If any superhero property appears to be cursed, it would be 'Fantastic Four'. Consisting of a man who can stretch himself, a human torch, a woman who can turn invisible and a giant rock monster, every previous attempt to adapt the characters to the big screen has been both a critical and commercial failure. However, as the superhero genre continues to spread like a disease through Hollywood cinema, the property has been revisited - this time placed in the hands of up-and-coming director Josh Trank. But can a new perspective, a younger cast and a distinctive new voice finally break the curse? In this instance, the answer might not be that simple.
After developing a crude teleportation device for his high school science fair, young genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is chosen to work on a program which is attempting to create a gateway to an alternate dimension. Together with brother and sister Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and volatile scientist Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), they successfully build a machine to bridge the gap, but when a freak accident involving the four scientists and Reeds’ childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) severely alters their physical form and gives them volatile new abilities, they have to readjust their relationships with themselves and the world around them.
Josh Trank turned a lot of heads with his remarkable debut film ‘Chronicle’ (2012), which offered a radical reinterpretation of the superhero film. That same principle seems to guide his work on ‘Fantastic Four’ with equal parts success and failure. Rather than falling into the storytelling clichés that are now showing the cracks in other major superhero franchises, the film starts off more as a science fiction film instead of a superhero one. This allows a lot more time to build the characters and establish the relationships. The motivations are wonderfully simple, and the film wisely keeps its focus on its core cast. There are no extraneous subplots or clver storytelling twists. It just gets on with that it needs to say.
Trank directs the film with a certain degree of grace, so the film moves at a considered and careful pace. It might not have the pop and pizazz of a Marvel film, but it takes its playfulness seriously and there’s a quiet charm to it. There’s also a grounding in reality - when the transformations occur, they are painful and take their toll on the characters' physically as well as mentally. The Fantastic Four are an intrinsically ridiculous set of characters that are almost impossible to take seriously, but the film gives a damn good shot at making us do just that. It isn’t just being gritty and serious for the sake of it - because the film’s main focus is its characters, the gritty texture comes from them and feels all the more justified. It might not be that much fun, but at least it isn’t silly. The film also looks gorgeous, beautifully shot and designed, and complemented by a inquisitive and playful score.
Where the film falls flat though is its screenplay. As much as the film and performances try to steer clear of cliché, the screenplay still falls into so many obvious traps. The last act in particular is a mess, the finale not quite landing as well as it should. The characterisation of Dr Doom is superb, but the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with him, so the big climax doesn’t have the power it should, and the final moments of the film are genuinely painful, especially when the film leading up to it had so much going for it. To be honest, the screenplay problems aren’t dissimilar to those that affect almost every Marvel Franchise film (the same clunky dialogue, poor storytelling and inability to handle a villain), and at least I never found myself as bored as I did in the abominable ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’. It’s just disappointing, because there are flashes of an exciting film in there, and the screenplay just never lives up to that promise. This film really deserved better.
As much as the film and performances try to steer clear of cliché, the screenplay still falls into so many obvious traps.
The cast go a long way to making up for it though. Miles Teller continues to build on his emerging talent and charisma, and Michael B. Jordan manages to overcome how underwritten Johnny is to make him immensely likeable. Jamie Bell is likewise underwritten and underused, but Kate Mara is genuinely wonderful as Susan, and Toby Kebbell works hard to avoid the usual villain tropes. None of the performances are worth writing home about, but all of the central cast have immense amounts of natural charm and chemistry together, and do save the film from the flaws in the lacklustre screenplay.
I don’t envy ‘Fantastic Four’. In many ways, it’s doomed before it even hits the cinemas. No one really believes in the property, so its only hope was to emerge as a big surprise and grab everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, for all the many things going for it, the final result probably won’t be enough to do that. It’s a pity, because Josh Trank is actually trying something here, to push the genre into new directions and offer a fresh perspective on it. It’s more graceful than most of the Marvel films and certainly more cinematic, but its final act doesn’t get it where it needs to. If anything, ‘Fantastic Four’ proves just how tired this genre is getting.
Personally, I found more to admire and enjoy in it that the majority of superhero films of the last few years, but I have a feeling I will be in the minority. Is it a surprise success? Unfortunately not. Is it a complete disaster? I really don’t think so. If anything, ‘Fantastic Four’ is a fascinating failure, an attempt to break the curse of the characters and advance a genre that really needs advancing. It might not get there in the end, but I have to give it points for trying.