It's widely understood that Marvel superheroes tend to have an element of tragedy mixed into their stories. There's always something that went horribly wrong in their origin story, or a personal failing that keeps popping up again and again, an internal conflict to match the external battles illustrated on comic book pages.
four teenagers whose lives are ruined by science
What's less often acknowledged, and seemingly totally forgotten by the writers, producers and director of Fox's latest Fantastic Four movie, is that Marvel superheroes are also full of levity. Fantastic Four, in particular, is a concept that has always been rooted in wide-eyed wonder. Yes, there is sadness to the long-running (currently canceled) comic series; but more than that, there is an adulation of the possibility of scientific progress, a celebration of family and a love of humor.
Fantastic Four — as directed by Josh Trank — has no time for humor. What few jokes exist in the film are passed over quickly to return to the focus: an overbearingly dour drama about four teenagers whose lives are ruined by science.
In fact, Fantastic Four has very little time for superheroics altogether. The movie begins with Reed Richards (Miles Teller) as a child genius obsessed with uncovering the secret to human teleportation. From there, more than half of its 100-minute runtime is taken up by an excruciatingly slow build to Richards and his three eventual teammates — Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) — gaining their superpowers.
I'm not opposed to a slower-paced, character-centric superhero film, in theory. The problem with Fantastic Four is that these characters aren't interesting. They don't start interesting, and they don't go anywhere interesting. The minuscule character arcs that do exist manage to still feel unearned.
The good guys aren’t all that likable
For example, as the main protagonist, Reed begins the film as a brilliant but solipsistic scientist whose obsessions tend to get other people in trouble. By film's end he is a brilliant but just slightly less solipsistic scientist whose obsessions tend to get other people in trouble. His friends — especially Grimm, whose life is most irreversibly screwed by the events of the film — seem to have more or less forgiven him, and as an audience we’re supposed to as well.
Even as a comic reader who's gone through dozens of years of ups and downs with Richards, I wasn't convinced by the movie's overeagerness to move on from one of its most salient points of conflict.
This ties in to another major problem with Fantastic Four as a superhero movie: The good guys aren't all that likable. This is especially true of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), Sue and Johnny's father and the lead scientist running the experiments that eventually lead to the main characters gaining powers.
Let me state this plainly: Franklin Storm is a bad father. He is also, arguably, a bad adult in general. He spends half of the movie completely open to letting the children he's in charge of serve as guinea pigs for his science experiment; when the military steps in to recruit the kids, he suddenly and without explanation begins making speeches about how they're "just kids" and shouldn't be used as tools. He's not wrong, but the lack of self-awareness is staggering, another glaring example of how the movie doesn't seem to care enough to justify its plot development and character beats.
And in case you weren't convinced about how obnoxiously dark and self-serious Fantastic Four is by the time they get their powers, the next 20 minutes or so are devoted to how the military forces the heroes — particularly Ben Grimm’s the Thing — to become killing machines. One scene shows footage of Grimm being airdropped into an unspecified foreign location to fight unidentified enemy soldiers. The screen highlights the dozens of "confirmed kills" he's accomplished.
So The Everlovin' Blue-Eyed Thing is now a killer, with the strong implication that he’s being used against combatants who aren’t really "evil" in any way. Cool.
It isn't until the last 15 minutes or so of Fantastic Four that we finally see all of the group together, using their powers, doing generally heroic things. It's one of the few sequences where the film feels fun and inventive, putting Sue's ability to turn other people invisible to work in tandem with Johnny's fireballs and Ben's pure, rock-like strength. It even manages to briefly make Reed's dorky power — the ability to stretch his limbs — seem impressive.
Of course even this grand finale is soured by Fantastic Four's absurd antagonist, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), alias Doctor Doom. While there's never any doubt of the path Doom is headed down from the first moment we meet him — dude's last name is "Doom," after all — the path the film takes to get there feels like a shortcut at best. The audience is never given any real reason to buy into Doom's sudden turn toward insanity. Sure, he's a bit of a dick in various ways throughout the film, but he's a likable enough dick and, in a change from the comic book canon, not all that responsible for the accident that grants the Fantastic Four their powers.
In fact, in the film's retelling of the Fantastic Four origin story, Doom inexplicably replaces Sue Storm on the interdimensional journey that gives the quartet their powers. Sue still manages to gain abilities through a suspension-of-disbelief-defying series of events, but in this case Doom gets powers as well. If the main heroes' abilities are based on the four elements, what does Doom get? It’s not terribly well explained. He can make heads explode and rip rocks up from the ground and shoot bolts. I guess it’s just the power of whatever obstacle the script calls for at the moment?
Oh, also, Doc Doom’s villainous transformation makes him look like a complete doofus.
Considering this reboot comes a mere 10 years after the last film iteration of Fantastic Four, it carries the distinct possibility of killing the franchise in Hollywood altogether, which would be a damn waste. And it's all the more shameful for its misuse of what is arguably one of the best superhero film casts in recent memory.
the fate of the Fantastic Four franchise is in question
Miles Teller (of Whiplash fame) plays the awkward nerd lead well, and Jamie Bell is a pitch-perfect troubled Ben Grimm. Kate Mara as Sue Storm sneaks in hints of inner depth even as the film underutilizes her. No surprise, though, that the real standout is Michael B. Jordan — best known for roles in The Wire and Friday Night Lights — as Johnny Storm. Maybe it's just that Johnny’s cocky attitude gives him the most fun moments, but Jordan was just impossibly good at making me like the character even when he was making bad choices.
Actors like Mara and Jordan will in all likelihood survive whatever bad press comes of this film. So will director Josh Trank (assuming this tweet doesn’t get him blacklisted from Hollywood). But the fate of the Fantastic Four movie franchise is much more in question. And as much as that depresses me, it would be hard to blame Fox for bowing out after another effort that fails this hard.
Fantastic Four is a superhero movie without any sense of spectacle. It's willing to take shortcuts that make the story's progression unbelievable, but unwilling to let go of the mundane, gritty, boring reality that rules its plot. It is in no meaningful way fantastic, and I cannot imagine a greater crime against Marvel Comics' founding family.