Film Review: Fantastic Four

Aggressively mediocre superhero film opts for Christopher Nolan seriousness over 'Avengers'-style popcorn levity and roundly fails at both.
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The only fantastic thing about Fantastic Four is how much blandness it manages to pack into 100 minutes. If taking talented actors—Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara and Jamie Bell play the central four—and leeching them of all charisma is a superpower, then director Josh Trank has oomph enough to give even Superman a run for his money.

Or maybe Trank isn’t the one solely responsible for this filmic personification of mayonnaise. Rumors have circulated for months that he was pushed off the film following on-set misbehavior, requiring that producers and 20th Century Fox step in and finish the job. At the very least, we know there were reshoots; the awful wig that Mara wears in some scenes can attest to that.

Fantastic Four reads like studio filmmaking taken to its extreme: no creative stamp, no risks taken, any vestiges of personality all but completely stripped from the final product. There are glimmers of what Trank must have been trying to do in if-you-squint-you’ll-see-’em similarities between this film and his smash hit debut feature, 2012’s Chronicle. There, three teens (including one played by Jordan, at his best) come across a mysterious alien (?) artifact that gives them the power to move objects with their minds. The whole film is about them coping with their new abilities; it’s only at the end that you realize you’ve actually been watching a superhero and supervillain origin story the whole time. It’s brilliant.

And it works because, by the time the reveal starts to dawn on you, you already care about the characters and their fates—as real teenagers struggling with the myriad pressures of adolescence, not as the not-so-spandex-clad forces of good and evil the comic-book-movie formula dictates they become. Fantastic Four goes for something similar, holding off the superheroics until the last half-hour. Before then, we follow teen science prodigy Reed Richards (Teller) as he’s scooped up by the Baxter Institute, a scientific foundation run by gravelly voiced father figure Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Storm’s assembled a group of the best and brightest—including his two children, Johnny (Jordan) and Sue (Mara), and the prickly eventual-villain Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell)—to crack the problem of interdimensional travel, hoping that exploration of a mysterious “Planet Zero” will yield solutions to our own planet’s problems. (Unintended side effect: superpowers!)

It’s, in theory, more character-based than a smash-’em-up superhero extravaganza. But that formula only works if there are characters you actually care about. Fantastic Four has none, its otherwise skilled cast reciting clunky, unsubtle dialogue (as in a scene where Sue explains her ability to read people and lays out Reed’s entire personality in one of the most blatant show-don’t-tell violations I’ve seen) in a monotone that makes one wonder whether Trank was even present on set to give his actors direction. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Fantastic Four is everything that’s wrong with the superhero-movie complex’s dependence on origin stories. We don’t need an hour and fifteen minutes devoted to how the Fantastic Four gain their powers before we get to the good stuff. (Or, for that matter, two movies about how Spider-Man gains his.) If that’s not the interesting part of the story, skip it and move on to what is.

Fantastic Four picks up another comic-book trope that it should have left by the wayside: broody, “gritty” superheroes. It might work when Christopher Nolan does it with Batman, but it’s the worst possible fit here. Did you catch the part where there are characters named Victor Von Doom and Sue Storm? Reed’s superpower essentially turns him into Stretch Armstrong. It looks ridiculous. And the Fantastic Four themselves are college-age, either late teens or early 20s. This is a movie that should have been fun. Instead, we get a tedious grump-fest with characters shooting each other increasingly intense looks and spouting wooden lines (“I can feel it. The energy. It’s alive.”) against a generic superhero-movie visual backdrop (blue-tinted, washed out—you know the one) and an even more generic superhero-movie plot. (A government-affiliated organization wants to co-opt the heroes’ powers for their own nefarious, military uses. When was the last time I saw that? Oh, wait. It was in Ant-Man. Three weeks ago.)

Occasional moments of charm sneak through, most of them courtesy of Jordan, whose natural charisma can’t be completely tamped down. A selfie-themed moment with Teller is one of the rare times Fantastic Four stops taking itself so seriously. Unfortunately, any glimmers of quality find themselves buried under an avalanche of blah.

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