Last month, Ant-Man crawled onto our big screens. It was an absolute blast, but despite being a Marvel film, I had to talk a lot of people into seeing due to its lesser known character and different approach. The most common thing I ended up drumming into people was, “it’s really fun!”. That’s both what made Ant-Man a great film and saved it from the misfire some were suspecting.
Ultimately, that’s the best superpower any film can ever have, especially when trying to make an audience invest in something new. When it comes down to it, we’re all there to be entertained so keeping that enjoyment factor present will always help with that process. This month sees another superhero film hit the multiplexes. That is Josh Trank’s (Chronicle) reboot of the Fantastic Four Marvel property, still owned by Fox (the studio behind the X-Men films), following their mediocre '00's pair of films. The result is many things, but fun is not one of them and may in fact be 2015's most misleading film title.
When the four bright young minds of Reed Richards (Miles Teller – Divergent, Whiplash), Susan Storm (Kate Mara – American Horror Story, House of Cards), her brother Johnny Storm (Michael B Jordan – Chronicle, That awkward Moment) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell – King Kong, TURN: Washington Spies) travel to another dimension, they all return with strange new powers and abilities. Can they come together as a team as save the world from Doom?
You could almost call this film a rope-a-dope (or rope-a-viewer I suppose) because it actually starts out not just well but promising. The alternative origin story inspiration of the Ultimate Universe re-imagining feels fresh, and it has a more realistic transition than the previous incarnation. The younger characters (post-high school age) feel more energetic without being forced and their coming together as friends in a college/formative years setup feels very natural. This also yields the early gem of 5th grade mad science first meeting for Reed and Ben. However, even while the setup is still.... well setting up, the cracks in the story begin to appear as Ben feels needlessly ostracized from the other smart kids, going way too long without appearing on screen only to be wrenched back in when it’s time to miraculously get superpowers. The script finds an all too convenient way to insert a rebellious hot head Johnny in with the other cast members, so why couldn’t Reed have insisted Ben come with him as his engineer and project collaborator? Things quickly begin to stagnate over the whole MacGuffin machine construction process. It’s not just that it’s too long with shot after shot of people and machines making stuff (yes..... we get it, you’re building something) but the humour dries up entirely.
Early plays on Reed’s geeky social awkwardness work quite well only to be ditched and have him be serious and grow stumble that looks stuck on by Team America. The aftermath reaction to gaining their powers yields the film’s best, and in some cases haunting moments as all four struggle to control or understand their transformation yet all too quickly, the writers (Including long time X-Men scribe Simon Kinberg) feel like they have no idea where the film should go next as it rushes towards a big (unconvincing) CVG finale.
The climax brings us to Fantastic’s Four’s most unforgivable mess. Doctor Doom is largely regarded as one of the greatest villain’s in Marvel’s collective works, and this film manages to make him look like a reject from a live action Stingray reboot. However, you felt about Julian McMahon’s efforts before, now he looks like Heath Ledger by comparison. The costume is beyond a joke, his powers are unexplained and inconsistent, his dialogue is about as awe and fear-inspiring as a YouTube kid that likes turtles, and his inevitable defeat is wholly unsatisfying. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) is trying his best, and is at least passable in his pre-transformation human state but his character is an on-screen mess. An academic jealousy/rivalry with Reed works but the underdeveloped love triangle over Sue feels Bat Suit nipples pointless. Finally, just like our heroes, Doom falls prey to the great origins story pitfall, which Fantastic Four may just be the worst case of since Ang Lee’s Hulk.
The titular characters are hardly in the film at all, at least any watchable capacity. Most of our Thing action scenes are glimpsed by a background screen monitor and The Human Torch plays about with a drone, and that’s really it. Instead, we have to sit through repeated shots of them walking solemnly down a corridor or looking a bit depressed at each other. It’s a similar level of frustration through on screen inactivity that dogged last year’s Godzilla, but without anything close to a monster payoff at the end. Instead, what we get is four heroes in supposedly darker and grittier toned film having to quickly learn the same teamwork lesson as the last Spongebob movie.
Yet the most frustrating thing about Fantastic Four is the cast.... in a positive way. Each looks and feels capable of delivering as their iconic heroes but doesn’t get the chance to do so for all the story blunders. Miles Teller showed he has endless leading man abilities in Whiplash, and does bring some good qualities to the awkward but brilliant scientist even if his Dhalsim fighting moves need some more meditation. Jordan balances the cocky and likeable well, but his father issues plotline is never believable. Mara is also often pleasant as a more sultry Susan Storm but her entire purpose is so the boys have something to play off. Jamie Bell gets painfully little pre-motion capture screen time but does enough to sell the CG transition, so they still feel like the same character. The support is saggy at best. Reg E. Cathey’s (The Wire) Dr Franklin “daddy” Storm can’t decide if he’s imitating Nick Fury or Luscious Fox, and the result is a bipolar disorder of dire over acting. Tim Blake Nelson’s Dr Allen/Generic interfering government guy is about as memorable as the square root of 23.
Despite a sequel already scheduled for 2017, based on these results, it might have to be third time lucky on this much loved Marvel ensemble. So many of the ingredients in isolation are exactly what the film needed to be but the end product is the most disappointing superhero film in this supposed golden age. It has its moments but not enough of them, or any idea how to connect them. It’s a Marvel film with no marvel, a comic film with little laughs that can’t even use its own catchphrases well. It’s the un-fantastic film of the summer.