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Fantastic Four (2015) Movie Review

Fantastic Four (2015) movie poster Fantastic Four (2015)

Theatrical Release: August 7, 2015 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Josh Trank / Writers: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank (screenplay); Stan Lee, Jack Kirby (characters)

Cast: Miles Teller (Reed Richards), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm), Kate Mara (Sue Storm), Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm/The Thing), Toby Kebbell (Victor von Doom/Dr. Doom), Reg E. Cathey (Dr. Franklin Storm), Tim Blake Nelson (Dr. Allen), Joshua Montes (Quarterback Speech School Kid), Dan Castellaneta (Mr. Kenny), Owen Judge (Young Reed Richards), Evan Hannemann (Young Ben Grimm), Tim Heidecker (Mr. Richards)


The Fantastic Four have not had the best luck at feature films. The first attempt to tell their story came in 1994's low-budget, no-star, Roger Corman-produced B-movie that was never released. We later learned it was basically an elaborate, relatively inexpensive ruse for German producer Bernd Eichinger to retain rights to the characters. He held onto those rights through 2005, when Fox's high-profile movie was released.
Despite arriving during the ongoing golden age of superhero movies, 2005's Fantastic Four was not well-received by critics and barely sold more tickets than franchise-killer Batman & Robin. Fox went forward with a sequel two summers later to similarly disappointing results, with attendance dropping and reviews only improving slightly. Though Fox had signed the cast to three-picture deals, by 2009 it became clear that the next movie in the series would be the start of a new series.

While a reboot might sound promising to those who felt the two Noughties Fox movies got it wrong and enough time had passed for this not to feel like Amazing Spider-Man-level hastiness, 2015's Fantastic Four has been plagued by negative buzz for quite some time and today opens to critical disdain more severe than what either of the previous movies faced. Directed by Chronicle's Josh Trank, who wrote the screenplay with X-Men veteran Simon Kinberg and newcomer Jeremy Slater, this reboot has been hit hard by reports of a troubled production necessitating eleventh hour reshoots, a delay from a June debut to an August one, a cancellation of a 3D conversion, a curiously tentative marketing campaign, and a general reluctance to hold advance screenings for both the public and the press.

The deeper you dig, the more 2015's Fantastic Four sounds like the successor to Corman's unreleased 1994 dud, made essentially to extend copyright, in this case to prevent Fox's filming rights to the comic book series from reverting back to Marvel Studios. I was prepared to hate this film, to dismiss it as redundant, unnecessary, and simply not that good, based on the overrated nature of Trank's first superhero movie. But I cannot muster the venom and vitriol for this competent new take that most of my peers have shown.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) wear shades to protect their eyes and to look cool. The Thing just loves to fight!

We open in 2007, when a young Reed Richards is creeping out his teacher and classmates with talk of developing teleportation technology. The gifted boy (Owen Judge) befriends his classmate Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), with the two bonding over scraps taken from Ben's family's junkyard. Seven years later, Reed (now Whiplash's Miles Teller) and Ben (Billy Elliott's Jamie Bell) are best friends and still collaborating on scientific discoveries well beyond their high school education. Though their teleportation machine strikes out with science fair judges, it does wow Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who invites Reed to join his research company Baxter.

It's a dream job for Reed, which sees him working with Dr. Storm's adopted blonde daughter Sue (Kate Mara), his drag-racing biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and reclusive, temperamental genius Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). This creative environment gives birth to a larger, more elaborate, safer version of Reed's science fair project, one with the power to transport living matter to an exotic other dimension, which they name Planet Zero. After successfully testing out the technology on a chimp,
Dr. Storm is instructed to turn the project over to NASA and other agencies. Inebriated and dismayed that they will be their generation's equivalent of the forgotten engineers who enabled Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to walk on the moon, Reed, Johnny, and Victor decide to transport themselves to the other dimension. Reed gets Ben to join them on this spontaneous mission, which soon goes awry.

