Four may be the magic number for double dates, bridge clubs, and quadrant marketing, but for superhero gangs, it’s as unlucky as they come. A quartet is too crowded for focused character stories of the kind that built the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and too small a unit to overpower the audience by volume (see: the X-Men movies). 10 years after a mid-aughts version that struck out twice, and more than 20 after a legendarily awful first crack was meant to hit theatres, Fantastic Four is on the big screen once again. A year ago, Marvel Studios turned a little-known property into one of the year’s biggest hits; for 20th Century Fox and one of the foundational names in comics, a fourth try proves no charm.
With a new cast and director, and no subtitles or determiners around to clutter the title, Fantastic Four gets as fresh a start as a rights-preserving studio blockbuster could hope for. In the director’s chair is Josh Trank, whose original, modestly budgeted debut, Chronicle, did the smartest thing a superhero movie could do in 2012: understand how familiar audiences already are with comic book movies. Doing away with explanations and origin stories, Chronicle dove head first into the hijinks and danger of responsibility-free teenagers receiving great power. Without established fans in need of servicing or a franchise in need of founding, the result was a clever, fleet, and fun take on a well-worn genre.
Trank’s Fantastic Four is the structural antithesis of Chronicle: it’s a 100-minute first act of your average comic book movie, all origin, and no original story. But it’s also very much like Chronicle in how Trank (a co-writer, along with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg) tries to put character ahead of heroics. Marvel may not be treating their first family very sensitively these days (along with the X-Men, The Fantastic Four are being erased from comics over misplaced movie rights), but a Fantastic Four about relationships is theoretically one that’s doing right by the appeal of this particular supergroup.
Shame that, in keeping with the source material, Trank’s experiment goes haywire. The basic setup is the same as it’s been since 1961. Genius rivals Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) gin up a revolutionary science project meant to change the world. Instead, it turns friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) into a rock monster, the Storm siblings (Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan) invisible and inflammable, Reed into a rubber band, and Doom into the megalomaniacal embodiment of ironic naming. Instead of space travel and cosmic rays triggering the powers fantastic, this time it’s interdimensional travel to a barren, resource-filled planet.
Modern tent pole comic book movies, and indeed the previous Fantastic Fours, would speed through this preamble as quickly as possible. The thing (not The Thing) with Trank’s version is that, for most of the runtime, Fantastic Four isn’t a typical superhero movie. It’s not until the midpoint that force fields and fireballs start getting thrown across the screen, and even then, they’re treated with skepticism.
What Trank’s trying to make is a Fantastic Four that’s more science fiction flick than big dog on the blockbuster block, and for a while, the choice proves refreshing, if only intermittently entertaining. Rather than prescribed destruction and mayhem every 20 minutes, the setpieces are so small and self-contained to barely qualify as such. Like most of the effects, the desolate dirtball the gang is so keen to visit looks convincing from afar, spotty up close. But the industrial lab where most of the first hour’s action occurs has a tactile quality that Marvel’s impressive digital mattes don’t. Once the main four are finally made fantastic, their transformation is viewed by a manipulative government agency, and Trank, as freakish.
For its first two thirds, Fantastic Four is always just a stretch out of reach from being an interesting spin on recycled material, but by the last, it’s devolved completely into another brainless comic book known quantity. After unexpectedly, effectively turning into a full-blown horror movie for two minutes, Fantastic Four rather abruptly gets pulled into its rushed, generic, and totally deflating finale. Along with planes, vehicles, and civilians, a planet-threatening space vortex sucks up any trace of inspiration that the film ever had to offer.
Reg E. Cathey plays the adoptive, biological, and surrogate father to the team, and his more-gravely-than-The-Thing voice sells you the ideal that Fantastic Four is meant to represent better than the movie itself. The younger stars nicely counterbalance the story’s darker core of guilt and betrayal, but any twists Trank puts on the material are just bumps on the way to Fantastic Four’s comfortable destination. Unlike the heroes, Fantastic Four ends having been cured of any abnormalities making it strange or unique.
Fantastic Four takes small steps toward reinventing the formula, and erases them in a giant leap back towards comic book movie convention.