Review: Powerfully mediocre ‘Fantastic Four’ is neither disaster nor success

Neither the disaster the fanboy nation seems to be itching to attack nor a significant improvement over the Tim Story movies, “Fantastic Four” seems doomed to please no one. If this were simply a science-fiction film about original characters, it would be a moderate pleasure that can't quite connect all the dots or pay off the various ideas it introduces. As an adaptation of the comic, it seems to miss nearly everything that seems exciting about “Fantastic Four” as a filmmaking opportunity, and it will only serve to reinforce the idea that these characters don't work in a movie.

Balderdash and nonsense, though. The real problem is that 20th Century Fox has learned nothing from their own successes or failures. If you'd told me that this film was made in 1994, I would absolutely believe you. They might as well have titled the movie “Fantastic Four: Hedging Our Bet,” because they have imagined as small a version as possible of this first film, and in doing so, they have pretty much guaranteed that no one will walk away satisfied. Already, we're seeing early reviews that grumble about the lack of action in the film, and while it's a reasonable assumption that superhero films should have action, I think starting with that complaint misses the entire point of what it feels like Josh Trank and writers Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater have all tried to do here.

While there is certainly a dour tone to much of the film, there are small gentle moments that are meant to suggest a playfulness that will come later for these characters. This is pure origin story, so you're only seeing the beginning of these relationships. In the last few moments of the movie, it feels like everything you'd like to see from Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and Johnny and Sue Storm finally comes into focus, and then they cut to black, almost like the entire film is one long joke on people who would like to just see a good Fantastic Four movie. I guess I can see how you could make that argument in a room as a good idea, a way of making this entire film about the people, not the superhero team, but for that approach to work, I'd need to really invest in them as people, and the film utterly fails on that front. I'd be okay with the lack of action if the film worked as something else instead. “Ant-Man” wasn't especially chock full of ass-kicking, but I thought the film worked thematically, exploring ideas of curdled relationships between parents and children and the responsibility we have as parents even when things go wrong. “Ant-Man” was about something, even if it wasn't particularly deep, and it always felt like that cast was there to play and have fun and give it everything, no matter how weird.

Lately, I've been thinking more about these films that are shaped right, that follow all the accepted beats, and that simply don't work as movies. Josh Trank's first film, “Chronicle,” had a rowdy sense of life spilling out of the edges of the frame. I didn't love “Chronicle,” but I liked it a lot and I thought it had a pulse. The older I get, the more I realize that for me, one of the most significant things about a movie is if I feel like it tells the truth in some way. You can make a movie about a dude who gets magic stretchy powers, his friend who is made of rocks, and a brother/sister team who can catch on fire and turn invisible, respectively, and you can make it honest as long as you get the human things right. I don't know what it feels like to fly and be made of fire, but if you make me believe that Johnny is a real person, and if you take the time as a filmmaker to get the little details right, then I'll go almost anywhere with you. I'll buy into whatever it is you're asking me to buy into if I recognize real human behavior amidst it.

It feels like that's what the film is trying to do, at least for the first half, and that's the best material in the film. For a good forty minutes or so, I was enjoying the overall tone of things. There are plenty of eye-rolling little choices, like when we see Ben Grimm's older brother slap him around a bit and say, “It's clobberin' time,” but as a science-fiction horror film (and their origin is definitely handled as a moment of horror, as is Doom's return to Earth), it works. It's not great, but it works. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is recruited out of high school to work for Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and the Baxter Institute, which appears to be a sort of applied sciences think tank funded by more than a little military money that is embodied by Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson). Reed is brought in because he has unwittingly done research that runs parallel to a breakthrough made by Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), the discovery of an alternate dimension.

Storm's daughter Sue (Kate Mara) is part of the team, and Storm brings in his reckless son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) as a form of punishment after he is hurt in a street race. As they work to build a working version of the device that Reed created as a teleporter, they realize that they're not going to be the ones who get to go through. They're going to have the biggest moment of the entire process taken away from them, and it leads them to make a terrible decision that also ropes in Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Reed's best friend since childhood.

All the way up through the staging of the accident, I thought the film worked fairly well. Here's the thing… I hate a somber “Fantastic Four” in principle. I think they were created at a specific moment in pop history to be a sort of cross between the Beatles and the Mercury 7 astronauts, and I think that is exactly what I would want from a movie about them. I'd want it to be set during that period. I'd want it to feel more like Tashlin's “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” than like “The Avengers” or the “X-Men” movies. But that's me. That's my personal preference for these characters. While I don't especially want a serious take like this, played so somber and so melancholy, I can appreciate why and how they made this choice. But after the promising start, the entire film turns into a series of place-holders for actual scenes or character ideas or story arc, and everything starts to feel like they refuse to actually commit.

To give you an example, I need to spoil some character and story details. Upon waking up from their accident, Reed Richards manages to escape the facility in “Area 57” and drop completely off the radar. A year passes, and Ben Grimm has accepted his new place in the world. He is a weapon, dropped into war zones and almost impossible to stop. We see some footage on monitors of him in action, and we see that he has something like 47 confirmed kills. Trank gives us a single close-up of the Thing, and that's supposed to be enough to tell us that he feels bad about it. Considering Ben Grimm in this film is just a dude who works at his family's junkyard right up until the second he's in this terrible accident, it seems like a pretty big adjustment for him to suddenly be a murderous wrecking machine without the film really dealing with it. You want to reinvent the character like that? Fine. But do it, and then really play it. Play it all the way out to a conclusion that feels honest based on what we as people know about our own feelings and experiences.

Where the film truly drops the ball is with what I can only describe as a sweaty and ill-considered final half-hour. Whatever it is they're trying to do with Doctor Doom does not work. At all. Toby Kebbell was hired for this hot on the heels of his work in “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” and little wonder. He was amazing as Koba, giving real dignity and pain to a “bad guy” character. There is none of that here, and it's the script. On a film like this, it's impossible to say who decided what, but just like in most of the earliest attempts at superhero movies, it feels like they saved every penny of their effects budget for the last scene, and they shouldn't have bothered. It's more glowing doodad end of the world bullshit, with Doctor Doom represented by a terrible digital/make-up design with the powers of David Cronenberg's Scanners. He marches around making heads blow up in boundary-pushing PG-13 style for about five or ten minutes, then trades a few punches with each member of the Fantastic Four, then apparently dies when his doodad explodes. It is as by the numbers as any blockbuster's ending in recent memory, and the telescoped nature makes it feel even lazier. Not only could they not be bothered to write an actual ending to things, but they dispatch with all of it in enough time that you could miss it with a poorly timed run to the bathroom.

Determined not to have fun at almost any expense, Josh Trank's “Fantastic Four” feels like a primer in how to misjudge a property in enough fundamental ways that no amount of good work could have tipped this one completely. It will take way more abuse than it deserves from fans, but there's not enough about it that I like that I'm willing to really defend it, either. It feels much too safe, and at this point in the life-cycle of this genre, “safe” is the wrong way to go.

“Fantastic Four” is in theaters on Friday.