It would be difficult, if not impossible, to see the latest big comic book movie free of bias. In the months leading up to the release of Fantastic Four, Fox’s attempt to relaunch the franchise under the direction of Josh Trank, story after story about production troubles and studio interference continued to bubble up, culminated by a hastily deleted tweet by Trank implying his vision was compromised. Messy, public spats between embattled directors and studios rarely do either any good, and it sure seemed like this latest attempt to keep the franchise afloat would be dead on arrival.
Trank put together a solid cast of principals for this one, with Miles Teller leading the way as super genius/eventual Stretch Armstrong Reed Richards, Jamie Bell as his childhood-pal-cum-rock-monster Ben Grimm, Michael B. Jordan as hotshot turned literal hotshot Johnny Storm, and Kate Mara as Johnny’s sister Sue, who would soon gain the ability to turn invisible and create force fields in her spare time. It’s an origin story, concerned wholly with the central maguffin that would lead to the accident that gives them their powers, a device that teleports between dimensions. Sue and Johnny’s father, Franklin (Reg E. Cathy, spouting platitudes like they are manna from heaven) has brought in the man who started the project, the reclusive and unstable Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbel), all under the watchful eye of the US government, figureheaded by a supremely smarmy Tim Blake Nelson. Things explode, people get powers, somehow the man with the name Doom becomes evil (who saw that coming, right?), and the young foursome need to set aside their differences for a common goal, all in an aggressive 100 minute running time.
Fantastic Four is every superhero origin story that’s ever been made, and its second half makes sure of that, but for at least some time during its first forty-five minutes, it is clear Trank was reaching for something far more off the beaten path. His first film, 2012’s found footage superhero film Chronicle, punched far above its weight, offering a sophisticated look at three friends who happen to gain superpowers, only to find that they might not be all they’re cracked up to be in practice. The first act of Fantastic Four seems to begin moving in a similar direction, with the focus squarely on the budding friendship between Reed and Ben. When their accident changes them in fundamental and drastic ways, Trank plays the horror of the situation instead of the thrill that so often comes from these discoveries in other superhero origin films. Trank mentioned in interviews (before everything came off the PR rails) that he wanted to inject some Cronenberg-style body horror into the film, and that sequence, easily the film’s best and something legitimately special and affecting, plays with elements of The Fly and Videodrome with aplomb.
The problem, though, is that this experimentation is fleeting. Shortly after the four gain their powers, there is an abrupt cut to black with a “One Year Later” title card, pushing the story past all of the necessary character development straight on toward the climax, with Ben, Johnny and Sue established in their roles as government-sponsored super people and Reed on the run to avoid domination while searching frantically for a cure for him and his friends. It is jarring and absurd, and from that point on it is clear that the studio has taken over. The hints of interest from the first half of the film have faded and died, leaving behind a remarkably bland third act that rushes to its conclusion far too quickly, pushed along by hackneyed dialogue (the final lines are a doozy), choppy editing and scene construction, as well as obvious reshoots. It is difficult to blame the cast for seeming withdrawn and uninterested when their dialogue is so poor (script credits belong to Trank, Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater, as well as presumably dozens of backroom studio suits) and Mara is given an atrociously obvious wig for her reshoot scenes that does not even match the color of her hair in scenes before and after it. Why should they care? Trank, the actors, the screenwriters, they are all there purely to ensure that the rights to the Fantastic Four and their related properties do not revert to Disney/Marvel. It is the same sort of desire that leads to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which may not have been as troubled as Fantastic Four but ended up just as disappointing.
The true disappointment of Fantastic Four is not the unmitigated disaster of its last forty minutes. It is instead the bright points of its first forty, those sparks that hint at something strange and even a little daring until they are summarily snuffed out by a brusque title card. There are issues in that first act, to be sure (the step up from obscurity to the mainstream has not been kind to Trank), but excitement as well, and that excitement is entirely let down. Fantastic Four will be remembered for everything that happened around it more than the movie itself, and for the most part, that is likely for the best. But it should also be remembered as another cautionary tale, with Trank joining the likes of Joss Whedon, Patty Jenkins and Edgar Wright in proving once again that modern mainstream superhero movies are not the place for ideas. Surely, there will be another Fantastic Four movie sometime in the future, likely starting over again after the failures of Trank and Tim Story. Perhaps this next one might even be good. It will be a tall order though.