THEATRICAL REVIEW: Fantastic Four (2015)
Produced by: Gregory Goodman, Simon Kinberg, Robert Kulzar, Hutch Parker, Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank
Edited by: Elliot Greenberg, Stephen E. Rivkin
Cinematography by: Matthew Jensen
Music by: Marco Beltrami, Philip Glass
Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Castellaneta
Based Marvel Comics characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
This review contains spoilers.
So this must be how it feels to be one of the Man of Steel haters…
I’m aghast as to how a movie like this has been released in this day and age. Yes, this movie is standing in the shadow of its cousins over at Marvel Studios/Disney, but Fox has certainly proven that they’re very much capable of producing strong superhero films with the X-Men series, despite a few missteps. But while their X-Men films have mostly been entertaining and even dramatically satisfying, their latest film based on the Fantastic Four feels like a throwback to the days when studios didn’t give a crap about quality or respect to the source material in comic book movies so long as it was capable of catching the attention of enough fans starved for big screen adaptations of their favorite heroes that they throw their money at the screen in desperation. Those days really should be behind us, and yet, here we are, faced with not just another disappointing Fantastic Four movie, but actually managed to be far and away one of the worst cinematic adaptations of a comic book property since 2005’s Elektra.
Fantastic Four has notably had a troubled production history, and it’s hardly any secret that much of the attention has centered around director Josh Trank, who was reportedly frequently aloof and probably very high while on set. Trank, if you somehow haven’t had your memory refreshed already, made his directorial debut with the found footage movie Chronicle back in 2012, which was a pretty novel and original take on both that particular storytelling medium as well as a refreshingly grounded take on superhero tropes, akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. It had its flaws, but was an overall critical and financial success. Trank was seemingly on his way to become the next hot director, immediately plucked out of obscurity and put in charge of ensuring Fox would continue to hold the film rights to the Fantastic Four, one of only two properties they still owned the rights to from a deal struck with Marvel several years prior, having recently relinquished Daredevil back to Marvel by default. Trank was also slated to follow up this up with another major film taking place in the Star Wars universe – that is, until recently, when Disney and LucasFilm removed him from the project, possibly due to reports of the aforementioned erratic behavior. Rumors of Fantastic Four’s troublesome production also gradually gave way to rumors of the film’s irredeemably poor quality, which came to a head just before release, when Trank went on the defensive, blaming the studio for meddling in the production, going so far as removing three major action sequences prior to production to ensure it didn’t cross a certain budget level, ruining the momentum of the story Trank had helped craft in the process.
I’m not one to put too much stock in these matters. I mean, yes, it’s very likely there’s a lot of truth somewhere in the middle ground in this he-said-they-said battle, but regardless, wherever the source of the issues may lie, we, the audience, and the Fantastic Four, as a viable property, are ultimately the ones who have to suffer with the final product.
I’m not really even certain there’s much of a plot here to explain in the first place, honestly. The film starts off establishing that both Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are two very different individuals who are drawn together out of shared loneliness and bad family situations – Reed being a misunderstood uber-nerd from a broken home who has already created a teleportation device while in grade school and Ben a tortured, quiet loner who lives in a junkyard with his mother and abusive older brother, who we discover is the source of Ben’s signature catchphrase, “It’s clobberin’ time!” (Yes, this alteration to one of Marvel’s most celebrated and repeated catchphrases is revealed to have come from a traumatic history of child abuse at the hands of a family member. It’s also one of the earliest signs that this film is basically going to be a joy-sucking blackhole throughout. One can only imagine how similar revelations would have profoundly changed the meaning behind other signature phrases like, “My spider-sense is tingling!” or “To the Bat-poles!”) The film then jumps forward into their late high school years when Reed is singled out by Sue and Johnny Storm’s father to help complete a project their company has been working on to teleport into another dimension… and then that’s where we essentially stay for the remainder of the film.
Yes, we do get to see how they get their powers in this alternate dimension (well, except for Sue, who, despite doing more work on the project than anyone, is inexplicably removed from the bulk of the origin story and made into a passive nag who is only exposed when she’s attempting to clean up the mess caused by the more adventurous and interesting guys, despite the film also going well out of its way to find an incredibly weak excuse to get the non-scientist Ben in on the expedition). And, yes, there are some neat, unsettling images as they discover their transformations, but I’m not kidding when I say that 80% of the film is them first sitting around talking about teleporting to this dimension before then talking about trying to get back in to see if there’s anything there to reverse their new abilities because everyone is a tortured soul in this movie. Only Johnny seems to be enjoying his powers, but even then it’s only because it keeps him from feeling like a disappointment to his father. Perhaps this movie also exists in a parallel universe where happiness must always come from a place of anguish?
