Director Josh Trank become a visionary new voice in the film industry with the breakout success of his feature Chronicle (2012). He was at the top of the food chain and every major studio wanted to work with him. Chronicle took the story of three friends who encounter a buried space craft and are granted extraordinary super powers of which the rest of the film is them trying to figure out to use those powers and to take themselves to the limit. When one of them decides to take things to the next deadly level the three friends’ friendships are tested to the tragic conclusion. The basic premise of this film is similar to that of the journey of Marvel’s Fantastic Four which is probably why 20th Century Fox hired him for their reboot of the franchise.
Before I get into Trank’s rebooted film let me first take a look at the films that came before. First was the Roger Corman Fantastic Four (1994) which has never been given an official release but can be found on bootleg in the public domain on various websites. The story stays true to the comics and despite the subpar SFX it has fun with the premise and is intentionally campy as you would expect from a low budget Corman production. Considering that the ‘90s were filled with campy superhero films (i.e. Barb Wire, 1996; Tank Girl, 1995; Captain America, 1990; The Punisher, 1989; The Mask, 1994; Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, 1998; Generation X, 1996) mainstream audiences didn’t take any of them seriously. It’s surprising how this film didn’t eventually get an official release.
It wasn’t until 20th Century Fox’s first official film Fantastic Four (2005) that a legitimate version was attempted. It was a film with mixed results by fans and critics alike. Director Tim Story’s film had a great cast with great chemistry that was crucial to bringing a family of misfits with super powers to life. You believed that these actors (Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, and Jessica Alba) were the Fantastic Four and that they were a family that had an altruistic agenda with helping man against the threats of annihilation and the evil Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon). The only real problem is the uneven comedy and the fact that Reed Richard’s “Mr. Fantastic” powers never really sold itself. The decision to use practical FX to bring The Thing to life was an excellent choice because Chiklis’ humanity is never lost in his performance. The film was a success despite the mixed reception and soon Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) was released just a couple years later. This film successfully integrated the story of the Silver Surfer into the mythos but comic book fans were enraged at the way in which Galactus was portrayed in the film, which is as a cloud of cosmic smoke and clouds. I personally was fine with this as I’m sure showing Galactus as a giant humanoid super being that stands above the Earth would have presented its own problems and I’m sure that in 2007 audiences would not have been prepared for that type of image. In a post-Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) world audiences would have no problem buying into a Galactus the way he is depicted in the comics. This film got to the heart of the family theme of the Fantastic Four comics and integrated the comedy much better than in the previous film. Also, Story’s style comes out more in this film than in the previous film allowing this film to truly open up in terms of cinematography and art direction. The film was a bigger success at the Box Office than the previous film but fans were really vocal about their disdain for the changes and in a post Batman Begins (2005), Superman Returns (2006), and Spider-Man 2 (2004) world the Fantastic Four’s second film looked tame especially since the other major superhero film of the year was Spider-Man 3 which would break all kinds of Box Office records (and also be the bane of most comic book fans). After the so-so success and response to Rise of the Silver Surfer rumors of a solo Silver Surfer film were squashed as were the prospects of a third film.
With the prospect of losing the rights to the Fantastic Four, 20th Century Fox decided to reboot the franchise with new blood and Trank’s success with Chronicle put him at the top of the eligible list of names. In this post Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Man of Steel (2013), Watchman (2009), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Night Rises (2012) and Kick-Ass (2010) world audiences craved superhero films with a foot in reality instead of fantasy and with a hard edge. Trank seemed like the perfect man for the job of breathing new life into the franchise.
Fantastic Four (2015) would bring superhero films into the real world and depict an origin story like nothing else seen on screen. It would be a “real” Chronicle for a “real” Fantastic Four, oh so that was the idea. The film follows a young Reed Richards and Ben Grimm (Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, respectfully) whose early attempts at creating a teleportation devise earns them the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm and his daughter Sue (Reg E. Cathey and Kate Mara). Dr. Storm tells Reed that he’s found a way to open a door into another world and convinces him to join him and Sue at his school where they are also experimenting in the same area. Reed goes with Dr. Storm and Sue while leaving Ben behind. At Dr. Storm’s facility Reed meets Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) who is just as intelligent as he is and with the help of Sue’s brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) the four learn to work together to make the teleportation portal work. After several trials the team finally gets everything right and is able to see into the other side of another dimension, a place with unlimited possibilities to further the advancements of man. This success is short lived when government agents lead by Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) steps in take over the project and try to prevent Reed and them from being the first to venture into a new world.
