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Disappointing Four

August 28, 2015

This isn’t just in, but if you haven’t heard yet, the new Fantastic Four is not very good. Arguably not even worth writing about, but I feel compelled to nevertheless. Although Fantastic Four probably isn’t an A-list property at this point, I prepared myself to be very excited for this film as it was coming together. Josh Trank, director of Chronicle (an interesting small budget film I thought was OK), was set to direct Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan (also of Chronicle), Kate Mara, and Jamie Bell as the titular quartet.

This is a fascinating group of actors, and the movie figured to make a splash with a re-imagining of the origin story. Now, as I type these words, I realize this is not exactly a unique selling proposition these days, especially in the wake of Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man debacle. DC and Warner Bros. may very well find an innovative way of handling their bulging stable of supers, and Fox has done right by the X-Men, but if the reception for Fantastic Four has proven anything, it’s that comic book movies still need to deliver the goods to make any real money.

Honestly, I never realized the bar for creating the best Fantastic Four movie to date was set so high. There was an attempt in 1994 that ultimately went unreleased, and of course, the two films starring Jessica Alba and Chris Evans as the Storm siblings from 2005 and 2007. These two, directed by Tim Story, had middling reviews and combined for a respectable $619M at the box office. Despite the presence of The Silver Surfer, neither film rode much of a wave. It’s not like these movies were aggressively bad, just a bit anodyne, especially in a darkening comic book movie landscape lit menacingly by Christopher Nolan’s makeshift bat signal at the time.

Those movies were silly, but the 2015 version falls into a more baffling classification of “bad.” I don’t think I’m spoiling much of anything here but if you’re worried about that, then skip the next three paragraphs.

The film is front-loaded with character non-development and it takes about an hour (out of a 100 minute run time, and that’s rather trim for a comic book movie) for anything remotely fantastic to happen. The story begins with young Reed Richards (Teller) meeting young Ben Grimm (Bell) and bonding over Reed’s attempt to create a science-fair teleporter. Their partial success gets Reed invited to join a research institute.

This early part of the film goes on far too long. Even once Reed arrives at the Institute and, after working with the Storm family (Mara, Jordan), manages to lick teleportation, the first hour really has nothing to show for it except a trip to Planet Zero for a few anonymous scientists. It’s only once NASA is about to take the project out of their hands that The Four plus Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) make the drunken decision to check out the new planet for themselves. Actually, Sue Storm gets left behind, and the plan goes awry (because of course). Sue manages to help them get back to Earth, but not before they lose Victor in the chaos. Natch, even though Sue got left behind, she was still genetically altered when the boys came back. No good deed goes unpunished.

Fast forward a year, and Ben a.k.a. The Thing is being used by the military as a tankbuster in the Middle East, and Sue and Johnny are training to follow suit, while Reed hides in a jungle. With the help of The Thing, the government brings Reed back in, and he helps them reconnect with Planet Zero. This all leads to a hasty showdown between the at-this-point-unnamed Four and a deranged Victor.

There isn’t a ton to spoil, because not much happens. Very interestingly, Trank went on record saying that his take on Fantastic Four was “Cronenbergian.” This was another reason for being excited about Fantastic Four in the run up to its release. David Cronenberg is a provocative, auteurist filmmaker, and the mutation elements of any Fantastic Four story would seem to fit right in with the themes of his his work from the seventies and eighties. If by “Cronenbergian,” we mean, “like a bad sequel to a Cronenberg film,” then I get it. Honestly, there was a very brief stretch in this new film in which I thought it might earn the moniker. However, other than a quick scene featuring a spaghetti-armed Richards strapped to a table, there isn’t much in the way of body horror. It’s just a muddled mess that neither inspires wonder nor provokes much thought.

It’s very easy to shovel dirt on Trank. He clearly didn’t get to make the movie he wanted to make, but he probably doesn’t deserve all of the blame. Unfortunately, with the re-shoots, the studio taking over the final product, and the wild stories about Josh Trank’s dogs (yup), he’s too convenient a fall guy. The late-stage intervention was plainly obvious to anyone who saw the trailers prior to seeing the theatrical film. There was plenty of footage, and possibly entire plot points suggested by the trailer, that simply weren’t in the final film. I have to wonder if there will be an alternate cut released at some point. Generally, when a movie bombs it’s easy for a studio to just pretend it never happened. Then again, if a sequel somehow ends up getting made, and Fox wants audiences to give Fantastic Four another shot, it may be in their best interest to see if they can’t find a better film somewhere on the cutting room floor.

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