Allow me to open with an admission…
I’m not a Fantastic Four fan. I mean, I like the Fantastic Four and I most certainly respect their importance within the context of the Marvel Universe. In terms of knowledge of the characters as written, however, I’m by no means an authority, being only conversant with Marvel’s First Family through their contributions to sweeping story arcs like Civil War.
I acted with cheerful indifference as the Tim Story films came and went, and when Josh Trank was announced as the director of this intended reboot I half-heartedly bookmarked its progress in my thoughts, having fond memories of the young director’s debut film Chronicle (2012).
As the film developed, fanboys began working themselves into a frenzy of Orwellian hatred, venting their ire at the seemingly irreverent take on the material. Everything from the casting of Michael B Jordan as the Aryan Johnny Storm to The Thing’s absent trunks was fair game, and the fans pulled no punches.
As the release date neared, the marketing for the film seemed almost apologetic. Trailers seemed to hint at a film that was unsure how to present itself, particularly the Interstellar-lite teaser.
It was only when I heard Trank’s interview with Kevin Smith on the “Fat Man on Batman” podcast that I really began to take notice. As the director detailed his cine-literate approach to the material, owing a little bit to Alien, a little bit to Cronenberg and a little bit to John Carpenter, I found myself getting surprisingly excited for the release. Trank seemed to have a lot of affection for his cast and the characters and his spin on the sibling relationship of the Storm twins (now recast as adoptive brother and sister), which sounded compelling if not slavishly adherent to the source material.
As more of a film/sci-fi buff than a Fantastic Four fan it simply appealed more to my sensibilities.
When the film opened, I’m sure the most jaded keyboard pundit couldn’t have predicted the critical vehemence with which it was met.
Doing my best not to let the critical buzz prejudice my experience, I went into the film with as open a mind as I could muster… But I’d be lying if I were to say I went in with high expectations.
Nonetheless, I was surprised by how much I found myself enjoying the film.
This Fantastic Four conforms to a lot of the more arthritic tropes of the origin story and perhaps that may be part of what rubbed people the wrong way. The structure is slow burning with few of the kind of eye-popping first act confections that we’ve come to expect from, say, the MCU. To be honest I was enjoying getting to know the characters too much to care.
Whatever criticisms the film may draw, I’m glad to see that the cast have near-universally been given the benefit of the doubt. The performances are earnest and the interactions have a lot of heart even if some relationships feel slightly under-ripe. Miles Teller, Jamie Bell, Kate Mara and Michael B Jordan have all earned their stripes as character actors and for my money their performances are strong enough to rebuff any criticism. The supporting cast, while sparse, are also pretty much on the money, with once and future Incredible Hulk villain Tim Blake Nelson as the suitably slimy Dr Allen and the amiable screen presence of Reg E Cathey is in many ways the glue that holds both performances and narrative together (more on him later). Toby Kebbell is something of a curiosity as the misanthropic genius Victor Von Doom (no basement dwelling internet-trolls here after all), and while his characterisation may be one of the least satisfying elements of the film there is something both compelling and repugnant about his performance.
The film takes great pains to establish the prodigious intelligence of young Reed Richards and while I’ve always envisioned the character in his forties, it makes sense for the twenty-something Teller to play Richards as an accomplished scientific mind from childhood. Teller is as charmingly square as Reed Richards can be expected to be and I like how the film capitalises on the anomaly of his intelligence. As much as fans may clamour for Fox to relinquish the rights to the character back to Marvel, I’m not sure this angle would play as well in a universe that already contains a Tony Stark, a Bruce Banner and a Hank Pym.
Kate Mara is impossible not to fall in love with. From her brief but memorable scene in Iron Man 2 to her tenure as naively over-confident cub journalist Zoe Barnes in House of Cards she’s shown a talent for conveying wisdom beyond her years. The problem with being the most famous matriarch in comics is that your character tends to be defined by your relationship to others. This film establishes Sue as a formidable scientific mind in her own right. Her talent for recognising patterns and thus her affinity for music are a nice touch and I wished they’d explicitly made her a mathematician for this reason. The beginnings of her flirtation with Reed begin here and their interactions are genuinely sweet. The film makes a smart move by not escalating this into a full-blown romance which would have felt incredibly forced.
