Joshua Trank’s Fantastic Four is a sci-fi/body-horror movie first and a superhero movie second. Had it stuck solely to the former, it would have been phenomenal, but even with its nonsensical, prerequisite-filling third act, it still manages to find value.
As is compulsory with reboots, this is an origin story, but what separates it from other origin stories is that in the case of Fantastic Four, the origin is the story. In this way, it’s quite similar to Batman Begins and Captain America: The First Avenger, or come to think of it, Trank’s previous film, Chronicle (all three of which have also been derided for their third-act crumble).
The first two acts of the film are presented not as a superhero movie, but as a B science fiction film where pretty geniuses in lab coats rattle off pseudo-techspeak to one another while tinkering with cartoonishly complicated machinery. Sound dumb? Well it’s not. Not where it counts, at least. Where it counts here is in the characters and how they they interact with one another, and in this case they work together quite well.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is your standard science geek but for the fact that he has a cool confidence about him. He’s no poindexter. He’s aware of how different he is from his peers, but he doesn’t care. He knows that he is destined to do great things, and he’s not ashamed to own it. In a lot of ways he’s similar to Teller’s character in Whiplash, albeit less cold. Although he is younger and a bit more cocksure than the Reed Richards of the comics, his values are the same. In a few years, he will grow to become the Mr. Fantastic of lore (no, nobody calls him ‘Mr. Fantastic’ at any point, so calm down).
Reed’s right hand man is Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). The two have been friends since elementary school, where Grimm has acted as Reed’s confidant and protector. It’s the science project they build together that attracts the attention of the Baxter Foundation, where they will inevitably obtain their superpowers. Bell is a smaller man than the Grimm of the comics, but it works here. He possesses the same could-kick-your-ass-but-won’t vibe, and his smaller stature fits the mold. It’s a shame that he’s absent from much of the second act, especially since Bell spends the third act hidden behind CGI (I don’t rightly know if he was mo-capped but you get my drift).
Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) is supposed to be the wild card, but feels underused here. Jordan is ridiculously talented and as charismatic as they come, but it doesn’t come through as much as I’d hoped. It’s a shame that he doesn’t get a chance to really pop, especially considering the early drama surrounding the racial update. Regardless, Jordan remains the perfect choice, and if we are to get a sequel (which I really hope we do) I could see him falling into the role and shining. Classically, Storm is the one who really takes to his powers, and while there are shades of that here, the movie is over before we get to see him having fun with it.
Lastly there’s Sue Storm (Kate Mara), the oh-so appropriately named Invisible Woman (once again, she’s never literally referred to as such, but she’s barely a presence in the film). We all know that Sue and Reed are destined to become lovers, but there’s only a touch of that here, if there’s anything at all. I’m tempted to say that she is underwritten, but her absenteeism works toward what I’ve come to understand is a trait of Sue’s: she puts up a shield. She, much like Reed, is frequently the smartest person in the room, and in a world where it’s sadly still blasphemous to assume that the genius in the room could be – gasp – a woman, it’s easy to see why she might have grown to be distant. Still, it’s disappointing for her to see so little screen time.
Despite the flaws in character, the titular four work together well. The way they become a team feels real, and after they’ve each obtained their super abilities, the movie enters into its horror phase. Sure, these superpowers are cool, but unchecked, each is particularly creepy in a Cronenbergian sense. It’s here that the movie hits its stride, and although it takes a dark turn, it’s fun in precisely the way the movies it’s aping classically are.
By avoiding the trappings of the superhero template, Fantastic Four delays the punch-drunk exhaustion that comes with the action-heavy expositions of many other comic book movies … but when the third act hits, and the film is pushed violently into superhero territory, it crumbles, and it crumbles hard. But I submit that the fall wouldn’t seem so damning had the movie not been so promising up until this point. Regardless, it’s brutal. The final battle is silly and nonsensical, and although it’s quite pretty to look at, the tonal shift is jarring and the scene feels altogether pointless and unearned. Yes, we I understand that we absolutely must have a Dr. Doom battle in a Fantastic Four movie, but personally, I’d have preferred the baddie not appear until later entries in the franchise. That being said, his initial run of carnage is gleefully gruesome – it’s a shame that it kicks off such a brutally misguided final act.
Fantastic Four is a throwback to a time when our superhero movies weren’t part of a bigger picture, and while many folks are lamenting that Marvel’s First Family are absent from the MCU, I feel like they’re right at home. The MCU bag is full almost to bursting and looking good – let it alone, I say. And even if this reboot of Fantastic Four was just an exercise in rights retention, it justifies its own existence by being, at the very least, something different, and at the very most, a treatise on the brewing battle between millennials and the bureaucratic old guard.
No, Fantastic Four is not perfect, but at the time of this writing it is sitting at an offensively low 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, which I believe to be the product of pre-packaged nerd rage. I can certainly see why it doesn’t work for some folks, but the outright hatred is unwarranted. No movie can be a success when it’s opening for an audience that actively seeks to hate it – finds some sort of value in hating it, even. It’s a disgusting trend that upends the fun of being a part of nerd culture, and it’s birthed this strange mentality where any movie that isn’t a shining diamond of perfection is deemed to be an unmitigated disaster. It’s Fantastic Four. Get over it and have some fun.
Fantastic Four opens in Philly area theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.