“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” When W.E. Hickson popularized this crusty old Thomas Palmer aphorism back in the 1800’s, he couldn’t have known that one day, one of America’s most high profile movie studios would take the phrase to heart with not one, not two, but three attempts at building a franchise around Jack Kirby’s and Stan Lee’s superhero team, the Fantastic Four. (Granted, Hickson also couldn’t have known that the movies would become a thing, or that two Jewish kids from Manhattan would make a name for themselves by telling stories about rock monsters, rubber men, burning men, and invisible women, but let’s go on.) Hey, you can’t blame 20th Century Fox for trying: everybody wants a superhero franchise to call their own. You can, however, blame them for being terrible at telling stories, mostly because they don’t let the people they hire to tell those stories – you know, storytellers – do their jobs.
So it goes with their new Fantastic Four reboot, dubbed, using the absolutely nauseating “mixed numeric-alphabetic” approach, as Fant4stic, a one-hour origin story that, in its final forty minutes, gives in to the demands of its category and unleashes among the year’s limpest displays of big-screen spectacle. 2015’s other notable blockbusters – Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, Age of Ultron – made me wish I could just watch Mad Max: Fury Road again. Fant4stic made me want to watch Jurassic World again. This isn’t a good movie, which is my non-poetic way of muting the abject suffering I experienced while watching it. Calling it “bad” does badness a disservice. The film exists to exist, with no ulterior motive beyond waging a property rights war.
Everyone knows the Fantastic Four mythos: four astronauts at the helm of an experimental rocket ship taking its cardinal voyage into space gain wondrous powers and abilities when the mission goes to hell. In Fant4stic, the rocket ship is replaced by the Quantum Gate, a machine that can send people to parallel universes. (Or other worlds. The film can’t decide.) The characters, too, have been replaced by teenage cardboard cutouts embodied by a cast of exciting actors given absolutely nothing interesting to do; Miles Teller plays the pliable Reed Richards, Kata Mara plays the cool and imperceptible Sue Storm, Michael B. Jordan plays the impulsive and combustible Johnny Storm, and Jamie Bell plays the craggy Ben Grimm. They’re joined by a fifth, Victor von Doom (Tony Kebbell), in their attempts to make history with their cross-dimensional travels, but nobody tells them to pack common sense or personality along the way.
There’s a lot about Fant4stic‘s set up that drags it down from the start. For one thing, Josh Trank – the guy who wowed us with Chronicle a while back – is so intent on exploring the wonder and awe of science that he forgets to give his actors anything to do. For another, he forgets to write an actual story, which just feeds into the “anything to do” problem, though in fairness to Trank, he wrote the lugubrious tone-deaf pile of pulp designated as the film’s script alongside at least two other writers (Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater). By the time the team’s defining exploratory mishap occurs*, most of the running time has been chewed up, and what little is left is spent shamelessly cribbing from David Cronenberg and indulging in melancholy.
Some of Trank’s ideas are actually kind of interesting. What would the government do with a quartet of humans bequeathed with the cosmic gifts of Richards, Grimm, and the Storms? It isn’t hard to imagine the U.S. military springing a leak at the opportunity to use a giant rock-man as a combat asset, but neither this notion, nor the occasionally icky depictions of our heroes struggling to adapt to their newfound talents, fit into the mold of what the Fantastic Four aspires to be on the page. Not that films shouldn’t bother tinkering with the parts of their source material, mind – Iron Man 3 proved that twists on canon can be incredibly effective as drama, even if they tend to foment fake controversy – but unless you have a really great concept loaded and in the chamber, please don’t, thanks. We don’t need another misfired “interpretation” of Doctor Doom, one of the great comic book villains of all time; his backstory is so outstanding that I can’t fathom why anyone would want to make him into a sullen, anti-social comp-sci wiseguy. Kirby and Lee gave us gold. Trank throws it in the garbage bin Kebbell stole the lining from to use as makeshift cape.
The results are incomprehensible in appearance and in execution. Worst of all, they’re excruciatingly boring. Fant4stic lacks so much in direction, energy, and proper reverence for the comics that figuring out who the film is supposed to be for is a puzzle unto itself. What audience wanted this movie apart from its core demographic? Even among hardcore comic connoisseurs, Tim Story’s 2005 and 2007 installments in the series remain divisive; it’s hard to picture that same group flocking to theaters for Trank’s film eight years after the fact, his Chronicle bona fides aside. Then again, maybe Fant4stic‘s grim-dark steez – now fully accepted as the the comic book movie aesthetic du jour – will draw them like moths to a Human Torch. Fox clearly has faith. They already have a sequel on the books for 2017. But if Fant4stic, currently at 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, continues being savaged in the press, maybe they’ll stop to rethink that old Hickson saying between now and then.
*Which Sue isn’t present for. Writing Sue out of the disaster and having her tangentially acquire her powers just be being in the room is an appalling choice made solely to give Doom the same backstory as the rest of the team; it’s such a stupid and dismissive gesture that mentioning it in passing can’t do it justice. Don’t be surprised if the web gets lit up with essays, features, and rants decrying this decision. All of them will be justified at least in spirit.
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