Fantastic Four: A (mildly spoilery) review!

This weekend, Fox released their latest Marvel comic book adaptation, a reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise. The previous two Fantastic Four films weren’t very well received, and Fox was likely hoping to cash in on the post-Iron Man comics boom to change that perception. If so, it didn’t work out as they’d hoped. What follows is a review of the movie, what went right, what went wrong, and where Fox may go from here.

Overall Impressions

The movie wasn’t terrible. Despite what you might read on Rotten Tomatoes, this wasn’t anywhere near the worst comic book movie I’ve seen; it’s not even the worst comic book movie Fox has ever released. For starters, it’s definitely an improvement on the previous Fantastic Four and Rise of the Silver, not to mention Daredevil and Elektra. Having said that, it doesn’t hold up well at all compared to the Marvel Studios movies, or X-Men franchise. If anything, the movie was disappointingly mediocre. Mediocre, because it’s just kind of there: there’s a story, and it occurs, and there’s people and they get powers and they sort-of use them, but by the end of the film, you feel like they never got around to the interesting part. And disappointing, because it could have been better: it’s obvious that there was a much better movie just begging to be released, but we’ll likely never get to see it. Adding to the disappointment is the fact that the trailer promised so much more: whatever movie that trailer was from, I would have much rather seen that than Fantastic Four.

In the end, it wasn’t a complete waste of time — it wasn’t offensively bad coughcoughGhostRider2coughcough. But I don’t really think there’s much of an audience that’s going to be happy to pay for this movie. If you’re a fan of the Fantastic Four, this movie will anger you, and if you’re a fan of superhero movies, it will disappoint you. (For reference: its the first Marvel movie since before Iron Man that I’m not going to see twice, and that includes Thor 2).

Rating: 2/10 (mostly for the acting and the first act); wait for Netflix.

For the rest of this review, there will be some broad spoilers, so if you’re planning to go see it, you might want to stop and come back later. But since you probably aren’t, you can read on…

The Good

While the movie is getting (justly) criticized, both by critics and fans alike, it wasn’t a complete failure.There were some redeeming aspects of the movie, particular during the first act, that prevent it from being the worst comic adaptation I’ve seen.

As with most recent comic adaptations, the movie is going for a slightly more grounded approach to its characters. This includes the usual stuff we’ve come to expect: no over-the-top suits, no superhero code names, and lots of brooding bits. For the most part, at least early on, this all works. The lives of the characters seemed realistic, and they mostly interacted the way you’d expect a bunch of super-smart 20-somethings to interact with each other. Everything seemed to move along at a nice pace, building to up the inevitable accident. It kept me interested in the characters, and looking forward to how they would get along as a team.

The origin story part of the movie was also well written. As most people learned from the trailer, the movie follows the Ultimate Fantastic Four origin story, and it sticks pretty close to it for the first act. (They even dropped hints of the Fantasticar, though we never get to see it.) Of particular importance is the relationship between Reed Richards and Ben Grimm: childhood friends with very different lives, leaving Ben completely unprepared to be pulled into Reed’s world, and left him angry at Reed for ruining his life. This was, by far, the strongest interpersonal relationship in the movie, and one of the few bright spots right through to the end.

All of the main cast members do excellent jobs playing their roles.I was especially impressed with Jaime Bell’s Thing. You would expect the living rock monster to be the hardest character to get right, but he plays Ben Grimm’s resignation at his condition, and his simmering anger at Reed for making him that way, to a tee. He was probably the only character that wasn’t utterly ruined in the second half of the movie. The other three members of the team do equally well filling out the roles they were given — it’s unfortunate they weren’t allowed to explore those roles for the whole movie, but when they’re given good material to work with, you can tell. Even the young Victor von Doom is believable (at first), if you ignore his utterly ridiculous “geek den”; once he’s pulled into the movie proper, the dynamic between him and Reed, and the rest of the team, mostly works.

