Another day, another comic based film, another reboot, another Fantastic Four…
I love the Fantastic Four. I have ever since I got into comics way back in my childhood, and that passion has continued through to today. I still think they are one of the best stories and some of the best characters in the Marvel universe, and possibly the comic book ecosystem in its entirety. And yet, the films up to now have never quite done that source material justice.
Dating back to 1961, the Fantastic Four have a long comic based history and this is now the fourth attempt to produce a good Hollywood telling of the comics and the third origins films. The first was way back in 1994 as an attempt to hold onto the licence for the characters, but never made it to a full release. The second attempt in 2005 was for the most part a disappointment. Brought to us by Fox, it didn’t live up to their previous successes with the X-Men franchise, and fell well below current standards for comic book films. That was followed by the even less impressive Rise of the Silver Surfer, in which Fox managed to almost ruin Norrin Radd, one of the greatest comic book characters of all time!!
And so we come to the latest offering – Fox’s attempt to reboot the franchise into the modern comic book world and bring it up to the standards of Marvel’s Avengers, the soon to appear WarnerBros/DC’s Justice League, and Fox’s own X-Men. Did they manage to do it? Well, I’ll try to that answer question below, and while I have tried to avoid any major spoilers, there are some, so if you don’t want to know anything about the film, please come back here after you’ve seen the it.
As ever, lets start with the official synopsis:
“A contemporary re-imagining of Marvel’s original and longest running superhero team, centers [sic] on four young outsiders who teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe, which alters their physical form in shocking ways. Their lives irrevocably unpended [sic], the team must learn to harness their daunting new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.”
Even aside from making up words, that really doesn’t sound the least bit interesting or inspiring to me, and I’m actually a fantastic four fan! It’s a pretty bland summary of the general plot but does show one key change from the origins story.
As shown in the summary above and the teaser trailer below, the cosmic ray that caused the mutations in the comics and the previous films is gone. In its place is teleporting to another planet/dimension for some reason…perhaps because we’re so used to space travel that cosmic rays would be unbelievable, or maybe it is an attempt to distance this film from the 2005 version. Either way, it is a change for change sake, and that always strikes me as slightly odd.
And having mentioned the teaser trailer, I should point out that while there are some spoilers for non-comic book fans or people who saw the previous films, I don’t remember seeing at least half the bits in the teaser trailer in the actual film, so you needn’t worry too much about it spoiling the film for you.
The film tries to do something new with the Fantastic Four origins story. It tries to bring a new twist on how Richards, Storm, Storm and Grimm become Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing and through that, how they become the First Family of the Marvel universe. And sadly it fails at almost every step.
While I tried not to compare it to the 2005 version (and all the flaws that one has), it is almost impossible not to view the two together as different ways of covering what should be an interesting origins story. And if I were to draw a full comparison, I’m afraid this latest offering would actually come off worse.
The 2015 Fantastic Four lacks any real character development, and because of that, there is simply no emotional connection with any of the leads. Every character is simplistic and for the most part entirely generic. At no point did I believe that Reed Richards or Susan Storm were geniuses. Nor did I believe that Ben Grimm was a hard-man, nor Johnny Storm anything other than an inept extra from Fast & Furious. There is simply no chemistry between any of them, at all!
I saw nothing to suggest that Reed Richards and Ben Grimm were long-time friends other than two scenes which show us very little of substance – it was like they were strangers forced to work together for a school project. There was no animosity between Grimm and Johnny Storm, nor anything other than the slightest hint of possible distant recognition of something that might potentially be romance between Richards and Susan Storm.
The introduction of Victor was interesting, but didn’t really pay-off as we see almost nothing of his character before his appearance on screen and there is little subsequent development. In fact the same goes for all of them. For an origins story, we know almost nothing of the characters’ origins prior to the teleporting experience.
Then there is quite possibly the most preposterous scene in the entire film. The introduction of Billy Elliot as “the muscle”. Now, I actually quite like Jamie Bell, and I’ve enjoyed his performances in other films, but he is hardly what I would call “big”, nor does he have anything close to an imposing muscular physique. To make it worse, pretty much everyone else in that scene is actually bigger than him! His acting is perfectly fine, and he does a decent job as Grimm/Thing, but I can’t help but think he is somewhat miscast.
In addition to the poor characterisation, the film also struggles with its pacing. As much as I enjoy a nice build-up to events, most of this film is simply preamble. It spends far too long on the prelude to the creation of the Fantastic Four without ever really explaining or exploring any of that prelude in any depth. And as for the actual creation of Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and Thing…well, that happens far too late in the story to allow any real development.
One of the key points of the creation of the Fantastic Four is the relationship between the characters as they struggle to come to terms with what has happened to them. And yet with the complete lack of chemistry and character development, most of that is skipped over…as in literally “one year later” skipped over! We don’t feel any loss or worry, the film evokes no empathy for the torment and inner turmoil the characters go through in coming to terms with events. Nor do we really care about the depth of their struggle to come to terms with what has happened.
And as for the finale…well, I guess they had five minutes at the end of the film they needed to fill and realised they had a dearth of action in the preceding 95 minutes. The whole thing felt rushed, and frankly didn’t make sense. There was no real explanation of what was happening or why. While I don’t want a ‘Basil Exposition’ moment, previously I have never felt like I didn’t understand the motivation of Magneto or Loki or Lex Luthor, and yet here, Dr Doom’s purpose and reasoning is totally non-existent.
There are some key things you want in a Fantastic Four film, whether they be the friendly antagonism between Grimm and Johnny, the enduring yet often tested friendship of Grimm and Richards, the underestimated skills and genius of Susan, or some choice catchphrases (mostly from the stony one). And yet this film lacked all but the latter, and when they did occur, they felt totally unearned and left me feeling cheated, and a little sad.
It is a film that struggles under the apparent desire by Fox to be totally different from their 2005 version. It proclaims to be from the studio that brought us X-Men Days of Future Past, and yet it offers none of the charm, wit, characterisations and emotion of the recent X-Men offerings. It attempts to reimagine a story that frankly doesn’t need reimagining, it just needs to be told well. Sadly that isn’t the case here and as much as I can’t believe I’m writing this, it doesn’t even match up well against the 2005 version. That version was a little too comic book cliché, but it had humour, it had characters, it had the post mutation experience and it had some decent action. All of those are missing from this latest offering.
A few months ago, I thought this would be the best comic book film of the year, and actually laughed at the very notion of Ant-man being a success. Now my views have changed. I enjoyed Ant-man and wouldn’t object to seeing it again, yet cannot honestly say I feel the same way about the Fantastic Four. In fact, I’d probably rather watch the 2005 version because for all of its flaws, it did at least have a couple of laughs and perhaps more importantly, tried to show me why I should care about the Fantastic Four.