Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2015)
I don’t get it.
Not the movie but the critical/public reception to the movie. It’s at 8% on Rotten Tomatoes with an audience score of 22%. It’s at 3.9 on IMDb, which is worse than some of the worst superhero movies ever made: “Supergirl” (4.3), “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” (4.3), “Elektra” (4.8). It’s dying at the box office.
But for a superhero movie, it’s not bad. It updates the story in smart ways. The tone of the ending is at odds with the tone for most of the movie, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie any more than “The Magnificent Ambersons” is a bad movie. It just means the studio stuck its clumsy hand in. As studios do.
One of the movie’s themes, in fact, is how individuals attempt to do good without being exploited by corporations or governments. The irony is that the ending of the movie, in which our heroes throw off the shackles of the corporation/government, is the result of the real-life corporation, Fox Studios, imposing its will on the individual filmmaker.
Roll that one around for a while.
Beating the commies
The problem with making a decent Fantastic Four movie has always been the idiocy of its origin, and, to a lesser extent, the idiocy of its characters’ powers.
In the first issue, Nov. 1961, the four hijack a rocket so “the commies” (Sue’s words) won’t beat us into outer space. There, they are bombarded with “cosmic rays” that turn them into the Fantastic Four. Why four of them? Because Reed is the pipe-smoking scientist who runs the project, Ben is the ace test pilot, Sue is, um, Reed’s fiancée, and Johnny is, uh, Sue’s kid brother. Isn’t that how all astronaut programs work?
From a 21st-century perspective, their powers are kind of lame. They’re certainly derivative. Sue becomes like H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, Johnny like the WWII-era Human Torch; Reed turns into Plastic Man (debut: 1941) and the Thing is a version of every misunderstood outer-space rock monster from 1950s comic books. Worse, none of these powers, save the Torch’s, are particularly cool in modern cinematic terms.
The movie's much-maligned director, Josh Trank, who co-wrote the script with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg, ignores some of this by using as his starting point the updated “Ultimate Fantastic Four” series that began in 2004. Our heroes are now barely out of their teens rather than salt-and-pepper adults; and the goal is interdimensional travel rather than a Cold War space race. Reed (Miles Teller) is a child prodigy with the dumbest teachers in the world. (He's in grade school in 2007. Ouch.) Forever on the verge of cracking the interdimensional code, he's forever dismissed as a liar or charlatan. He has help, of a kind, from a shrugging friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), whose family runs a junkyard, and whose older brother threatens him with the phrase, “It’s clobberin’ time.” (A little odd: It means the Thing’s catchphrase began as a bully’s taunt.)
At a high school science exhibition, Reed is discovered by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey of “The Wire” and “House of Cards”), who runs the Baxter Institute, devoted to interdimensional travel, and who has two children of his own: the adopted Sue (Kate Mara, also of “House of Cards”), who’s also a prodigy and is big on pattern recognition, and the Fast-and-Furious hot-rodder Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, also of “The Wire” as well as Trank’s previous movie “Chronicle”), who’s really good at building things ... and is also a prodigy.
Together, with malcontent Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), they complete the project while Ben minds the junkyard back home. But after they send a chimpanzee to the other dimension and back, Baxter’s directors, in the person of Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), take control. The kids all assume they’ll make the trip. Nope. It goes to NASA and the Army. So they do what kids do: They get drunk and hijack the thing. Not Sue, just the boys. Reed taps the forgotten Ben to go along, too. He brings an American flag to do the Neil Armstrong thing.
In this other dimension, which is like Earth a billion years ago, they encounter a conscious green energy just below the rocky surface, with veins like lava flowing everywhere. Are they wary at all? Scientific? All in all, even from our heroes, there’s not enough amazement that this other dimension exists, or concern that they might eff it up. Instead, Ben just sticks the U.S. flag in and everything shudders. That should’ve been warning enough, but Reed presses them on toward a vast pool of energy, where Victor sticks his hand in. And things go crazy. The ground shakes, pools of energy erupt, and Victor gets left behind. In trying to escape, Johnny catches fire, rocks cling to Ben, and Reed reaches out to save Ben. Back in the lab, the green energy spills on the forgotten Sue.
So that’s our new origin. That’s why the powers.
The horror, the horror
These powers aren’t cool, by the way. They’re horrifying. All four wind up in a lab in “Area 57,” and are drugged, poked, and prodded by government scientists, while the ineffectual Dr. Storm tries to secure their release. This is the best part of the movie. You understand the horror not only of your body stretching impossibly, or being perpetually aflame, but of being a lab rat. The best moment, really, is when Reed crawls in an air vent toward Ben’s voice and is horrified by what he sees. “Reed, what happened to me?” Ben cries. “Reed, don’t leave me!”
There’s always been betrayal and guilt in the FF, and this is that. Reed abandons Ben and the others in order to try to save Ben and the others. Was this the part Josh Trank originally focused on? The four slowly coming to terms with the horror of their transformation? Even as they begin to control and revel in the power inherent in that transformation? That would’ve been interesting. I was bummed when I saw “One Year Later” on the screen.
Yet even this leap is interesting, since our heroes still aren’t heroes. The three in government custody are stooges—Ben goes where the Army points, and the Torch, or “Subject #2,” is raring to be next—while the fourth has simply abandoned his friends. Right, “temporarily.” A year is a long time, bro.
The villain isn’t really a villain, either. When Reed is captured and forced to help rebuild the portal to the other dimension, they discover that Doom didn’t die; he became a crackling living embodiment of the other dimension's conscious green energy. And that energy isn’t particularly interested in being exploited, in being, you know, 1492. Meaning even as Doom is popping people like zits—including his old nemesis, Dr. Allen, and his old mentor Dr. Storm—he’s not exactly wrong.
Then he goes too far. He tries to destroy our world to save his. So our team suits up to stop him. Cue rest of movie.
The tone of the ending is all wrong, of course. It’s like it leapfrogs 50 issues to get to the established, joshier vibe of the later comic books—with Torch and Ben suddenly at cartoonish odds, and Reed talking about what their name should be: Something Four. Blah blah Four. The studio obviously wanted to send us out on a high note. They didn’t trust us to like the new and the somber.
But that's what I liked. The horror, the horror. That's fantastic.