It was with a sort of sick enthusiasm that I sat down recently to watch the recent reboot of the beloved Marvel comic book team, which was, by consensus, deemed an unwatchable, unpleasant mess. It is with an equally sick, and rather baffling, sense of enthusiasm that I sit down and plaster 2000 words or so on the Internets about it. Considering my undying love for the 1990 Captain America film, it seems that when it comes to crap comic book movies, I’m like a fly on you know what.
First things first: this movie’s reputation was in the gutter before even seeing theaters. By opening day, it never had a chance with moviegoers. Reports of sniping between the film’s director (Josh Trank, who did the well-received Chronicle) and the studio began to surface in the lead-up to the film’s release. When it finally came out all the bad press and bad reviews made the film radioactive; it grossed only $56 million here in the States against a budget of $120 million. It tied for Worst Picture at the Razzies and holds a nine percent critic approval rating (and nineteen percent audience approval) on Rotten Tomatoes. The studio was gearing up for a sequel, but that got ripped from the schedule faster than you can say “franchise fatigue”. It was a failure of titanic proportions.
It was all made the more unfortunate by the Fantastic Four‘s checkered film history. The famous comic book team, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early-60’s, has been begging for a worthy film adaptation for decades. The first film version, in 1994, was a notorious low-budget quickie cobbled together by Roger Corman (you can watch it right now!). It’s fun in a let’s-get-wasted-and-laugh-at-it kind of way (the Thing looks like a roided-up Ninja Turtle covered in tumors), but the biggest joke was played on the film’s actors; it was made as an ashcan copy to extend the studio’s rights to the characters and was never intended to see the light of day.
In 2005 we supposedly got the real film version of the FF, but it was met with lukewarm audience feedback and seemed to be more a vehicle for Jessica Alba’s hotness than anything else. Of the many complaints, the fact that the Four spend two-thirds of the movie sitting around not using their powers ended up as the loudest. Two years later a sequel came out featuring the Silver Surfer. Like it’s predecessor, it did fairly well in the box office, but fans considered it too lightweight, and were especially offended by the film’s treatment of Galactus (a cloud???).
So third time’s a charm, right? I have to say, I was in the proper mindset for this. I sat down to watch the new Fantastic Four film with expectations lower than a Trump supporter’s IQ. I don’t have an emotional attachment to the FF like I do with the X-Men or Spider-Man. The only time I ever bought one of their comics as a kid was when Thing got mangled by Wolverine. The only time I ever watched the cartoon was when Mr. Fantastic beat Magneto by using a wooden gun, to trick the villain into thinking he’d lost his powers (seriously). So I was pretty unbiased going into this one. There isn’t anything that anybody could do to the Fantastic Four that would offend my childhood sensibilities (like turning the Silver Samurai into a robot…ugh, never mind).
Usually if a movie is really bad, I mean a true stinker, I’ll tend to shut it off after 30-45 minutes. If a film has no redeeming qualities, it’s usually patently obvious within the first hour. This was the case with Chappie, to name one gawdawful recent movie. It wasn’t the case with Fantastic Four. It’s watchable. Not good, by any means, but watchable, and by deeming it that I realize I’ve just become one of the film’s most ardent supporters.
In rebooting the franchise, the filmmakers had two paths to take this latest film adaptation down: the more humorous, tongue-in-cheek path that Guardians of the Galaxy opted for and found so much success with, or the dark, gritty path that so many recent reboots have gone with. They took the latter, and that was probably the first step toward this movie’s failure.
Instead of writing a dissertation on the pros and cons of this film, I’ll check off the film’s major problems here in bullet point format, before trying to somehow defend it.
-Another origin story??? The Fantastic Four have been around for more than 50 years and by this point everybody and their dog knows the team’s back story. They were a quartet of astronauts who went up in a rocket ship, got exposed to a bombardment of cosmic rays, and came back with super powers. Then they worked together to fight evil when they weren’t busy bickering at each other over mundane crap.
Trank’s film attempts to retell the origin story completely. In the reboot, Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) is a teenage boy-genius who has discovered the secret to inter-dimensional teleportation by tinkering around with stuff teenagers probably shouldn’t be able to tinker around with in his garage. After setting off his device at a school science fair and traumatizing a bunch of little kids, Richards draws the attention of the head of the Baxter Foundation, who just so happens to be the father of Sue Storm (Invisible Girl) and Johnny Storm (Human Torch).
Long story short: the Baxter Foundation uses Richards’s findings to open a gateway to a new, faraway planet, where they seek to discover new energy sources for Earth (yes, there’s a half-assed environmental message here, too). The Four, along with a rather surly colleague named Victor Von Doom, teleport over to the new planet without permission, at which point the planet goes haywire, they’re splashed with a bunch of magic goop, and, voila, they have superpowers.
