The new “Fantastic Four” is neither new nor fantastic. But while director Josh Trank’s superhero reboot might not be the movie for which comics fans were hoping, neither is it the outright cinematic disaster they feared, either.
Much maligned by the online echo chamber dating back to when filming was still underway in Baton Rouge, Trank’s film can be criticized fairly for its overly simplistic script, its empty science and a surprisingly small-scale story, which recounts the origins of the titular superhero squad. It also pales in comparison to other recent movies based on Marvel properties. At the same time, it’s not exactly a “Howard the Duck”-style cinematic goose egg.
At its best moments, “Fantastic Four” is a passable bit of brainless entertainment that goes out of its way to distinguish itself from 2005’s previous “Fantastic Four” movie. The catch: While other, better superhero movies have a way of putting moviegoers in touch with their inner 10-year-old, Trank’s film likely will appeal mostly to actual 10-year-olds.
It’s a key distinction, and one that highlights the vital importance of capitalization. To wit: This “Fantastic Four” is, indeed, a Marvel film, but it is not a capital-f Marvel Film. That is, while it’s based on a Marvel Comics property — and a revered one, at that, known among the faithful as “the First Family of Marvel” — it’s not a direct product of Marvel Studios, whose “Avengers” money factory has become the envy of Hollywood and the toast of all geekdom.
That’s because “Fantastic Four” — like “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” — is one of those comic-book properties whose rights were sold off before Marvel took matters into its own hands, and changed everything in the process, with 2008’s “Iron Man.” Like 2005’s previous less-than-fantastic “Fantastic Four” and its 2007 sequel, this new “Fantastic Four” comes from 20th Century Fox instead of Marvel Studios.
That means there’s no trademark “hidden” scene in the closing credits, as has become Marvel’s calling card. Unless I blinked and missed it, neither is there a cameo by Marvel Comics demigod Stan Lee, which has become one of Hollywood’s most wonderful on-screen traditions.
More substantively, though, it means Trank’s film didn’t get the full benefit of the institutional knowledge of Marvel Studios, which — though it depends on a rigid formula and has drawn complaints from directors averse to studio interference (talking to you, Edgar Wright) — has undeniable superpowers of its own when it comes to divining just what audiences want.
Of course, it should be noted that Fox has had no small amount of success of its own with its popular “X-Men” movies. Indeed, early in Trank’s film, which he co-wrote, it seems like he’s tapped into that series’ knowledge of the secrets of superhero entertainment.
As it begins, audiences are introduced to two future “Fantastic Four” members as kids — the brainy Reed Richards and the brawny Ben Grimm — who, we learn, are trying to build their own teleportation device. It’s a fun, comic bookish introduction to the characters and suggests a certain promise.
Unfortunately, that segment lasts a brief 10 minutes or so before the film flashes forward to Richards and Grimm as young adults, played by Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) and Jamie Bell (“Snowpiercer”), respectively. They’re not just still working on their teleportation device anymore, we learn. They’ve actually got a working prototype, which draws immediate interest from a research collective intent on cracking interdimensional travel.
Naturally, the brilliant Richards is recruited to join, which he does, and quickly. It’s then that he meets siblings Sue and Johnny Storm (Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan), who — as part of the inevitable laboratory mishap that turns Richards into the rubber-limbed Mister Fantastic and Grimm into the rock-creature The Thing — will round out the titular quartet as Invisible Woman and the fiery Human Torch. (Chris Evans, who played the Human Torch in the 2005 movie, was unavailable. He is busy being Captain America in Marvel’s “Avengers” series.)
Also created in that experiment: a hunger by higher-ups to turn the foursome into government weapons. Even worse, it also spawns the hooded supervillain Doctor Doom (Toby Kebbell), who — as with any hooded manic worth his salt — is bent on world destruction.
But the longer the story goes on, the weaker and more predictable it gets. By halfway through, it feels like a time-killer. By the third act, it has devolved even further, offering a chaotic, poorly thought-out showdown that relies too heavily on computer graphics and not enough on heart — or sense.
As a result, it’s hard not to think that the biggest asset of Trank’s film — that would be the impressive young cast — is mostly wasted. Teller and company, despite their proven talents, are given little of depth to do and forced to spout dialog that ranges from clunky to ridiculous.
Of course, superhero fans are no strangers to the ridiculous. Whether it’s a teenager in a spidersuit or a scientist who turns green when he becomes angry, it’s part of the game. But a good superhero movie will make audiences forget that and buy into the story.
That’s not so much the case with “Fantastic Four.” Unless, that is, you’re lucky enough to be 10 years old.