cancelled the comic book run of Fantastic Four. Why help the competition fuel fan demand for a rival summer blockbuster? A month later, Marvel Comics drew shade at Fox’s Fantastic Four film by killing off characters resembling actors Teller, Bell, and Mara in the pages of Punisher #12 with an unsubtle nod to Trank and an already-dated sequel.
Then came rumors of mistreated production crew, damaged sets, and studio-mandated reshoots meant to add more action to the film. In May, Trank was forced to go on the defensive when a hit piece claiming his “erratic” behavior on the Fantastic Four set and $100,000 in damages to a rental house ravaged by his pet dogs during production led to him being fired from his next high-profile gig directing the second Star Wars stand-alone film for Lucasfilm. More unconfirmed character assassination, including that Trank was canned and Vaughn directed some of the reshoots (a claim he later denied), ensued online on the fanboy boards and blogs as whoever Trank pissed off in Hollywood spent a great deal of energy making the Fantastic Four narrative more about the embattled director than the embattled film.
If that weren't enough, racist fanboys came out of the woodwork protesting Jordan's casting as Human Torch—a white character in the comics previously played by Chris Evans—forcing the incredibly talented young actor to pen a personal essay in Entertainment Weekly shutting down the nontroversy.
Meanwhile, most high-profile studio blockbusters trot out their cast and filmmakers on endless press tours to drum up awareness in the most competitive frame of the year. But Trank has stayed conspicuously quiet, doing few interviews and leaving promotional duties primarily to his stars, who’ve seen their respective PR blitz overshadowed by one stupendously inane viral interview, that disastrous Miles Teller Esquire profile—emphasizing his alleged “dickishness”—and more studio-friendly folks like Kinberg, who’s quoted more than any other filmmaker in the film’s press materials.
“I want to do something original after this because I’ve been living under public scrutiny, as you’ve seen, for the last four years of my life,” Trank told the Los Angeles Times in a June article in an attempt to deflect the rumors. “And it’s not healthy for me right now in my life. I want to do something that’s below the radar.”
Whether it’s Trank taking that breather from the corporate movie game after this weekend’s opening, or 20th Century Fox staking claim around its few Marvel holdings in the face of its studio competition, one loaded line in Fantastic Four calls to mind all the behind-the-scenes schadenfreude as it peters toward a sequel that doubters wonder will actually be made. Sue Storm, speaking up for her team, draws a line in the sandbox to keep the powers that be on their side of the fence: “We just want a place where we can do our work,” she announces, “and whatever we come up with, belongs to us.”