As you should already know, the experience dramatically changes the travelers and Sue on a profound, molecular level. Reed finds himself with the ability to stretch his limbs and torso to impossible lengths. Johnny can combust and fly. Sue can become invisible and also generate force fields. And Ben turns into a powerful, indestructible rock monster. We inexplicably jump ahead a year to find Ben doing work for the military, who are also testing the Storm siblings' capabilities while runaway Reed remains in hiding. The gang agrees to track down Reed and reunite to oversee a return to the perilous other dimension that they hope can rid them of their challenging yet potent new powers.

Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, Reed Richards, and Sue Storm come together to battle a former friend turned enemy in 2015's "The Fantastic Four."

Trank's Fantastic Four is truly an origin story and perhaps the most extreme version of that we have seen during this superhero boom. The team does not officially become a team until the very end of the movie, having only once united in full on the climax. That climax is abrupt and anticlimactic while also providing this film an apex of campiness. Some camp value may be inevitable, given the origins of this comic book series, which was introduced in 1961 shortly before Spider-Man, Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, and Iron Man.
The 2005 and 2007 movies, both directed by Tim Story, did not get very campy, but they did embrace the series' origins with a frequently light, comic tone. In contrast, Trank's movie is light on humor, almost avoiding jokes altogether, which you'll recognize as a departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other modern superhero films shaped by its success.

This movie does not show much interest in paying homage to the franchise. The casting of an African American actor to play Human Torch offended a vocal minority, who probably would have been just as bothered had Sue been turned into a brunette. Trank's film breaks with tradition in other ways, too. Reed doesn't have his signature white temples. He and the others are younger than they traditionally are; ostensibly teenagers, though the actors are all in their late twenties to early thirties (and look it). It almost appears as The Thing, who is never really given that name (same for Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, and Human Torch), will go the entire movie without saying "It's clobberin' time!" He doesn't, but the film is for the most part uninterested in treating this lore like sacred legend. Heck, for the first time in forever, Stan Lee doesn't even make a cameo, suggesting the Four's co-creator doesn't really extend his implicit seal of approval despite taking his usual executive producer credit.

Fantastic Four may not be as exciting or fun as most of the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe productions, but it gives you small things to appreciate, like a villain who is genuinely unafraid to kill, a story that doesn't present world destruction and salvation as pressing and inevitable, and a small cast enabling you to get well-acquainted with them. These characters are not treated to wildly revisionist interpretations, but they are given humanity and that design enables the movie to feel a bit different from "just another superhero movie."

I'm not sure why the movie is being hammered by critics so vigorously, but I do expect that to impact the box office numbers, which are sure to be beneath Marvel's newest in-house movies and most likely beneath what Fox wants to see. This appears to be the worst-reviewed big-budget movie since The Last Airbender and that still managed to gross over $100 M domestic and $300 M worldwide. Based on the buzz, Fox would probably be relieved to see this latest Four perform in line with their two previous ones.

It's curious why the Four are having such a difficult time in film. Team superhero movies, like X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy, have been embraced. The Incredibles, arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made, succeeds with a very similarly-endowed family of four. A number of Lee's subsequent creations of comparable tone have been brought to film tastefully and to moviegoer and critical acclaim.

Nothing I can say would have the same impact as the skepticism that has brewed for over a year and the fresh vitriol from embargo-defying reviews. Admittedly, there are not many superhero movies I would speak ill of, not even the unloved first two Fan Four movies. But I can't in good conscience add my voice to the choir of discontent. I found this reboot consistently entertaining and a slight yet welcome departure from other superhero origin tales.

Related Reviews:
Fantastic Four (2005) (Extended Edition) Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer Fantastic Four: The 1994-95 Animated Series
The Amazing Spider-Man The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Guardians of the Galaxy X-Men: First Class
Now in Theaters: Ant-Man Avengers: Age of Ultron Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Jurassic World Tomorrowland
Written and Directed by Josh Trank: Chronicle
Written by Simon Kinberg: X-Men: Days of Future Past Sherlock Holmes Jumper This Means War
The Incredibles Hancock Spider-Man Ghost Rider Thor Captain America: The First Avenger The Green Hornet
Miles Teller: Divergent | Michael B. Jordan: Fruitvale Station | Kate Mara: Shooter Transcendence happythankyoumoreplease

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Reviewed August 7, 2015.

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