RECAP: Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four (2015): Josh Trank
When does 1+1+1+1=53? When Fantastic Four finishes 53rd at the US box office in its year of release.
Fox released a reboot of the mildly successful duology featuring, yes, that Chris Evans. In casting Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, and Kate Mara, the studio captured some of Hollywood’s hottest young talent.
They tossed in the director, Josh Trank, of an off-beat superhero success, Chronicle, to make an un-Marvel superhero movie.
They made an un-Marvel superhero movie. Turns out the public wasn’t interested.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Four fantastic folks fight for friendship while single slithery scientist teleports terrain to new planet.
Up-and-coming actor Miles Teller portrays up-and-coming scientist Reed Richards of middle class New York City. We know Richards is smart because he wears glasses.
We first meet Richards as a boy, a young boy, when he announces to his fifth-grade class at career day that he will be the first person to teleport. The kids mock him, saying things like, “Everyone knows that you can’t teleport matter until you quantify the vibration levels in the quark strings, dork wad.” Kids can be cruel. Also, his teacher makes him do the assignment over.
But that doesn’t deter young Richards. Turns out he’s built a quantum teleporter in his garage. Sorry, not that, but a “biomatter shuttle.” What he lacks is power. To solve this problem, he must teleport himself to a junkyard the old-fashioned way: on foot.
Richards succeeds in his experiment to move a toy car to another dimension. Seven years later, at the high school science fair, he and his partner from Day One, Ben Grimm (Jaime Bell), teleport a toy plane. In doing so, they are disqualified by their teacher, the same teacher they had in fifth grade.
The world is always holding Richards down, except at the Baxter Institute, where Richards goes next. There Richards meets a team of young, on-the-spectrum science geniuses like himself, all eager to solve the insoluble: teleportation.
One thing Richards understands that his companions do not is teamwork. He learned to lean on others for help at an early age, and even though his buddy Grimm isn’t with him at Baxter, Richards texts him and even gets him on the inaugural human use of the Quantum Gate (the name for the teleportation device).
He’s all for the teamwork, even if he wants the glory for himself. Or at least some glory.
When the quartet of Richards, Grimm, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) land on the Planet Zero, they do a little exploring.
Richards is the one pushing them to go just a little further. He tells Grimm that “it’s important” they study the planet, as if Grimm doesn’t understand that.
Assuming people are stupider than he is a character flaw of Richards’. Or maybe not. The kid is a genius, and, thus, most people are stupider than he. But does he have to rub it in? He explains to Sue Storm (Kate Mara) the characters and plot of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as if the Verne novel was not one of the most famous ever written. Of course she knows of it.
When he meets geniuses on his level, Richards accepts their praise of his device designs as if being handed a napkin at a party. Then they drop the bomb on him–his designs only impressed upon them in that they didn’t create an Earth-sucking black hole. Richards is never hurt by these sentiments, only showing malaise.
Stretchy Mr. Fantastic Reed Richards is a similar animal. He can stretch, like, a lot. But he stretched his way right out of the holding facility after returning from Planet Zero.
Richards hid for a year, trying to find his rocking friend The Thing, and what else we don’t know. He’s recaptured and forced to help finish Quantum Gate Two, which will send people, this time astronauts, back to Planet Zero.
When it goes awry, after they recover Von Doom, Richards is the clear leader. He has a plan to defeat Dr. Doom, and he talks his team into doing it. He likes teamwork, but only if it’s his team.
Victor Von Doom is a troublemaker from the start. Before we see him, he’s discussed in a Baxter Initiative board meeting. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) wants to bring Von Doom back to the teleport team.
Turns out the guy set fire to Franklin’s servers last time they were together. So, he’s a bit of a heel. Franklin visits Von Doom to re-recruit him.
Von Doom’s flat is a nice place, if you dig multiple screens and self-loathing. We find Von Doom wearing a strange headset with a metal piece resting on his right eyebrow. He watches, among other things, videos of fighting games. At least he listens to classical.
The apartment has a digital lock that Von Doom manipulates as if by magic, or, perhaps, that weird eye piece. He uses it to allow Franklin to enter. He knows why Franklin is there before the latter opens his mouth. Von Doom thinks someone has stolen his designs.
