“What went wrong?” That appears to be the question on everyone’s mind in regards to Fox’s reboot of The Fantastic Four. The movie has been surrounded by a cloud of bad buzz ever since it was first announced. There were the rumors of director Josh Trank’s increasingly destructive behavior, then a trailer that received, shall we say, less than a lukewarm reaction from fans, and finally, a now deleted tweet from the director distancing himself from the finished product. The film came out on Friday and was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews. So, why’d I bother sitting through it? What can I say? Curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to see if it was just as awful as all the critics and rumors had suggested. I also wanted to prepare myself for the inevitable documentary that will come out a few years from now about the making of this disaster. Come on, you know there will be one. It’ll be called something along the lines of, “Planet Zero: How Fantastic Four Hit Rock Bottom” or “There is Only Doom: A Director’s Journey into Madness” or “Faux Fantastic: The Life and Death of a Comic Franchise”. I’m sorry, I could make up titles for hours. Based on the reviews, I was expecting to walk out of the theater in a fit of rage, foaming at the mouth and cursing the idiots who made this film. I figured I’d go to my keyboard and let out a slew of hateful epithets, using a lot of capital letters and snide hyperbole to make my points. But I’m not going to do that. I don’t feel angry. I feel confused, baffled, confounded, and a bit bewildered. I must have done this about a thousand times during the course of the film:
Nothing in the movie makes sense. Nothing. The plot doesn’t add up, the character’s motivations are illogical, the timeframe is all over the map, the action scenes (what few there are) are clunky and hard to follow, the humor falls completely flat, and the entire finished product looks cheaper than the Roger Corman produced version. It’s not hyperbole to say that the answer to that nagging question of what went wrong is a simple, resounding: EVERYTHING.
Side Note: Have you ever seen the Roger Corman version? If you haven’t, seek it out immediately. It’s hilarious, incompetent, charming, and stunningly remains the best film interpretation of these characters. Yep, a movie shot on a shoe string budget, made only so a film company could hold onto the rights, that contains a POV shot from a BLIND WOMAN, is still the most honest, heartfelt adaptation to ever grace the screen. It’s a sad truth but hey folks, that’s reality.
Anyway, lets start at the beginning. We first meet Reed Richards and Ben Grimm (later to be played by Miles Tellar and Jamie Bell) in elementary school. Reed is a boy genius, mocked by his teacher for having silly ideas about teleportation. Why Reed is obsessed with teleportation is never really explained beyond the plot requiring him to be. Ben, whose family owns a junkyard, becomes friends with Reed when he sneaks in to steal a transformer. The two boys head back to Reed’s garage and try out his machine (which is powered, at least partly, by tons of Nintendo 64’s, ho ho) and knock out the city’s power in their first attempt. Now, this could have been an interesting and fun beginning, a solid introduction to their friendship seeing as they’re two outsiders from different walks of life. It isn’t though. It’s rote and perfunctory. There’s no feeling behind it. The boys don’t seem to share much of a connection, their dialogue is stale, and the outside forces putting them down (Reed’s absurdly close-minded teacher and Ben’s broadly stereotypical, abusive family) are way too on the nose to feel like anything more than the overused cliches that they are.
Flash forward seven years to the high school science fair where Reed and Ben meet Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathy) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara). Seems they’ve been experimenting with teleportation too and have discovered another dimension. I have a question about this. Did everyone in this movie just want to teleport stuff with no care at all about where said stuff ends up? Isn’t that sort of reckless? Was the goal to discover an alternate dimension or was the goal to be able to transport people from New York to Cairo in a matter of seconds? I have no idea and neither does the movie. The alternate dimension is there because the characters need somewhere to go to get their powers. And I guess the producers didn’t want it to be outer space…for some reason. Why not though? What fucking difference would it make? I suppose if the other dimension was an interesting, dynamic place to visit, that would be a reason. But no, it’s a bland, dour looking rock with green energy shit all over it. Characters keep talking about the amazing resources they’ll find on it’s surface but there weren’t any as far as I could see, just more rocks. The decision to call it Planet Zero is one of the only choices in the movie that makes sense.
We also meet Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan)–in a boring, BORING car racing scene–and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel). Johnny is only there to get money to buy himself a new car and Doom is only there to bang Sue. Ben is reduced to the sidelines by this point and we’re left with four stock archetypes as our main characters: the jerk, the hothead, the brain, and the girl. None of the writing or performances do anything to rise above those types. Though Kebbel comes close as Doom. He’s the only one with the slightest hint of life. Jordan’s usual charm is absent here, Tellar doesn’t know what movie he’s in, Bell is given nothing to do, and Mara is wooden as ever. After an interminably long time, they build the damn teleportation device, travel to the stupid planet, and get their powers. Doom is left behind of course, but we know he’ll be back later when the movie needs a villain.
