Fantastic Four (2015)
SCREENPLAY: SIMON KINBERG, JEREMY SLATER, JOSH TRANK
DIRECTOR: JOSH TRANK
RELEASE DATE: August 4 2015
If anything, perhaps this will throw some much needed cold ice on that much overused term reboot. Fantastic Four turned up in theatres, a reboot of the comic book franchise after two previous films from 2005 and 2007, both of which had their problems but in retrospect worked much better than this. The Fox studio has control of the franchise, which doesn’t help - if Marvel Studios had control of these characters, one expects the end result would be an entertaining film. As it is, this film from director Josh Trank, which takes much of its inspiration from the Ultimate version of the characters – that should have been the first warning sign, the Ultimate versions of the Marvel universe suck, and it ends up not working at all. There are a couple of bright spots, but the problems are too many to compensate.
The film opens up a few years in the past, where a young Reed Richards (Owen Judge) and his friend Ben Grimm (Evan Hanneman) have been working on a customized teleporter since childhood. Flash forward a few years and Reed (Miles Teller) has been recruited into the Baxter Foundation, a government supported think tank for young geniuses run by Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). His son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) are part of the organization, as is Storm’s irritable protégé Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) is also on staff as a supervisor.
The project they’re working on is a quantum gate designed by Doom (this can’t be good), who reluctantly agrees to complete the project, more because of his unrequited feelings for Sue. Ben (Jamie Bell) is enlisted after the experiment is successful, and an expedition into a parallel dimension called Planet Zero is undertaken without authorization by the younger set - which of course is when everything goes terribly wrong, leaving Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny altered with strange abilities, and Doom stranded and presumed dead on Planet Zero. At least for the moment.
Josh Trank has pretty much disavowed the film in the wake of its release, claiming the studio didn’t let him make the film the way he wanted. Perhaps both sides are to blame for the debacle. The script, which Trank is credited with alongside Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg, is where the problems begin. The story takes its time actually getting to the point where the characters have their newfound abilities - Reed stretches, Sue can turn invisible and create force fields, Johnny becomes a blazing inferno in flight, Ben becomes a rock bound powerhouse, and Doom has the ability to control the elements through telekinesis - and then ends up becoming muddled in CGI special effects sci-fi. The studio would have you believe it reflects the best of the comic book’s eras, but there’s far too much influence of the Ultimate universe in this, and it really shows.
Four once more
The Ultimate universe, created some years ago as a way to tell stories without the continuity of the mainstream comics, quickly ended up bogged down under its own continuity and has been imploding on itself for some time. The Fantastic Four were skewed younger, as is the case here, and elements of their storylines reflect themselves in the movie script. There’s a good reason the Ultimate books have imploded - they’re bombastic, obnoxious, and just plain bad. That should have been a big warning to any screenwriter taking on Marvel’s first family: don’t base your story on this. The script is downbeat, lacking any of the humour and rich characterization one sees from the comic when it’s written at its best. The dynamics between characters feel off, and the story stumbles at times instead of flows. The look of the film, from the uniforms the team wears to the final look of Doom - all have the Ultimate look to them, and it’s to the detriment of the film. Basically it feels less as a movie in and of its own right and more like the inevitable teaser for the sequel.
And it’s not the cast - though some are miscast. Toby Kebbell is an actor I’ve seen in other work - in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for instance, where he was hidden beneath motion capture technology as one of the apes, or as John Wilkes Booth in The Conspirator (I highly recommend that one) or Aginor in the profoundly cheesy Wrath of the Titans. He’s likable as an actor - I found myself wondering why they didn’t cast him as Reed instead. The problem with Doom is not in the actor - it’s the writing. In the comics, the character is arrogant and vindictive and petty - he thinks highly of himself and lowly of every other person on Earth. He’s also a tyrant, absolute ruler of a fictional Eastern European country, and often tangles with many different heroes, but particularly the Fantastic Four. And he’s encased in armor, his scarred face hidden from the world. It’s such a compelling character in the comics, one whose origins are completely separate from the Four. Is it so hard for screenwriters to write him properly, or refrain from lumping him in on the FF origin story? Doom was written wrong in the two Fantastic Four films from several years ago, and just like Julian McMahon, who played him then, Kebbell isn’t at fault for the character - he has to work with what he’s given, and what he’s given is a vengeful, petty man who ends up going insane.
Jamie Bell might well have been better cast as Reed - he has the gravity as an actor to seem more plausible in that role. He’s been around for a while now as an actor, and has had quite a variety of roles in his time. A lot of his performance once the character becomes the Thing is motion capture, the same sort of work Andy Serkis has often done through his career. The character seems underwritten, but Bell plays him as a loyal and generous friend before he disappears into the motion capture world. At least the character has the look you expect of Ben Grimm.
Much has been made of Michael Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm. It’s a racial switch, after all, and one might wonder about the optics of a black man being set on fire. What matters to me is if the actor can play the character as one might expect: a carefree, showboating daredevil thrill seeker with a lot of charm. And Jordan does that. This is the first time I’ve seen him in anything, though he did have a part in the critically acclaimed series The Wire. He plays the role in a suitable way, making the most of the material he’s given - so like Kebbell and Bell, he’s not to blame for the way the film ends up going.
Kate Mara is one of the few bright spots of the film as Sue Storm. I’ve loved her work in Stone of Destiny and 127 Hours, and she turned up in the series House of Cards as well. She’s better cast - much better - than Jessica Alba, who was easily the weakest member of the cast in the earlier films. Sue is bright, independent, and strong, and Mara brings dignity to the role. Like other members of the cast, she’s stuck in a story that doesn’t work, so we can’t fault her for this debacle either. Still, just to reinforce the point - she’s the best thing this film has going for it.
Which brings us to Miles Teller. To be fair, I haven’t seen him in anything else. I know he’s been in the Divergent series. He just seems miscast here - and that’s not really on him either. I just can’t buy that a guy who looks like he barely started shaving could have the gravity and dramatic weight to pull off being the smartest person on the planet. And it’s not the actor - it’s the writing that skews him younger than he should be, the miscasting in this role. He’d probably be much more interesting in a different movie - something that applies to the rest of the cast. I just can’t see him as Reed Richards. Ioan Gruffudd, who played the character in the previous films, got the intelligence and the sense of profound responsibility right in his performance. Teller is left to the profound weaknesses of a poorly written script.
What should be a bright light in comics movies turns out to be a muddled film, devoid of humour and the sense of family that makes the comic series work so well. Characterization is sacrificed for a downbeat CGI fest, and the problems derive largely out of the story itself. Fantastic Four instead ends up feeling like a setup for the inevitable sequel. The director might be trying to blame the studio, but the studio’s not the only one at fault here. The cast deserves better, the characters deserve better, and frankly the audience deserve better.