Franklin tells him that just because someone else thought of an idea doesn’t mean it was stolen. (Try telling that to Isaac Newton.) Von Doom is coldly distant during their talk, and soon we’ll understand why. But he does agree to return to the team, because of a lady.
Von Doom dislikes Richards from moment one. Actually, he seems to dislike everyone, period, except Sue Storm. You know how some people live up to their names? You see a Brian and think, “That’s a Brian.” Or you see a Tiffany and think the same. Victor Von Doom is definitely a Doom.
They would have to redefine “dour” to describe this guy. He offers an ethos, believing the world is going to shit, and perhaps it’s time someone came along and cleansed it. He might be a genius scientist, but student of history he is not. “Cleansing” is a a watchword of countless despots for millennia. (Von Doom’s character flaws support the benefits of a well rounded education.)
Von Doom spends a year alone on Planet Zero. In that time he’s fully engaged with the planet, calling it his new home. He’s brought back to Earth, of course, and promised a cure for his, uh, condition, of greenness, but he refuses. Planet Zero is his world now, and he wants to go back.
Dr. Doom’s manipulation of matter excels. He can literally explode brains, but he never tries that with the Fantastic Four. It’s never clear if he can’t do it, or if he wants to beat them the old-fashioned way: by crushing them with rocks or sucking them into his interdimensional laser ray.
The only positive thing going for Von Doom is his crush on Sue. He sees Richards getting too friendly with her, and calls him out as being “unprofessional.” Later, he will give the finger to the Board of Directors, the people who fund his experiments. How’s that for being unprofessional?
Uh, what action?
Fantastic Four strikes me as an attempt to make an action movie without any action. I’ll do my best Mr. Fantastic impression and stretch one sequence into two.
Victor Von Doom is rescued from Planet Zero. “Rescue” might be the wrong word, because he never wanted to leave. Since he was somehow hooded on the planet, we don’t see him fully until he’s stretched out on an exam table in Area 57.
Baxter Board Guy is the first to address him. He could not condescend more. He wears a biosuit and observes Von Doom, telling him that his biosuit melded with his body. “We’re working on that,” Board Guy says. He also tells Von Doom that they are working to figure out how he survived on the other planet for a year.
Board Guy speaks to one of Earth’s smartest humans as if the latter was waking from a coma, as if he did not know how he survived a year on another planet, as if he believed that Earth’s military scientists could find a way to separate the man from the biosuit.
Von Doom, now embracing the persona of Dr. Doom, speaks without moving his lips. Did I mention that he pulses green? He does. It’s baller. All Doom wants is to return to the loving embrace of the world that sustained him for a year. He might have the world’s worst case of Stockholm Syndrome, but Doom does have a point–he has a friend, in Planet Zero, that he didn’t on Earth.
Dr. Doom has a more direct manner of speaking than in the above paragraph–he melts Board Guy’s head from the inside out. Alarms sound. Some guys with guns stop by. Doom calmly walks through the compound, searching for the quantum gate. He makes soldiers’ brains explode by thinking it. Some shoot at him, but Doom has a green forcefield to deflect the bullets.
The Fantastic Four are alerted and creep toward the commotion. Except for Ben Grimm, the others have not been tested against foes. In his reticence, Johnny comes around a corner and flame balls his sister, who has her shield up. They team up, but not soon enough to prevent Doom from finding the gate.
Franklin Storm is there. He tries to talk Doom out of returning to Planet Zero, tries to convince him that he has friends. We all know that’s not true. “I have always been alone,” Doom says, through motionless lips. If the world destroying doesn’t work out, he could give Jeff Dunham a run for his money. Doom nuke-brains the eldest Storm and returns to Planet Zero.
The film’s most important scene, obviously, occurs on Planet Zero when the scientists drunkenly decide to be the first to step there. Imagine Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin having a shot contest to be the first human on the moon. (Perhaps they did, and Buzz got his name because he couldn’t hold his liquor as well as Neil.)
Johnny, Grimm (invited to see the initial test), Von Doom, and Richards suit up and board the teleportation machine. They set the quantum gate to work remotely, a feature I can’t imagine would actually be designed. Anyway, they go through the quantum gate.