By the way, the manner in which they get their powers absolutely sucks from a comic book perspective. Call me a simpleton but I always sort of liked the obvious metaphor each power served for each character in the comics. They’re hit by radiation, which simply amplifies their previous characteristics. Reed is always trying to do too many things at once so he becomes stretchy. Sue feels like she’s not part of the group and no one sees her contributions so she becomes invisible. Ben is a solid, stoic dude who never breaks down so he becomes a rock. Johnny is an anxious hothead with a short temper so he is suddenly able to set himself on fire. It’s simplistic but the kind of solid metaphor that a child can respond well to. After all, the Fantastic Four have always been some of the most kid friendly superheroes. Here, it’s like the filmmakers were almost afraid of their powers. They felt the need to throw a shit ton of rocks at Ben before having him transform, felt the need to have a fire start in Johnny’s chamber before he transforms, and felt the need to have Sue not be present for the main mission. It’s like they’re trying to make up excuses for these ridiculous powers, which is unnecessary. Fans are going to accept the powers no matter what and people unfamiliar with the material are going to think the powers are stupid no matter what. By trying to explain them in such a blunt way, the movie shoots itself in the foot. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Once our bland heroes return from Planet Zero, an already confusing movie experience becomes positively confounding. There’s no time to process because the characters are instantly yanked up by a mysterious government agency run by Tim Blake Nelson. Except Reed, who runs away because reasons. The movie then jumps ahead a year and we learn that Ben/The Thing is now working for the military, Sue and Johnny are training to do the same, and Reed is still in the wind. This robs us of seeing how any of the characters react to their newfound abilities and shoves them all to the sidelines. We barely get to see any of them in action. There is no pathos at all for Ben, no attempt to show his anguish over being transformed into, oh you know, A FUCKING ROCK MONSTER. And as for Johnny, Sue, and Reed? They all just shrug their shoulders and move on. I didn’t clock it but I’m pretty sure Reg E. Cathy and Tim Blake Nelson have more screen time than any of the four main players. How the hell did that happen?
Eventually Reed returns and you wonder why he even left. There’s no reason for him to run away other than to pad out the running time. His departure is solely there to create some non-existent conflict in a rushed second act. It’s a prime example of why ‘show-don’t-tell’ is so important when making a movie. We’re told again and again what’s going on and what the characters are feeling but we don’t see any of it. Which is odd. Why not have a scene where The Thing destroys a tank for the army and then curses his own existence? Why not have a scene where Johnny shows off his powers to the public instead of just telling us that he’s the only one completely happy with his new abilities? Why not show Sue using her invisibility to find Reed instead of having her listen to music and pound away furiously at a computer? It’s all so wrong and misguided. But I digress. Reed eventually helps the government find a way back to Dimension Boredom and hey what do you know? There’s good old Victor Von Doom, now transformed into a metal man with a closed mouth. I know his mouth doesn’t move in comic books but those are STILL PICTURES. This is a goddamn movie. Let his fucking lips move. He can blow up people’s heads and move shit with his mind but he cannot open his stupid mouth. Jesus Christ. Anyway, he’s completely evil now and decides to destroy the earth because…well…because fuck you that’s why. Really it’s because the movie needs a final act. This happens so quickly and with no build up at all that I sat there thinking, ‘oh, we’re at the end already?’ Our heroes use their powers very clumsily, defeat him, and the movie ends. It’s all so poorly choreographed and hard to follow that I eventually gave up. The whole last act reeks of cynicism, of a producer saying, ‘well the villain’s gotta try to destroy the world at the end right? And yeah, or course he needs a giant laser!’
There are glimmers of what the movie was trying to be. Early scenes suggest a level of seriousness and a sort of ‘kids against the establishment’ mentality, but that all gets abandoned once they go to Planet Zero. For a split second the film tries to make their powers seem horrific, which is not the right take on the Fantastic Four. I don’t care what anybody says, a stretchy man is not something I’m ever going to be able to take seriously. Reed’s first terrified reaction to his stretchy legs illicited lots of laughs in the theater I was in. After that, the move gives up entirely, throwing scenes at us simply because that’s what the genre requires. No time at all is spent developing the characters. I swear to god, Ben and Johnny exchange maybe four sentences throughout the course of the entire film. A romance between Reed and Sue is suggested and then forgotten. And Doom is presented as an intriguing villain before becoming something that would have gotten booted off the Power Rangers set.
And here’s something else about these four iconic characters. Let me preface this by saying I’ve never been a very big fan. I don’t want to say they’re stupid because I can’t do that and then defend Batman, Superman, or the X-Men but still, I think they’re kinda…stupid. Sorry. If you disagree, watch this episode of The Venture Brothers. Anyway, about their powers: you’ve got a guy who can stretch all his limbs, another guy who is so hot he’s actually on fire, and a third guy who is rock hard. These are all expressions of masculinity pushed to super degrees. And the girl’s power? Oh right, she can disappear. Does anyone else find it disturbing that the woman’s power is to literally not be around? Sure, go ahead, call me an idiot. Tell me why this is ok. I’m all ears. Yeah, I know she can also create force fields or whatever. Don’t care. Her main power is invisibility. Look, I suppose this would be okay if the movie actually created a character for her (or anyone for that matter) but it instead makes her role on the team even more sexist. For the first half of the film, all the guys are busy building a teleportation device. What is she doing you ask? Well, she’s building the suits for them of course. Yeah yeah yeah, the movie takes time to point out that these are special suits that can withstand environmental changes and blah blah blah science yada yada, yada. I don’t care how important the suits are. The guys are building a machine and the woman is making clothes. The flick should have gone all the way with this and had her bake cookies for the team too.
Whatever. Sexism is the least of Fantastic Four’s problems. It’s a jumbled, incoherent mess that wouldn’t have worked even in the 90’s. It makes the two previous Fantastic Four films look like masterpieces. Those movies at least had a sense of fun. This has a depressing color scheme, boring sets, no sense of tone, and non-characters. Did I mention that ninety percent of the action takes place underground in either a bunker or lab? Fox reportedly spent (and will probably lose most of) $120 million on this debacle. Where the hell did the money go? Did each of the actors demand a luxury yacht to use as their bathroom? It’s just another one of the many, many baffling things about this project. There will probably be worse movies this year but I doubt there will be any this puzzling or incoherent for a very long time. Can’t wait for the documentary.