Fox’s latest reboot not only fails to live up to its title, but the comic book legacy that spawned it.
The team affectionately known as Marvel’s First Family may have launched the modern Marvel universe in 1961, but their cinematic track record has been less than stellar. Following a fondly remembered television cartoon in the 1960s, and another in the late 1970s, the franchise was notoriously made into an ashcan production by Roger Corman in 1994. Tim Story’s 2005 reboot was mixed in its results, but did well enough with audiences to earn a sequel, the much derided Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. For all of their fits and starts, these outings had two things in common: an attempt to pay tribute to their comic book legacy, and an innate sense of fun. Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR (or FANT4STIC if you prefer) not only abandons its half-century legacy, but any sense of joy as well.
Lifting much of its elongated first act from Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, and Adam Kubert’s Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book series, the latest incarnation of Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a misunderstood teen genius, discovered at a high-school science fair with his rough-around-the-edges friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) by Professor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), director of the Baxter Foundation, and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara). Tasked to complete a inter-dimensional “Quantum Gate” alongside Storm’s troubled protege Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) and reckless son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), they are all imbued with amazing powers when they travel to another planet filled with a strange energy.
With this reboot, Fox and their superhero licences were given a golden opportunity to start anew with the team, and all they really had to do was follow any of the various origin stories the team has been given by countless top tier writers over the decades. Simon Kinberg, who recently updated Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past to much acclaim – alongside newbie writer Jeremy Slater and director Josh Trank – have delivered a total reinvention of the premise, and in doing so have robbed the film of even a fantasy believability. Which is where Fantastic Four lies: firmly in the realms of fantasy. Instead, the film revels in the grotesque of Reed’s stretching limbs, the agony of Grimm’s rock exterior, while totally over-explaining the notion that Sue can be invisible and create forcefields. Not once does it let these characters simply play with their newfound abilities.
Yet even if this wasn’t an adaptation of a beloved series of heroes, FANTASTIC FOUR is a troubled production. The overly complicated origin tries to science the hell out of a concept that once needed “cosmic rays” to justify powers, and takes a good hour to get past this exposition. Even simple concepts, such as Grimm’s family owning a junk yard, is both shown visually and then still explained in dialogue moments later. In fact, every is line telegraphed to the point of cliché (“We can’t change the past, but we can control the future!”, “There is no Victor…only Zuul Doom!”). None of the characters are imbued with much personality, and most disappointingly of all, even the pantsless Thing is reduced to nothing more than a government controlled hulk aimed at tanks. While early reports of Doom being a blogger are inaccurate, they aren’t far off either: his introduction is in a windowless room playing video games, and a far cry from the powerful ruler who fully commands his own sense of justice.
FANTASTIC FOUR may be many things, but it isn’t Fantastic Four. For much of the film, characters are simply occupying screen time, neither furthering their own development or the plot. When the running time indicates that it is time to start wrapping things up, there is a final and inevitable confrontation with Doom that descends into nothing less that undirected chaos, with found-footage director Trank (Chronicle) simply failing to control it. While a sequel is scheduled, one that might give us a unified team that lives up to the title, there is little here to give either fans or uninitiated audiences hope for a fantastic future.
FANTASTIC FOUR is released on 6 August 2016 in Australia, and 7 August 2015 in the US, from Fox.