Monday, August 10, 2015
Fantastic Four Movie Review: better than a SyFy special?
Fantastic Four was a perfectly watchable, ordinary film of no specific or great intention. It was better than prior FF films (imo), and certainly better than a SyFy movie special, but when you hold it up to Ant-Man or Age of Ultron it was lacking. The film's new take on its iconic characters was great...for 1998. If this film had been released 16 years ago I suspect it would have done well, but in today's landscape of superhero movies you really can't bring your B-game to the table.
The film focuses on a new re-imagining of the Fantastic Four origin story, this time involving dimensional travel. It makes the cardinal error of tying everything too tightly together, so now Victor Von Doom is part of the research team of young geniuses that includes the rest of the FF team prior to their transformation. In some ways the character of Doom is actually more interesting, but fails to live up to the icon we all have known from the comics. His ultimate role is to make his transformation into super-villain and give the FF team a reason to come together and save the world.
The FF themselves aren't a bad bunch for the actors chosen. The new black Human Torch is handled very well and in fact I rather like the way they did it, introducing the elder Franklin Richards (notice name drop nod to Franklin, Reed and Sue's son in the comics) as Johnny's natural father with Sue Storm as the adopted daughter. Reg Cathey's role as Franklin is pivotal to this film; he has a decent weight to his role and his acting elevates those around him. Elsewhere, Ben Grimm is Reed Richard's childhood backup and henchman, supporting him in his mad scientist schemes. Doom, meanwhile, is the fifth wheel rogue, who is surprisingly non-villainous in his pre-transformation stage of life. They all come together as part of the Baxter Institute's young genius team, put on a project to create a teleportation device that shifts between dimensions.
Ultimately the experiment to make a working teleporter succeeds and in a moment of drunken glory the crew use the device so they can be the first men to set foot in another dimension. This, as one would expect, leads to a transformation and disaster, as the results of the experiment change all of them into the superheroes they are destined to be and leaves Doom stranded and presumably dead in an alien dimension.
Queue a not-Shield group identified (I think) as Mitra in the film, which sweeps the transformed teens off to Area 57, Area 51's east-coast cousin. After a very toothless "evil government is evil" phase the team is moved forward a year, trained and working as government agents....all save for Reed Richards, who made good his escape. He's eventually brought back in to the fold, though; the research must continue and the Baxter Institute, now an exclusive government contractor, is building a new teleporter.
Ultimately Reed Richards complies, the teleporter is fixed, and a team of crack agents travel back to the other dimension, where they do not suffer the same fate that affected the FF. They do find Doom, however, somehow still alive thanks to whatever vaguely-hinted-at alien super-mind seems to be in the other dimension. Doom arrives back on earth and proceeds to start killing everyone with his crazy telekinetics that he's never had in the comics. His goal? Short out the device, creating a black hole that sort of seems to suck the matter from Earth back to the Planet Zero he now considers home.
The finale is what gives the FF their chance to shine as they work to stop Doom's mad scheme, escape Planet Zero, and ultimately gain some ground as a real super-group, now provided all the funding and resources they need to continue working for the government, but on their own terms.
There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this movie in and of itself. Really, there isn't. If you aren't deeply invested in the canonical comic version of the FF and you have never seen a Marvel or X-Men film then this movie will come off as pretty decent, I suspect.
We do live in a world where the Marvel Cineverse and X-Men films exist, along with other stellar superhero films like Batman and Man of Steel (yes I loved that one). In this universe, the new FF film can't hold a candle. It's limited character arcs, loose interpretation of the comic canon, over-reliance on tying everything in the plot together into one related arc and general lack of a sense of greater purpose make it a substandard film by comparison. Put another way: the bar has been set too high for FF to succeed.
Four cool things in the Fantastic Four:
1. Every one of the FF is presented as a genius with a scientific mindset. Even Johnny Storm is a smart dude (unlike in the comics), as is Sue Storm and Ben Grimm. It's probably off-putting to the average moviegoer, but this really is a film about nerds.
2. The Johnny Storm-is-black conversion was handled very well and actually feels more interesting than the classic Johnny Storm take. The introduction of his dad, Franklin Storm, presents a character I wish existed in the comics at some point.
3. Miles Teller portraying Reed Richards did a surprisingly good job of making a leading character who was somehow a geeky science nerd, and who wasn't really a "popular male actor" trussed up to look like one.
4. The FX were great for all of the characters involved.
Five Terrible things in the Fantastic Four:
1. Victor Von Doom is once again given short shrift as a character taken out of context from the comics. What is it about removing him from Latveria, and why do the screenwriters think that they have to tie him in so closely to the FF origin?
2. The film ties everything too closely together. The entire story-arc is an origin story, and we've seen handily how Marvel can wrap an origin story into a more complex tale (Ant-Man) or dispense with it in thirty seconds (Hulk). Doom didn't need to be part of the team. Sue and Franklin didn't need to be at the science fair discovering Reed Richards. Richards didn't need to be singularly obsessed with making a teleporter....he could have had a range. The movie is almost Oroborous-like in devouring itself, right up until the final act.
3. The whole black hole dimensional portal thing was a manufactured threat and while Doom, when he surfaces as a full super-villain was impressively ominous, his real function was only to provide an excuse for the film to wrap up. The threat itself, while full of cool FX, was still a head-sctratcher as to what the ultimate goal was. Yes, the goal is stated as "we must destroy your world to protect ours" but elaborations such as: Why must you do this? What's the "green substance" on Planet Zero and is it alive? How did Doom survive and what happened to him in that year? --and many other questions are all left unanswered. A Marvel film would have shown us why there was a threat, not told us, and also given us much better lead-up to understand the villain's motivations.
4. Doom does not have telekinetics. He has a metal suit with power blasts. He is scarred, but he MADE HIS SUIT. He is an evil genius. Is this so hard to do on film?
5. Sue Storm with her black eyeliner looks like a younger version of the washed-out methodone-addicted character that ends up as Tobias Fumke's girlfriend in Arrested Development Season 4. Go watch that on Netflix, you'll see what I mean. Once seen it cannot be unseen!
Overall I give it a C+ for being watchable but way behind the curve on the current state of superhero films and the minimum standards for the genre in film. There's a really good analysis of where this movie goes wrong right here, which is very insightful and I heartily agree with as well.