Planet Zero, as it will later be dubbed, is a rocky volcano pulsing with green energy. Green energy is always ominous, and the geniuses should have known that.
They walk around the landing site. Far in the distance is a cliff and a river of green energy. Impulsively (drunkenly? When did they sober up?), three of them decide to rappel down the cliff and investigate. Johnny stays near the teleportation machine to anchor the men.
Grimm, reluctant from first drink, pleads with Richards to turn back, but the scientist dismisses him, saying that it’s important, as if Grimm can’t understand.
Von Doom reaches the first green pool. He bends and touches it. “It’s alive,” he says, like a nerve ending. But it doesn’t like being touched. The three men run back to the cliff and climb fast. The green energy chases them, engulfing Von Doom like alien acid blood.
Back in New York, Sue hears the alarms of a quantum gate usage and rushes to the control panel. She discerns what’s happened, but the comms won’t work and she can’t see if the men are in the pod or not.
Without Von Doom, the other three re-enter the capsule. The planet is angry. The pod rocks. Grimm can’t keep his door shut. The others are in trouble. The comms come back and Sue starts the teleportation sequence. She gets them back, but not before Grimm is crushed with rocks, Richards gets stretched, and Johnny burns. New York loses power.
The next scene cleverly hides their powers. We hear Grimm’s voice from beneath a rubble pile that is actually him. Richards, his foot caught beneath a beam, crawls toward his friend, but his body conceals his stretching leg for several moments. Sue and Johnny flicker in opposing ways.
Trank seemed set to make an anti-superhero film. The Fantastic Four get their powers, but they are more burdens than powers. No one is happy about their new skill sets. The exception is Johnny Storm, but he spends as much time clashing with his father, as he did before he caught fire.
Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards, is only one member of the Fantastic Four. They sure are a dour bunch.
Ben Grimm is Richards’ friend from fifth grade. Grimm is a member of a family that owns a junkyard. We first meet him in grade school, on the same day that he befriends Richards.
Grimm is the truest form of sidekick. He sees the world through the lens of his perceived better–Reed Richards. Though Grimm has been by Richards’s side for years, he will not hesitate to break the friendship.
Shortly after accepting the invitation to join the Baxter Institute, Reed and Ben enter Baxter for the first time. Technically, only Richards got the invite, but Grimm came along as all buddies do.
They enter Richards’s swanky dorm room overlooking Manhattan. The esteemed scientist, nonplussed as ever, puts down his bags as Grimm takes in the view.
Richards opens a gift from Grimm. It’s a going away present, he says. Grimm knows that Richards is where he belongs, and he knows it before the (sarcastic voice) world-famous scientist knows it.
The pair part ways for a while, long enough for Richards to meet his other friends–the Storm siblings, Sue, adopted from Kosovo, and her brother Johnny.
Sue, already ensconced in the teleportation project, shows little interest in Richards. Reed encounters Sue in the library early in his tenure, and he sits across from her at a table.
Sue, annoyed but not showing it, takes out an earbud (of Portishead) to talk to Richards. “Is music your thing?” he asks her, as if LIKING MUSIC was a niche thing. How out of tune is this guy? Sour times in the library.
She explains that she likes patterns and can recognize them in almost anything. She will later use that skill to locate an off-the-grid Richards. The music helps her to think, to recognize those patterns.
Sue’s brother Johnny “can build anything.” Father Franklin forces Johnny to work off an exploded car at Baxter. Johnny isn’t too interested in working for dad. He’s not interested in much except rebelling against father.
Franklin, not Johnny, knows what’s best for Johnny, if you listen to Franklin. Of course Johnny doesn’t want to hear that. When it’s clear he enjoys working with sis and pa, he discounts it, saying, “I’m just here to get my car back.”
That changes when he gains the power to be on fire and to fly. Johnny is eager to get into the field and fight the bad guys like his rocking friend The Thing.
Franklin, afraid for his son, tries to dissuade him. He says Johnny doesn’t know what the government will use him for. Johnny pushes back, angry that his father is trying to stop him after Johnny finally found something to be proud of.
The actors playing the Fantastic Four did as they were told–be grim. They succeeded, but it hardly helped the film.
