After one renegade 1994 adaptation (churned out for rights-retention reasons) and two previous attempts a decade ago by 20th Century Fox to make the first family of Marvel Comics a viable film franchise, the studio should stop right now if this latest chaotic reboot is anything to go by. For once more, the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby-created property emerges as a distinctly average adventure on practically every level, its staunch refusal to work in any shape, size or form – in these days of the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy conquering all before them – should be a stern warning. Perhaps a TV translation along the lines of Agents of SHIELD would be a better and more appropriate bet?
Ok, it harks back to much simpler times, and feels cardboard cut-out in many places as a result, but hopes were high that director Josh Trank would bring his much vaunted “naturalism” from his found-footage superhero hit Chronicle to the bigger budget table here. Sadly that hasn’t happened, unless the dark and grounded tone is supposed to substitute for the same style of hyper-reality tuning. Fanboy ranting over the ethnic change to one character and rumours of turmoil on the set, reshoots and ruthless editing – it runs barely 90 minutes plus 10 minutes of credits – have dogged this production and have hardly helped matters. But the bottom line is that the origin story is completely banal, the set-up to the quartet of outsiders gaining their superpowers is very perfunctory and the battle to save the world hewed from the same old CGI images slogged through in the past five years since Marvel seemingly became this unstoppable box-office force.
Dubbed a contemporary reimagining of Marvel’s longest-running superhero team, the screenplay by Trank, Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect) is inspired by the original comics and the Ultimate Fantastic Four series published in 2004. It begins with 12-year-old Reed Richards inventing the prototype for a dimensional teleportation device helped by best friend Ben Grimm. Seven years later, Reed (now played by Whiplash star Miles Teller) is recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey), Dean of the Baxter Institute, to join his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), his delinquent son Johnny (Michael B Jordan) and moody Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) in refining the “cymatic matter shuttle” so they can travel to an alternate universe to research new power sources.
Informed that Nasa astronauts will be first to take this “one small step for mankind”, a drunk Reed decides to beat them to it and takes Johnny, Doom and Ben (Jamie Bell) along for the ride, which takes them to Planet Zero (the doppelganger Earth) where exposure to cosmic radiation gives them all superpowers. Sue receives hers from the fallout from their return journey.
The four – Doom is left on Zero for the moment – must now grapple with their new gifts as the US government tries to groom them for peacekeeping warrior purposes. Reed can bend and stretch, Sue turns invisible, Johnny becomes a human torch and Grimm’s flesh changes into invincible rock. It’s worth noting that their future names – Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing – are only hinted at here. A year after their life-changing powers, Doom appears back in this dimension with his own super-strengths and the quartet must defeat his plan to suck the planet into a black hole.
Trapped in such bog-standard myth-making, the five young leads gamely try to punch the worn spandex clichés across with panache. But with such by-the-numbers scripting, loads of silly exposition and the naive assumption that now commonplace scenes of epic destruction will cause awestruck surrender no matter what, they fail, like Trank, to make Fantastic Four feel anything more than an elongated trailer for the next episode. Taking ages to really get started, then flatlining when Reed escapes his Area 57 cell to go into jungle hiding (a completely pointless interlude), before revving up to a trite finale, this is a tedious, underwhelming and hardly fantastic experience all round.
Fantastic Four is released in cinemas on Thursday 6th August