While the film lacks a romance it does have a compelling bromance in the relationship between Reed Richards and his hetero-lifemate Silent Ben. Jamie Bell would most assuredly be last on the list of any fan-cast, but his unassumingly strong performance and fraternal bond with Richards make perfect sense. When Ben is transformed into The Thing, there is a sense of loss but his warm stoicism translates well into the CG behemoth. It’s just a shame that the geological nature of the character allows for so little expression, but Bell’s vocal performance pushes through and I love the little touches that make the voice sound like it’s coming through a larynx made of stone. While the friendship’s rocky patches (sorry, couldn’t help myself) become a little rushed towards the end, it’s still a performance of substance.
It’s a nice vindication for the sane contingent of fandom that Michael B Jordan who raised such fanboy ire from the vocal minority ended up being one of the best parts of the film. Brash, charming, excitable, naïve, Jordan is an enormously affable screen presence and his occasional resentment to his seemingly infallible big sis is given a nice twist by the adoption angle. Unlike Johnny, Sue was chosen and while this distinction is never called out explicitly, it certainly adds something.
As well as the characters, the film established the Negative Zone (or Earth Zero as it’s known in this incarnation) very successful as something scary, fascinating, exciting and altogether other. It becomes a convenient deus ex machina at times but given the source material it’s one I’m happy to overlook.
The race to this scientific holy grail is compelling and it’s nice to see Richards and Von Doom united in their passion for science despite the misgivings they may have for each other.
When our four make the inter-dimensional jump through the quantum gate the results are pure Alien, as referenced by Sue’s quote “it’s almost primordeal down there”. The exploration is tense, atmospheric and scary and the event that leads to the four getting their powers is well handled, leading to the hard sci-fi Cronenbergian body-horror we were promised.
What’s refreshing is not only the different ways in which each is affected in terms of power set but in how they react to their powers, and the government’s perhaps inevitable decision to weaponise the group.
Johnny, in his idealism and naivety throws himself into honing his skills. Ben grudgingly becomes a military enforcer, dispatching enemy tanks in a scene reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as his masters dangle the carrot of a cure in front of him. Indeed there’s an eeriness to seeing The Thing on a screen with a tally of ‘Confirmed Kills’ superimposed over the top. Sue explores her skills grudgingly, accepting them as a temporary encumbrance while she searches for a cure and Reed exiles himself in horror at what he has become and his own culpability. This Bruce Banner impersonation will divide many but it makes perfect sense for this version of Reed to need to figure things out alone and on his own terms.
By now it’s a well established notion that the film falls apart in the third act and while I think that’s overly harsh, the film does feel reluctant to fulfil its contractual obligation to be a superhero film.
The final confrontation with Victor, who emerges from Earth Zero after being presumed dead isn’t as jarring as many seem to believe, due in no small part to Cathey’s performance as Dr Franklin Storm. While the event that leads him to pull the disparate group together to become the FF might be one narrative convenience too many, his sincerity and warmth completely sell it.
Speaking of Dr Doom, I can completely appreciate a lot of Dr Doom fans feeling undersold, particularly off the back of Julian McMahon’s less than definitive turn. This is not Doom the despotic tyrant, nor is it doom the handsome egomaniac, but at the same time it’s also not Viktor Dumaschev so… Small mercies and all that.
There are hints at the film’s troubled schedule. Pacing is certainly an issue and reshoots are made needlessly obvious by Sue Storm’s ridiculous wig but it’s nowhere near the hatchet job I’d been left to expect.
Call it diminished expectations, call me a contrarian but this is an enjoyable, if disposable, sci-fi romp that’s far more palatable for those of us able to uncouple it from the source material.