Film Review | Fantastic Four

Trank’s film may not be the best entry in the recent swathe of superhero films. But neither is it the worst, and the battering it received by both critics and fans is partly to blame for the unmitigated barrage of crap it’s been pelted with

So 20th Century Fox decide to make good on their rights to Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four before they run out by opting to reboot a franchise so far characterized by embarrassing early-noughties crapfests. Great! They bring in director Josh Trank on board: a promising young talent who dabbled in similar waters with the low-budget found-footage superhero film Chronicle a few years back. Great! Not so great: Trank turned out to be something of a handful on set, and didn’t quite respect the parameters of the project.

But does this troubled project really deserve the crap that’s been slung its way?

Child prodigy and aspiring scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has wanted to create a functioning teleportation device ever since he was a small kid, but when his school project is noticed by Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) of the Baxter Foundation and his adoptive daughter and fellow researcher Sue (Kate Mara), the opportunity goes beyond his wildest dreams. Building on the research created by the troubled Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel), Reed drafts his long-time friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) to help out with the project, while Franklin brings his rabble-rousing son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) into the mix. After some initial friction, the young team seems to gel quite nicely, with even the previously exiled Victor brought to heel. 

That is, until a foolhardy attempt at harnessing their own technology goes awry, leaving one of their number stranded in a parallel dimension, with the rest of the team developing powerful but alienating mutations.

Reed escapes in a fit of guilt and rage, leaving the rest of the team to be employed as weaponised assets by the Baxter Foundation and the army. While the Foundation’s head, Dr Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) dangles the carrot of a possible ‘cure’ for their unique abilities, the specter of Doom hangs over the proceedings, with the young scientist, now also transformed, biding his time to unleash revenge on the entire world. 

First things first. Trank’s film may not be the best entry in the recent swathe of superhero films. But neither is it the worst, and the battering it received by both critics and fans, in some cases even ahead of release, is partly to blame for the unmitigated barrage of crap it’s been pelted with, and which arguably soured perception beforehand. 

This is unfair for several reasons, one of them being the very fact that the film is refreshingly shorn of the excesses that characterize most ‘in-house’ Marvel Studios productions. Instead of a facile recourse to self-referential humour, fan-servicing fluff and a determined agenda to wend every single frame of the film to the overarching ‘shared universe’, Fantastic Four just gets on with the job of telling a B-movie sci-fi romp that doubles up as a group coming-of-age story. 

The beats are familiar but for the most part, no less fun for being so, and it’s a pleasure to see such a solid young cast bond over intellectual labour – a bit like an optimistic flip-side to the petty ego-tussling we saw in, of all things, David Fincher’s Facebook expose The Social Network (2010). This first half works well because the misguided decision to give the Fantastic Four a ‘gritty’ finish isn’t really felt at that point. 

Where things get murky – in every possible way – is after the fateful incident. Darkness descends over the team, and the movie by proxy. Exploited by the military-industrial complex and seemingly betrayed by their once-comrade Reed, the remaining trio’s prospects start to look very bleak indeed. 

This is the point at which the film drifts incomprehensibly far, far away from its plucky space-pulp comic book origins and strives for a Christopher Nolan-style brooding meditation on the nature and overall function of super-powered beings, and the internal anguish their essential Otherness brings with it. 

Coupled with some surprising flashes of gore – to say nothing of the body horror that announces our heroes’ transformation – it becomes unclear who the target audience for the film is, and whether or not Trank and his apparently overbearing studio superiors have any idea of what, exactly, they’re going for. 

In the end, Trank’s complaints about excessive studio interference may be justified, given how flimsy the character development on display comes across. We get the kernel of a pretty good dynamic between the team – as bolstered by a very capable clutch of actors – but their interactions are stripped to the bone. This hurts our villain most of all, as Victor jumps from a harsh-but-justified critic of the corporate science machine to genocidal psychopath in pretty much one fell swoop. 

This sad trajectory reaches its nadir in the film’s woeful by-the-numbers climax. It’s not a terrible set piece, in that it allows our heroes to finally employ their powers to full tilt, amidst the volcanic wasteland of the ‘negative zone’ that created all of them – including the new Doom – in the first place. Another inadvertent point in its favour: it’s the only big action sequence we’re subjected to, which makes for a nice break from the vulgar relentlessness of Marvel Studios fare. 

But it’s also a rote piece of CGI-encased rumbling and tumbling, with an awkward catchphrase or two thrown into the mix and an hare-brained ‘battle plan’ underpinning it all. Granted, none of it is as bad as the copy-pasted wash of grey robots that we got by way of conclusion in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But its bare minimum approach marks the final nail in the coffin: a reminder of the bare-minimum, low-energy and rushed nature of this project. 

It’s a sorry state of affairs, no matter who is ultimately to blame. 

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