Watching the newest Fantastic Four is like watching one of your best friends perform at the high school talent show. Leading up to the show you can’t help but be nervous. The rehearsals….weren’t good and all signs point to a huge failure (plus your memory of the last show doesn’t give much confidence). But you hold out hope until the show starts, ignoring the signs and hoping for the best. And then it starts. And it’s awful. Way worse than you expected. In my theater people started laughing early at the terrible dialogue and Mr. Fantastic’s CGIed contorting. For the first few minutes I held out hope that things would improve. Leading up to the movie I read all sixty issues of the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic from which the movie ostensibly draws inspiration. I’ve never invested more time to a movie than I did this reboot. Which makes its complete failure just depressing.
The word’s out by now. Early reviews warned us and the weekend box office confirms that this movie is garbage. Part of me wants to watch it again to perform a movie autopsy and figure out how things went so wrong. Its biggest flaw may be its ambition. With only 106 minutes it tries to squeeze in five backstories, two villains, one romance and the destruction of two worlds. Fantastic Four may suffer more from its origin story than any other Marvel flick (all of which were reviewed earlier this year in Flashback/Backslide’s Marvel Blogathon). We stumble through ten years of backstory that ultimately gives no payoff (the only real plot point gained is the friendship between Ben Grimm and Reed Richards. But we didn’t need to see the two grow up together to empathize with either later in the movie. It would be better just to have Reed say something like “Oh hey here’s my old buddy Ben Grimm. We’re best buds. Trust me”). The middle third of the movie feels even like more backstory. Grimm works for the government, Johnny Storm tries to break some records, and Sue Storm…listens to music? And the worst short-cuts are taken. Instead of trimming the back story down, the initial “experiment” that leadd to their powers is abbreviated in a way that makes Reed more guilty than he needs to be (in the comics Grimm is accidentally involved. Here a drunk Reed explicitly puts Grimm in harm’s way. Plus Sue is left on the sidelines and bails out the boys instead of being directly involved, stripping away the strength of the character by making her a secondary piece. Sue Storm might be one of the strongest women in the Marvel Universe, both in power-set and in personality so it’s disappointing to see her simplified.
What the movie did finally prove to me is how hard it is to adapt these characters. The most obvious issue is the visuals. In comic-form, Mr. Fantastic’s stretching and the Thing’s everything look great and engaging. In movies the best you can hope for is that they are passably realistic. Even more damning is the characters themselves. This movie pairs socially awkward genius Reed Richards with a distant Sue Storm, adds a gruff Ben Grimm, badass Johnny Storm and constantly serious Dr. Storm. No pairing exists between these five that leads to a normal conversation. Reed’s awkwardness in comics translates to bad writing or bad acting on-screen. Once Grimm turns into the Thing he spends the rest of the movie grumbling. The three Storms exchange awkward conversations about living up to their potential or why being a bad boy is bad. There’s no fun to be had between these five and we haven’t even started talking about the villains. There are two villains here. One is Doctor Doom who pops up toward the end of the movie (by now I was just hoping the movie would finally die a merciful death). Doom’s physical appearance fits better in network TV than it does a big budget action film. His ADRed dialogue is somehow even worse than Dr. Storm’s disappointed pep talks. Our second villain is the military-industrial complex which takes the form of Kimmy Schmidt’s now tyrannical stepfather. The heroes have to “play ball” with the military if they want “to go back to their normal lives” even though they know they are “just being used.” Between the heroes, the villains, and the henchmen, every line in this movie is either awkward banter and apocalyptic one liners.
Does my disappointment stem from my anticipation? Yes, somewhat. This movie hit me like a punch in the gut. I don’t think I’ve had this much post-movie depression in years. Honestly, I walked around the streets of Boston for almost an hour trying to figure out what went wrong. Josh Trank already appears to be distancing himself from the movie and rumors have spread that Fox cut out chunks of the film. That has to be true because the theatrical cut is dumbfounding. But missing pieces alone can’t explain everything. The movie already tries to squeeze in so much in that everything ends up worthless with no payoffs. Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast called it a two-hour trailer to a movie that never happens. That’s no exaggeration, nothing ever happens. Scratch that. Things happen, but we have no reason to care. So unless Fox took out a few fight scenes or some levity, I can’t see the full cut being much better. Twenty more minutes wouldn’t make the dialogue any less clunky or artificial. It might help explain some insane character choices but you would need over an hour to make this mess worth watching. After 100 minutes all I wanted to do was to leave.
Bottom-Line: The most depressing movie I’ve seen since Requiem for a Dream. Watching this feels like watching a movie at home and flipping back and forth from a golf tournament. Huge pieces are missing, everything is boring, and you just want it to all to stop.