Josh Trank’s follow-up to his interesting, well-crafted debut Chronicle (2012) was supposed to be a big event. 20th Century Fox’s last attempt to build a cash cow from the venerable Marvel Comics Fantastic Four property was generally dismissed as lightweight and excessively goofy. Personally I found the two Tim Story-directed entries to be the closest of any recent superhero movies to the broad, innocent, zippy tone of Saturday morning cartoons, and likeable enough for that. But it was dictated by the hive mind of the internet that the franchise should move in the same pseudo-serious direction as Batman and Superman. Trank seemed a good choice to accomplish this, as a young, talented maverick who had displayed the right conceptual imagination to bring vaguely realistic emotions and youth audience concerns to fantastic material. As it turns out, his Fantastic Four has been generally deplored and declared a flop following a gruelling and fractious shoot: critics have obviously been waiting for a stray member of the superhero herd to slaughter without fear of fanboy reprisals, and Trank himself fuelled the fire by trash-talking the final, compromised product released into theatres. Fantastic Four does clearly bear the usual warning signs of behind-the-scenes struggles. The finale is rushed and tacked-on in a manner that resembles B-movies from the ‘40s when plots needed to be suddenly resolved in the last ten minutes, and gaps in the story development do beg the question whether anything like the originally intended film was fully shot. And yet I have to say it: Trank’s misshapen, ungainly shambles is still the most interesting of the big superhero films released this year, surpassing Marvel’s enjoyably adequate entries Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man by possessing actual dashes of originality and depth of purpose.
Reed Richards (Owen Judge) is introduced as chubby-cheeked schoolkid whose precocious genius and home-made teleporter design are met with adult disdain, but he finds a pal in mechanically-minded Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), whose family junkyard Reed pilfers parts from. Their first attempt to make Reed’s design work blacks out the neighbourhood and pulps the first object to be transported, but still sort-of works, and years later, when Reed and Ben have grown into the forms of Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, they exhibit a more refined version at their school science fair. Still dismissed as charlatans by their science teacher (Dan Castellaneta!), they do attract the attention and admiration of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a noted scientist working on a similar project. He also has a habit of bringing bright young things under his wing, including his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), whilst his son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) indulges a taste for speed and reckless behaviour as a means of acting out. Franklin employs Reed to help improve upon the teleporter his company has built, designed by scruffy, paranoid tech nerd Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). This brains trust allies well for the most part, although Victor resents Reed and Sue’s evident connection. Soon they have the teleporter working so well that Reed invites Ben to go with him, Victor, and Johnny on a drunken excursion to a different dimension to ensure their names are forever inscribed as the first pan-dimensional explorers. But on the primal, protean alien world they discover, they encounter strange sentient lava and set off an eruption that seems to kill Victor and leaves all of them, even Sue who stayed behind but still catches the wave of radiation transported back with their capsule, affected in strange and terrifying ways.
Trank’s models are obvious, with dashes of Alien (1979) apparent in the visualisation of the alternate Earth and the motif of gross transformation after such a venture, and David Cronenberg, in the attempt to contemplate just how powers like the foursome’s might work in the real life and how such perversions would impact on their psyches, and a visual palate reminiscent of The Fly (1986). These ideas are, of course, blended with the familiar comic’s template of a gang of young, bright, difficult personalities forced to mesh as a team after being dubiously endowed with traits far beyond the ordinary. Reed is glimpsed gruesomely splayed out like a butterfly specimen with his newly rubbery limbs, whilst Ben, now a hulking rock thing becomes a sullen, shadow-seeking depressive, Sue has difficulty remaining present in reality, and Johnny blazes from toe to crown. This is obviously the part of this tale that most interested Trank, and most clearly recalls the focal points of Chronicle. He posits Ben as the product of an abusive childhood like Chronicle’s tragically unbalanced antihero: The Thing’s famous catchphrase “It’s clobberin’ time” is revealed, with sour humour, to be what his brother used to say to him before beating him up. Reed becomes Ben’s preferred brother figure, but when Reed flees and goes underground, leaving the others to become caged experiments and puppets of government creeps, Ben turns resentful and accusatory. Franklin’s business partner Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) sells the idea to the military of making these freakish by-products into human weapons. They use Ben as a super-soldier on covert ops, keeping him obedient with promises of curing his condition, and dangle the same offer in front of Johnny. Hopes of rebuilding the totalled teleporter are foiled without Reed’s input, and finally Franklin begs Sue to track him down with her pattern-recognition talents. Reed is cornered and captured in Latin America, but when he does concede to rebuild the transporter, finds something truly terrifying waiting in the other dimension.
