Movie Review: Fantastic Four

Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Tobey Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson
Josh Trank

“Fantastic Four” is perhaps this summer’s most frustrating movie. Films that are consistently terrible are generally not frustrating, because they rarely show any potential beyond what they are. But that’s not the case with co-writer/director Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four,” a movie full of potential that it’s not allowed to deliver upon.

Years after director Tim Story’s bland take on the superhero team, the filmmaker behind 2012’s “Chronicle” gives us a grounded vision of the Marvel heroes. The players – Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Susan Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) – remain the same, except they’re much younger and, at the start of the film, aren’t very close, with the exception of Ben and Reed.

Ever since Reed was a little kid, he showed signs of genius, but that genius was always misunderstood. The only person who truly gets him is Ben, who supports his dream of teleportation. One day, Reed’s teleporting device is noticed by Susan and Johnny’s father, Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey), at a science fair, which lands him a spot at the Baxter Building, a place for brilliant minds. Dr. Storm has been trying to crack interdimensional travel for years, and he uncovers the final piece of the puzzle in Reed. With the help of Susan, Johnny and the brilliant by cold Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed gets the job done, but unfortunately, the government doesn’t want to send a bunch of kids to another dimension. While drunk one night, the young scientists (along with Ben) suit up and transport themselves to that other dimension, which leads to disastrous results.

The freak accident on Planet Zero transforms them: Reed has the ability to stretch his body; Johnny can burst into flames; Susan has the power of invisibility and more; and Ben is turned into something of a rock monster. Their transformation is quite a powerful scene. The emotional and physical horror of what’s happened to them isn’t sugarcoated. There’s nothing fun or cool about these powers; they’re painful and confusing.

The first hour takes its time letting the audience get to know the characters, even if the script doesn’t allow the characters to always have their moments together. Bell and Teller sell the film’s core friendship, but not enough for the last hour to have the desired dramatic effect. The movie runs along rather smoothly for the first hour, though. Trank’s atmosphere is somber, but it’s not without moments of wonder and humor. It’s a modestly-scaled, grounded superhero movie that’s more like David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” than any Marvel Studios film.

When Trank tries to make a big superhero movie, that’s when “Fantastic Four” utterly fails. The film’s third act is a disaster, and for inexplicable reasons, the screenwriters almost entirely skipped the second act. Ben should struggle more with the idea of being a soldier for the government; the audience should get to see Doom’s descent into madness; there should be more of Susan missing her old, normal life; and we never find out what Reed is up to in the second act, nor feel his regret for having a hand in changing his friends’ lives.

Instead, we’re served a messy, ugly CG-driven battle scene that hardly makes sense. Doom shows up and wants to destroy Earth, so he can save Planet Zero from humans. He doesn’t want them destroying his precious new home, and it’s an unearned motivation that comes out of nowhere. He’s cynical about how humans have treated Earth, but not cynical enough for that insane motivation to ever be believable. The final battle is chock-full of awful dialogue – like Reed explaining what we’re seeing and blandly stating what the team has to do – and it’s just not what the movie should’ve become.

“Fantastic Four” was on its way to becoming a refreshing, different spin on the superhero genre. The first hour isn’t always successful, but when it is, it’s an engaging movie focused on a likable group of friends. When the story jumps ahead a year in time, it no longer feels like Trank’s somber superhero tale, but rather a bad comic book movie from the 1990s.