The history of the Fantastic Four movie franchise is checkered enough to awe a racing flag. A mid-’90s, low budget attempt to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s famed comic superhero team to the big screen was never actually released (an incredible saga detailed in the forthcoming documentary Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four). The pair of limp, Chris Evans-starring films that did reach cinemas—2005’s Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer—now just resemble lengthy audition tapes for the actor’s subsequent gig as Captain America. In short, this Josh Trank-directed reboot had a very low hurdle to overcome to become the best FF movie so far. The most fantastical aspect of the movie is that it may not achieve that goal.
Miles Teller stars as teen-scientist Reed Richards who, with help from high school buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), invents an inter-dimensional transportation device in his family’s garage. Richards’ machine attracts the attention of Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey from House of Cards) who invites the prodigy to join his Manhattan-based college-cum-research facility. Michael B. Jordan is Storm’s similarly bright-but-mildly delinquent son Johnny while Kate Mara is his adopted daughter Sue, whose birth mother might well be Rachel Dratch’s Saturday Night Live character Debbie Downer given her no-fun demeanor. Villain-wise, the great Tim Blake Nelson is a gum-chewing, military-friendly scientist and Toby Kebbell is Victor von Doom, a sulky former protégée of Storm who transforms into something much more evil after he, Richards, and Johnny take an unauthorized inter-dimensional trip. That jaunt also gifts superpowers to our four heroes, despite the fact that Sue stays at home, presumably to work on her scowly-face.
That’s a pretty terrific group of actors—but they are given precious little to do in this clunky origin story. Teller showed more emotion sweating over his drum kit in Whiplash than do the combined cast in the film’s first half, and matters actually get worse once Doom begins to wreak havoc. There are some nice—by which we mean nasty—nods towards Cronenbergian body horror after the Four gain their powers, which at first seem more like horrific illnesses. And, in fairness, the film is not bad bad, although it might have been more fun if it were. Mostly, Fantastic Four is just hard work, a reflection, one assumes, of its famously difficult production. Trank’s previous movie, 2012’s found-footage superhero film Chronicle, had a nicely light step. Fantastic Four is as heavy-footed as Ben Grimm once he gets turned into The Thing. To quote one character—and it is perhaps instructive that, less than 24 hours after seeing the film, your writer is not sure which—the talent involved has “the potential and the IQ to do so much more.”