Somebody messed up, and his name starts with “20th”
Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (2015), not to be confused with Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four (1994), which was made solely to retain the rights to the characters, or with Tim Story’s Fantastic 4 (2005), also made solely to retain the rights to the characters, was produced by 20th Century Fox as a way to retain the rights to the characters. It borders on disingenuous to mention any of this in a review about the movie, since these sort of things are meant to engage with the text and the text alone, however this new film is a fascinating creature that not only begs to be picked apart in the context of its production, but practically demands it at every turn, waving its disjointed limbs in your face as it inches slowly towards its wet fart of a climax. Until a certain point, it’s actually quite an engrossing take on the characters! But it comes to a screeching halt with what is possibly the worst cinematic bed-shitting since Trainspotting.
If we’re boiling the entire film down to its meager 100-minute run time – this one really suffered from being trimmed by the studio – then there’s a greater volume of stuff to be liked than disliked. But, like its cinematic cousin The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it suffers from being the by-product of two glaringly different movies smashed together, but the unfortunate thing is there was some real vision behind one of those two puzzle pieces, pieces from entirely different portraits that were forced to fit together.
The film opens in 2007, where Reed Richards, no more than 12 years old, pitches his teleportation device to a class full off students his age, and a teacher who doesn’t take him seriously. It’s here that he catches the eye of a young Ben Grimm, and after sneaking into the Grimm family junkyard to steal parts for his device, the two form an unlikely friendship. Reed is the brain, assembling machines that even NASA scientists haven’t thought to make. Ben is the brawn, helping him get the parts he needs, but looking at everything he does with wide-eyed fascination. It’s ripped from the early pages of Ultimate Fantastic Four, the 2004 re-imagining of the characters, and it works like a charm. In fact, for a film based on such weirdly ‘edgy’ material (the Ultimate versions of these characters are younger, but the series exists in a much darker universe, if darkness were defined by Hot Topic), there’s a certain allure and light-heartedness to it despite its seemingly dour exterior. The young actor playing Reed has scars on his face that resemble Miles Teller’s actual scars, and both he and young Ben don’t seem to have had the easiest of childhoods (Ben’s constantly bullied by his older brother), but these kids have big dreams. Bigger than anyone! They want to go further, they want to push the limits of science, and they’re in constant awe of their own ability to do so. Quite simply, it works.
Seven years later, Reed and Ben present their new & improved teleportation device at their school science fair. The science is so out-of-this-world that the judges disqualify it for being some sort of magic trick, but Reg E. Cathy’s Dr. Franklin Storm knows otherwise, and approaches Reed along with his daughter Sue Storm. He knows a genius when he sees one, even if the film’s first minor disconnect shines through in this instance. See, in the Ultimate comics, the same ones this film is based on, Reed Richards’ fascination was with alternate dimensions from the very beginning. Here, he creates a device capable of inter-dimensional travel almost completely by accident. He thinks the models cars and airplanes he’s putting into it are bringing back sand particles from deserts around the planet, but he doesn’t think to ever test the materials, because the film has no idea how to approach the genius-level intelligence of the characters, or the science and pseudo-science it’s dealing with. That said, there’s a charm and forward momentum to it that renders this little more than a speed bump at first, and the Storms offer him a scholarship at the Baxter institute in Manhattan. Ordinarily, it’d be a case of trying to buy the rights to his design (which, again, he created by accident), but Dr. Storm is a man who believes in Reed, and in young scientists in general. His institute, dubbed by the government suits as “the orphanage,” specializes in putting the best and brightest young minds out in the field. He’s the film’s heart and its gooey center, interested only in unlocking the potential of the kids he recruits, and the worlds he hopes to explore, despite those who want to exploit them. If anything, his character’s appeals to the goodness in the people around him are appeals to the goodness in us.