Finally, I was really glad that they avoided some of the lamest gags from the first two movies. In particular, they resisted the urge to have a scene where Sue Storm somehow managed to end up in public without clothes. Kate Mara’s obviously more than capable of carrying such a scene, but it’s totally out of character for both her character and the rest of the film. Instead, the team’s powers are almost immediately taken very seriously by the military, and never played for cheap laughs or titillation. (Of course, a lot of that is because we just don’t get to see much of their powers in action, but I’m getting to that…)

The Bad

Unfortunately, once the movie reaches that halfway point, it takes a major turn for the worse. Once we got past the accident that gives the team their powers, the movie suddenly feels like it doesn’t know what to do with them. In particular, it makes a complete and utter mess out of Reed Richard’s character. In the comics, Reed feels guilt over what happened to his friends, in particular Ben, and is constantly trying to fix them. In the movie, though, Reed basically turns tail and runs away; superficially he’s still trying to find a cure for Ben, but he’s played off as basically a coward and a failure, who only returns to help his friends because they literally drag him back in handcuffs.

The plot of the movie also stops dead at this point. We spend almost the entire second act watching the three remaining team members (after Reed vanishes) come to grips with their powers, and the military try to use them to their advantage. But instead of showing us the three in action, we get almost 40 minutes of them in labs, or footage on TV, or them talking to each other about using their powers without actually using them. This part of the movie dragged on seemingly forever, just stalling until the inevitable reappearance of Reed and Doom to kick off the final act. In fact, the pacing of the entire second and third acts was just way off. The most glaring example is the climax: the final battle comes practically out of nowhere and vanishes just as fast: one minute everything’s fine, 5 minutes later, they’re fighting Doom for the future of Earth, 5 minutes later everything’s good.

When the film was first released, director Josh Trank made a comment — since deleted — that the movie we see is not the movie he made. While it’s not uncommon for directors to blame executive meddling or bad edits when their movies aren’t well received, in this case it’s hard not to take his side. There are so many things in the first act that never pay off, and so many places in the second act where you can just tell something different was supposed to happen, and it never did. The other, better version of the movie is clearly buried in there, but far too deep to ever come out.

One thing that is likely to irk any Fantastic Four fan: Reed Richards does not make their special suits; the military made them, and without them, they can’t control their powers. There’s several points in the movie where Johnny Storm flips a switch on the suit to flame on and off, and without her suit, Sue goes invisible at random. It’s even very strongly implied that Reed goes uncontrollably stetchy when his suit is damaged (though the scene isn’t very clear, so that might not have been the intention.)

My other big problem with the movie overall (and not just the second and third acts) were the secondary characters. I always hate to blame an actor for making a character look bad, because there’s so many other things that can go wrong that are beyond their control. But, this is the second time I’ve seen Tim Blake Nelson in a comic book movie (he plays Dr. Allen here, effectively a stand-in for the MCU-owned General Ross; he also played Daniel Sterns in The Incredible Hulk) and he was terrible both times. He sounded like he was just reading dialog off a cue card, with no idea what he was saying. The other major secondary character, Franklin Storm, isn’t much better. In this case, it seems like the actor is at least trying, but he seemed to exist in the movie just to walk around spouting teacherly or fatherly platitudes, and to get moderately annoyed at the military every so often.

The Ugly

Oh my god, poor Doctor Doom. The fact that Fox managed to ruin Doctor Doom twice in two different movies ought to be some kind of crime. This time, at least, Doom’s origin story follows a bit closer to the comics, but the guy is a walking bad cliche. Before the accident, he’s essentially a genius hipster with authority issues; afterwards, he turns into what is best described as an omnipotent, psychotic environmental activist. At no point does the movie even try to explain why he wants to destroy the world, other than one tiny, throw-away line that I almost missed. Instead, he simply decides at one point that Earth has to die, and he’s going to be the one to do it.

