The Fantastic Four may be Marvel’s First Family, but when it comes to their status in films, they’ve fallen woefully behind many other Marvel characters. Fantastic Four, the fourth and latest attempt to create a film for these characters, actually shows some promise by tackling it from a different angle than most superhero films. Really, Fantastic Four works surprisingly well as a pure science fiction film, until a third act shift drags the film into the superhero genre, where it spectacularly falls apart.
It’s worth noting that this incarnation of the Fantastic Four is based on the Ultimate Fantastic Four series. Here, young genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is best friends with tough boy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who helps Reed on his science experiments. Reed’s work gets the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Storm drafts Reed into a special program at the Baxter Building, where he works with a couple of other young geniuses – Victor von Doom (Tony Kebbell) and Sue Storm (Kate Mara) – as well as Storm’s troublemaking son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) to crack interdimensional travel. The four work with the goal of being the first people to enter a dimension they’ve termed Planet Zero.
Through the film’s first two acts, there’s a real sense of awe at the discoveries this group is making. When their initial test works, though, they find that their supervisors want to work with NASA for sending people into Planet Zero. Led by von Doom – who points out that nobody remembers the people who built and designed the Saturn rockets, while everyone remembers Neil Armstrong – and under the influence of alcohol, the boys decide to sneak a trip into Planet Zero, bringing Ben along for the ride. And then things go wrong.
Up until this point, there’s some interesting character work being done with the film’s leads that plays with how they’re normally perceived from decades of stories in comics. Reed isn’t completely socially inept, for example – he’s just a bit clueless, but sweet and smart, and used to being misunderstood by those around him. He’s rivaled by von Doom, who clearly thinks he’s superior to everyone without seeming cartoonish about it. Here, von Doom is more cynical and distrustful than flat-out bad, but he also thinks far too highly of himself.
The film does have an issue when it comes to Sue, though. She doesn’t travel to Planet Zero with the rest of the characters, and while she’s portrayed as being more serious than the guys, and it kind of makes sense that she wouldn’t get drunk and agree to this trip, it’s not handled well enough to escape the feeling that they’ve just shuffled the woman to the side, and given her powers in a roundabout way.
As for Johnny and Ben, they’re clearly supporting characters in this version. Jordan does do well playing a hothead, and when the film enters its final third, Johnny’s reactions work well because of Jordan’s performance. Ben, meanwhile, is sidelined for large portions of the film, particularly before the transformation. It’s a shame, because Bell has an intensity to his performance that the film could use more of in the earlier parts.
But all of the characters do work, and they work well in various combinations. The film throws their relationships into turmoil when they reach the accident that gives them their powers, and the film shifts into something approaching horror as the characters discover the changes that have occurred to their bodies. Quarantined by a government body, the group is left damaged and distrustful of everyone.
And then, the film jumps ahead a year, and everything falls apart.
Okay, there are a few things that work in the final act of the film; von Doom’s escape from a military base, which involves making people’s heads explode, is eerily effective. But the core four are rather quickly thrown back together, and back into Planet Zero with von Doom for a CGI battle that is a complete mess. Von Doom’s rationale for destroying the world doesn’t make sense, nor do his methods. Worse, though – the fight that ensues just seems both meaningless and rushed.
Josh Trank – whose previous film, Chronicle, was a refreshing take on both superheroes and found footage films – does some solid work in the first two thirds of the film. There’s a focus on people which is refreshing for the genre, and the sequence where Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben discover their powers is effective because it shows how much the characters are hurting. Even when the film jumps ahead, and the four have mixed this sense of horror with wonder as they learn to control their bodies, there’s still a focus on character. And that, more than anything, is what makes the ending such a letdown. It’s enough to drag down the entire film, and that’s truly a shame.
Here’s the thing: as much as the ending disappointed me (and boy, did it), I would actually like to see more of this world. The actors are uniformly good, and the characters they portray are interesting. There’s solid material here, and I would be disappointed if this were dismissed with the previous attempts at adapting the Fantastic Four for the big screen. When it does get something right, it creates something I want to see again.