I like that Trank and company spend quite a bit of time setting up their story and characters, yearning to turn origin story, usually dismissed as dramatic nicety or lumpen McGuffin, into a full-blown tale of sci-fi daring and Faustian self-sabotage. The accident that befalls the young heroes is the direct result of their own brilliance and callow folly. This allows Trank to partly escape the air of suffocating expedience that sabotaged Marc Webb’s similarly mercenary The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) reboots, although he grazes the edges of some other franchise influences. Johnny and Ben’s fascination for mechanics and hot-rods suggesting a limp attempt to net some of the Fast and Furious fans. The long process by which the titular quartet are gathered and remade may have been intended as the first act of a real epic, but the relatively chamber drama-like scenes and conceptually restricted settings suggest perhaps not, and therein probably lies a greater part of the cause for studio panic. The idea of turning Fantastic Four into a 1950s-style sci-fi think-piece has a lot of appeal for me: at a time when superhero flicks are levitating whole cities, a bunch of eggheads arguing scientific morality in a dimly lit room feels near-revolutionary. The tweaks employed here to make the characters seem edgy and with it trend close to corny – Sue has a penchant for Portishead, which would have made her seem really cool in 1995 (I say that as another fan) – but are also occasionally smart: Von Doom, rather than a snooty tycoon, is made a particularly scruffy, cynical tech nerd, one whose isolate misanthropy meshes perfectly with otherworldly powers to make him the world’s most dangerous Gamergater.
One aspect of this film that was never going to work was casting Teller as Reed: however effective he is playing the class creep in the Divergent films and getting slapped about in Whiplash (2014), Teller lacks anything resembling leading man value or even nerdy charm. Bell, Mara, and Jordan are all very talented actors and indeed ones I’ve been hoping would get a ticket to the big leagues for a while now. They fare better than Teller, but still don’t get as much space to strut their stuff as they deserve. Bell’s Ben is superfluous to the story in the first half and Jordan’s Johnny is poorly served in the second. Cathey’s intense, stern but caring Storm is a stand-out performance, whilst Nelson injects some sleazy verve as the regulation corporate villain. The elephant in the room with this Fantastic Four is that exactly when it reaches the point of truly taking off, it falls apart, and it’s all too obvious why: I don’t think I’ve seen a film with a more obvious lurch into a studio-mandated patch job since the last reel of The Exorcist III (1990). Victor returns to the narrative about the same distance into the story that Lex Luthor appears in Superman (1978), but instead of gearing up for a grand battle of wills like that work (one that believed in storytelling), we get unleashed chaos in the Storm labs by a psycho superman that more resembles the hocus-pocus in The Lazarus Effect (2015), and then a special effects finale where the effects seem to have been borrowed from some mid-‘90s SyFy Channel show. This premature climax truly blows its wad over all the work that has come before it, without any satisfaction or sense in seeing the Four unite to defeat their enemy. It’s very clear that what we were delivered here is the discarded rump of a potentially fine film. But of course, the narratives of Hollywood success dominate how everyone talks about these things: no matter how dumb and lazy the Marvel films can get, they’re still popular so they must be good, and Fantastic Four, no matter its qualities, must be bad.