Movie Review: Fantastic 4
20th Century Fox has had a roller coaster relationship with their super hero franchises. The X-Men unleashed the power of the atom upon the box office and helped to create the incredible interest in comic book movies that Marvel is currently riding to glory with their Avengers-based MCU. Hard times appeared after the heady days of the first two X movies with a lackluster third installment, a nearly ruinous spin off for Wolverine, and Marvel Studios arriving to effectively eat their lunch and show them how to make a good super hero flick. Small projects like Daredevil and Elektra bombed. The studio saw some limited success with the Fantastic Four, but the franchise died after its second installment. Things looked bleak.
Suddenly, despite appearing to be drowned in the wave they had created, Fox found their stroke and managed to reboot the X-Men universe. First Class was a moderate success that restored some faith in the franchise and Days of Future Past delivered an honest to god hit. Furor over the Deadpool property was coalescing into a genuine fan favorite vehicle that could potentially cross pollinate with the larger X universe. Having seen a darker re-imagining work once, Fox decided to gamble on their only other property: the Fantastic 4. Could a grittier take on the golden-age team (based on Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Universe series of comics) provide gold at the box office a second time?
Fantastic 4 (2015)
Reed Richards was always a genius. As a child, he desired to create quantum teleportation, an interest that earned him scorn from both his classmates and teachers. One similarly reclusive classmate, Ben Grimm, noticed his efforts and helped him by giving him access to his family’s junk yard and joining him as an engineering assistant while they were both still grade school students. During a fateful science fair, they demonstrate the ability to both send and retrieve objects via teleportation…but they don’t really know where they are sending stuff. A think tank headed by Franklin Storm approaches them and gives Reed the chance to work with the greatest minds (and unlimited funds) if he can scale up his work to send biological specimens. He accepts, and his future is made.
At the institute, Reed meets both of Franklin’s children, the pattern analyst Sue Storm and her equally talented but hot headed brother, Johnny. With the help of an arrogant and brilliant student from Latveria, Victor Von Doom, they iron out the kinks of the project and manage to discover an alternate dimension. When the government takes control of the experiment, Reed, Ben, Johnny and Victor try to scoop the G men by using the device on themselves. The resulting catastrophe gives Reed, Ben, Johnny and Sue odd powers and leads to Victor becoming trapped in the alternate dimension, where he plots his vengeance upon an Earth which he sees as destructive and wasteful.
The Journey of Reed Richards…
The heart of Fantastic 4 is Reed Richards, and Miles Teller (who plays adult Reed) gives a game interpretation of the character. There really aren’t any weak links acting-wise in this film (though fans of Michael B. Jordan were certainly hoping for him to set the world on fire as the Human Torch,) the meat of the story rests on Teller’s take on Richards. His powers are the most underwhelming, but this leads to his humanity being the most important. On this score, the film succeeds: Reed is believable and likable as a child, and the early scenes set us up for the strengths and weaknesses of the adult Richards as a genius haunted by a decade of trust issues who is nevertheless a team player, an out-of-the-box thinker, and a wild card. Having to scrabble for any recognition, Reed makes sense as a player who is willing to opt out of the traditional, take risks, and be anti-authority, while still prizing team work, self respect and the betterment of mankind. It’s a more nuanced approach than the clueless genius from the first two films.
While the cast is competent, Reg E. Cathey’s Franklin Storm steals almost all of the drama. The film wants to address scientific integrity, family bonds, selfless sacrifice and unconventional thinking, which Cathey almost always manages to embody better than the traditional heroes. His character is flawed, accepting government money to stay afloat, but he is principled, honest, and a damn fine father. In a movie of broken families, Franklin becomes the bond that binds the Fantastic 4 into a coherent whole, and Cathey is fantastic in his role.
With Guest Appearance by Dr. Doom!? (Spoilers? You knew this was coming…)
While the human appeal of the proto- Fantastic 4 is quickly established, the tension of a major action plot is hardly apparent. Victor disappears and the remaining four are taken into military custody. So the government is the bad guy? Nope, they end up helping the Fantastic 4. Reed abandons the others to pursue his own research…so he’s the bad guy? Nope, when he returns, all is forgiven. OK, OK, so who are they fighting? Turns out it’s Dr. Doom, who is really not given enough weight to manage a Big Bad role. His assault on the group is so violent that it verges on the horrific (and is frankly fun…if you were going to kill humanity, you wouldn’t bat an eyelash about popping some heads along the way, would you?), but you really don’t feel prepared for his becoming the main antagonist. His powers are vague to the point of baffling, and the final confrontation seems extremely rushed. Director Josh Trank has done so much work on building the origins of the group, who they are going to fight seems like an afterthought…or a forgone conclusion. Like Spider Man must always fight the Green Goblin and the X-Men must fight Magneto, the Fantastic 4 must always fight Dr. Doom…even if he isn’t always the most deserving of villains they have in front of them.
Is Decent Good Enough?
I went into this film expecting a train wreck. The internet certainly hates this film to high holy hell! The trailers made me hopeful this would be worthwhile, and it ended up being just that: a comic book inspired film with light sci-fi notes that had good characters and hopefully a little something more to like. I found that something more in the pacing and the soundtrack. The electronic score was novel for such a film and felt organic to the characters. It was a nice gift to a younger audience. The pacing was neither slow nor brisk, and felt like it also arose out of the material…right up until the final climactic battle. I was shocked I had been a theater for nearly two hours, when I felt this film was just warming up. That means the ending felt jarring and rushed, but also meant that the previous hour and a half went by at a pace that never pulled me out of the experience. The characters were portrayed well, with above average acting or better for the most part, and really tried to give us aspects of these characters which we haven’t seen before, twice. So why does the interwebs hate this film like death?
I think part of this is about factional allegiance. If Fox just gave up on this genre, we could have a whole Marvel Universe that unites the Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Mary the Queen of the Scots. Why won’t Fox stop trying to give us something new and just roll over so Marvel Studios can give us more of what we want? Because we don’t all want that, is damn why!
I think most of Marvel’s films are just OK! Thor has been crappy, Iron Man has long since begun to peter out, Captain America started weak but got better, and Age of Ultron was sup-par. It was boring, messy, full of bad dialogue and shit on most of its characters with the exception of Quicksilver, and without him lacked any charm. Ant-Man was a tired retread of Iron Man with characters you wouldn’t bother to care about unless they had the MCU approval…and I only see more of that on the horizon. Competition keeps any environment alive. If Marvel hadn’t done serious comic movies, Fox and Sony would have kept making campy farces like Spider Man 3, Ghostrider, and Rise of the Silver Surfer. If Fox stops making gritty reboots of comic-based movies, we keep getting the same old one-note hero worship flicks that Marvel Studios loves so much. We need all the studios to keep innovating and giving different takes if we don’t want just one kind of movie. I was entertained by this film, and while it wasn’t The Winter Soldier, how many of Marvel Studios’ films have been The Winter Soldier? The answer is one. And lets not forget that Fox’s willingness to go weird has given us Deadpool, and I don’t hear much nerd rage directed at that project…