Two stars (out of four)
PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, language)
I find myself in the odd position of defending “Fantastic Four,” a film that received a dismal 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and delivered one of the worst box office performances ever for a movie associated with the lucrative Marvel brand.
Critics spent the last week and a half kicking this ill fated reboot while it’s down, and while I can’t say I blame them, the degree of gleeful vitriol directed at the film seems excessive to me.
“Fantastic Four” fails on many levels. Even in its best moments, it mostly doesn’t work. But what critics are overlooking is that director Josh Trank has taken a radically different approach to a comic book movie formula so worn, it’s becoming positively threadbare.
“Fantastic Four” is Trank’s weird but fascinating mad science experiment gone wrong. The director’s approach to one of comic book history’s most flamboyant franchises is so understated, it’s almost somnambulistic, but there’s something about the rubbed-rawness of it that is the perfect antidote to the hot-buttered-popcorn pageantry of movies like “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “The Avengers.”
Yes, there are all kinds of problems with the film, from an unpolished script that often reads like a first draft to its half-hearted, muddy-looking visual effects, but one gets the sense “Fantastic Four” could have been great. If Twentieth Century Fox is stubborn enough to forge ahead with a sequel, they may be onto something.
Trank’s career is most likely over. Whether Fox’s meddling or his inexperience are to blame for this is the subject of debate. Earlier this year, the director did the unthinkable and walked away from a Star Wars “anthology” film, a move that probably wasn’t his idea.
This is sad because Trank’s 2012 debut, “Chronicle,” showcases a talent for putting an original, realistic spin on the cliche comic book origin story. A drama about high school buddies who suddenly acquire superpowers, it clearly inspired the first act of “Fantastic Four,” which kicks off with the blossoming of an unlikely grade-school friendship between science nerd Reed Richards and street-smart Ben Grimm. (They’re played as adults by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell.)
Grimm’s family conveniently owns a scrapyard full of the parts Reed needs to complete his pet science project, a teleportation device, and Ben is just curious enough about his strange, little friend’s wacky ideas to go along with him.
The pair debut Reed’s creation at a high school science fair, attracting the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a philanthropist researcher who has been working in vain on the same technology.
Storm offers Reed a scholarship to his scientific institute, where he’s recruited a team of young geniuses, including his children, brilliant Sue (Kate Mara) and irresponsible Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), along with Storm’s former protege, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebell), a brooding computer prodigy.
The first act of “Fantastic Four” focuses on the meeting of these eager, young minds and it isn’t half bad. This is largely due to the efforts of the film’s eager, young stars, who in previous roles have proven themselves to be incredibly gifted.
(Kudos, especially, to Mara, who may be the first woman in Hollywood to embody her superheroine with more regard for intellect than sex appeal.)
Unfortunately, the script does these promising performers a disservice. Penned by Trank, Jeremy Slater and “X-Men” scribe Simon Kinberg, the screenplay is in dire need of a few more drafts. Characters are left undeveloped, the pacing is out of joint, key scenes seem to have gone missing, the dialogue turns awkward, conflicts are hinted at but never fully materialize.
The scenario that imbues our quintet of heroes with powers that dramatically alter their body chemistries is as ridiculous as it is horrifying.
Yes, the way things go down in a fourth dimension dubbed “Planet Zero” is wildly insulting to the audience, but it also provides a brief glimpse into what a gloriously twisted thriller “Fantastic Four” could have been, dipping into Cronenbergian nightmares as our quartet of newly initiated heroes confront the terror of their freakishly transformed physiques, including super-stretchy limbs, invisibility, and involuntary combustion.
In sharp contrast to the cartoony 2005 film starring Chris Evans and Jessica Alba, Trank actually downplays the more over-the-top qualities of the Fantastic Foursome’s abilities. This counter-intuitive choice ultimately hurts the film — poor Jaime Bell suffers most as rock monster The Thing languishes in the background — but I have to admire how gutsily polar opposite Trank’s “Fantastic Four” movie is from the “Fantastic Four” movie we expect.
Also daring, and kinda dumb for filmmakers catering to comic book lovers who generally want to see their superheroes put the smack down: There is only one major action setpiece in the film, and it comes at the end, and it is a complete mess
Once again, some may see the absence of the genre’s trademark POW!, BANG!, BAM! moments as a flaw, and if box office is what you’re concerned about, that’s a pretty big flaw.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I can’t help but wonder: Could there be a place for a comic book movie that doesn’t offer “Avengers”-style mayhem and destruction roughly every 10 minutes?
Charlie Jane Anders of io9.com declares that “Fantastic Four” is “the most self- loathing superhero movie I’ve ever seen.”
“The new ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot goes beyond darkness, into actual self-loathing,” she writes. “It’s kind of bizarre. … This movie’s central storyline is less a plot, and more a shame spiral.
I think Anders inadvertently pinpoints what is good about “Fantastic Four.”
Why shouldn’t a comic book movie be about shame instead of shallow spectacle? Self-loathing instead of shiny spandex?
Why shouldn’t it push “beyond darkness” into emotional territory that isn’t bizarre so much as it is realistic and even deeply uncomfortable?
Perhaps reviewers are circling “Fantastic Four” like a pack of sharks after a sardine because they don’t know what to make of it.