If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that director Josh Trank’s new Fantastic Four flick just isn’t very good, right? I mean, yeah, the troglodyte faction of comics fandom has been out to bury this one since the day it was announced that an African-American actor, Michael B. Jordan, would be playing Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (of course, if you ask them, racism had nothing to do with their petulant reaction — rather they claim, embarrassingly, that they just wanted the movie to remain true to the “source” material. Which, ya know, came out in 1963 and was aimed at an all-white audience of 12-year-olds. Good luck with that in 2015), but there’s just gotta be more to it than that, right? I mean, the movie only has a 9% score on Rotten Tomatoes and absolutely toxic word of mouth has poisoned its chances at the box office.
Sure, the usual top-down “whisper campaign” from Disney/Marvel, who wanted this movie to tank so that they could buy the rights to the characters back from Fox on the cheap, certainly played a part in this new FF’s immediate DOA status, no question (any movie based on Marvel characters needs to be absolutely pitch-perfect from start to finish, it seems — unless it’s a movie coming from Marvel Studios itself, in which case it can completely suck and people will still delude themselves into thinking it’s good out of sheer, stubborn, stupid brand loyalty), but come on — even that, combined with the ignorance and prejudice of stick-in-the-mud, nostalgia-addled, aging comic book readers still isn’t enough to account for just how reviled this film already is. Any reception this poor has got to be honestly earned on some level, doesn’t it?
I’ll be honest — for about the first 45 minutes of Trank’s feature, I thought everybody was nuts. And part of me was really hoping that everybody was nuts, simply because if there’s one group of folks that I take great pride in pissing off on a regular basis, it’s the intellectually-stilted, emotionally-subrnormal (thank you Alan Moore) segment of comics fandom who openly “roots” for all these Marvel properties to “come back home,” but who could give a rat’s ass about the fact that the creative geniuses from whose imaginations they sprung, like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, got positively fucked by Marvel for decades on end. These are people who are loyal to characters, not creators, and whose reading tastes were permanently arrested at a junior high level thanks to their sleazy and despicable hero, Stan Lee (who at least doesn’t show up for his customary nauseating cameo here — nor are he and Kirby listed as “co”-creators). Never mind that it was Lee’s horseshit skills as a wannabe wheeler-dealer in Hollywood that saw all of these Marvel characters licensed out to other studios at a relative pittance in the first place. So,uhhmm, where were we? — oh yeah, the first act of Fantastic Four isn’t just good, it’s flat-out great, and I was relishing the chance to come home, sit down, and talk about what a delusional bunch of assholes the majority of the Marvel-loving public is once again.
I admit, I had my doubts going in, as well. The idea of Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (played by Miles Teller), Sue Storm/The Invisible Girl (Kate Mara), Ben Grimm/The Thing (Jamie Bell) and the aforementioned Johnny Storm/The Human Torch being “re-imagined” as kid geniuses under the tutelage of the Storm family patriarch, Franklin (Reg E. Cathey) sounded like a dicey proposition, at best (I understand that this set-up borrows heavily from writer Mark Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four comics series, but not having read that, I can’t say for certain how true that is or not), but damn if Trank and his army of screenwriters don’t make it work — for awhile.
During the film’s second act, though, the wheels really come off. Or maybe that should be “slowly and gently roll off.” The story sputters along at any ever-decreasing speed until finally grinding to an absolute halt, and while Trank does his best to inject a David Croneneberg flavor into the proceedings by emphasizing the “body horror” aspects of the various characters’ new-found abilities after their trans-dimensional jaunt (an updating of the origin story that actually makes sense given that the idea that “cosmic radiation” would transform space explorers on a cellular level was pretty well shot down six years after the FF’s creation once we sent astronauts to the moon — assuming you believe that we did) and tossing in a very gory-and-nifty homage to Scanners, it’s simply not enough — especially if, like me, you’re one of the few people out there who actually read future MythBusters producer Eric Haven’s fine (but tragically short-lived) black-and-white indie comics series Angryman back in the early ’90s, where he did a much better job of telling more or less the exact same story in a short back-up strip in issue #2. Seriously, hunt it down and you’ll see what I mean.
Anyway, back to the business at hand. Trank tries to kick things back into gear for his big finale, which sees the team going back to “Dimension X” to battle their fifth member (who’s got every reason to be pissed off since they left him for dead), Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), but he’s too far behind the eightball at this point to possibly regain all the ground he’s lost. Reed starts talking in extended info-dumps, Dr. Doom’s plot to destroy our reality makes no sense, and the surprisingly cut-rate CGI often borders on the flat-out laughable. Really, for a big-budget movie Fantastic Four starts to look and feel like it was done on the cheap, and by the time we reach the eyeball-rolling “so what should we call ourselves, anyway?” conclusion, you’ll have to admit, as I did, that all those stick-in-the-mud, hyper-conservative fans were right. This just ain’t a very good movie.
I’ll say this much, though — not only is this better than previous cinematic iterations of the FF (I’m damning with faint praise there, I know) it’s also nowhere near the complete train-wreck its legion of detractors claim it to be. Its chief problem isn’t so much that it’s an abomination of unprecedented proportions as that it’s just a really boring and predictable movie. You know, like Ant-Man. Or Guardians Of The Galaxy. Or The Avengers. Or Iron Man. Or — well, just about any of ’em, really. Fantastic Four is in no way appreciably different than most officially-sanctioned “MCU” garbage, and during its first act, it’s actually a damn sight better than a lot of its Marvel step-siblings. Unfortunately, it just couldn’t keep that standard — or even anything close to it — up for the remainder of the ride.
As we’ve all seen, the recriminations are coming hot and heavy now. Trank tweeted on the day of his film’s release that he had a version that he was really happy with about a year ago, then implied that meddling from studio higher-ups resulted in the mess we see before us today. Good luck getting work at Fox again, buddy (although, given that he’s only 31 years old, it’s way too premature to say that this movie has torpedoed his chances in Hollywood permanently). Reports are coming out that the set was so fraught with tension that the director and one of his stars, Teller, damn near got into a fist fight (never mind that this kind of on-set drama is actually pretty common, it’s just that when a movie does well, we don’t hear about it until years later). And more un-substantiated reports of more problems will be forthcoming, I’m sure. So Marvel and their self-proclaimed “zombies” will probably get their wish, and if and when we see the next FF re-launch, it will probably be under the “MCU” banner. Which means that I don’t expect it to be any worse than this — but I highly doubt that it’ll be any better, either.