If Stan Lee hadn’t sold the licensing rights of characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men and Blade to other studios years back, Marvel may not have even existed to reap all of today’s benefits. But, as Marvel’s grip on the superhero film genre gets more established with each success, the failures of other studios to match even half of that become more glaring – especially 20th Century Fox.
After two failed attempts at bringing the Fantastic 4 – an undeniably important part of the Marvel universe – to the big screen, Fox stepped back up to the plate to see if they could regroup and get at least one hit to get things moving. To reboot the franchise, they tapped Josh Trank, the director of Chronicle (2012). It was Trank’s job to take the dated superhero ensemble and bring them into the 21st century with new life.
This goal was only met halfway.
Fantastic 4 begins with the message that it’ll be a superhero film for today’s generation. In an opening flashback scene, we see Reed Richards (Miles Teller) giving a presentation to his elementary school class with a George W. Bush portrait hanging in the background. (This sounding familiar to any of my fellow millennials?) He then meets Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) and the two become best friends as they work on Richards’ teleportation device all the way through high school.
When they present a new and improved version of their device at a science fair, they draw the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter, Susan (Kate Mara). The two see the brilliance in Richards and offer him admittance to a top science program at the Baxter building. Meanwhile, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) is a brilliant mind that had already worked on the same project, but dropped out and went into seclusion due to a growing distrust of the company’s authority figures. We also meet Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), Sue’s younger brother with a brilliant mind that his father feels is going to waste on thrill-seeking antics.
The problems with Fantastic 4 start to occur after the main characters all develop their powers. One of the most enjoyable things about superhero movies is watching seemingly ordinary people transform into the extraordinary. So, of course, we skipped all of that with a time jump of an entire year. By the time we rejoin the group, they’re already well-adjusted to life with their powers and are working to improve upon them.
Then came Doctor Doom. The entire third act of the movie, which included Doom’s true introduction, plays out like a clichéd 30-minute cartoon. They meet the bad guy, fight him and lose, learn a quick lesson and proceed to work together to beat him. It all happens far too quick and easily after working so hard to build Doom up as much as he was.
Fantastic 4, being only 100 minutes long, makes you wonder how desperately they could’ve used an extra 20 minutes of exposition and character development. Outside of getting superpowers and almost learning to not blame others for their decisions, the characters don’t change for the better or worse.
That is, except for Doom, who was probably the best character in the film. There were early concerns from fans that he’d just be some blogger working from the safety of the Internet. No worries. That’s not the case here. The Fantastic 4 paints Victor von Doom in a light that allows you to comprehend how he’s one of the most threatening villains the Marvel universe has.
There’s also the big issue that the characters exist inside of a bubble. Almost all of their experiences take place in a science laboratory with no interaction with the real world. As far as the general public is concerned, the Fantastic 4 doesn’t even exist.
Oh, and you can breathe easy. Michael B. Jordan did his job. He didn’t do anything either spectacular or detrimental. He was just the funny, punch line guy that the Human Torch is expected to be. But, question: Why would you have a character that’s brave enough to drag race in a car he built suddenly be afraid to climb down a rope? He can’t be afraid of heights. And if he is, that’s a perfect thing for you to include as he learns to fly.
Fantastic 4 is 20th Century Fox’s third attempt to bring life into one of Marvel’s oldest franchises and it’s looking like they should either let Marvel give it a try or both parties should forget about the franchise altogether, which may be a lost cause because a sequel is already set for 2017. The roughly hour and a half film could clearly benefit from spending more time getting to know its characters, showing the real world implications of their existence and having them learn worthwhile lessons other than the clichéd “We’re stronger together than apart.”