The knives have been out for Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four since the get-go with the kind of vigour usually reserved for the work of Brett Ratner, but hey, a film can really only be judged on one thing.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are on the verge of perfecting interdimensional travel in their high school science project. An impressed Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey) recruits Reed for a government-funded project that’s been working on the same idea, joining Franklin’s kids Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B Jordan), as well as abrasive prodigy Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).
The feds want to take it out of their hands when they succeed, so, on a drunken impulse, they travel through…but something goes terribly wrong. When they return, each of their bodies has transformed.
Given that Trank made Chronicle, it’s not a surprise to find a similarly grounded approach to Marvel’s first family here. It’s invested in telling the story of how these characters came to be heroes; we can’t remember the last time we saw a big comic book movie so determinedly grounded, literally. The bulk of the film takes place either in the Baxter building’s lab or in the government facility where the four are housed post-transformation. Some viewers may find it slow and uneventful, but we were fully immersed and that’s in large part due to the terrific cast.
And it’s refreshing to see a comic book movie with such a tight focus. We’re invested in their journey because Trank takes the time to show us the importance of their work, from Reed and Ben’s first experiment (a little reminiscent of Joe Dante’s Explorers), to the painful, terrifying consequences of their discovery (why, hello, Cronenberg influences). It’s only really when there’s a jarring switch to the superhero movie playbook late in the game that things go very wrong.
At a brisk 98 minutes, the film doesn’t really push the four leads to their limits, but the well-chosen actors impress, finding small moments to connect. The idea that each of them are stronger together is predominant; alone they’re mostly subdued or introverted, with the exception of Jordan’s confident, charismatic Johnny and Kebbell’s obnoxious Victor. Teller convinces as a genius who doesn’t realise he nearly destroyed the whole world from his garage, and he works well with the whole cast, particularly Bell, whose successfully conveys Ben’s quiet protectiveness, and Mara, who finds Susan’s warmth and strength.
Their likeability and chemistry is a tremendous asset and it plays into Trank’s biggest, most interesting addition to the year’s superhero movie output: body horror. The sequence on the distant planet, when things go horribly wrong, is gripping. Their traumatic return is powerful, shocking and moving. With so much emphasis placed on the excitement and responsibility that comes with superpowers, showing us four people who are scared and in pain isn’t just a breath of fresh air, it feels human.
Ben desperately crying out for help from under the rubble that is now his body, an unconscious Johnny burning like a funeral pyre, Reed grotesquely stretched out on operating table…this doesn’t feel like something Marvel would be comfortable showing us. This is interesting and dammit, it’s different.
So it’s a real shame that the third act is such an abrupt disappointment. The appearance of the film’s villain will be divisive, and after watching the film work hard to stand out from the crowd and succeeding, it’s sad to see it fall face-first onto the waiting pitchforks of viewers willing it to fail with a rushed, poorly written, punishingly weak final set-piece that’s really the only action sequence in the movie.
There’s no denying that Fantastic Four has problems. The dialogue occasionally clunks, and (rarely for a superhero film) it feels too short. And that ending…that ending is bad, but there’s a lot to admire here. It’s affecting, it’s thoughtful, it’s often gripping and it is different. Despite its faults, if you’re wearying of comic book movie homogeneity, this is worth taking a chance on.