The Fantastic Four are Marvel's original Atomic Age superteam, a colorful collection of misfits with freakish powers courtesy of an outer-space mishap. Over the years the Four have given nemesis Dr. Doom the business time and again, and they were among Marvel's biggest sellers in their heyday.
But they can't seem to catch a break at the movies.
The new, leaden-footed Fantastic Four arrives 10 years after the mind-numbing 2005 model; there was also a B-movie version back in 1994, which at least had the novelty of producer Roger Corman's cheesy B-movie aesthetic. They're all bad.
The amazing (but not fantastic) thing about the latest: It follows none of the leads established by all the passable superhero movies of the past few years. It's as if it looked at possible templates for excitement and willfully decided to go for something more disjointed and boring.
The movie starts with some promise, as a young Reed Richards and his buddy Ben Grimm dabble in science experiments that leave their environs smoking and short-circuited. These early scenes have a touch of The Goonies or Spielberg, a kids-against-the-world element that promises something fun. Then everyone grows up, and Fantastic Four quickly becomes a drag.
Reed (Miles Teller) is recruited to join an idealistic research institute run by Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, wonderful as Frank Underwood's barbecue confidante on House of Cards). They have a big teleportation project working, spearheaded by Reed and other bright kids including Storm's adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara), and the brooding Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Rounding out the crew are Storm's son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and Reed's old chum Ben (Jamie Bell).
If you've read the comics you know these folks become Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, Dr. Doom, The Human Torch and The Thing. What you don't expect is how slowly and inconsequentially this all comes to pass. They teleport to another dimension. They aren't ready for it. They escape back to Earth, where they brood and get exploited by nefarious military types (including Tim Blake Nelson as a researcher who chews gum while he sneers). They put aside their differences and save the world. And there's barely a whiff of thrill to any of it.
Fantastic Four strives for heft without coming close to earning it. It's ponderous without ever threatening to become smart.
It's hard to imagine at what point the filmmakers thought they had something good on their hands here. It couldn't have been when they saw the script, which plods along with herky-jerky joylessness. Maybe it was the design of the fourth dimension, except it looks like a generic visitation from the ghost of sci-fi movies past.
Perhaps everyone was seduced by the gifted young cast, all of whom have done great work in smaller films (Jordan was in the superior superpowers movie Chronicle, helmed by Fantastic Four director Josh Trank).
In any case, this Fantastic Four is already banking on some degree of success: A sequel is planned for 2017. Suchis life in the Marvel movie universe, which rides a roster of brand names and allbut prints money. The Four gang might want to go back to the lab if they'd like to actually earn those greenbacks.
Fantastic Four (C-)
Directed by Josh Trank. PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, and language). 100 mins. In wide release.