Victor Von Doom claims solo status several times in Fantastic Four. Yet, another, less powerful, bad guy lurks. Tim Blake Nelson plays Dr. Allen, but I prefer to call him Baxter Board Guy, Board Guy for short.
Board Guy opposes Franklin Storm in involving Victor Von Doom in the Quantum Gate project. That Board Guy was correct in his assessment doesn’t make him less of a jerk. Board Guy is more than eager to use the fantastic powers acquired by the young scientists, and he surely slavered over Von Doom’s green body toward the film’s end.
Board Guy represents all that movies have taught me to be immoral about corporate boards–they are cowardly, greedy, remorseless, risk-averse, and generally against progress. Yes, some of those adjectives contradict, but that’s just what makes these board types so infuriating.
Also, scarves. Board Guy greets a plane while wearing a scarf and toboggan, never ever a non-villainous appearance.
If you’re thinking that a film with scarce action would also lack stunts, you’re right.
Johnny blazes through a street course early in the film. The race was not bad, tearing through side streets and ducking oncoming traffic, until Johnny’s engine explodes. The race was meant to show that Johnny takes risks, is poor, and nothing else.
And…that’s about it. The best fight scene is the film’s only one, and it comes as the government tries to capture Richards in central America.
Sue, using her pattern recognition powers, tracks Richards to his shack hideout. (Richards has a Crazy Board for tracking The Thing, but it’s only a half-Crazy Board, because it lacks the lines connecting the images and news clippings. Richards is a genius and doesn’t need the lines.)
A team of special operatives choppers in to capture Richards with non-lethal shotgun bullets. They surround Richards in the woods. Richards uses his stretch abilities to dodge bullets fired at his torso. He fends off one guy while punching another ten yards behind him.
Just when this fight scene is heating up, The Thing drops in to chide his former friend and clobber him unconscious.
Fantastic Four is about a team of scientists coming together to fight an alien menace. It’s a full hour before that menace shows up, sure, but the menace is there.
Dr. Doom returns to Earth through the Quantum Gate 2. Of all his crimes in this movie, perhaps Von Doom’s greatest is in calling himself “Doctor” without the requisite degree. That and the murders.
After some havoc caused on Earth, Doom returns to his beloved Planet Zero through the gate. On that planet, he uses the rocks to form some kind of interdimensional space laser. I can’t begin to explain how he did this. In a story based on the fact of quantum teleportation, one that jumped to human teleportation in a believable manner, Doom’s transport-through-the-sky globe-destroying technique doesn’t hold water. Oy veh.
The movie continues. The dimensional laser shoots through the skies of the two planets, and on Earth it connects with Area 57, the landing spot of Doom’s return to Earth after a year of absence. Somehow this laser shoots through a hole between dimensions, one large enough for the Fantastic Four.
The scientists need to get over to Planet Zero. Richards and Thing-mode Grimm stay inside Sue’s protective force field. Johnny flames on and flies behind. Together they squeak through the hole and land on Planet Zero.
Doom, hooded and in full teenage-Anakin mode, stands on a floating piece of rock. Planet Zero seethes beneath and around him. Richards addresses him as Victor. The scientist says, “There is no Victor; there is only Doom.”
Each hero tries to individually attack Doom. Johnny flies at him. Doom uses thousands of pebbles to surround Johnny and debilitate him. The Thing runs at Doom, who sends giant boulders to weigh down the rock-man. Sue, invisible, floats around in her field. Doom flings rocks outward until enough stick to her sphere that she’s effectively seen. This technique is called the Last Crusade visibility trick.
Richards pops in to punch his former coworker down into a crevasse. That breaks Doom’s holds on the other three, allowing them to team up and concoct a plan, and by that I mean listen to Richards’s plan. Meanwhile, cars, trees, tarmacs and more are all being sucked through the gate onto Planet Zero.
Richards tells them that they don’t want to be on the planet, that they don’t want to be the heroes with powers. But, “maybe it’s who we’re meant to be.”
Doom pops up after 127 seconds in the crevasse. The Four enact their plan. Johnny flames on and enters Sue’s force field. Sue speeds into Doom, which distracts him just long enough for Richards to use his secret weapon–punching with long arms. That fails completely, and Doom has Richards in a choke hold easily.
