Fantastic Four (2015)

Fantastic Four (2015)
Fantastic Four created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Well, that was godawful. The reviews have been uniformly negative, and director Josh Trank has gone on Twitter to wash his hands of the final product. I'm not privy to any of the behind the scenes shenanigans, obviously. But it did feel as if the film was fighting the source material the whole time - struggling mightily to be anything but a superhero movie, only to fall flat on its face. With superhero origin tales, even the angst-ridden ones, there comes a point when the protagonists realize that it's actually kinda cool to use their superpowers to kick some ass. That moment never arrives here. The titular characters spend the first half of the film exhibiting varying degrees of misery or barely repressed rage, and that's before they acquire their abilities. When they do finally get their powers, there's more moping to be had about being horribly disfigured by science gone wrong before they finally team up to fight the film's big bad Doctor Doom within the last ten minutes. And even there the cast looks more embarrassed than thrilled to be cutting loose.

So yeah, it's got an excruciatingly slow buildup without a satisfying payoff. Without any cool set pieces to break up the monotony before the final throwdown takes place (They're found in the trailer, oddly enough). And some rather murky special effects used during said throwdown. I have no idea how the battle ended at all. Most of the film's dreary visual aesthetic looks like it was shot on a dimly lit soundstage. And the otherwise talented young cast is no more convincing. The teenage drama is passable when viewed on its own. It's just unsuccessfully grafted into the wider story. There's a lot of deep-seated interpersonal conflict dredged up in the first half which is simply tossed aside during the film's rushed finale. But there's no sense of the four coming together to fight under a common cause. Miles Teller is perfectly fine when he's playing Reed Richards as the self-doubting prodigy, but he's lost at sea as the brave leader trying to rally his troops to take down Doom. The team has no chemistry at all, which makes watching them interact as one a chore rather than a thrill.

Doom is emblematic of the film's dissonant quality. Toby Kebbell plays him as a maladjusted introvert who may or may not have a legitimate grievance against the film's various authority figures when he's just plain Victor von Doom. The topic is never explored in depth. Then he's granted ultimate power and goes completely psycho. Doom's appetite for universal destruction is no more complicated than that of Malekith from Thor: The Dark World or Ultron from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Most of the Marvel movie villains have had poorly defined personalities and motivations. But the lack of any kind of machiavellian scheming from Doom further detracts from the character's sinister appeal. And when the villain is opposed by an even less colorful group of heroes who are going through the motions because that's what heroes are supposed to do, there's really no one for the audience to latch onto or to root for.

Fantastic Four isn't just a clunky film on its own merits, it's the most downbeat adaptation of a Marvel superhero comic book. Or at least since The Amazing Spider-Man from 2012. It arrived soon after the comically inspired Ant-Man (which also experienced its own public fallout between the studio and director), making its dour tone only more tedious in comparison. When Ben Grimm's (Jamie Bell) famous battle cry "It's Clobbering Time!" is a reference to an older brother beating him up when he was a kid, it's hard for any fan to feel fondness for this film. The wayward Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) seems mainly interested in pissing-off his saintly dad, and sister Sue Storm (Kate Mara) isn't given much to do outside of voicing disapproval towards the ill-considered actions of the boys. To add further insult, the almost incidental way she receives her powers is going to annoy a lot of the fanbase. And yes, this is the type of superhero movie that's too embarrassed to employ superhero code names in-story.

In Trank's directorial debut Chronicle, the film's dark tone is offset by an actual sense of wonder arising from its teenage protagonists exploring their superhuman abilities which were mysteriously conferred on them by an alien object. But in Fantastic Four, there's no effective counter argument to the film's encroaching nihilism. Ultimately, the alienation manages to overpower the weird science adventure. The Fantastic Four comic book of the sixties may have been responsible for showcasing some of the most bizarre and enduring ideas found in the Marvel Universe, but the lackluster results of all of Fox's film adaptations do not bode well for future efforts to translate them to the screen.