I wish I could believe director Josh Trank, best known for his over-the-shoulder supervillain case study “Chronicle,” intended his franchise reboot “Fantastic 4” to be a satire of studio micromanaging of artists. It contains the necessary ingredients: greedy military officials wanting control of the Baxter kids’ inventions and, later, their powers, baiting them with their much-needed funding.
Such a critique wouldn’t be out of place in the superhero film industry. Joss Whedon recently split from Marvel claiming a stifling of creative freedom, and the original director of “Ant Man,” Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”), who worked on the film for nearly eight years, was replaced when the film began shooting due to creative differences with the studio. It’s indicative of a problematic tension between creators wanting to push the envelope, and the studios who rely on formula to ensure box office returns and sequels.
The same tension is evident in this rendition of Marvel’s first family, the story of four children who, through a freak accident of scientific mumbo jumbo, come into the possession of super abilities. It wants to be something unique, going so far as to delay any semblance of an action scene until nearly halfway through the film, instead spending time developing a number of potentially rewarding themes: environmentalism, scientific and personal ownership, and parent-child relationships. But then the tone shifts for the second act, and while it’s not as attentive as the first, it remains redeemable until the hasty and sloppily filmed third act
As such, the film doesn’t deserve the credit of being considered a carefully constructed and thoughtful satire. The unclear thematic threads and a complete lack of narrative integrity suggest something more akin to an identity crises, either between Trank and Fox Studios or within Trank himself.
Aside from a few instances of meaningless science babble (“his biochemistry is off the charts”) the film actually actually starts out pretty well. Pacing wise, it privileges a slow and intentional burn in lieu of something more explosive as seen in the Marvel films, allowing us ample time to explore the relationships and idiosyncrasies of the major characters. Dr. Storm (Reg E Cathey) struggles to urge his children (Johnny, played by Michael B. Jordan, and the adopted Sue, played by Kate Mara), Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to collaborate for the sake of scientific progress. As they build a device that facilitates inter-dimensional travel, Reed and Sue exchange a number of appropriately awkward flirt scenes, Johnny provides sass and Victor gives the middle finger to any and all authority (literally and figuratively).
The dialogue, for the most part, is refreshingly crisp during this segment of the film. Doom comes off a little dry at first, and his more Machiavellian tendencies don’t shine like they need to in order to properly foreshadow his later detachment from humanity, but several rather thought provoking speeches and conversations establish a solid foundation of ideological tension and psychological motivation.
|Sue Storm (Kate Mara) uses her powers to prevent theater goers from seeing this film|
Then tragedy strikes, causing the teens to acquire their powers, which make them seem more like monsters than superheroes at first, and properly so. Reed’s stretch powers come off as freakish as he snakes himself through a ventilation duct, Johnny's body uncontrollably erupts in flames, and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Reed’s childhood friend, is a monster cocooned in rock, slowly freeing himself one limb at a time.
Things mature in this stretch, with the stakes heightened, but the pace increases so much that interpersonal tensions seem too quickly resolved and the themes previously established soon loose their grip.
With a final brilliant scene of slow, monstrous villainy, the last remnants of Trank’s competencies extinguish, giving way to a third act that completely disregards the established themes for a short, uninspired fight scene during which Reed makes a statement no longer than a tweet that resolves all conflicts among the characters and unites them against a villain attempting - you guessed it - world destruction. It’s quick and cheap.
It doesn’t even look good. While the Johnny's flame powers and Ben’s rocky bod look alright up close, the environment is so clearly green screened that it’s distracting. It looks like cheap rock in the foreground and a Bob Ross painting behind.
The tragedy of “Fantastic 4” is that, unlike other superhero nonstarters like Ryan Reynolds’ “Green Lantern,” it possessed such potential, as demonstrated by the first act. For whatever reason, though, it collapsed, leaving viewers unsatisfied and fans disappointed. This is not an acting issue - the cast did great considering what they were given. This is a writing issue, regardless of the source, and there’s no redeeming such a fundamental weakness.Save your money and skip this one, folks. Stay home, watch ‘Chronicle” and weep for what could have been.