Fantastic Four Fails Fantastically

Welp. It's here. The Fantastic Four reboot starring young guns Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara and Jamie Bell hits the megaplexes this weekend, and there's nothing 20th Century Fox executives can do about it now.

You can expect to leave the theater in a state of bafflement, if not of outright betrayal. It will feel as though you've watched a prologue for a film that never quite managed to materialize. Though its run time is generously listed at 106 minutes, you'll be in and out the door in an hour and a half.

The muddled narrative through the punchless second and third acts evinces not only a script that has been heavily edited, but footage that has been tampered with in amputatorial ways. Full chunks of the story seem to have been excised in toto. What's left is an awful lot of exposition, up until the very last scene of the film. Non-stop exposition. In dialogue and in voice over, it's the primary storytelling mode, absent in which is anything like momentum or action.  

Reed Richards (Teller) is the quantum mechanics prodigy from Oyster Bay, N.J., who, for roughly a third of the film, builds a teleportation device out of scrap metal and "unsanctioned specs" before getting a chance to launch a full-scale model at some sort of science lab-cum-orphanage called the Baxter Institute, where he's invited by the gravelly benefactor Franklin Storm (House of Cards' Reg E. Cathey). Storm's primary mode of recruitment on what must be multibillon-dollar research projects is the high school science fair circuit. Just in case it wasn't clear that we're nowhere even near the ballpark of the gritty realism of Nolan's Batman universe.

With the help of master "pattern-recognizer" Sue Storm (Kate Mara), the adopted wiz kid from Kosovo, and her brother Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), whose welding experience evidently qualifies him for the role of engineer on an interdimensional vessel, plus the managerial expertise of sourpuss genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed's design comes to fruition.

But when the Baxter Institute's imperious gum-chawing chair (Tim Blake Nelson) announces that NASA astronauts will man the vessel to parts unknown (after literally a single test), the kids booze it up and decide to take matters into their own hands. Reed's childhood partner in crime, the junkyard heir Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) tags along for the ride.

If it sounds like I'm spending too much time explaining all this, that's because the film does too. The "Fantastic Four" don't even inherit their lame powers until late in the film. And then they're granted about 15 minutes of screen time to save the earth, in a battle against a villain who's introduced moments before the climax. 

And the lameness of The Fantastic Four, as superheroes, cannot be overstressed. It's one of the most, if not the most important reason the franchise in all its iterations has never established any sort of presence at the box office. Reed's ability to stretch his limbs is the most interesting visually, I guess, but it's often used to no other effect than punching an opponent a few feet away. In one throwaway scene (in a transitional portion of the film from which most has presumably been cut), we see an exiled Reed in Panama. He has used his stretching ability to alter the structure of his face. He's in disguise! Though his physical transition back to Miles Teller is a disaster to look at — heinous, early-aughts CGI stuff — it nonetheless represents the one moment of imagination on the part of the film's creative team. Elsewise, all we've got is Sue Storm hovering unsteadily in a bubble; Johnny Storm converting into a fireball and flying everywhere with no discernible purpose, and Ben Grimm's "The Thing" existing as a Hulkish rock formation with creepy wide-set eyes.

One suspects that a central, SHIELD v. Hydra-type plot at work, at least in early drafts, was that the Fantastic Four are used at the American military's behest with assurances that after a few combat missions, a cure for their ailments would be found. But for the most part, we just see execs talking about that prospect, and at one point we see footage of The Thing dismantling a tank. But once again the film prefers to talk about conflict rather than show it to us.

In its final stupefying moments, when you intuit with disgust that the story has all of a sudden decided to resolve, Reed and the quartet conspire to call themselves something. "We need a name," they say, in a scripted moment so dumb and unself-consciously on-the-nose that you can almost hear the actors' gag reflexes lurch. But this amounts to the sum-total accomplishment of the first film. They've been given a name. 

In the sequel, which heaven forfend, perhaps they'll be given something to do.     

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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