Beyond that one-dimensional motivation, the guy is just a whiny, spoiled brat. There’s a hint of a one-sided infatuation with Sue but since that happened in the first half of the movie, it’s obviously ignored for the entire second half. There’s a bit in the trailer, with some character warning Reed that Doom is coming, that feels like it was supposed to build up this part of the story, but of course, it got cut. (There’s a similar hint of a budding relationship between Reed and Sue, but it, too, basically vanishes in the second half.)

And lastly, perhaps the thing that bothered me the most, was how very, very little we see of the superhero team being a heroic team.  Again, there are hints all over the trailer showing Reed leading his team, both working with the government as well as leading them against Doom. In the movie, they literally decide 2/3 of the way through the final scene to actually work together — up until that point, they were barely speaking to each other. And we literally get as much footage of them strapped to beds, unable to control their powers, as we do with them actually fighting bad guys. By my rough estimate, there was maybe 10 minutes, total, where one of the main cast is using their power for something other than showing off to the military.

Before the movie even came out, Miles Teller (who played Reed) was warning us that it was “more than soulless, popcorn action”. Trying to make a comic book movie that’s more than just mindless punching and CGI explosions is a laudable goal, but it’s a super hero movie. We go to see them because we want to watch super heros being super. You can’t take all of the action out of an action movie, or you have nothing left, and that’s clearly what happened. In their efforts to make something that wasn’t a soulless popcorn action flick, Fox made something that was a souless, boring failure.

The Future

Fox already has a sequel to this movie on their schedule for 2017, meaning it would probably have to start filming in the next 6 months. At this point, I’m very skeptical it will ever happen. By the time this review was finished, the opening weekend numbers were out, and Fox  made less than 25% of the budget on the film, and only about half of what they were projecting. And given the terrible reception, it will only get worse from here.

The question then becomes, what happens to the Fantastic Four from here? As far as I can see, Fox has four options:

  • Shelve them and let them expire. This is what Fox did with their other major disaster, the Daredevil franchise. By just not making any more movies, the rights eventually went back to Marvel, who then waited a few more years to do anything with them. Fox might decide to cut their losses here as well. However, comments from the studio suggest that they’re not ready to abandon this property yet (or they’re not ready to let Marvel have them back, at least), so we will probably see them again at some point.
  • Try to sell or trade them back to Marvel for something else. In particular, it’s well known that Fox wants to do a live-action X-Men TV show, but it’s not clear if they have the TV rights they need to do it. If they don’t, they might be able to swing a deal with Disney; the big question then is whether Disney thinks the Fantastic Four are worth the exchange. This depends on a lot of behind the scenes contract details we’re not privvy to, but it’s a real possibility.
  • Make another Fantastic Four movie on the cheap. It’s largely believed that Fox’s contract with Marvel requires them to make a movie every so often (I’d estimate 8-10 years, based on the release date for Rise of the Silver Surfer), or lose the rights. However, what qualifies as a released movie is a fuzzy subject; they may be able to get away with a terrible, narrow-release movie on a technicality. (Studios have done things like this in the past for exactly this reason.) If nothing else, this will prevent Marvel from a repeat of the Daredevil scenario: take a failed property back and turn it into something wildly successful, thus making Fox look like idiots.
  • Integrate the Fantastic Four into their X-Men universe until people warm up to them. After this movie, a sequel is likely going to start out with a huge hill to climb just to overcome the stigma of it’s predecessor. However, if Fox can figure out a way to integrate the team (and/or the villains) into their massively successful franchise, they may be able to build fan interest in a sequel over time. This is somewhat similar to the tack that Warner Bros is taking with their DC characters, by introducing them in Dawn of Justic and hoping we’ll want to see more of them later.

At this point, we don’t know enough to even guess what Fox is going to do, and I suspect neither do they. Whatever they do decide, though, it’s clear that this movie was such a disappointment, that whatever plans they used to have are going to have to get scrapped and rewritten.

Review

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