I give the filmmakers credit for trying to come up with a different way to tell the story of how the Fantastic Four got their powers, but therein lies the larger problem here: no one wants to slog through another origin story! We’re all familiar with this group of superheroes. Just give them their powers to start the movie, give the film a good villain, and tell a good comic book story! By the time the team has to use their powers for good, the audience has been bored into a stupor because we’ve basically seen or read about this stuff a million times before.
-The character development is…lacking. If any aspect of this film can be blamed on post-production tinkering and the rift between director and studio, it’s probably this one. Reed Richards actually comes across as a genuinely interesting character, and the film spends most of its time focusing on his single-minded crusade to build a teleporter. Richards’s drive to master this technology and his subsequent determination to keep it out of the wrong hands is believable. The other characters? Not so much.
Invisible Woman serves simply as a tool to drive a wedge between Richards and Doom, the film’s villain, who is a complete asshole but has a soft spot for Sue Storm. Human Torch’s famous rebellious spirit is showcased for two minutes when he’s involved in a drag race, then it’s never on display ever again. And worst of all, Ben Grimm (The Thing) spends the first half of the movie acting as sort of Richards’s blue-collar sidekick, then spends the rest of it moping about how he’s now a giant, gross-looking rock monster (and wouldn’t you?). The method the screenwriters use to get Grimm on to the planet with the other crew members so he can get his Thing powers is contrived beyond belief.
So much more could have been done with these characters, but instead they’re lifeless and one-dimensional. They have no rapport, no chemistry, and the non-Richards characters just seem like devices to advance the story. It’s not like they got a bunch of lightweights, either. Most of these actors have been in no-foolin’ good films. Miles Teller was in Whiplash, Michael B. Jordan was in Creed, Kate Mara was in the good season of House of Cards. Toby Kebbell, who plays the villain (and who ties with Vincent D’Onofrio for the most punchable face in Hollywood), was in RocknRolla. Again, maybe if the film had begun with all these characters already having powers, these actors would have actually had something to do.
-In the fine tradition of Spider-Man 3, the villain is lame and incredibly tacked-on. Doctor Doom is one of the most iconic supervillains in comic book history. He’s the evil ruler of the island nation of Latveria (only passing reference is made to it in this film) , whose technological genius and mastery of dark sorcery made him one of the most formidable foes in the Marvel Universe. Here is Doctor Doom’s canonical look throughout comic history:
Pretty badass. Not a guy to mess with. Now here is the 2015 version who shows up at the very end of the movie:
If you’re wondering why he looks like the sad, long-neglected love-child of Darth Vader and C-3PO, it’s because his environmental suit got fused with the rest of his body when the group was attacked by the magic lava that gave them all their powers. The other four made it safely back to Earth, but Doom was left behind on the mystery planet, making him understandably bitter. And because we can’t have a bad science fiction movie without the government trying to rape a foreign planet of its resources, another expedition is led a year later, where Doom is discovered alive and well, wreaks havoc, and has to be stopped by our heroes.
FF purists were understandably outraged by this film’s depiction of Doctor Doom. Gone is the despotic madman representing a dire, constant threat to humanity. Instead we get something that was rushed into the last 30 minutes of the film to finally give our heroes an excuse to do something collectively with their superpowers. He’s got some pretty nifty powers (he can control the all of the elements of the new planet, which is handy), but as a franchise villain he’s pretty weaksauce.
Those are the big, big problems here. I should also point out the tired plot device where the team is enlisted by the government and runs the risk of becoming tools of the military-industrial complex, with Richards absconding and going on the run. Yeah, yeah, we already saw that in Avengers, for God’s sake.
Going back to the decision to make this a gritty reboot, the film is drab and generally not fun to look at. Shouldn’t the Fantastic Four be about excitement and wonder, not brooding teenagers grimacing their way around a lava-filled hellscape? Maybe the idea was to give the team some edge or some attitude, but they should have focused on making them fun.
So this movie isn’t a winner, but I sought out to learn if this film is truly as bad as its reputation, and I can confidently say that it’s not. It moves pretty fast, isn’t boring, and I got through it without any complaint. It definitely qualifies as a subpar superhero movie, but it’s not a disaster, and based on the consensus around the Internet, that’s basically high praise.
In all, this movie falls into a bizarre bad movie limbo where it’s not quite so-absurd-it’s-shamelessly-entertaining like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but it’s also not an utter biblical-scale abomination like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s just sort of a bland failure, another misguided attempt to resurrect a famous franchise that will be completely forgotten unless it lucks into a cult following twenty years from now.
If you asked me if it’s possible to make a good Fantastic Four film, I’d respond that that appears to be too existential of a question for us mere humans to answer. Perhaps it’s an unsolvable riddle that man will continue futilely to seek the answer to, like the origins of the universe. Until that happens, my recommendation is to down a beer (or ten), put on the 1994 version, and have a few laughs. At least that one wasn’t even trying.