Unwilling to give up on their dreams of venturing into a new frontier Reed, Johnny, and Victor decide to be the first to venture into the new world but Reed won’t do it without his best friend Ben. With all four ready they enter into the transporter and are indeed the first to venture into the barren wasteland that oozes with energy. When Victor gets too close to the source of the energy of the world he sets off a chain reaction that threatens to destroy them all. Before they can get back to the teleportation device Victor is lost and the other three’s chambers are exposed. Back in the lab Sue is the only one able to bring them back but when she does the entire lab explodes exposing her to the same energy as the other dimension.
Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue are physically and violently altered from their exposure to the energy from the other world. Sue becomes partially visible, Ben becomes a creature made of the substance of the earth from the other world, Johnny is alive while engulfed in flames and Reed has the ability to stretch and morph his body and limbs. Reed, realizing the monstrous thing that he has done to his best friends, escapes from the government facility they are held in and vows to return when he can find a solution.
Time passes and suddenly Ben is an enforcer for the government and Johnny is next in line as Dr. Allen intends to use them all as weapons for the government. Dr. Allen is also using Dr. Storm and Sue to rebuild the teleportation device as he claims to be trying to help them return them back to normal while discovering what energy source they came into contact with. When Dr. Storms realizes that Reed is the only one that can get the machine to work he uses Sue to find him, who has been in hideout trying to build his own teleportation machine. Dr. Allen uses Ben to capture Reed and bring him back to the lab to fix the machine and make everything right again.
Reed seeing that the only way to help his friends is to go back to the other world for answers fixes the machine. Dr. Allen sends his crew of military men into the other world who are then assaulted by a changed Victor Von Doom whom everyone thought was dead. Victor kills everyone in his path when he gets lose in the government lab but it has allowed him access to Reed’s teleportation portal and the means to use the energy of the other world to destroy Earth. In order to stop Victor Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny must travel back into the other world and learn to work together as a team to defeat Victor and prevent him from destroying their world.
Now, Trank’s idea of a Fantastic Four film is to make it like his Chronicle film which was a superhero origin film that never says it’s a superhero origin film. Unfortunately, there have already been three previous Fantastic Four films and audiences are tired of the “origin” film which is why Man of Steel integrated Superman’s origins via flashbacks. It was always a downhill battle to do an origin story film because besides already having been done before most audiences just don’t care. The next big problem with the film is that Doctor Doom makes for a horrible villain especially after McMahon’s iconic portrayal in the previous two films. He was one of the best things about those earlier films and a new film relying on him as the main villain was a bad choice since the Fantastic Four has so many other villains to choose from. Using Doctor Doom is like the Superman films’ reliance on Lex Luther or Spider-Man films over reliance on the Green Goblin. This film could have benefited from some fresh blood and ideas like Batman Begins or even The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).
The film starts off promising with a very young Reed and Ben meeting for the first time in middle school which is just the start of their friendship which culminates with them working together on the science fair project that gets them an audience with Dr. Storm. The problem is that once Reed goes to work with Dr. Storm, Ben is left to the sidelines for most of the film until the moment he goes through the teleportation device. Unfortunately, Reed doesn’t connect with Sue and his friendship with Victor is under developed as is the same with Johnny, so, he comes off as being a bit distance from the rest of the characters. I’m not sure if this is in the writing or in the casting because individually all the actors do a great job but none of them come off as a “team” which is the glue that holds the Fantastic Four together and makes them such a dynamic team different from the rest of the superhero teams created by Marvel (with maybe the exception of the Fantastic Four spin-off Power Pack).
Maybe I can give a pass on this if they were all teenagers (since they are drunk when they decide to first go through the teleportation portal), but then ARE they teens? This is supposed to take place in a college after Reed and Ben‘s high school science fair mishap but none of the cast look young enough (nor act young enough) to be just out of high school and in college and Victor is definitely passed his college years. I’m not sure why it was decided to make them all this young but if the production wasn’t going to commit to this then they should have rewritten it to make more sense.
