If Fantastic Four is supposed the be the story of a superhero family, the 2015 adaptation makes them seem as unsupportive as you can be before civil action becomes your only option. Not only do they see no beauty or meaning in their heroic endowments, but they are so quick to give up their integrity after the accident that you think, as you never should, that these people don’t deserve their gifts. They become government-funded mercenaries, corporate stooges, and refugees. They are burdensome people; their company is unwelcome.
And yet, the self-loathing seems to have been the goal for director Josh Trank. He mines a tired story of kooky coming-together for a goth exploitation flick, a body horror fairytale. Fantastic Four has more in common with Cronenberg’s The Fly than the previous iterations of the family dynamic. When Reed Richards (Miles Teller) stretches, he also melts and contorts. He is painlessly disturbed by himself. Ben Grimm (Jamie Grimm) has it even worse, changing from a tiny tough guy into a gigantic whiner, a cartoon avalanche piled up into a blubbery echo of a person. He’s made of rocks and the computers go wild. Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), who already comes packaged with a superhero’s name, can swathe himself in flame and use fire (?) to fly. Sue Storm (Kate Mara) can turn invisible and put up forcefields, both useful career moves after this particular performance.
I struggle to even call the acting in Fantastic Four “performances.” Mara particularly looks sewn together: if she smiled, she’d split. She’s as invisible without her powers as with them, rendering lines of no import exactly as they are. She’s one of a few inexhaustible sources of science jargon in the film, written and spoken by people who don’t know what they’re saying. The dimensional portal constructed by montage in Fantastic Four may not be more advanced than the transporters on Star Trek, but there’s a big difference between showing something as it works day-to-day, the practical mundanity of it, and dropping the mic on mathematics to invent something on-screen that will self-assuredly change the whole universe. They build the machine with more attention than a Google search scene, but less than one of those construction montages on a house makeover show.
I don’t need the science to be believable, any more than I need the film to be so possessed with that science – any Marvel comic should hold its people above the waterline of its jargon (if we held Magneto to the principles of magnetism we’d be here all day). But it’s not about the four humans at all. They meet and argue, end up testing the machine on themselves, acquire their powers, and then there’s (and I’ve thought about this) the most obstructive fade-out in the history of film. After the hurried action of going to the other dimension and coming back with powers, the screen fades to black and the words “one year later” appear with all the integrative grace of a commercial advertisement for writing lessons. We pick up with what is essentially a new film with a new tone. The four are spread apart, they hate each other, and now all of a sudden they crack jokes as they resist their inexorable coming-together over explicit heroness. The final scene is (and as a millennial I consider myself an expert on the subject) the single most excruciating excuse for a brand-building scene in the history of movies. The four are standing in a row at a railing, coming up with their team name without saying it outright. “Gotta say, it’s fantastic,” someone says. Music drains, slow head turn. “Say that again?” End titles. This is movie torture.
The wrongness piles up like the Thing’s polygons. (They made the decision to make him fully CGI and also to remove his pants – he looks sculpted out of brownie.) For some reason, the look of these characters is off, like the film was cast as the award at a Comic-Con lookalike contest. Reed and Sue are supposed to be the father and mother of the group (Reed is usually depicted with grey sideburns and a general air of 50s dad pastiche). Teller excels at playing frustrated intelligent people (see Whiplash for a film that deserves him) but Reed comes off as a high-minded playmate. Sue is vacuous, and the aberrative wig is a tell-tale sign of reshoots: you could drink a shot every time her hair changes color and you’d have to finish the film in your hospital bed. Jordan brings his arrogant levity to a movie in which he doesn’t belong, but should. They act like he’s the downer of the group, but just for caring about things enough to whine about them he’s practically the highlight.
And what can I say for Victor Von Doom, that venerated cyborg wizard generated from Stan Lee at his most folkloric? Here he is an impetuous co-worker (Toby Kebbell), which is indigestible enough (in the comics, he’s a European wizard king who skinned his fiancé and enchanted her hide to use as his magical armor). Worse still is his look. What did they do to this guy? It looks like they melted plastic shopping bags and dipped him in it like a batter. He would lose a Comic-Con lookalike contest. He would be panned in a student film.
That drastic change in the middle following the “one year later,” after which the broody body horror becomes a film grasping for a way to iconize a Fant4stic-mobile, is comprehensible with a little behind-the-scenes digging. Fox got scared by Marvel’s profits with Guardians of the Galaxy into changing the serious film they commissioned Trank to make (whose Chronicle was similarly heavy-hearted). So they ordered reshoots and shot it themselves when Trank refused, in a drunken mess, so I hear (Trank then tweeted against the family and now wouldn’t be hired to sweep up the scraps of his own movies). The first half of Fantastic Four isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s novel. The sterile lab tragedy mock-up of a family comedy is a bold and unwelcome move, to most. Personally, I don’t see why visions should be squelched if they don’t conform to tradition. Trank wanted the four to have identities (in order to send them into crisis), to have nice people challenged by their emergent freakiness, and then maybe come together over their flaws and misgivings. The second half made by the studio is a horror show in the nicety of its tone, eviscerating the previous setup in favor of a sequel-grubbing incomplete sentence at the end of an hour of action that looks like it was filmed to simulate glaucoma. There’s nothing good about it, not even the spark of difference. We may never get closer to a more perfect schematic for how to ruin a movie, than we get with Fox’s good work here.
In fact, I don't want to put Fantastic Four in this website's "Cinema Sewer." I want filmmakers to twist conventions and try new things. It's in there, not because the film is so worthy of the distinction, but because Fox is for making sure of it.
The Fantastic Four don’t need gooey fingernail drama and hair-pulling to be effective. A little bit of good nature might have gotten the film at least to the level of the 2005 iteration, which had that and nothing else. I’m personally glad that Trank’s mind was on something divergent but if Fox wasn’t, why approve it in the first place? His unique mission was to convert friendliness into depression, to fragment good nature into self-criticism and doubtful acting-out. Why would you additionally burden the project with catering to other films’ idea of it? This was a self-administered disaster, a conscious prat-fall into the radioactive goo in the hope of some really awesome marketing potential. The failure here is so extensive that it may qualify as fantastic, even if nothing else about it does.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Fox Studios (uncredited)
|Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic||Miles Teller|
|Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman||Kate Mara|
|Johnny Storm/The Human Torch||Michael B. Jordan|
|Ben Grimm/The Thing||Jamie Bell|
|Victor Von Doom/Dr. Doom||Toby Kebbell|
|Franklin Storm||Reg E. Cathey|
|Harvey Allen||Tim Blake Nelson|