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Josh Reviews Fantastic Four

I’ve been a fan of the Fantastic Four ever since I first started reading comic books as a kid.  The FF was the first super-hero comic book I ever followed monthly, and I’ve been reading it on and off ever since.  I long to someday see a faithful adaptation of the FF on-screen.  Sadly, Fox’s latest attempt is, for the most part, another mis-fire.

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It’s a shame, because there are many good elements to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (though maybe I shouldn’t call the film “Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four,” seeing as how the director publicly disassociated himself with the film just days prior to its release).  Reacting against Tim Story’s two light and silly (and very unfaithful to the comics) films from a decade ago, this latest version of the FF is a far more serious film.  I like that approach.  But even what works in the film is hindered for me by its being so far removed from the source material of the comics.  There is almost nothing of the familiar Fantastic Four characters in this film.  Where Mr. Trank and his team drew from the comics, they drew not from the classic characters but from the “ultimate universe” reboot of the FF from about a decade ago.  That’s not actually a bad move, since that rejiggered version of the FF’s origin (written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar) has a lot of good qualities that make more sense when setting the FF’s origin in the modern era rather than the nineteen sixties.  But then the film goes in directions all its own, and although the characters have the names of the familiar FF heroes, the characterizations and look of the characters are way off from what is familiar to readers of the comics.  Had we not gotten the last decade of Marvel Studios movies, in which we have seen that these Marvel superheroes can be adapted incredibly faithfully, while still working as films, I might like this version of the FF a lot more.  This approach feels more in line with the way Bryan Singer tackled the X-Men back in 2000.  (And I’ll note that even that film felt, to me, far more faithful to the comics, even though the costumes were all different.)  But now it’s 2015, and we’ve seen that even incredibly “comic-booky” characters and concepts (like Captain America, Thor, and the Guardians of the Galaxy) can be brought to life so faithfully on screen.  I dearly wish to someday see the classic FF characters realized in a movie.  I want to see those classic FF uniforms, not the ugly “containment suits” of this film.  That’s just one example, but it’s a damning one in my estimation.  This is a superhero movie that’s embarrassed about being a super-hero movie.  So instead of giving us costumes for the heroes, we get those containment suits (which look terrible and, adding insult to injury, serve no real narrative purpose.  We’re told they are to help the FF control their powers, but we see Reed control his stretching just fine when his suit gets damaged).

Despite all my objections to this approach to adapting the FF for the screen, I must say that the first half of the film is pretty solid!  I like that this is a film that is pro-scientific exploration.  I like the way the film focuses, in the first half, on developing these characters and their back-stories. These aren’t the familiar FF characters, but nevertheless I like all these characters.  I like the interpersonal relationships that the film sets up.  And I really dig the cast.  I loved Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, and while his Reed is a far cry from the paternal, grey-at-the-temples Reed I know from the comics, I can sort of see how Mr. Teller’s Reed might some day become that character.  I like that Mr. Teller doesn’t play Reed — a boy genius — as the type of cliche socially awkward character I see so often in TV or films.  His Reed is naive but he’s also sweet and friendly and social.  Jamie Bell is the absolute physical opposite of how Ben Grimm has always been depicted, and I was prepared to dislike him in the role, but I sort of love Mr. Bell as Ben!  He nails Ben’s toughness and his gentleness, which seems contradictory but to me that is critical in getting Ben right.  I love his friendship with Reed, and I wish the film didn’t sideline the character so egregiously.  More on that in a minute.  Michael B. Jordan is terrific as Johnny Storm.  There was a lot of hub-bub over the casting of Mr. Jordan, an African-American, in the role, but for me he worked totally.  He captures Johnny’s recklessness and free-spirited nature while also showing his courage and his smarts.  We can understand why Johnny is a part of this group.  Kate Mara made less of an impression on me than the other three actors making up the FF, but she’s perfectly fine in the role.  I like that the film, and Ms. Mara’s performance, emphasizes Sue Storm’s brains in the story.

Unfortunately, the whole film goes completely off the rails in the second half, and it’s easy to spot exactly where things go amiss — it’s at the film’s “one year later” moment about halfway through.

