FANTASTIC FOUR (2015, directed by Josh Trank, 100 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Thirty years ago, the now long-gone Orion Pictures released Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. Right in the title, we were informed that this mediocre action film was born to be a franchise, based on a popular series of pulp paperbacks about a mercenary called “The Destroyer.” Well, the adventure began and ended there because the movie just wasn’t that good and audiences never showed up. Today, the fact that 20th Century Fox is expecting a franchise out of their third go-around for the Marvel super hero team The Fantastic Four is a foregone conclusion. But somehow, in all these multi-million dollar calculations, Fox has failed to lay down the groundwork for one good film, let alone a series. If the film’s failure foreshadows a death-knell for all the lazy filmmaking of the Marvel brand than it might be a good thing but deep down there is a comic-loving kid in me that is greatly disappointed that again they’ve dropped the ball of one of comic book culture’s great fables.
In many ways the new Fantastic Four seems like a reaction to the failure of the pair of films made in 2005 and 2007. Where those films were peppered with goofy humor, this new version is deadly serious. While those films had actors in their thirties and forties as The Four, this film shows them barely out of their teens. Where the earlier films had a lively color palette, this one is dominated by muted blues and grays. But running in the opposite direction of the last version has frustratingly led to another dramatic dead end, despite having the once-promising young talent of director Josh Trank at the helm. It should be noted here that even Trank has distanced himself in recent days from the final cut.
The story kicks off with Reed Richards (played as an young adult by Miles Teller of Whiplash) being alienated from his teachers and classmates because of his scientific genius. When Reed (with the help of his best friend Ben “The Thing” Grimm, played by Jaime Bell) invents a teleportation machine for a school science project, Dr. Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) is there to recruit Richards to join him at the secretive Baxter Institute. There he warms up to Dr. Storm’s brainy, Portishead-listening daughter Sue Storm (Mara Rooney) and her brother, trouble-maker Johnny (Michael B. Jordan). Also, in a change from Marvel legend, young Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) is on the team and together the young group is working on a giant sized teleporter. After a night of drinking Reed convinces the rest of the guys to take a test run themselves. With Sue left behind to bang crazily on the computer keyboard (why would the producers rewrite the origin to give Sue less to do?) the four find themselves on a planet made of living green lava. The lava swallows up Von Doom just before the remaining trio can make their hasty escape. Upon return Ben, Reed and Johnny discover their uncontrollable power as well as Sue, who seems to have gotten hers just by standing to close to their explosive return.
From there the Four are captives of a government weapons program and by now an hour has passed and most of the film has been dominated by scenes of the team working in a cold government laboratory, followed by lots of tests, board room meetings and coercion of our super-powered stars. By then, the joylessness of their fate has seeped out into the audience like green lava and again we find ourselves spending our time watching dour super heroes bummed out by the burden of their fantastic powers. Only in the final act does any real action break out when The Four return to the green lava planet to punch it out with the newly-minted Doctor Doom.
In its brief climax, The Fantastic Four finally gains a slight resemblance to the Jack Kirby comics that gave birth to the team, with alien landscapes, force field bubbles and proclamations of “Clobbering Time.” At an uncharacteristic mere 100 minutes the film then quickly draws to a close, making it hands down the least action-packed comic book film ever made. It’s easy to imagine how this cast could be back for something much better next time but will there be a next time? It’s a stretch to imagine a sequel built on such a foundation of mud, a stretch even beyond the elasticity of Mister Fantastic. Sequels are films demanded by hits and despite the power of the comic book movie machine, this Fantastic Four proves that ordering up hits on demand is still beyond the powers of the high priests of Hollywood. Flame off.