A young man is granted great power, one he can barely control. With the weight of a world resting on his shoulders, he fails…fantastically.
While this could be the setup of the umpteenth superhero movie to replace thinking man’s fare in cinemas, it’s actually the behind-the-scenes story of a promising filmmaker who came up short in the opportunity of a lifetime.
After the success of his low-budget debut film, 2012’s Chronicle—an original superhero story—31-year-old director Josh Trank was tapped by 20th Century Fox to reboot its stagnant Marvel Comics property, Fantastic Four, before the rights reverted back to Marvel.
However, after sitting through 100 minutes of Trank’s flattened soufflé, I can’t imagine Marvel would want anything to do with the onscreen exploits of the company’s celebrated First Family—genius inventor Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic), his wife Sue (the Invisible Woman), her brother Johnny (the Human Torch) and Reed’s best friend and college roommate, Ben Grimm (the boulder-skinned Thing). Hell, the advance stink of this film’s failure was so strong that the publisher indefinitely cancelled both of its Fantastic Four comic titles—another behind-the-scenes drama more interesting than anything you’ll see onscreen.
Setting off a wave of negativity surrounding the film, Trank hired Michael B. Jordan, the talented young black actor who had costarred in Chronicle, to portray Johnny Storm. The controversial move upset change-averse comic fans that were used to 54 years of stories featuring a blond-haired, blue-eyed Human Torch. But Jordan proves an inspired choice, and truth be told, Trank assembled a terrific young cast to fill out the rest of the roles. Sue is played by Kate Mara, from Netflix’s House of Cards; Ben is portrayed by Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell; and Trank cast Miles Teller, Jordan’s That Awkward Moment costar, as Reed, the paternal leader of the group.
But here’s the thing: Reed’s not a patriarchal figure in this needlessly modern retelling. In order to adopt The Dark Knight’s brooding, ostensibly real-world vibe, Trank and his coscreenwriters—Jeremy Slater and producer Simon Kinberg—threw out Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s colorful origin story. That means there’s no rocket ride into space that exposes our heroes to DNA-altering “cosmic rays.” Alas, there’s probably even less real-world science in this version of the story, which uses the 2004-09 comic, the alternate-reality Ultimate Fantastic Four, as its primary inspiration.
In this telling, there’s little room for family, and certainly not marriage, since all of the characters are teenagers. Reed’s high school science experiment lands him a scholarship to Prof. Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngst…err, Manhattan’s government-funded Baxter Foundation, populated by big-brained kids like Sue and overseen by her adoptive dad, Dr. Franklin Storm (Mara’s House of Cards costar, Reg E. Cathey). The good doctor has recruited Reed to finish building an interdimensional teleportation device that was initiated by the soon-to-be-evil doctor Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell, who showed more humanity as a simian villain in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). This cardboard baddie (with his cheaper-than-cardboard-looking costume) was initially known as Victor Domashev, an antisocial hacker utilizing “Doom” as his online tag—until Fox lost confidence in Trank, hastily reassembling the cast to reshoot much of the picture.
What little entertainment this film offers is from trying to guess what’s been changed from the vision that Trank originally presented to Fox (including three major action sequences that have gone missing). The best clues come from Mara’s changing hair colors and styles that go from her natural locks to the worst wigs this side of Saturday Night Live. We might never know who’s fully to blame: maybe an inexperienced director, perhaps a meddling studio—and probably both.
The post-production “fixes” are also apparent when the movie inexplicably jumps ahead one year—just as the plot’s becoming interesting. After an interdimensional accident gives the quartet its horrifying new abilities (because nothing’s ever fun in this film), we never see them learn to harness these powers—or even interact with each other until the less-than-fantastic, choppy, truncated final act. Reed, who’s inexplicably been on the run, is captured and convinced to resume work on the device that’s done nothing but cause harm.
“They made it ugly,” he observes, taking in what’s happened to the product of his work with the Fantastic Four. They sure did.
Fantastic Four *
Starring Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, Owen Judge, Evan Hannemann, Dan Castellaneta and Reg E. Cathey. Written by Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg and Josh Trank, based on the Marvel comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Directed by Josh Trank. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.