Even in the face of its dull aesthetic and the overly dour tone of its trailers, the film and its characters have a certain allure to them that harkens back to early days of the First Family, back before Marvel was a big deal. A purity to their ethos that, surprisingly, doesn’t clash with this coldly lit non-superhero superhero movie that takes place mostly in doors. Michael B. Jordan lights up the screen as Johnny Storm well before he lights up as the Human Torch, but there’s no denying that these are limited, distilled depictions of the Fantastic Four, each written to serve the film’s bullet-point plot. While Reed and the Storm men get to drive their own narratives as well as broader narratives at play, Sue is rendered secondary for the majority of the buildup, and Ben is rendered completely absent. They now exist only in relation to Reed & co, as does their function within the story – but imbalance in an otherwise fun character dynamic is perhaps one of the film’s lesser issues. It certainly doesn’t suppress the affinity these characters have for each other or the chemistry between the actors playing them, which is part of what keeps the film moving despite its initial plot being relatively simple: can they build the machine?
Much of the film’s second act is dedicated to exploring how these characters function after they’ve been given their ‘powers’ – or rather, their (dis)abilities. It’s when Trank’s vision for this take on the characters is allowed to come to life, and the film to becomes a stark, body-horror interpretation of the superhero before switching up the dynamic in an interesting way. Reed is no longer in the picture, having run away to South America in order to re-create the teleportation device so he can figure out a way to help his friends. The Storm siblings are training with the Government, Johnny being excited that he gets to fly around, with Sue being less enthusiastic about their plans for her. Ben’s already been sent out into the field to destroy enemy tanks, and all the while, Dr. Storm is trying to re-create the teleportation device as well. He just wants to find a way to help his kids. Reed’s tropical retreat feels like a plot-point cut short, however we do get to see him use his powers in a way that, to my knowledge, hasn’t really been portrayed before, which was interesting at the very least.
Another element to this dynamic that’s equal parts functional and bizarre is Toby Kebbell’s Victor von Doom, and even bringing him up while attempting to explore the text alone come with their own series of complications, because it’s where the film’s production issues begin to unravel. The internet was lit ablaze last November when it was revealed that Doctor Doom would be a hacker named Victor Domashev, a take on the character that I personally would’ve loved to see, but a change that left fanboys angry because they’re stupid and dumb and deserve to be smacked on the head. It’s at this point that Fox decided to backtrack and partially undo the non-damage, re-naming him Victor von Doom and re-instating his country of origin (Latveria, the fictional nation he rules over in the comics), but these two pieces of information come to us in the form of an insert short of a Government document, which could’ve been filmed in one of the production offices just last week for all we know, and the one time his name is mentioned, the dialog is very clearly looped – another prevalent issue the film has – and the Doom disconnect isn’t just where the film’s on-screen issues begin, it’s where everything systematically falls apart.
Victor is said to be the one who started the Baxter teleportation project, but he lives in a den filled with screens and wires, and supposedly set fire to Dr. Storm’s servers. Why? Who knows. At one point, he says something particularly dour, causing Sue to sarcastically refer to him as “Doctor Doom” – which is a line of dialog that no longer makes sense, since that’s his actual name. And, skipping forward a little, his big villain moment comes in the form of him saying “There is no more Victor. Only Doom” which again, doesn’t make any sense if his name is Victor von Doom. It seems like a very basic thing to harp on about, but it sets the stage for a lot of the film’s other problems, which all exist on a much larger scale. That being said, Kebbell does manage to embody the air of arrogance that Doom is known for in the comics, even if it comes in the form of an unkempt mid-20s slob wearing jeans and a hoodie to the lab, which is the most un-Doom thing ever, but it (partially) stems from the new direction they were going in at one point, and Doom’s entire deal seems to be an anti-establishment mindset.
While that mindset ultimately translates to anti-humanity because of how much we’ve let corporations take over and mess up the planet, the film’s constant struggle between the Baxter institute and every American government agency at once (no, really) means that Doom is kind of the hero until he goes missing on Planet Zero, this film’s version of the negative zone. Which is interesting, because even though Dr. Storm is an idealist, he plays ball because he has to. Doom is the one who actually externalizes his disdain for the hand that feeds, which makes me wonder whose view in this situation the film really endorses. It doesn’t stand firmly behind either one except in terms of dialog, but given Trank’s tumultuous relationship with the studio over the course of the production (based on rumors and speculation!), it almost feels tongue in cheek, as if Dr. Storm is the shrug and the smile, talking about how we should strive to be the best we can be for common benefit in the face of such pressures, but Victor von Doom is the embodiment of Trank’s real feelings about being sucked in to the studio system and trapped there for a year the way Doom was trapped in an alternate dimension. The first thing Doom does when he gets out is go on a killing spree, fueled by nothing more than a hatred that makes almost no sense in the context of the film, but it’s when Fantastic Four reaches its peak. Sadly, it’s also a mild high-point that the film not only fails replicate, but from that moment on, it. Fucking. Nosedives.
