Most comic-book movies are grounded in some degree of realism, to counteract the over-the-top nature of their source material. Fantastic Four goes the other way. This second attempt by 20th Century Fox to give the iconic Marvel Comics superhero team its own film franchise starts off on a preposterous note — a grade-schooler invents a machine that can teleport matter into another dimension — then goes full-on stupid. Even if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and stick with it, you eventually start feeling insulted. The movie pushes the limits of logic and credulity so far, a Pixar picture seems more plausible, including the one with the bugs that spoke English.
Instead of using Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original 1961 creation, in which three of the four were adults, Fantastic Four leans on the 2004 Ultimate Fantastic Four re-imagining by Brian Michael Bendiss (known for his stretch writing Marvel’s Daredevil) and Mark Millar (the creator of Kick-Ass). The protagonists are now college-age: Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) and the African-American Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), who is Sue’s brother (she was adopted). Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) has been transformed into a mopey hipster with a plot spoiler for a last name.
The group no longer gets belted by cosmic rays during a mission to space (radiation is so 1960s). This time, the gang teleports to a strange planet in another dimension with a toxic surface that alters their molecular structure. Reed comes back with the ability to stretch like rubber. Sue (who sat out the trip but still suffered the fallout) can turn invisible and project force fields. Johnny becomes a literal human torch. Ben transforms into a giant monster made up of orange rocks who is blessed with super-strength and goes by a new name, The Thing. The best scene in the film plays like a shivery Cronenberg creep-out: In a secret government facility, the heroes wake up after their voyage and, to their horror, discover what has happened to their bodies.
If it had been pitched at kids, the way Tim Story’s two previous live-action Fantastic Four films were, the movie might have been sufferable. But director Josh Trank’s take on this material is so gloomy and bloody, Fantastic Four isn’t suitable for children (in one scene, a character explodes inside a body suit, his head bursting open like a watermelon that’s been smashed against a wall). I’m not sure who, exactly, is supposed to enjoy this. This is only Trank’s second movie — his first was the nimble, low-budget Chronicle, a found-footage adventure about three high-schoolers who gained superpowers — and the picture has the uneven tone of the work of someone who was in way over his head and lost sight of the picture he was making.
Fantastic Four also plods. The script (which Trank co-wrote) is so talky, nearly a full hour of screen time passes before our heroes turn fantastic, which is more than half of the movie’s 100 minutes. The talented actors do what they can, but the flop sweat shows. There’s no way for them to salvage an enterprise this belabored and schematic. You feed on any glimpse of spontaneity (such as Sue playfully flicking Reed’s ear while he’s asleep) like a desert traveler guzzles water.
Fantastic Four is so bereft of all the things we expect from a superhero movie — humor, excitement, adventure, awe — that it plays like a drawn-out pilot episode for an upcoming TV series no one would ever watch again. I’d rather sit through Roger Corman’s no-budget, unintentionally hilarious 1994 adaptation, because at least that one makes you laugh. And when the picture finally reaches its grand finale, it just doles out the same-old computer-generated mass destruction and a big beam of blue light shooting up into the sky that must be blocked Before It’s Too Late. How many movies are going to force us to sit through the same ending?
In the few instances Trank tries to have fun, the effort comes off forced (the Thing’s trademark “It’s clobberin’ time!” has never sounded so desperate). Even the closing scene feels derivative: Joss Whedon got there first with Age of Ultron. Fantastic Four is a synthetic bum-out, an assembly-line product, a movie a group of people made just because they could. An aura of obligation drags it down. All those comic-book adaptations Hollywood has lined up for release over the next three years are starting to feel like a threat.
Cast: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson.
Director: Josh Trank.
Screenwriters: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 100 minutes. Brief vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.