Editor’s note: this post is re-blogged from Truth on Cinema and used with the Editor’s Permission. Consequently, I am The Editor of both sites.
Early buzz for Fantastic Four was bad. Really bad. Like, 20% on RottenTomatoes bad. So as I sat for the critical screening on Wednesday night, I tried my best to keep an open mind to not allow someone else’s opinion to shape mine. For the first thirty minutes or so, I held on bravely against the tide of peer pressure. By the time the stinger-less credits rolled, however, I was ready to join the ranks. Fantastic Four is so bad that it taints the word “fantastic.”
Based on Marvel’s least interesting quartet, Four sets out to re-brand a forgettable series of films by flooding audiences with a “young” cast and “fresh” ideas, positioning itself as the new face of superhero fare. We first meet Reed Richards (Miles Teller, who is better than this) as a young dreamer whose dreams are spit upon by teachers in a masterful use of cliché. He and soon-to-be-bestie Ben Grimm (non-factor Jamie Bell) do cliché science in a cliché setting to cliché effect and are discovered by cliché government agents who want cliché things from them. Believe it or not, things get worse from there.
Adoptive siblings Sue (Kate Mara, also shockingly bland here given her talent) and Johnny Storm (Michael B Jordan, whose excellent turn in Chronicle is now a memory so faded I question its validity) are included in the project for various, obscure and nepotistic reasons. Together, the faces of a new generation of heroes and their stereotypical future nemesis, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), montage their way into a great scientific discovery and an even greater peril.
At the precipice of their historic journey to another dimension, government patsy Dr. Allen (a completely miscast Tim Blake Nelson) informs the team that the government will be taking the reigns of their government-funded project. Shocker. He has ulterior motives, largely involving the military industrial complex. Double shocker. Lives are lost as a result of greed and foolishness. Ground-breaking shocker. Things spiral out of control and can only be corrected by our heroes who, by the way, make their trans-dimensional trek DUI. I’m done.
The only thing fantastic about this film is the incredible number of ways it goes wrong. It begins by falsely assuming that its characters failed the first time because they were too old. It compensates by attempting to draw in the demographic that is already on board with superheroes, waxing poetic about “the next generation” in unsubtle and uninteresting dialogue that is matched by the film’s later lethargic efforts to convince us that 1) this science is important 2) these heroes are cool and powerful and 3) you do not need a refund.
It fails on all counts.
In its first act, Four is transparent but bearable. It creates one interesting narrative for every five worthless ones it presents on the way to an ending of which déjà vu itself would tire. At least two thirds of the dialogue could easily have been clipped directly out of another film and pasted into the script, and another quarter of it is delivered in inexplicably ubiquitous growls as cast members take a leaf out of the Christian Bale Book of Heroism. Poor Reg E. Cathey‘s normal voice blends with Kebbell’s awkward attempt at menace to give several scenes the auditory feel of a ride around the dryer with discarded hard candies. At least they tried to emote.
Teller and Mara seem to have been given direction in the sense that one might dampen a cardboard box in an attempt to make it more interesting. These are top-tier actors who will undoubtedly secretly fume upon discovering that editors must have gone out of their way to find the least affecting delivery in every scene. It feels as if Four was cut together in bizarre protest of a script that makes little to no effort to tell an engaging story. It’s borderline remarkable that the collective minds behind this film could have passed off as complete a script so desperate for another pass. Josh Trank gave us Chronicle. Simon Kinberg penned Sherlock Holmes (also X-Men: the Last Stand). Jeremy Slater was the mind behind The Lazarus Effect, so it feels right to lay blame on him and Kinberg. Notably, Slater also bears the albatross of the title “Director.”*
As bad as it is in the early going, Four flirts with a few interesting ideas. It’s willingness to play with horror elements makes the heroes’ transformation oddly fascinating, and for a short-lived moment it offers a fugitive tale on par with the more recent (read: better) Hulk film. Astonishing visual effects — not including the final look of the film’s antagonist — and strong camera work make it at least a beautiful disaster. Uncommitted to a specific tone or type, the writing trio simply heap on more ideas to cover up their lack of originality. It’s not unlike watching a gardner shovel manure atop poor soil, only in this instance nothing grows from the effort.
Having finally selected “save the world!” from its putrid pile of ideas, Four rushes through a host of empty speeches and talking points en route to perhaps its greatest disappointment: the (un)shocking return of a villain we all anticipated thirty minutes prior to its arrival. With little fanfare, Doom arrives to monologue and reign short-lived terror thanks in large part to the ignorance and woeful preparation of the team that recovers him. Equally troubling: nothing he says is really wrong.
For the first time, Marvel glimpses a villain with actual, grounded motivation: Doom resents his enemies for exploiting and killing Planet Earth. He seeks to build his own, better world and he finally has the power to do it. The obvious solution? Send him home and let him be. The heroes would then become the villains, seeking to pilfer his resources for their own gain.
A marvelous twist of the genre disappears in a flash of green lightning, however, when Doom decides to go on an inexplicable rampage culminating in an attempt to suck the Earth through a wormhole because screw Earth. This despite the ungrounded and unfeeling objection that “people shouldn’t have this much power [that you accidentally fell into and are now trying to make relatively understandable use of].” The final battle is equally manufactured and hollow, being in effect an epic clash between pompous circus acts and a living marble.
The best part of the film is that it eventually ends, beginning the process by which our brains will mercifully delete it over time. Only the most die-hard and convoluted of fans could possibly justify any claim to the contrary. Save your money: have your niece or nephew write a few lines of dialogue, then toss a rock, a lighter, a Stretch Armstrong Toy and a marble in a box** and shake it a few times while you growl at each other. You’ll have made the same movie for about $122 million less.