Not So Fantastic

Most people who grew up on superhero comic books (back when they were comic books rather than graphic novels) have a particular series that was their favorite – SpiderMan, Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, etc. For me it was the Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, his girlfriend and later wife Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and test pilot and Reed’s oldest friend Ben Grimm, who get exposed to cosmic radiation on a space mission and become, respectively, Mr. Fantastic who can stretch, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing (indestructible with super strength). They were the first superhero series written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the start of the Marvel Universe.

The series also had Victor von Doom, a genius inventor as well as Romani sorcerer who was disfigured in an experiment and became the masked and hooded supervillain Doctor Doom. He blamed Reed for his disfigurement, thereby setting up the classic struggle of good and evil, and perhaps preparing the way in the 1960s for Obi-wan and Lord Vader in the 1970s. The series also introduced other facets of the Marvel Universe including the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans who are now being featured on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.”

While the rest of Marvel’s heroes have had movie success, that hasn’t happened with the Fantastic Four. There was an el cheapo version made in 1994 with a cast of unknowns; Stan Lee later said it was never meant to be released and was shot only to retain the movie rights for the series. The 2005 version with its 2007 sequel were light-weight when compared to the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman movies or the beginning of the Marvel movie renaissance, 2008’s Iron Man. I hoped that that would be corrected in the new Fantastic 4, released this weekend.

It had potential. The director Josh Trank made one of the best and most original superhero movies, 2012’s Chronicle, and he was once again working with actor Michael B. Jordan, who’d followed up Chronicle with a stunning performance in Fruitvale Station. Trank also wrote the script along with Simon Kinberg (2009’s Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and newcomer Jeremy Slater. The early trailers featured a darker look to the story that was missing from the earlier movies.

The first part of the film is decent, even if it makes major changes to the backstory and progresses at a leisurely pace. The earliest sign of weakness, though, is in the casting. While Jamie Bell is an excellent actor, having him play Ben Grimm is like having Tom Cruise play 6’6” Jack Reacher. In the comic book Grimm is a football hero with strength to spare. In fact, the genius of the Fantastic Four was that the cosmic rays gave superpowers that highlighted the character archetypes: the scientist is flexible, his love interest becomes invisible, the young brother is a hothead, while the jock becomes raw strength. With Jamie Bell in the role and with the changes, Grimm is diminished from part of the team to a good luck charm for Richards.

Jordan and Kate Mara, who plays Sue Storm, are decent in their roles but are underutilized. Most of Mara’s time on screen is spent staring at a computer screen. The biggest weakness is with Miles Teller as Richards and Toby Kebbell as von Doom. Teller is an incredible, intense actor as he proved with Whiplash, but he can’t breathe excitement into the underwritten role, while Kebbell comes across as a 2nd tier Euro-trash musician.

Once the trip to the other dimension is made, the rest of the film feels truncated, as if the main plot development got left on the cutting room floor. That may be true, since scenes featured in the trailer are not in the film. Trank tweeted that the version he made was recut by 20th Century Fox executives. The film comes in at a brief 100 minutes. Ant-Man, in comparison, is almost twenty minutes longer. There’s also no cameo by Stan Lee, who showed up in Ant-Man and even made an appearance in Big Hero 6. Worse for fans of the interconnected Marvel Universe, there are no tags at the end.

With a 4.1/10 rating on IMDb and a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, people will stay away from this movie in droves, and that’s as it should be. It is a major disappointment. IMDb notes that a sequel has been announced, but that’s highly unlikely now. Maybe in 10 more years a filmmaker will finally give the Fantastic Four their due with a good movie that captures the feeling of the comic books. I’ll keep on hoping.

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