The headline alliteratively writes itself: Fourth Fantastic Four flick far from fantastic! It’s not entirely fair, though, even if a little bit true. First of all, is it okay to call this the fourth Fantastic Four movie when the first one in this chronology, an endearingly cheesy Roger Corman trifle made more than twenty years ago, was never officially released? The messy history of FF pics aside, this latest attempt to cinematically realize the super-powered quartet is indeed decidedly not fantastic and yet still quite roundly the best FF movie so far. It’s an odd beast, that’s for sure, an action movie with almost no action and a gravely melancholic take on the teamed-up characters that are generally considered among Marvel’s more comically buoyant creations.
Sure, there’s comedy in Josh Trank’s pic about five friends and/or colleagues who suffer life-altering transformations while visiting a primordial planet after brilliantly cracking the code on interdimensional travel, but the overall tone is more depressing than playful. It's a far cry from whatever you want to classify Tim Story's 2005 goofball garbage version as, which at least leaves room to justify this reboot's existence. If studios are going to keep resetting their franchises once they've crashed and burned, then taking a wildly different approach the next time around seems a wise and worthy strategy.
Trank's Fantastic Four barely even feels like a superhero movie for the first half. Considering the genre's ubiquitous dominance right now, it's easier than ever to define and recognize the genetic makeup of a superhero pic. Little of the usual expected elements are present as we meet little Reed Richards (Owen Judge) in his typical elementary school classroom, raving on career day about how he's going to create a teleportation machine large enough to transport humans when he grows up. The teacher is unimpressed, but it's an important first glimpse of how Reed accepts and owns his misunderstood brilliance.
He's a boy genius already and by the time he's reached the end of high school, not only is he now played by Miles Teller, he also has a compact, working teleporter to demonstrate at the science fair. The teacher's still there and still unimpressed, but Reed's invention is enough to catch the eyes of father/daughter scientists Franklin (Reg. E. Cathey) and Sue (Kate Mara) Storm, who happen to be working on a teleportation device of their own, one backed by heaps of shady funding. Reed gets a scholarship and we're whisked off to New York City, where our young hero learns that he contains the key to unlocking the mysteries of the teleportation technology. Franklin and Sue explain that the teleporting isn't Earth-bound, but actually a gateway to another dimension, nicknamed Planet Zero. They were able to send matter there, but haven’t been able to bring it back. With Reed on board, that hurdle can now be crossed.
Okay, that's a hefty amount of exposition. It seems pretty lame to reduce so much of the movie to such a bulky burp of plot synopsis, but it's important to understand that this is where the movie makes its boldest bid for some originality. At this point, there hasn't been even the slightest hint of an action sequence and the movie is deeply devoted to its characters, especially Reed. This is a young guy who always knew he was capable of great things, but who had to deal with the challenges of never fitting in, the frustrations of being misunderstood, and now he's suddenly surrounded with like-minded peers, promoted to being an important cog in a world-changing machine.
It's rare for a superhero blockbuster to spend so much time on the pre-powers portion of the hero's arc and so Fantastic Four feels unique in its attempted humanism. Reed is a nice guy on the cusp of something great and Teller's naturalism in front of the camera lends the character a dorky likability that's easily endearing. So when Reed joins his colleagues Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), as well as childhood pal Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), on a trip to Planet Zero via the just finished teleportation machine, there's a sense that we've seen our hero grow and accomplish something before he's actually imbued with special abilities. It's a twist on the familiar superhero formula and a welcome one.
The motivation for the sudden unauthorized trip is shaky, since it basically amounts to the boys wanting to beat some faceless NASA trainees to the punch, a plan that's birthed by a late-night drinking session, but it gets the job done. Of course, once the guys get to Planet Zero, everything goes wrong and primordial green goo wreaks havoc on the men and their impromptu mission. Victor is left behind, but the others make it back just in the nick of time. They each had some sort of contact with the goo and Planet Zero's elements, which leads to their inevitable transformations. The sequence on Planet Zero isn't great on its own because one of the movie's most pitiful sins is making its alternate dimension a terribly boring place to behold. While some of the digital effects in the movie are decent, the green screen surroundings of Planet Zero are terribly transparent to the point of distraction.
But what immediately follows their return to Earth are the movie's best moments and the most adventurous aspect of Trank's approach. The powers that the Planet Zero visitors (and Sue, hit by some sort of energy blast during the return) have developed are depicted as deeply disturbing, something more recognizable as the imagery of a horror movie than a lighthearted fantasy flick. Human Torch Johnny is at first a charred corpse, Invisible Woman Sue initially seems to slip in and out of our reality, and Reed drags himself across the debris-littered floor to help rock pile buddy Ben, only to look back and see that his feet are still trapped under the wreckage, his bloody legs having stretched along with him. This is as good as Trank's Fantastic Four gets and it feels like a truly surprising and impactful series of images that take the material (and even, briefly, the superhero genre itself) in a very unusual and exciting direction.
Problems arise after this point, though, as the movie grinds along with some sluggish pacing and the script tries to figure out where to mine more conflict from. There are still great, bold ideas at work, but the narrative becomes oddly scattered and the tone a little confused. Eventually, it's decided that the movie needs a physically present villain for our heroes to band together to defeat and the movie nearly goes off the rails to meet this demand. Rumours of reshoots and a tacked-on third act are easy to buy when actually watching the movie's big final fight try hard to undo the good efforts of the preceding ninety minutes. The showdown on Planet Zero is ugly, boring, and rushed. If the movie were able to fill the action void with a show-stopping finale, then this Fantastic Four would be far better equipped to justify its different approach. Too bad it stumbles so loudly and so late.
Once the dust settles, the flick eases into a cute and compact set-up for future movies that are bound to not happen. Some will rejoice for that very reason, but it seems sad that the talented cast and a genuine attempt to steer a superhero property into distinctive cinematic space are going to be so cruelly tossed aside and left to rot. It's difficult to say if studio interference ruined the pic (Trank certainly seems to be saying so on social media), but Fantastic Four ultimately ends up in a place that seems worth championing while simultaneously lamenting the wasted potential and missed opportunities. There are disastrous miscalculations here and yet there are also very memorable moments, such as a few haunting close-ups of Ben's giant rocky self post-transformation, The Thing realized more beautifully and soulfully than this viewer ever imagined was possible.
Boiling this Fantastic Four down to a single final grade seems either impossible or pointless (maybe both), since it's in a territory all its own. As far as superhero movies go, this one is far more creatively ambitious than abominable trainwrecks like Catwoman or Jonah Hex and it's entirely more resonant than either of Tim Story's two Fantastic Four pics, but it lacks the slick sheen of a Marvel Studios production and doesn't support its quality cast as well as something like Ant-Man does, either.
So to reiterate, it's definitely not fantastic and at times it's not even good. In some ways, on the surface, this seems an easy movie to write off, especially as it floats adrift in the sea of superhero blockbusters, but nestled inside this flawed package is a glimpse of superhero cinema as the curiously creative endeavour it could be in place of a smoother, more easily digestible experience. That doesn't mean that Fantastic Four works entirely or that it presents a model to be copied (surely not that), but it's nice to see a superhero flick venture off so independently, even if it gets lost along the way.