I always keep an open mind before watching a film, yet going into Fantastic Four knowing about how much critics (and the few audiences who had seen it ahead of release) had hated it ensured it was going to be difficult for me to judge the film on its own merits. Heck, before I even saw the film on Friday, the second day of release here in the UK, the director had publicly criticised the film and any talk of sequels was abruptly cancelled. The few people who dared to find any positives in the whole mess were hounded down and berated on Twitter, for the crime of liking a film that was universally hated. Fantastic Four isn’t as bad as you think it is – but that is only because the vitriol it has attracted is usually only reserved for neo-nazi groups. It is an unquestionably poor film, a missed opportunity that is nobody’s idea of a thrilling superhero movie; I didn’t want to join everybody else in kicking the film whilst its down, so was disappointed at having to share the same negative reaction.
Everything that has to be said about Fantastic Four has already been said by countless reviewers over the weekend, but I did sit through all 100 minutes of it, so feel compelled to chime in with my own thoughts, as familiar as they may be now due to how apparent the flaws are to everybody who sees it. Lets start with my previous point; anytime a compelling element is introduced that could potentially save the movie, it is undermined by the narrative trying to cross the finish line as quickly as possible. The most damning of these is, after a full hour (with barely half an hour left) our heroes finally gain their powers – and are subsequently captured for government testing, an interesting idea that exploits a Cronenbergian body-horror theme.
Director Josh Trank infamously claimed that “his version of the film would have gotten good reviews” and it seems like that version would have nakedly exploited these body-horror ambitions; the first test subject in Richards’ teleportation machine is a monkey, like in Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. However, the studio cuts are brutal – as soon as The Thing (Jamie Bell) begs for Reed Richards to stay with him instead of escaping the test facility, we cut straight to a “One year later” title card and any interesting themes bubbling under the surface remain ignored. It is a rare case where even the audience members with the least knowledge of how movies are made will be able to recognise where the studio have reshot or re-edited. The entire thing reeks of compromise.
A criticism of the movie that has often been repeated is that it is “humourless” and has a relentlessly dark tone for a film adaptation of Marvel’s kitschiest comic strip. I beg to differ, as the movie clearly attempts to be funny, but all the one-liners are awful, with the most offending ones being post-dubbed by the studio into any sequence where they are wearing space helmets and facing the opposite direction. This is a film released in 2015 that literally contains a “yo mama!” diss as the pinnacle of comedy, made even more nonsensical as it is an answer to the question “who was the first person to walk on the moon?” Equally bizarre is Johnny Storm arriving in a new dimension to whip out his phone and take a photo “for Instagram”. Have you not thought about the data roaming charges? Poor Storm is saddled with the worst dialogue, but Michael B. Jordan at least looks like the only actor having fun; probably as he read the script and realised he had to refer to a character with a foreign sounding name as both “Hitler” and “Borat” and decided that, if he was getting paid to recite this atrocious tripe, he might as well have fun doing it. Miles Teller and Kate Mara, in comparison, act like they can’t even be bothered, wondering why they are on set when they could be watching paint drying at home.
The majority of their dialogue for the first hour consists of inane science jargon; for a film franchise based around bullshit science, it really doesn’t need to be explained. But boy, is it explained, for tedious amounts of time. The first hour is set almost entirely in laboratories, breaking the record for “longest amount of time before the superheroes bother to show up” that was set by Ang Lee’s Hulk movie in 2003. At least the running time is brief, which means the film stops before anything remotely interesting happens. Without spoiling it, the climactic action sequence here literally contains a few cars on a motorway in the middle of nowhere being transported to another dimension, with all drivers having vacated their vehicles before anything bad happens. We have a villain talking about destroying the world here and all he’s done is set back the traffic on a mountain highway for a few hours, and leaving drivers to angrily call their insurance companies. The special effects aren’t even helping this seem more dramatic; all scenes set on another dimension have the graphic qualities of your average Doctor Who episode, whilst a scene of the human torch flying behind a helicopter made me physically cover my eyes. It is rare for a studio to spend so much time in post-production trying to “save” a movie, before releasing an ugly disaster instead.
The previous two Fantastic Four movies weren’t very good, but at least had an element of fun on their side. By Bastardising Trank’s original, infinitely more interesting vision, Fox Studios have succeeded solely in killing their franchise and making sure we won’t be seeing these heroes again not until they come to their senses and give Marvel the rights back, anyway. After all, it only took one shit film to get Spider-Man to web-sling his way into the MCU. Fantastic Four is a fantastic bore – I criticise Marvel Studios films for relying on the same plot mechanisms time and time again, but a dud like F4 has made me appreciate the hard work that goes into their movies. After all, the fun in a movie like Ant-Man doesn’t seem laboured, even with similar behind the scenes problems. If anything, Fantastic Four makes the conclusive argument that directors who have only one previous, low-budget feature to their name shouldn’t be handed gazillion dollar tentpole features as their second outing. It robs them of a chance to artistically develop and robs us of a movie authored by an interesting filmmaker with a thrilling take on the material.