For the first half of Fantastic Four you’re wondering, “When is this movie going to start?” For the second half you’re wondering, “When is this movie going to end?!?” It’s not an awful movie, it’s just unrelentingly bland. In fact, there’s nothing compelling about director Josh Trank’s film. From the under-developed characters to the overwrought dialogue, this is the perfunctory re-boot of a franchise that nobody was clamoring to see in the first place.
In Ang Lee’s remarkable 1997 drama, The Ice Storm, there are several scenes in which Tobey Maguire ponders the familial and philosophical underpinnings of The Fantastic Four comic book series. “The more power they had, the more harm they could do to each other without even knowing it,” he observes. Given the dramatic and thematic possibilities of this bizarre universe (not to be confused with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course), it’s no wonder that filmmakers keep drawing from the Fantastic Four well. This third attempt to launch the franchise takes a grittier, more realistic approach than its predecessors, but still fails to capture the complexity that so enraptured Tobey Maguire.
We start in the past. Think back, if you can, to those bygone days that seem like only a distant memory… 2007. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a kid who loves tinkering with found objects, most of them stolen from local scrapyards. He meets another odd duck named Ben (Jamie Bell) and they strike up a devoted friendship that will span, quite literally, ones of years. You see where this is going, right? These characters haven’t experienced anything yet. Worse still, they have no compelling goals or dreams, aside from Reed’s vague notion of doing something scientific that will “make a difference in the world.”
After Reed and Ben nearly destroy their High School science fair with a homemade teleportation device, they come to the attention of the mysterious Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara). For a fleeting instant, it feels like Fantastic Four might actually be going somewhere, as Cathey’s impossibly-deep voice and Mara’s impossibly-beautiful face add a jolt of energy to the story. We get the hasty introductions of Dr. Storm’s street racing son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a world-weary scientist named Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). They all collaborate to build a teleportation device for interdimensional travel. Why they didn’t just borrow Buckaroo Banzai’s oscillation overthruster (patent pending) remains a mystery.
Unfortunately, Trank and his co-writers, Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater, didn’t bother to detail any of these characters. Reed is smart and… oblivious? Ben is a trusting friend and… ? Sue is smart and pretty. Johnny is reckless and wants more of his daddy’s attention. The closest anyone comes to being a fully-realized (ie. Interesting) character is Victor, who harbors deep resentment toward authority in general, and governments in particular. None of this is exactly next-level stuff, and the movie reflects this glaring lack of depth. There is no hero to grab our imagination and carry us through this adventure. Come to think of it, there is no adventure.
After our gang makes their disastrous interdimensional jaunt and are transformed into Mr. Fantastic (Reed), Invisible Woman (Sue), Human Torch (Johnny), Thing (Ben), and Dr. Doom (Victor), we feel like the story can finally start. We’ve plowed through all the awkward meet-cutes and uninteresting government conspiracies (seriously, what is the obsession with the military industrial complex?), and now it’s time to watch these characters cope with their new abilities. How will their lives change? Will they learn to harness their powers? How will this bring them closer together as a team/family? This is the cool, existential shit that Tobey Maguire was talking about!
Apparently, Trank never got Tobey’s memo because he skips ahead one year!
Now, Mr. Fantastic is missing, Thing is working for The Man, and Torch and Invisible Woman have already mastered their unimaginable powers. Forget about all the drama and conflict that comes from such a catastrophic transformation. No time for that. We need to jump right into the generic villain plot so we can blow things up! You can find more drama in 5 minutes of The Avengers than the entirety of Fantastic Four.
Once the action starts, there’s really no reason to care. Because we skipped all those juicy scenes after their transformation, we have no idea what each character can do. Stuff blows up real good, but it’s just noise and nonsense. It all looks fine, of course. The special effects are fine. The acting is fine. Teller does an admirable job as the de facto “lead,” and Kebbell is a menacing presence while in human form (utterly goofy in Dr. Doom form). No amount of technical or artistic expertise was going to save a story that simply wasn’t compelling.
Adopting a more realistic tone with Fantastic Four was admirable, but the filmmakers never committed to it. You can’t fashion a gritty character piece out of one-dimensional characters, and you can expect us to care about action that feels arbitrary and pointless. Beyond monetary considerations, it’s hard to justify another re-boot for this pesky franchise. Tobey Maguire’s existential vision remains elusive, as this Fantastic Four is hopelessly mediocre.