This was a golden opportunity.
1994 brought the first Fantastic Four movie, which tanked. 2005 and 2007 brought us two underwhelming Fantastic Four movies, both of which also tanked. Then once the Marvel Cinematic Universe started with a bang in 2008’s Iron Man, the time seemed ripe to give Reed Richards and company another shot.
It certainly was. Marvel Studios have set the gold standard for superhero storytelling, and as a result, comic book movies are as popular now as they have ever been. Not only that, but the prior Fantastic Four movies gave any possible reboot a bare minimum; just surpass this, and we would be happy.
Yet in some inconceivable way, 20th Century-Fox, director Josh Trank, and a slew of young stars couldn’t even manage that. How did Fantastic Four manage to get worse?
It wouldn’t seem like there’s much that could go wrong with this story. Bright student Reed Richards (Miles Teller) invents a teleportation device that can transport him and his colleagues to a treacherous, alternate universe. A freak accident in this universe bestows the students with incredible abilities. Reed can extend and stretch his limbs as if he were made of rubber. Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), a cocky daredevil, can set himself aflame and fly in the air. Johnny’s sister, Sue (Kate Mara) can turn invisible and create force fields. Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) becomes The Thing, a large rock monster with super strength and durability.
These all come at a cost, though, as their friend Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) dies in the alternate universe. As the students learn to harness their super powers, they must quickly use them in tandem to fight Victor when he reemerges as Doctor Doom, a frighteningly powerful enemy.
Simple enough. And at just 100 minutes, the movie could have worked as a short and sweet get-to-know-you beginning to what has always been an entertaining comic book series. Yet somehow, Fantastic Four manages to hit every sour note possible.
There is a severe lack of chemistry among the leading actors, which is a surprise given their individual talent (especially for Teller and Mara) and rise to fame in recent years. Reed and Sue are supposed to dig one another, but apparently, only two innocuous, awkwardly-played flirting scenes are supposed to suffice. This is just one example of the film’s many shortcomings in performances, and considering the essence of Fantastic Four is teamwork and comradery, this film does a terrible job of conveying it. Watching the stars fumble through poorly-written and frankly childlike dialogue is almost physically uncomfortable.
The performances are just the beginning. Trailers and commercials for Fantastic Four touted its dark, brooding atmosphere, and hinted at a more serious version of the superhero squad. Think as if Trank had been trying to imitate Christopher Nolan’s work in The Dark Knight trilogy. While there’s nothing wrong with going the dark-and-gritty route, Trank commits so deeply to it that he compromises any modicum of flavor, personality, and uniqueness the story and characters still had left. When the film feels less like a feature presentation and more like a 100 minute-long trailer, one doubts that Trank really did have a better version of the movie in mind.
Perhaps Fantastic Four’s most grievous sin is that it almost entirely forgets it’s a movie about the Fantastic Four. The film elects not to revel in the franchise’s reputation for entertaining action and witty humor. So the few attempts at actual humor fall flat, and moments of sincerity feel laughably forced. Only at the very end does the film suddenly remember its comic book origins just to make a few weak-spirited and shoehorned throwbacks, The Thing’s “It’s clobberin’ time!” being one such instance. This has the unfortunate effect of diminishing Doctor Doom’s pure villainy and penchant for grandiose verbiage into mere afterthoughts: a huge disservice to arguably one of the greatest comic book villains of all time.
Reinventing the franchise wouldn't have been so bad if it were approached with anything even remotely resembling passion or concern for a good story. But the film deviates so strongly from its roots that it puts off comic book fans equally as well as it alienates casual moviegoers. It's also of note that Fantastic Four barely had to do anything just to be marginally better than the previous movies. That it found a way to limbo underneath an extremely low bar is remarkably tragic. When it comes to movies, the Fantastic Four might be doomed.
Written by Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Josh Trank. Directed by Josh Trank.
Starring Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Reg E. Cathey.