I’m just going to go ahead and say it now: Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four” reboot is a failure. But it’s fascinating in the way it fails. The film doesn’t run into the same issues plaguing other recent Marvel movies; it isn’t burdened by the hassle of having to set up future movies and the plot isn’t overly convoluted (at least, at first). As far as “first” films go, the beginning is solid in that it actually does a pretty good job of setting up the superhero foursome. But then it face plants…face plants hard. You realize the movie has been nothing but setup and when things finally get going the end credits are rolling.
The first third of “Fantastic Four” is spent focusing on our heroes before they attain their superpowers. Kid genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) cracks the secret of interdimensional teleportation. He’s recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey) to work with his children Johnny (Michael B Jordan) and Sue (Kate Mara) Storm, as well as fellow scientist Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) on a machine capable of transporting humans to another dimension.
I appreciate that Trank (and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater) take time to set up the dynamic between the characters. The pacing can be sluggish and there are a few dumb scenes but at least we get to know the junior scientists before their transformations. Reed is the charming bumbling nerd while Johnny is the troublemaker. Sue is the ambitious, independent minded token female and Victor is the brooding outsider. The only one who doesn’t quite fit in is Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). Unlike the others, Ben isn’t a scientist and even though it’s established that he and Reed are childhood friends, the way he’s brought into the later action is clunky.
Yet I can excuse this hiccup because Bell is strong in the part, in fact everyone is. Each actor brings much needed charm and wit to his or her role and their group chemistry feels organic and cohesive. Even Cathey is effective as the grizzled old scientist/ mentor.
Unfortunately, during these first forty minutes the picture plays more like a lengthy prelude to a superhero movie than actually being one. I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with that except the movie does eventually turn into a superhero movie. The main conflict doesn’t arrive until about halfway through. It’s like Trank and co. spent too much time writing the setup and then had to shoehorn the rest of the story in at the last second. In short, the movie takes too long to get started and then it turns into a rushed, sloppy waste of time.
Now here’s where the plot might get confusing but bear with me. Reed, Johnny and Ben return from a trip to the other dimension. (Wherein Victor is left behind.) Their physical forms (along with Sue via collateral damage) have been altered. For the few readers unfamiliar with the characters’ powers: Reed can stretch his arms and legs, Sue can create and manipulate force fields, Johnny is a human torch and Ben is a rock encrusted Incredible Hulk-like being called The Thing.
Cut to one year later; Sue, Johnny, Ben and Reed are trying to figure out how to reverse the effects. Meanwhile, a government team (oh right, the government is involved in the interdimensional research now) extracts Victor from the other dimension.
To keep from boring you with more details let’s just say that “Fantastic Four” proceeds to jump off a figurative cliff. Victor is evil all of a sudden. For a second I thought I missed something but no…the movie did. He goes by Dr. Doom and wants to destroy the earth because it’s weak. What’s his motivation? We don’t know. He’s spent the last year in another dimension so we didn’t exactly get to observe his thought processes. Early on it’s established that Victor is jealous of Reed for discovering the key to interdimensional travel before him but that doesn’t explain why he suddenly wants to destroy the world. On top of that, while the central foursome’s powers are clearly established, Doom’s powers are vague; I guess he can control all matter? I don't know. But he inexplicably creates a black hole and Earth is soon in danger of being sucked off into space.
The climactic battle between The Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom is ludicrous and haphazardly constructed (the film’s CGI budget looks to be about ten dollars). There’s a blue beam of energy that shoots into the sky for some reason. I’m still not sure if it’s separate from the Black Hole or not. In the midst of the chaos, the Four have time for a group huddle wherein they decide they should be a superhero squad (even though just a few scenes ago they seemed pretty intent on getting back to normal). This decision somehow gives them the upper hand in battle and makes them spout dumb comic book catchphrases (“It’s clobbering time!” “Flame on!”).
Dr. Doom can somehow create a black hole but he’s no match for the power of teamwork and catchphrases! Simply put, the movie becomes a nonsensical mess. Any internal movie logic set up beforehand is thrown out the window and it contains perhaps the most incoherent, inconsequential, carelessly put together last act of any superhero film.
In the end, “Fantastic Four” inspires bafflement more than hatred. You’re baffled at how it wastes great actors and wastes your time. At ninety minutes it’s way too short. By the time our heroes get their superpowers the movie is already approaching the homestretch and therefore has to cram all of the Dr. Doom, Earth-is-in–trouble nonsense into the last thirty minutes. The movie could have easily benefited from another half hour. As much as I liked those opening minutes, the film overall is ninety eight percent set up with the rising action, climax and resolution shoved into that last two percent.