So appallingly dull that even a third-act parade of exploding heads can’t rouse interest, Fantastic Four may be the most minor Marvel Comics film yet. And at this dispiritingly late date, that’s saying something indeed. It also adds more grist for the mill to the notion that studios don’t hit the big red “reboot” button in any other state than a panic. But hit it they do, and every time a promising young director’s voice seems to get sucked up in the vacuum and unleavened. This time, it’s Josh Trank, whose Chronicle was an imperfect but peculiar small-batch blockbuster, and who here gets possessed into blustery hackery.
Even against the standards of other reboot origin stories, Fantastic Four dwells at painful length on exposition, as though Trank’s only skin in the game is establishing characters capable of shouldering a long and fruitful franchise. But even there he fails. The movie begins, somewhat pointedly, in 2007 (the year Rise of the Silver Surfer’s disappointing box-office returns brought the last series to an inglorious halt). Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are grade school classmates. Whereas the former is a Mensa-candidate egghead inventor and the latter merely has access to a lot of junked cars, they nonetheless “collaborate” on a series of teleportation prototypes that black-out boroughs and earn them a string of disapproving looks from teachers. In the present day, Professor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) catches wind of Reed’s (Miles Teller) work and recruits him to enroll at the Baxter Foundation, where the Portishead-loving Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and the wayward Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) have already been plugging away at a similar device. (The metaphorical implications of this redundancy on Marvel movies at large is too rich.)
It adds more grist for the mill to the notion that studios don’t hit the big red “reboot” button in any other state than a panic.
As anyone who’s logged into Facebook in the last year can tell you, airing out your grievances against Big Government’s encroachment into private endeavors is the quickest shortcut to actually thinking about anything, and Fantastic Four leans hard on that principle. As Reed, Sue, Victor, Ben (Jamie Bell), and Storm’s son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), stand on the precipice of becoming the first people to teleport to another dimension, they’re dismayed to be told that NASA will be sending in some square-jawed specimens to take the charter trip. They arrange what amounts to a stealth midnight intergalactic panty raid to plant their flag on Planet Zero, only to come back, after making contact with that distant site’s green, sentient energy field, with their own unique mutation. That, of course, only escalates the government’s interest in their affairs.
It’s nearly an hour into the movie before Mr. Fantastic, Thing, Invisible Woman, and Human Torch receive and cultivate their gifts, by which point the movie has utterly squandered all that languorous time perversely refusing to offer its quartet any defining character traits. At one point, Victor jealously pulls Reed away from Sue after spying the two smiling at each other in the lab. But Reed and Sue weren’t flirting, and there’s no indication Victor and Sue have ever sparked in the past either. Reed and Ben mutually call the other their best friend more often than they actually spend any screen time together. In fact, beyond the blocking that puts the foursome in each other’s physical proximity, no one is doing much of anything together here, which is an awfully futile foundation upon which to build a new franchise. And when the movie’s final “What should we call ourselves?” banter between the team cheekily cuts to the title card, you realize with disappointment that you’ve basically just sat through the longest pre-credits prologue ever.