No point in contemplating such things, though, as Reed is ostensibly the focus of the film. (Ben Grimm is basically there to mope, while Sue and Johnny share a few scenes where they speech monotonously at one another whenever Sue isn’t standing around on the side or repressing her attraction to Reed.) With Reed being the only escapee after the government holds everyone captive (so that they can weaponize everybody’s abilities, naturally), you would think the film would at least try to throw in a little variety and show you how he attempts to get them out, but no, that would involve distracting the audience from the real story about their wanting to do the same thing we saw in the first half, only this time with the intentions of reversing everything that makes them the Fantastic Four, which we already know isn’t going to happen because they’re the freaking Fantastic Four and Fox obviously wants to make more money off them. So the film just jumps forward a year to the time when he gets captured, and only because the other future members of the Four are so very mad at him for being as frightened and confused as they were about their inexplicable transformations that they decided to help the very government holding them captive in tracking him down… and then it’s time for everyone to stand around talking about getting back to the other dimension again, only… oh, yeah, Victor Von Doom also makes a reappearance and attempts to destroy the world because… well, that dude’s just crazy!
Okay, yeah, I know I’m spoiling the story, which I normally don’t like doing, but I’m really not certain that there’s any plausible way to summarize the story without basically giving it all away. The plot really is that sparse, and there is absolutely zero character development throughout the movie, too, unless you want to count them learning to work together as a team some sort of “development.” I don’t, as that really should’ve been established within the first 30 minutes, at least. Consider that we don’t even get to see them get their powers until about 60 minutes into this 100 minute long monotonous slog, and even then we don’t get any major action sequence until the very end because all the other action takes place on tiny monitors behind Tim Blake Nelson as yet another smarmy government head talking about how awesome it would be if we actually got to see the footage clearly. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, that big climax basically just amounts to a few minutes of the team finally learning to use their abilities in unison and physically reach the hilariously goofy-looking Doom as he throws rocks around at them while, in the background, a portal he’s created attempts to suck the entirety of Earth slowly through to this parallel dimension, which then also leads into a singularity. It’s basically a very effects-heavy football game, except you only get to see one down, and everyone’s walking at a leisurely pace to the end zone. (Hey, I made a sports analogy!) When Doom is finally defeated, we’re treated to a glamor shot of the destruction his interdimensional straw wrecked upon earth – which basically amounts to a mile-wide crater. Ho-hum.
This movie is so much worse than I had anticipated, even after I saw the Rotten Tomatoes score settle on an abysmal 9%. It has me yearning for the days when Jessica Alba was playing a white, blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman, Dodge was paying to lend its brand name to the Fantasticar, and Dr. Doom was a pouty, hammy romantic and not some angst-ridden 20-something nerd with a grudge against a world that he couldn’t manage to function in. Also, remember colors other than shades of blue, orange, and green? Remember when more than two things happened in a movie because the studio wanted to build a bigger universe around the property in future sequels but were apparently worried that there wasn’t enough material to mine out of a nearly 55-year-old ongoing comic book series that also had multiple concurrent incarnations in that time?… Remember fun?
The first theatrically released attempts Fox made with this series weren’t very good movies, either, but at least they were making an effort in maintaining audiences’ attention and have some fun with the concepts. This 2015 incarnation feels like it’s ashamed of its source material and tries to apologize for it by making everything “realistic,” only it’s also mistaken “joyfulness” as an unrealistic concept. (Considering the tragic nature of Trank’s first film, Chronicle, one might also consider that the reports about his problematic behavior might be hinting at something more than just a director who’s out of his element, which is why I wish critics would avoid bashing him personally, as if they knew him.)
This new Fantastic Four has basically no redeeming qualities. The script is painfully dumb – at one point, a background character can be heard shouting, “His biochemistry is off the charts!” which… what does that even mean? In the context of this humorless film, it can’t even be taken as an intentionally silly throwaway line! The characters have essentially one thing to do and have to do it twice, and they don’t even get to be interesting or entertaining while doing it either because apparently the actors also weren’t allowed to emote – what few attempts at humor the film does make to make fall flat because the delivery is flat. The characters themselves don’t even enjoy it the second time around! This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a painful, low-pitched, constant hum that penetrates your skull, slowly liquefying your brain with its pulses until you’re just sitting there, staring at a screen drooling, not even sure why you’re still watching. This is truly one of the worst superhero adaptations I have ever seen.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 0.5 / 5