Fantastic Four Dir. Josh Trank

[20th Century Fox Corporation; 2015]

Styles: superhero
Others: Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer, Chronicle

“What the hell happened?” That’s about all I could come up with after seeing the new Fantastic Four. Even though I went in ignorant about the behind-the-scenes production drama and scuttlebutt about reshoots, I could tell that something was amiss: what ended up onscreen was a Frankenstein monster of parts haphazardly thrown together. But what makes the film especially frustrating is that it boasts an assured and interesting first half that develops the protagonists and makes the “science” behind their superpowers interesting for viewers and a source of bonding for the characters. There are even some chilling Cronenbergian touches when their powers begin to manifest that hint at a darker tone than most people would expect from this would-be franchise. And then a title card drops that says “One Year Later” and everything becomes a rushed attempt at getting to some stereotypical superhero finish line. There are, admittedly, a few nice moments within that second half, but they are so overshadowed by such massively bungled, ineffectual scenes that they slowly fade out of memory. Director (and co-writer) Josh Trank wasn’t happy with the version released, and Lord knows I’m not happy with it. Still, you have to wonder what the hell happened to produce such an uneven film that discards so much of the goodwill it builds up in service of a huge letdown of a finale.

This retelling of the classic comic tale draws mostly from the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic books, in which the titular heroes are all (save one) whiz kids who end up working for a large foundation (and later the government). Reed Richards (eventually played by Miles Teller) is obsessed with cracking the code for teleportation, and draws childhood chum Ben Grimm (eventually played by Jamie Bell) into his youthful experiments about transporting matter across space and, eventually, dimensions. His work gets him noticed by Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who recruits him to work for the Baxter Foundation. There, Reed works alongside Franklin’s daughter, Sue (Kate Mara), and son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the black sheep of the program, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Once a few chimps have proven that it’s safe to travel to another dimension, the project is to be turned over to NASA. After a night of drunken shenanigans, Reed, Johnny, Ben, and Victor decide to be the first ones to travel to this new dimension. As Victor’s egotistical viewpoint convinces the others, who remembers the people that built Apollo 11? Why not be Neil Armstrong if they can? So the quartet (Sue isn’t included in this boys’ club gathering) travel to this other dimension, weird things occur, and when they return they are all monsters (and Sue gets her powers in a convoluted way). Some other stuff happens, but it’s a rushed blur from that point, and suddenly we have a group of disparate heroes working together to shut down a giant laser beam shooting into the sky. You know, like The Avengers, and Star Trek, and a host of other movies from the past six years.

One of the biggest assets of the film is its cast, with everyone bringing a lot of charisma to their characters. Jordan, Teller, Mara, and Kebbell are all exceptional in their roles. Jamie Bell fares less well as his part is incredibly underwritten and eventually buried under some rather unimpressive CGI. Kebbell in particular shines as Victor Von Doom, a brash egotist who is a genius and works well with Reed, even as he despises authority and remains a self-centered prig. When he comes back into the movie transformed into his villainous self, there’s an excellent sequence where he stalks the halls of a building, dispatching innocents by blowing out their brains. It’s a great scene that more than a little rips off Cronenberg and Akira (seriously, someone just let Trank make that film, as he clearly keeps going back to it for inspiration). It’s only slightly hampered by the fact that the Doom design looks exactly like the robot from the cover of Queen’s News Of The World. But still, there’s a reason for his madness and there’s a real sense of menace about the character, something that most movies have lacked in their villains. Unfortunately, right after the literal mind-blowing scene is when everything falls completely to crap as the other four must work together to stop Doom’s nefarious, ill-advised, superhero movie cliché of a plan.

It’s a common occurrence in comic books for a new writer/artist team to take over and reboot the franchise or tell a different take on beloved characters. Sometimes this new vantage point leads to unexplored depths and new variations that become just as classic and iconic as the original, carrying forward into other runs by new creators years later. Other times it’s a mistake, with the new creators not understanding what originally hooked readers in the first place, or taking a cynical look at a beloved property that does ill by the original creations. The point is that new takes come and go on comic books, so it makes sense that it would happen within the comic book movie boom as well. Unfortunately, this new take on Fantastic Four bungles too often and too severely to ever truly, properly work well. The first half’s character development and patient pacing is completely overshadowed by a rushed second half, inelegant character CGI, and an awkward need to conform to superhero tropes. Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four is certainly the best iteration of the team onscreen, but that’s damning with faint praise.

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