After reports of ridiculous production woes and months of online ridicule by comic-book fans, I almost wanted Fantastic Four to blow everyone’s socks off. It wasn’t the Fantastic Four movie I wanted, and that was apparent from the earliest trailers and snapshots, but it looked like it had the potential to be an interesting, hard science-fiction reimagining of some classic superhero material. Something along the lines of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick with some Cronenbergian body horror thrown in for good effect.
Unfortunately the film that we’ve got lives up to the reviews. Fantastic Four starts out weak and only gets weaker. None of the characters have any development or arc, the special effects are astonishingly bad at some points, and the film relies on just about every modern grim ‘n’ gritty superhero cliché you can imagine. It’s a shame because the film showed promise. With a proven director on board (I was a big fan of Josh Trank’s earlier Chronicle) and a talented cast, this could have been really good, if not the movie I was hoping for. Boy, was I wrong.
The film’s most basic problems lie structurally – there is no character development, 40-50 minutes of build up, and then a bizarre time jump after the fateful incident that gives the titular heroes their powers, and then about 30 minutes of characters giving Reed Richards a hard-time for “abandoning” his teammates, concluded with a less than stellar final battle. There is no single scene until the very end of the film where all four of the Fantastic Four are together. Say what you will about 2005’s Fantastic Four and it’s sequel – at least those films got the family dynamic and camaraderie right. None of the characters at a script-level have any charisma nor chemistry with others. These characters are flat. The actors do the best they can, Miles Teller in lead – but ultimately none of them prove that interesting. My heart goes out to Jamie Bell, who could’ve made a heart-breaking and tragic performance as the Thing given the chance.
However, the most important problem the film has is a lack of any artistic vision. From the outset (well, the first 40 minutes at least), the film builds a supposed realism along the lines of Man of Steel. However, unlike Man of Steel, it doesn’t commit to this realism; the moment the super-powered element is introduced, the realism falls apart. Man of Steel may not have been totally realistic, but it had a committed artistic vision – this was a modern Superman, one grounded in semi-explained science, and one that could do just about all the things Superman can do, including epic battles in the sky. Fantastic Four shares no such commitment – it’s stuck halfway between the realism established in the earlier scenes and the fun superhero romps that Marvel has built it’s empire on. It’s not totally impossible to combine the two, as last summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past showed, but it simply doesn’t materialise here.
The most offensive thing about Fantastic Four remains that Fox has now filmed three separate interpretations of the franchise. While I haven’t seen the 1994 version, I’ve not heard great things. The 2005 reboot was a fun family film that managed to pin the family dynamic but ultimately proved to be a naïve film and not that terribly deep. This represents their third incarnation, made yet again to keep the film rights, and yet again Fox have shown they don’t exactly know what to do with the franchise. They insist that they are pushing ahead with a sequel at this point. I don’t even really see the point considering the abysmal reception and box office numbers. The sad thing is that a great Fantastic Four movie is entirely possible. There are years of great stories to draw upon, and the Fantastic Four has easily some of the best Marvel villains – Galactus, Doctor Doom, Annihilus, Namor – and yet all we’ve seen is two incredibly weak iterations of Doom that seem scared to carry over the political dimensions of his character.
Doom in this most recent film is particularly a disappointment. He really looks completely silly, and exudes no menace even when people’s heads start exploding (a tad too much violence for a superhero film, perhaps?). He looks even sillier when he dons the classic green cape and hood. It’s a shame because Toby Kebbell is another talented actor. I think the reshoots based on negative fan reaction early on to the hacktavist interpretation can explain some of the missing character arc for Doom, but even then, you can’t help but not take him seriously at all, even in this different version of the character. I simply laughed out loud when he said in the finale, “there is no Victor, only Doom!” It’s a shame considering he is possibly Marvel’s greatest villain.
If Fox pursue a sequel or move to create another version of the franchise in 10-15 years time, then it is out of spite. The thing to do is to let the rights lapse and go back to Marvel, so that they can give the fans the version of Fantastic Four we’ve all been waiting for. Even if that should happen though, I think the reputation of the franchise has been too badly tarnished. I don’t think it’s really that possible at the moment to reboot the franchise successfully. I hope Marvel can prove me wrong. Fantastic Four is easily one of the best franchises Marvel has on offer, and it would be a shame if the characters never translate onto the big screen faithfully.
Josh Trank claims that his original vision was spectacular. I really don’t see that being the case. Josh Trank was obviously never that interested in making a Fantastic Four film, and the resulting muddle could have come from Fox trying to bring back his vision to the intended superhero film. The result is a mess, a film that structurally makes no sense, offers little excitement and flat, two-dimensional characters. Perhaps the greatest criticism that I can level at the film is that the only genuine emotion I felt seeing it was boredom.