First of all, that time-jump is a huge narrative mis-step.  We’ve grown to know and like these characters, and the film has shown us the accident that gifted them with their powers — though as depicted by the film, it at first looks like far more of a curse.  I am OK with that approach, it makes sense to me.  But I wanted to then see how these characters got through that terrible moment, how they learned to adapt and eventually control their powers.  Instead, the film skips all of that, and we just jump right to Johnny and Sue being totally in control of their abilities, and Ben, though not exactly in control, apparently at peace with the rock monster he has become.  Reed, meanwhile, has apparently abandoned his friends and gone into hiding, and that choice doesn’t work for me at all.  There’s one brief shot of a computer screen that Reed is working on, which suggests that maybe he is working on his own on a way to cure his friends, but the film doesn’t really land that point.  Instead, Reed looks like a scoundrel for ditching his friends.  On the one hand I like the idea of these characters being human, and not all necessarily reacting with complete heroism to what happened to them.  But then Reed would have needed to earn some sort of redemption, both from his friends and the audience, and the film doesn’t give us that at all.  It seems to present Ben as being in the wrong for being so pissed at Reed, and that doesn’t work for me at all.

Then there is Doom.  One of the biggest disappointments for me from Tim Story’s two Fantastic Four films was how badly they botched the character of Dr. Doom.  When they cast Toby Kebbel (who was so brilliant as Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) in the role I was thrilled, and indeed, when Mr. Kebbel is playing the human Victor in the film’s first half he is very strong.  He portrays Victor as being arrogant and egocentric but he’s still a recognizable human teenager, not a moustache-twirling villain.  But in the second half, oh man, where to even begin?  First of all, I don’t understand why Tim Story’s FF films and this reboot all feel the need to connect Dr. Doom’s origin to that of the FF.  Totally not necessary, guys!!  Second, the look of Dr. Doom in the second half of the film is even worse than it was in Tim Story’s films.  It’s just horrendous, a total fail.  The character doesn’t look anything like he does in the comics, nor is this new design at all cool or interesting.  It’s just bland and unremarkable, and for some-reason — even though they foolishly avoid giving Doom his classic metal armored mask — they trap Mr. Kebbell behind an unmoving face-piece of some sort, so that Doom has zero expression.  What a waste of an actor who was so magnificent behind motion-capture CGI animation in Planet of the Apes!  And what a disappointing depiction of one of Marvel Comics’ most classic villains.  Think I’m exaggerating??  Check this out:

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Ugh.  Just ugh.

The entire action climax is terrible.  Doom’s plan makes no sense (and why the character suddenly wants to destroy the world is beyond me, the film gives us no motivation for that turn at all), and I defy anyone to explain to me just what the FF do to stop his evil plan.  The whole thing takes place in another dimension, and not only is the CGI unconvincing but it makes the big fight totally without stakes.  It’s just meaningless running and shouting and the worst kind of silly superhero fisticuffs.

There are things I like about this film.  As I wrote above, I like this cast and would love to see them play these characters in a better-written movie.  I liked how involved they made Dr. Franklin Storm (Sue & Johnny’s father) in the story, and I loved Reg E. Cathey’s work as the character.  I really liked the film’s depiction of the Baxter Building.  I liked seeing Dan Castellaneta as young Reed’s teacher!  I liked Tim Blake Nelson as a government baddie.

But in the end, I’m just left shaking my head at all the weird decisions and mis-steps made in the film.  Why do they change the FF’s origin so that Sue Storm doesn’t go with the boys on the mission??  It’s a terrible sidelining of Sue for no reason, and the way they then have to bend over backwards to make sure she gets powers just like the others is ridiculous.  Why do they build up the Reed-Ben relationship and then totally kick Ben out of the movie’s story for a huge chunk of the running time?  Why did Reed run away from his friends and what was his plan, if he had one at all?  Why is the idea of Ben and Johnny’s helping the U.S. military presented as being so horrifyingly terrible?  Why is there pretty much zero action in this super-hero movie until the lame fight at the end?  Are we supposed to be excited that the FF end up at “Central City” in the middle of nowhere at the end of the film, rather than back in the Baxter Building?  (Yes, yes, I am a comic book geek and so I know that Central City is where the FF fought the Mole Man in the first issue of their comic book, but that’s an obscure piece of comics trivia that would fail to excited even a hard-core fan of the comics, and the location means zero in the context of the film.)

I’m bummed.  I wanted this film to be great, but it’s a big swing and a miss.

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