Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

fantastic-fourYou’ve probably heard the hype. The critics hate it. The fans are mixed. Rumors of production problems and creative differences abound; suspiciously, there’s no Stan Lee cameo. And everyone’s wondering why another Marvel reboot was even needed (no doubt Chris Evans is happier with his current gig). Expectations couldn’t get much lower.

Thus, I went into the theater with more curiosity than hope. My take? I give Josh Trank’s remake of the Fantastic Four a resounding…meh. It was better than 2007’s Rise of the Silver Surfer, and about on par with the 2005 film.

But that may not be saying much.

As reimagined origin stories go, this one is a bit corny, but with potential. The story opens with a fifth-grade Reed Richards (Owen Judge), a brilliant but misunderstood boy obsessed with creating a teleportation device. By high school, Reed (Miles Teller) succeeds in creating a prototype that can transport small objects to an unknown location and bring them back.

He and his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are demonstrating the device at the science fair when his work is spotted by scientist Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara). Storm knows that his generation has pillaged the Earth’s natural resources, and hopes to support the brilliant young minds who can rescue the planet; Sue is one such person. His disaffected son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), however, has the genius but squanders it on fast cars. Storm quickly realizes that Reed’s work holds the answer to unsolved questions in his own teleportation project, and takes him under his wing.

Reed is teamed with Sue, Johnny, and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) the brooding, condescending young man who had begun the teleportation project but left under protest. Together, these four successfully complete the project, and a gateway is opened to a place dubbed Planet Zero. Unfortunately, the government imperiously steps in and takes over. Stung, the boys impetuously decide on their own to be the first humans to set foot on Planet Zero, and Reed invites Ben along for the ride.

You can guess what happens next: Things Go Horribly Wrong. Victor is lost on Planet Zero. The others are grotesquely altered in different ways on the disastrous return to Earth (brownie points to the writers who tried to show how the different characters acquire different powers). Reed becomes able to stretch and contort himself; Johnny can erupt into flame, fly, and hurl fireballs; Ben becomes a creature of living rock and enormous strength. Even Sue is transformed in the ensuing explosion back at the lab, gaining the ability to become invisible and create force fields.

This is a younger and darker version of the Fantastic Four, and big themes abound: friendship, loyalty, and abandonment; the toxic combination of genius and hubris; the thirst for military domination; the fate of humankind and the Earth. And running through all of this, of course, is the classic superhero conundrum: are superpowers a blessing or a curse?

Like I said, there’s potential. But the problem is this. In the stylized universe of comic books, there’s a willing suspension of disbelief that can’t be taken for granted in a live-action, big-screen adaptation. The more outlandish the original premise, the harder you have to work to gain a new audience’s trust (and tinkering too much with origin stories is a sure way to lose old audiences).

The script needs to be seasoned with the kind of conspiratorial humor that winks and says, Yeah, we know it’s silly, but just go with it. There are examples aplenty in other Marvel movies. Here, the writers studiously avoid any mention of the title “Fantastic Four” or the characters’ comic book names — Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, and the Thing — except in snide remarks at the very end, as if trying to meet an embarrassing script requirement. But FF is a largely humorless movie; we’re asked to take things too seriously. Better by far to let the audience in on the joke.

Moreover, as in any good fantasy or science-fiction film, the story needs to be driven by real human drama and character development, saying, If such a world were possible, here are the conflicts the people caught up in it would have to struggle with, the same conflicts you would have if it were you. But the script does little to develop the characters in any way that would lead us to care much about their fate or friendship.

And that’s a pity. In the comic universe, the Four are truly a family. They may squabble, but that’s what families do. And as husband and wife, Reed and Sue Richards are the closest thing Marvel has to a stable and loving couple, despite the way their superpowers bar them from a normal life.

That’s the human dimension the film is missing. The acting talent is there. But what FF really needed, in my opinion, is the writing team from Pixar’s The Incredibles. Now that would have been fantastic.

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Parental advisory: the film is rated PG-13. There is some use of obscene language but it’s not excessive. The most visually disturbing images are in a sequence in which Doom kills a string of people who stand in his way; the scene is more reminiscent of something from a science-fiction horror film than a superhero movie.

Of greater concern, however, is the portrayal of the adults. They’re a rather unimpressive bunch, with the exception of Dr. Storm — and even he is out of touch with his son. These are the kind of cardboard grown-ups that populate children’s adventure films: distant or abusive parents; a mean teacher; dark-suited government officials willing to use children to further their own cause. They need the kids’ smarts to do the science and their powers to save the world. And in the end, both the government and military meekly submit to their authority; the Fab Four are clearly in charge and loving it.

That might be worth a discussion with your kids.