Showing Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny’s powers manifest as a bodily disease that can be cured is a brilliant concept and move that is not followed through. It is terrifying to see them all in the government research lab in pain just after the explosion in the lab and hearing Ben trapped in his stone-like state while calling out for Reed is devastating and emotional but the film-makers decide that after Reed escapes to cut forward in time at a point when they all have learned how to use their powers and are instruments of the government. Taking out this crucial second act character development hurts the film but it does cut to the more action packed second half of the film. Up till this point the film has had little in the way of action instead relying on drama to move the film forward.
Sue’s powers are better handled in this film than in the previous films as are Reed’s in which the GCI capabilities have finally caught up so that his stretching abilities don’t look so childish and cartoony (if it will ever truly not be that way). Johnny’s powers are about on par and are more in line with style than anything else. I prefer the look for Evans’ Johnny over this version but that’s a personal preference. Unfortunately, I do prefer Chiklis’s practical FX over the Bell all CGI FX. In the previous films Chiklis’ humanity is not lost in translation but in this film Bell is not even there. They could have used anyone to take his place and it wouldn’t have mattered and since his character disappears for most of the film anyway this is a tragedy. Getting onto Victor Von Doom (another travesty of over reliance on CGI) as he is actually the worst thing in the whole film. By the time he is revealed in his new state at end of the film he’s nothing but a complete CGI creation and nothing of Kebbell can be seen.
Performance wise the entire cast makes the most of the very typical superhero script. It seems that the first half starts off on its own path but then becomes a typical Hollywood-Studio film. Trank wrote the screenplay with Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater but who knows how much of his original ideas survived the rewrite process and/or the reshoots and studio edits. The film hovers over the theme of friendship in the first half with Reed and Ben but drops that when Ben is written out for most of the second act. There should have been more focus on the family and team dynamic (what the Fantastic Four is known for) but this is never fully developed as the story goes through the required plot points with no originality or flare. Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Storm gives the best performance in the film and sells every line that comes out of his mouth no matter how stilted it may be. While some of the other actors just go through the motions he is completely believable as the elder Storm. The same can be said for Jordan as Johnny Storm but this is probably because he and Trank worked together so well on Chronicle. Unfortunately, Jordan can’t always sell those stilted line no matter how much he tries. There should have been more care taken in the crafting of the screenplay in this regards.
What really kills the film as a whole is the way in which it ends. From the moment Reed is captured by Dr. Allen and Doom is reintroduced to his battle with Reed and the team it might all seem like maybe twenty minutes of screen time but character and story is sacrificed to show spectacle and rush the battle with Doom. Doom’s motivations are unclear and just seem overall crazy and Reed’s sudden acceptance with Sue, Ben, and Johnny after being abandoned for so long is more for plot and not plausibility. Whereas, very little CGI was used in the first two-thirds of the film most everything in the final third is CGI. The biggest travesty is the depiction of Doom’s New World destroying Earth. The New World is uninteresting and plain rendering the whole final battle sequence flaccid. Compared to the final battle sequences (and locations) of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, or Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) this battle sequence is child’s play.
I feel sorry for Trank who had a vision for the type of film he wanted to make but saw Studio politics come in and take over. Not knowing how to respond or handle Studio interference which is the norm for all major Studio franchises he rebelled and now he’s made to look like the bad guy (he is no longer directing one of the Star Wars spinoff films and there has been a lot of bad mouthing going around from both sides). This could mean career suicide for him but I hope not. He is a film-maker with a unique vision who should have stayed in the independent world for a few more films before moving up to the Hollywood Leagues.
Overall, there are so many things that went wrong with this film it’s hard to see what went right.
I do have to admit that despite the flaws of the film the cast is good enough to transport to another film such as the rumors of them showing up in a future X-Men cross-over film. There is little to warrant another feature unless the studio can agree to 1) let the director’s vision actually contribute to the overall film and 2) they do away with anything that has already been featured in a previous film and delve into uncharted territory (leaving Dr. Doom to the grave that he’s currently in). The only way to save the Fantastic Four is to take away the Studio politics which took over on this film. I don’t believe the solution is letting them join the MCU as those are such a homogenized set of films but 20th Century Fox does need to decide to try something new and different and not be afraid to step out of the box that the MCU has put all superhero films in.