When Fox made their first Fantastic Four movie back in 1994 with a budget of a few million dollars, they did so never intending the finished film to be released. It was an enterprise undertaken solely to secure their cinematic rights to the franchise, which would have reverted to Marvel.
Little did the studio realize that the cheap, chintzy – but charming – Roger Corman version of the comic book would be the best Fantastic Four movie they would produce, after three consecutive $100 million blockbusters during the superhero boom.
This latest Fantastic Four might be the worst of them all: despite a new concept, a different tone, and some genuinely good ideas here and there, the finished film is a complete mess.
Director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was brought on board to make a darker, more sci-fi-focused version of Fantastic Four that harkened back to 1980s David Cronenberg films.
That’s a pretty strange direction to take the franchise in, but there you go. The first half of this film almost feels like a horror movie a la The Lazarus Effect; that film’s writer, Jeremy Slater, was also a co-writer here.
Suffice it to say that 2015’s F4 is not faithful to the comics.
During the first act of the film, we meet Reed Richards (played by Whiplash‘s Miles Teller), a science fair nerd who has been building a matter transporter during his entire childhood. For some reason. With the help of friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), whose role in the creation of the matter transporter is never defined.
A functioning matter transporter fails to impress local teachers – represented by a character played by Homer Simpson himself, Dan Castellaneta – but nevertheless earns Reed & Ben a cushy Baxter Corp gig from Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, the lone bright spot in the cast).
At Storm’s lab, Richards works with gamer Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) on a matter transporter that will open a gateway to another dimension, while Storm’s kids Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) help out in some capacity (Sue says, if I recall, that she designs the costumes?)
We all know what happens: these guys get superpowers that transform Reed into rubber man Mr. Fantastic, Sue into The Invisible Girl, Johnny into The Human Torch, and Ben into the rock monster The Thing.
Because all this matter transporter setup is reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s The Fly – they even send a monkey through the device – I half-expected the team to gain their powers in the same way that the Brundlefly was created.
And surprise! Ben goes through the machine with a bunch of rocks, Johnny with some fire, Reed with, uh, I don’t know, and Sue… well, Sue doesn’t even go into the machine with the rest of them, but she gains invisibility powers when they return. Somehow. Victor is left abandoned on the alien planet to become Doctor Doom.
This is a pretty simple setup, but would you believe it takes up more than half of the film? Yes, it’s nearly an hour into the movie before the titular characters get their super powers, and then…
“One Year Later”
That’s right: just as things start to get interesting, the movie inexplicably cuts to a year later, and a complete mess of a third act attempts to reign in this dark science fiction movie to familiar superhero territory.
Trank might have been going for 80s Cronenberg weirdness here, but there are two problems: his script is no better than something like The Lazarus Effect, and this is, after all, a Fantastic Four movie. It’s a PG-13 comic book flick about a group of superheroes who obtain some inherently goofy powers.
While Trank wants Fly-like sympathy from scenes where Ben, as a pile of still-forming rocks, cries out “help me,” and Johnny seems to be burning alive, unable to control his powers, two minutes later they’re working for the military and saving the world.
Other scenes – like Doctor Doom walking around exploding people’s heads in a sequence that combines Cronenberg’s Scanners and Alan Clarke’s Elephant – are potentially terrifying in their own right, but again, this is a Fantastic Four movie.
Fox seems to have chickened out on their director’s vision: extensive reshot footage – check out Mara’s horrible bleach-blonde wig – appears to comprise much of the action-centered second half, as the film does a complete 180-spin from dark sci-fi to the usual superhero stuff.
This film was never going to work, but I’d still like to have seen where the director was going to take it. Instead, the final act is a near-incomprehensible mess.
The Fantastic Four was once one of Marvel’s most popular franchises, perhaps only second to Spider-Man. Now, they’ve cancelled their own comic book and even killed off the real-life cast of the movie in a Punisher storyline.
Fox, meanwhile, will probably churn out another terrible film in seven years to preserve their rights to the franchise. Fantastic.