By Nathan Lerner
In 1961, before The Avengers emerged, Fantastic Four became the first superhero team in the stable of Marvel Comics characters. Back then, Marvel Comics was a mere subdivision of Atlas Publications. It was battling unsuccessfully for market share against the better established, more popular DC Comics. The latter featured such stalwarts as Superman and Batman. The Fantastic Four launched the rise of Marvel Comics as a viable challenger to the hegemony of DC Comics.
Is it already time for a reboot of “Fantastic Four?” After all, it’s been only a decade since the prior “Fantastic Four” was adapted for the screen, and a mere eight years since its sequel, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” In the interim, The Avengers and their component characters generated a panoply of box office blockbusters. Could Hollywood producers resist a reboot of the “Fantastic Four” franchise? Obviously not.
The new iteration of “Fantastic Four” extracts elements from the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby graphic novel as well the cinematic precursors. However, it offers a somewhat revised origin story, which dates back to the childhoods of Reed Richards and his friend, Ben Grimm.
Here, Reed (Owen Judge as a child) is an unappreciated science prodigy, growing up in the Oyster Bay, outside of New York City. As the film opens, Reed is at the front of his grade school class, discoursing on the inventions that he is working on in his garage. His pinch-faced teacher denounces Reed as a confabulator and humiliates him in front of his peers. At home, things are no better. Reed’s mother and stepfather demonstrate little affection or affinity for him.
Eager to harvest parts for the inventions that he is designing, young Reed sneaks onto a local scrap yard. There, he is confronted by one of his classmates, Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann as a child), whose family operates the facility and lives in an adjoining hovel. Like Reed, Ben is regarded with disdain by his family. The two lost souls forge a friendship.
Fast forward a few years. Reed has entered his invention, a cyber matter transporter, into a local science fair. When he demonstrates the machine, there is a malfunction and he is disqualified from the competition.
However, Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey from television’s “The Wire”) recognizes Reed’s genius and recruits him to the prestigious Baxter Institute. There, Reed is surrounded by fellow smartniks. This includes Sue (Kate Mara), Dr. Storm’s adopted daughter. Reed flourishes in this talent incubator.
Meanwhile, Dr. Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan from “Fruitvale Station”) has become a hotrod racing thrill-seeker. After a roadside accident, Johnny is arrested. Dr. Storm must go to the police station to enable his son’s release from prison.
In addition to Reed, Dr. Storm had mentored another promising lad, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebble). However, the Baxter Institute had expelled Victor for his anti-authoritarian attitudes and misconduct. Dr. Storm visits Victor and convinces him to return to the Baxter Institute.
Reed’s vision becomes a reality and a giant rocket ship is constructed. Reed, Ben, Johnny and Victor don space suits and travel to an alien time space continuum. Sue is left behind to monitor them from a computer screen.
When a series of explosions erupt, the four space voyagers attempt to retreat. However, Victor falls into a pit and is left behind. Can he possibly survive after he is marooned on this alien terrain?
As a result of exposure to cosmic rays, the three survivors develop superpowers. Reed can stretch and contort his body is a wide permutation of dimensions and configurations. Johnny can break into flames and fly. Ben’s flesh turns into a stone-like component, which imbues him with superhuman strength.
Sue wasn’t even on the space flight. However, the film posits that by monitoring her comrades on a computer screen, she was somehow exposed to the cosmic rays. As a result, Sue can now turn invisible and create energy fields.
This version of “Fantastic Four” is a decidedly uneven film. Does this perhaps reflect the divergent pedigrees of the three screenwriters? Josh Trank made his feature debut with the well-regarded, lost footage film, “Chronicle.” The film was made on a modest $12 million budget, but yielded a gross of $125 million worldwide. Simon Kinberg’s background is with the “X-Men” series. This film limns the theme of adolescent alienation that pervades that franchise. Jeremy Slater is culpable for “The Lazarus Effect,” an execrable affair.
The film is demarcated into two components. The first half details the respective backgrounds of the various characters. In the second half, it abandons the character dominated prelude and devolves into a succession of unconvincing CGI set pieces.
As Reed Richards, Miles Teller is bland and totally lacking in any palpable charisma. Early in the film, Jamie Bell is fine as Reed’s best friend, Ben. However, once Ben is transmogrified into an ambulatory rock formation, there is little that Bell can do as an actor to humanize his character.
The filmmakers’ efforts to racially diversify the cast is laudable. It provides an African-American as the benevolent Dr. Storm. Reg E. Cathey brings a great sense of gravitas and empathy to that role. He helps anchor the film narratively in its first half. As his son, Johnny, Michael B. Jordan captures his character’s rebellious nature. The depiction of the father-son relationship and Dr. Storm’s efforts to steer Johnny in the right direction is engaging. The dynamic embodies a poignancy that is rare for a comic book adaptation.
The film accounts for the seeming incongruity of Sue Storm being white by explaining that she was an orphan from Kosovo, who was adopted by Dr. Storm. Beyond that, she lacks any back story or character development. This screenplay squanders an opportunity to develop numerous potentially interesting story lines. What was it like for her to hail from a war-torn Balkan country, which was full of divisive ethnic tensions, then grow up in the household of an African-American family? The film studiously ignores the issue and Sue remains a total cipher. As Sue, Kate Mara lacks any screen presence. She delivers a disconcertingly wooden performance. Her intrinsic dullness makes it difficult to accept the premise that both Reed and Victor are apparently attracted to her.
The strongest part of the film is the musical score. Composed by Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass, it is masterful work. Indeed, the score is so strong that it provides a distraction from the film’s manifest shortcomings.
Because of the film’s deviations from the source text, devotees of the comic book version will be predisposed to dislike this film. Indeed, many fanboys have ventured onto the internet to author venomous tirades against this “Fantastic Four.”
For those, who have no emotional investment in the subject matter, “Fantastic Four” offers nothing more than an inconsequential, marginally entertaining vehicle, which is eclipsed by other recent Marvel fare.
**1/2 PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, and language) 106 minutes. 20th Century Fox
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.