The film-making formula behind Fantastic Four can’t be criticised and there has been an obvious effort to add some much needed gravitas to what is currently the poorest staple in the Marvel Universe - thanks largely to two completely uninspiring efforts in the mid 2000s.
This intent should be applauded and the appointment of director Josh Trank on the back of his success with 2012’s excellent Chronicle is the type of manoeuvre that can only be classed as a “no-brainer”. Trank has form for taking a young cast and creating a dark, real-worldy superhero movie that will please both audiences and critics alike. When you also consider that he is joined by a cast of the finest collection of Hollywood bright young things for many a year then you would think that the Fantastic Four would be a shoe-in to live up to it’s fantastical moniker – so it is with somewhat of a surprise that the result is one of the dullest and lifeless Marvel movies that has so far been produced. Whilst being better than the original Fantastic Four incarnation was a minimum target it isn’t much to shout about that this movie is only a marginal improvement. Whereas the dark visuals and authentic, gritty cinematography worked wonders for Trank with Chronicle it seems out of place here and doesn’t really fit into the Marvel universe that we are used to. Marvel’s success has led to an almost brand-like recognition of it’s films and audiences know that anything bearing the Marvel insignia is likely to be action-packed, spectacular, colourful and laced with witty dialogue amongst the scientific conjecture that under-pins it. Not so here, Fantastic Four on the whole is sparse with action, mundane in long stretches and always feels bleak for bleak’s sake. The main problem seems to stem from the fact that the tonal balance is entirely off. Is this a super-hero movie? Is it a sci-fi? A drama? It’s difficult to pin down and whilst that wouldn’t normally be a problem if there was plenty of blow-out action sequences to capture the imagination, here it stands out like a beacon amongst the humdrum, dreary offering that has been served up. The movie takes an age to really get going and spends far too long pondering the intricacies of matter displacement and teleportation – all very admirable but surely well beyond the interest or knowledge of it’s target audience. Any film that resembles more a university lecture than a blockbusting pop-corn flick is always going to struggle with this sort of target demographic. The original Fantastic Four was accused of being ‘too comic book’ and there has been an obvious intention to shift the focus onto the stark, uncompromising world that has seen the DC universe churn out such impressive works as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – unfortuanately it just doesn’t seem to fit these particular characters or the world they inhabit and will probably switch the audience off well before the action kicks in for the films final third. There is always a feeling that there is just too much origin to this origin story and that the audience has to wait far to long for any sort of pay-off. There is a danger that in attempting to tease an audience for too long, all that you will really succeed in doing is boring them. Unfortunately that is exactly what has happened here.
There are some elements of merit to be praised – mainly from the cast who are badly let down by a bogged-down script and overall tedious plot - but on the whole this is a huge disappointment and a world away from the usual standard churned out by Marvel with impressive regularity.
Friendship, teamwork and loyalty are explored at great length and the excellent locker room banter that exists amongst the principal cast is a point of note but there is a feeling that too much science and attempted authenticity has robbed the audience of any real depth or connection to the characters. It would have been fascinating to explore Reed Richards’ (Miles Teller) guilt at the fate that has befallen his friends but rather than use this as a focal point it is only ever skirted over meaning we never really get the emotional grounding that would of served the film much better than the ubiquitous scientific theory which will probably only blow over the audiences heads. There is a strong case to argue that the film-makers really needed to ‘dumb-down’ rather than risk alienating the audience by being too clever.
Despite the large negatives that isn’t too say that Fantastic Four is a complete bust.
Teller and Michael B. Jordan add to their early promise in the likes of Whiplash and Fruitvale Station respectively with Teller’s Reed Richards just about coming out on points against Jordan’s Johnny Storm but it is Tony Kebbell who steals the acting plaudits with a version of Dr. Doom that is a much more malignant danger than he appears to be in his past screen appearances. Kebbell once again displays what is a rare ability to project a brooding menace that comes more from facial expressions and subtle looks than from lavish actions or gestures. The young brit is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most intense character actors and more than holds his own amongst his American counter-parts.
The film’s final act – containing the only real elements of action throughout the films length -is also worth a look and at least hints at the notion that this franchise may be worth persevering with. Now that the landscape has been established with an origin story hopefully the not-to-blame cast will get a better outing to sink their super-powered teeth into next time around.
In summary though Fantastic Four isn’t saved by it’s cast, it’s snappy dialogue or it’s admirable intent – the risk of ignoring excitement and spectacle and concentrating on authenticity and realism never really pays off and leads to an inescapable feeling that this has been a major mis-step despite all the right ingredients.
As a sci-fi movie this would probably rate quite highly but unfortunately as a family-orientated super-hero movie this is a very hard sell indeed and with a lack of any real exhilaration or action until well into the films final act it’s going to be hard to see this making anyone’s list for favourite film of the month let alone the summer. It seems that the comics most-loved characters have once again been short-changed when it comes to the big screen.
In response to the almost accusation that he puts “a lot of faith in those kids”, Dr Franklin Storm replies almost defensively “I put all my faith in them”.
Luckily for the Marvel studio that isn’t a sentiment echoed by them and they can more than absorb the odd failure, because, in an ironic twist, this is so far the only super-hero franchise bearing their name that has been far from Fantastic.