But wait, he meant to do that! Doom taunts Richards, saying he was never the smart one. “I am smarter than you,” Richards retorts. The Thing says, “It’s clobberin’ time,” and pummels into Doom. The faux-doctor, and not Richards, flies into the dimensional laser as Johnny flies around the three stone pylons, destroying them. Somehow the laser dissolves Doom.
Sue and Johnny help Richards and The Thing fly through the collapsing portal to find Earth survived, but a huge crater exists were Area 57 once was.
The climax ticked off the boxes of a hero team climax. They used their individual powers unsuccessfully, and, in teaming up, defeated Doom. The villain used his powers, but they were not quite enough alone. Perhaps Doom’s failing was a lack of creativity–he only used rocks to attack the Four. On Earth he made brains explode; could he not do that to the Four; could he not do that on his planet? We never learned.
The climax failed because it didn’t do enough to get the juices flowing. I’m not saying “More explosions!” I’m calling for more creativity and higher stakes. I never thought rocks would defeat the Fantastic Four.
What a dour film Fantastic Four was. I don’t expect scientists to be the chummiest bunch, but these geeks were downright pissed. Von Doom and Johnny sneered their way through most scenes. Mara owns a permanent acrid look she can’t be rid of.
How can a movie featuring Dirty Dee, dammit, the Tim from Tim and Eric, and the voice of Homer Simpson not be funny? Fantastic Four is how.
Johnny gives it the old college try. He cracks jokes, but not smiles. You’d think he was in full Creed mode playing a guy who is literally on fire. (Being on fire opens up so many sports-related jokes, enough to expand the script a dozen pages. Fantastic Four ain’t that kind of movie.)
Johnny wants to post to Instagram. He’s only at the Baxter Institute to earn back his car. He exposes Richards’s supreme uncool when trying to fist bump. He tried, but the film’s GRAVITAS was too much throw off with light banter.
Planet Zero is a hot world full of explosive lava, green energy, and rocks. Tons and tons and tons of rocks. It’s a setting as unpleasant as Fantastic Four.
It’s the perfect place for Victor Von Doom. He’s cast his back on Earth, leaving it to the destroyers and politicians. He would have made a great Bernie supporter. Von Doom chooses a staid planet, but one that has sustained him for a year. It might be his world, but it ain’t mine.
Much of the film is set inside the lab at Baxter and the lab/holding cell at Area 57. The government facility is dark and sterile. Baxter pulses with life. These are interesting choices that probably mean more than they were supposed to.
The young scientists enjoy (as much as these characters can enjoy) their time at Baxter: laughing, drinking, even coming close to making jokes. At Area 57, after they’ve gained powers, it’s all business.
I didn’t “like” these places, but they were effective for the movie.
Von Doom appears to be the lone person willing to speak about his current world. He suffers in his teched-out apartment, alone, bemoaning the state of the world.
Von Doom is convinced that our world is currently in the downward pull of water draining a toilet. He believes, we’re due for a cleanse.
Though he makes casual allusions to climate change, Von Doom doesn’t rail against any specific policy of the older generation. Franklin Storm, always the mitigator, accepts blame for the problems of “our generation” while he begs the young scientists to fix it. Such vagaries barely register.
Fantastic Four avoids casting its characters in stereotypes. Johnny Storm races terrible, terrible cars. Sue Storm was adopted from eastern Europe.
- One of the drag racers ridicules Johnny’s car behind the wheel of a Honda CRX.
- Sue listens to Portishead. I listen to Portishead. Dope.
- Board Guy presents a powerpoint to the Pentagon. On it, our planet is labeled “Earth.” That’s an all-time “Duh” moment.
Summary (23/68): 34%
Fantastic Four failed to deliver any thrills. Trank and company apparently sought to change the basic narrative structure of superhero movies–glossing over the powers-getting and focusing on the intellectual and emotional conflicts of the team members from the start.
The set up would have worked on a three-hour film. This one’s half that. The third act feels as rushed as the first two stagnate. The idea behind the movie should be lauded. Its execution failed.