Spoilers to follow.
Once Dr. Storm delivers his last bit of well-meaning advice, any goodness or good intention the film has dies with him. After having fused with his suit, Doom runs amok in the laboratory looking like someone microwaved mint chocolate chip ice-cream (or like The Hulk took a gamma-irradiated dump on him), and while it’s fun to see him make people’s heads explode just by looking at them, it’s around here that even Reed Richards, the film’s main character, begins to fall victim to its disastrous third act. Despite having been ridden with guilt over causing his friends’ deformities, he now becomes an exposition machine-gun, firing off descriptions of what’s happening on screen in quick succession, as even Miles Teller, one of the most naturalistic young actors around, struggles to sound even as convincing as a five year old in a school play, through no fault of his own. Doom, having been Doom for all of two minutes, jumps back into the alternate dimension in the hopes of ruling it and destroying our world, which feels like a setup for something bigger, but it’s here that the film skips to what is shockingly its climax. Doom begins sending rocks through a hole between the dimensions (that’s as eloquently as I can describe it, though I’d rather you heard it from me than from a robotic Reed), and the FantFourStic defeat him within about five minutes, after one dialog exchange about how they should work together – something that has little impact or meaning since, apart from Ben resenting Reed for what happened to him, they haven’t had the opportunity to fail as a team, or even as individuals. It’s a payoff without any setup, and Ben’s signature catchphrase from the comics (“It’s clobbering time!”) is an echo of what his brother used to say when he used to beat him as a kid, which is the weirdest way I’ve seen any movie try and deal with abuse or trauma.
Doom uses his telekinetic powers to make Reed flop over like spaghetti, but what’s happening here is completely unclear based on how Reed overcomes this. The rings and wires of his suit fall off, which I’m led to assume means they were what was keeping him at his regular, human size, and he fights to put himself back together, but this is something that I had to deduce after watching the movie, since it never once mentions the function of his suit, or that he’s not in full control of his powers – because he’s at regular human size when he escapes to South America! So in effect, it looks like Doom just makes him dizzy for a second, and his big hero moment is him regaining his balance.
It’s almost shocking how quickly this movie devolves into a complete mess, one that feels tethered neither to the logic of the film, nor to any other storytelling logic known to humankind. It goes from having personal stakes for the characters, to almost no stakes at all, save for a brief mention of the world being in danger in a way that isn’t depicted anywhere but the trailers. And, in addition to utterly wasting one of the most charismatic villains in Marvel’s roster (not to mention the fine actor playing him), it ends on perhaps the most drawn out conversation between the four main characters, as they think of various possible names for their team. Where Age of Ultron has “Avengers, a-” this movie has two minutes of bickering, followed by:
“This place is fantastic.”
“Say that again.”
“Say it again.”
“This place is fantastic?”
It’s hard to discern who exactly was responsible for what, but the third act most definitely feels like the product of a studio trying to create trailer moments, and it’s not just that its dialog has a different style from the rest of the film, it’s that it feels like it was written by typing key words into a sentence randomizer. I’d love to see the ending to the movie Trank had in mind, i.e. the movie that exists up until about 80 minutes in, because there’s a lot to be liked! The character dynamics make sense, even if it’s really just the Fantastic Two, but it’s hard to think back on it as a pleasant experience in totality because of how it’s a build-up to less than nothing. It’s a shame, really. There was potential there for something new and interesting. Instead we ended up with not only the same old formula, but we got the worst possible version of it. And the worst part is, 20th Century Fox still has the rights to these characters.