When director Josh Trank made 2012’s surprisingly good Chronicle, it exceeded it giving a realistic idea of what receiving superpowers all of a sudden would be like. There was experimentation, fun and a bonding between these different types of people who had gone through the same power-giving incident that made it far more than the usual superhero film. Chronicle felt almost like the perfect audition for Fantastic Four, a film franchise that so far had been far more light in tone than the various darker takes on well-known comic properties had been. What Trank does with Fantastic Four however is tries to make this group more about the interpersonal dynamics – which mostly works – only to turn the third act into one of the most appalling downward spirals in comic book film history.
Instead of telling the same origin story over again, Fantastic Four makes its own version of the team’s beginnings. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a brilliant young scientist who has wanted to create a teleportation machine ever since he was a child. His friend and assistant Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) has been there every step of the way, supplying him with the parts he needs from his family’s junk shop. Richards is approached by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), who have been working on a machine similar to Richards’ teleportation machine. Led by Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), the device only went so far, but Richards’ advancements might crack the problems they’ve had with teleportation. When Richards goes to college, he works with Sue and Victor on finally making a teleporter that would work, with the additional help of Sue’s street-racing brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan).
When the device becomes operational, their research is on its way to being taken away by NASA. After a bit of drinking, Victor, Reed and Johnny decide to go through their teleporter to Planet Zero, a mysterious celestial body that could solve earth’s energy crisis. Bringing along Ben for old times sake, the four go to Planet Zero and almost immediately crack the planet’s surface. Victor seemingly dies on Zero, while the other three make a calamitous return to Earth, with a burst that also hits Sue upon their return. When they awaken, they discover that they have new abilities: Reed can stretch his body, Sue can turn invisible, Johnny can turn into flame and Ben becomes a pile of walking, talking rocks.
The first half Fantastic Four showcases Trank’s strengths, with these four realistically reacting to their new changes. All four are horrified by the fact that they’re on fire or rocks or whatever, as they should be. Through these four, we run the gamut of emotions of what would happen in such a strange situation. Reed and Sue try to fix themselves, while Johnny wants to use his powers for good and Ben becomes a weapon of war, defeated in his transformation and accepting his new life unwillingly.
Fantastic Four is cast surprisingly well, with Teller, Jordan, Mara and Bell all pretty decent choices for these parts. Bell especially pulls off a great balance of being happy for his friend who is exceeding in life, then dealing with his confidence in his friend. Bell plays most of this without ever saying a word, but with a proud smile or a glance that shows appreciation for his unconventional friend.
For a film that takes place mostly in science labs, Trank is able to create an interesting balance of characters. It’s when Trank tries to create a conventional superhero story that things go completely off the rails.
The final third of Fantastic Four is a fumbling of character, script, editing, and tone that is shocking. When Trank reintroduced Doom into the mix and tries to create a villain in a film that was perfectly interesting without one, everything falls apart. Somehow this last act is both overly violent and overly cartoony in a film that up until then, hadn’t really been either of those two things. Characters brains are blown out, then minutes later, Reed is stretched out like a Stretch Armstrong doll. One minute the violence is shocking, only to be followed by unintentionally hilarious battles between good and evil.
Somehow Fantastic Four is at its worst when these characters aren’t in a lab. Whenever they go to Planet Zero, the special effects become laughably bad and dialogue becomes ridiculously awful. Throughout the film, there are the occasional bad mistakes, such as idiotic character choices from supposed geniuses or poor attempts at comedy, like Ben’s abusive brother saying “It’s clobbering time!” before punching his brother in his head, but near the end, it’s like it saves up all of its awfulness for a third act shitstorm.
For a majority of its running time, Fantastic Four isn’t great, but it’s a decent reinterpretation of this group that by focusing on character, becomes the rare superhero film that takes a deeper look at the individual, rather than forcing in a boringly typical villain. By the end though, Fantastic Four becomes Green Lantern levels of bad, cringingly scraping the bottom of the barrel for the sake of making an “action” film, almost as a last-ditch attempt to ensure that this franchise is dead in the water. With a talented cast and a director that has proven he can excel in this genre, it’s insane just how terribly the final act can ruin what goodwill the first two-thirds of this film does gains and in doing so, makes maybe the worst big studio film of the summer.