Fantastic Four is a fantastic snore. Boring from the get-go, this attempt by Fox to reboot the beloved Marvel Comics series on the big screen is a serious misstep, one that calls into question whether any future Fantastic Four films should even be produced. Origin stories are always tricky. They have to efficiently set up the story of the superhero—or in this case, superheroes—as well as provide viewers with the necessary background information, but Hollywood has proven that they can be done effectively when the movie has an inventive script and a visionary director: Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man are all fine examples. Unfortunately, Fantastic Four is saddled with a sluggish screenplay and unimaginative direction, which makes even its relatively short 100-minute run time a slog to sit through.
The action, such as it is, begins in 2007 in Oyster Bay, NJ, where a young Reed Richards is attempting to build a teleportation device with the help of his classmate Ben Grimm. They successfully teleport a toy car to an unknown destination, but when they try to bring it back, they only get a few rocks and some sand. Fast-forward seven years to Reed (now played by Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) demonstrating their crude but workable machine at a high-school science fair; it attracts the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), who have been working on a similar experiment. Franklin then offers Reed a full scholarship to attend the Baxter Institute in New York City so he can continue his research. He also informs Reed that, when he teleports an object, it’s going to another dimension rather than somewhere else on Earth.
At the institute, Reed meets surly scientific genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) and Franklin’s hotheaded son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), who is dragged into helping with the teleporter as punishment for wrecking his car. It takes a while, but the team eventually manage to teleport a monkey to another dimension and then safely bring it back. Afterward, they realize it’s time for a human to use it, but Storm’s glory-seeking boss (Tim Blake Nelson) tries to take the project away from the kids and hand it over to NASA. Reed, Johnny, and Victor fear that they will end up as total unknowns, and decide, along with Ben, to take the teleporter for a spin. Of course, everything goes haywire. Victor gets left behind on “Planet Zero,” a rocky, mountainous dimension with green, slime-like energy running through it, and the other three explorers and Sue (who is stuck in the lab when the teleporter returns in a smoky blaze) develop superhuman abilities. As a result, they are held at Area 51, where they are studied by government scientists and occasionally used to aid the U.S. military. Reed goes AWOL and escapes the base, and since this happens roughly two-thirds of the way through the movie, viewers will likely wish they could join him. When the inevitable showdown between the now evil Doom and the rubbery Reed, the disappearing Sue, the fiery Johnny, and the rock-encased Ben commences, the film finally flickers to life, but it happens much too late to rescue this botched production.
Josh Trank was hired to helm Fantastic Four based on the strength of his terrific found-footage superhero feature Chronicle. But, more recently, he was let go as the director of a planned Star Wars spin-off movie; no one outside of Lucasfilm and Disney knows the reason why, and those inside aren’t talking, but it’s possible that seeing footage of this fantastic flop shook their confidence in the director. The picture looks like a mishmash of cheap CGI rather than a 21st century marvel, and the actors aren’t able to do much with the cardboard characters they’ve been given—it’s especially disappointing to see Teller, who made such a strong impression in Whiplash, reduced to a geeky, one-dimensional role here. Toby Kebbell comes closest to transcending the material as Doom, which makes it unfortunate that he’s offscreen for a huge portion of the film.
Fox tried to launch a Fantastic Four franchise in 2005 with the unlikely choice of Tim Story as the director. The result was a bland enterprise that is mostly forgotten today, although it did yield a sequel featuring the Silver Surfer. Fox has made the same mistake once again, and it’s a shame because Fantastic Four is the franchise that kick-started what we now think of as the Marvel Universe. The series and its fans deserve better.