Friday, August 7, 2015

Fantastic Four: Doomed

Fantastic Four (2015) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

When some movies go wrong, they really go wrong.

Given the care with which the Marvel Comics Group has shepherded recent projects to the big screen, I’m amazed they ever let this atrocious mess out of the box. Based on this evidence, Josh Trank shouldn’t be allowed to direct a small-town theater production, let alone helm a big-budget superhero epic. He hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle actors, maintain a consistent tone, or even execute smooth scene transitions.

Reed (Miles Teller) and Sue (Kate Mara), obviously having no idea how to approach their
next scene, wait in vain for directorial guidance. It ain't gonna happen, now or at any other
point during this misbegotten superhero adventure.
Trank apparently got this assignment as a result of his only previous feature credit: 2012’s over-praised Chronicle. For a fleeting moment, apparently perceived as the Next Best Thing in sci-fi cinema, he even was assigned to direct the next Star Wars film (following this December’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens). Based either on early footage from this inept handling of Fantastic Four, or reports of his behavior while making this film — the media spotlight hasn’t been kind — Trank’s relationship with the Star Wars franchise was abruptly severed.

Smartest decision George Lucas ever made.

This re-boot of Marvel Comics’ original superhero family — the FF debuted in November 1961, almost a year ahead of Spider-Man’s launch in August 1962 — is even worse than the two earlier efforts, back in 2005 and ’07. And, mind you, that means impressively bad, because those two attempts were quite disappointing.

In fairness, Trank doesn’t deserve the sole blame. He shares scripting credit with Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater; the former has a vastly superior résumé as both writer and producer, but the latter’s sole previous credit is the completely awful Lazarus Effect, which was unleashed to unsuspecting viewers earlier this year.

Clearly, Kinberg’s efforts weren’t enough to salvage the clumsy, sloppy input from Trank and Slater.

More than anything else, this Fantastic Four resembles the cornball sci-fi TV shows of the 1950s — Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, Captain Video and His Video Rangers, and a few others — with their clunky dialogue, laughably wooden actors and amazingly silly storylines. Yes, Trank’s new film benefits from special effects that those old shows could only dream of, but that’s meaningless these days, when even stinkers can boast awesome visuals.

Frankly, Trank & Co. have ruined the Fantastic Four. The previous two films left Marvel’s “first family” on life support, but this one puts the final nail in the coffin. And that’s truly a shame, because the FF have an even richer comic book history than Spider-Man or the X-Men.

This film’s first half hour isn’t too bad, starting with a prologue that introduces genius inventor Reed Richards (Owen Judge), a kid with visions of flying cars and teleportation. Although such rich flights of fancy earn nothing but contempt from his dismissive science teacher, Reed does gain a friend in Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), youngest member of a blue-collar family that runs a local junk yard.

That contemptuous science teacher — Mr. Kenny, played with beetle-browed disdain by Dan Castellaneta — is an early indication of this script’s bizarre refusal to acknowledge or understand rational, reasonable character behavior. This prologue is set in 2007, long past the time when young geniuses started being elevated into special-ed classes. Mr. Kenny’s condescending behavior would have made sense in the aforementioned 1950s, but certainly not half a century later.


Reed nearly blows up the neighborhood one fine evening, but he and Ben become fast friends nonetheless. Flash forward a buncha years, as late-teen Reed (now played by Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell), still friends, once again suffer Mr. Kenny’s smug dismissal during a high school science fair. This time, however, Reed’s efforts gain the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara). Both are ferociously smart themselves, and they offer Reed a place at the Baxter Institute.

Dr. Storm hopes that Reed will be able to finish the teleportation work begun by rebellious former student Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Of late, Victor has been pouting on the sidelines, brooding about how mankind doesn’t deserve its place on Earth; such ramblings aside, he inexplicably jumps at the chance to resume his place at the Baxter Institute.

Possibly because he’s sweet on Sue, but this script isn’t too good about establishing character motivation.

Dr. Storm also hopes to lure his wayward son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), back to the scientific fold. Johnny would rather race (and crash) cars, but he nonetheless joins the team, his petulant arrogance vanishing when he inexplicably — at first sight — becomes Reed’s new best friend. (The working-class Ben, sadly, has remained behind in the family junkyard.)

For a time, then, Reed, Sue, Victor and Johnny work together as a more-or-less happy unit. They perfect the teleportation device, at which point one of the Baxter Institute’s heads, the smarmy Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson, utterly wasted in an ill-conceived role), pats them on the back and prepares to submit their work to the U.S. military.

Well. Can’t have that, so the impulsive Reed, Johnny and Victor decide to test the machine themselves. Why they don’t include Sue is rather bewildering, but even more peculiar — in terms of story logic — is the fact that Reed, after all this time, drags Ben out of bed, miles away, to join them on this adventure. They take the ill-advised trip; bad stuff happens; not everybody makes it back; those who do return get ... transformed.

As does Sue, despite not having made the journey.

At which point, the already dumb plot descends into total chaos.

Longtime fans know that Victor Von Doom is the Fantastic Four’s primary bête noire, having debuted in the fifth issue of their comic book; savvy mainstream viewers undoubtedly will suspect as much anyway, presented with a character named Doom. The major flaw in the two earlier movie handlings of the FF was the wholly miscast Julian McMahon’s insubstantial portrayal of this character, so easily defeated by our heroes. (McMahon was riding high at the time, as the star of TV’s Nip/Tuck: a classic example of casting by somebody’s 15 minutes of fame, rather than common sense.)

Perhaps not wanting to repeat that error, Trank & Co. have gone too far in the other direction. Their Doom becomes crazy-formidable, with godlike powers likely capable of defeating the entire Avengers. Yet we’re to believe that this Doom could be bested by Stretch Armstrong (that would be Reed, whose limbs become pliable), force-field bubbles (from Sue), fireballs (tossed by the flaming Johnny) or old-fashioned body blows (courtesy of Ben, now the rock-skinned Thing)?

Never in a million years.

On top of which — and this also was a problem with the 2005 Fantastic Four — the climactic battle royale is over before it begins: no more than a hiccup. And a totally unbelievable hiccup, at that. Trank & Co. waste so much time with back-story, and a truly pointless second act that finds Reed on the run, that they have almost nothing left for the finale.

Almost. There is enough time for some truly nasty behavior on Doom’s part: gory, nauseating civilian deaths that are wholly out of keeping with the rest of the film.

One is inclined to believe that Trank simply lost interest and gave up on anything approaching a reasonable third act ... which may explain the last-minute re-shoots that took place, just three months ago. Never a good sign.

The fact that this film clocks in at a modest 100 minutes also is evidence of insufficient “good stuff” with which to cobble together a comprehensible film. Mind you, I’m no fan of bloated epics that don’t deserve their length, but — as one example — Robert Downey Jr.’s 2008 debut as Iron Man runs a satisfying 126 minutes: ample time for a solid origin story and middle act, and a thoroughly satisfying final clash with his villain.

But perhaps the most obvious indication that Trank never had control of this film derives from an early casting blunder. Sue and Johnny Storm are siblings; it’s an essential part of the FF mythos. Now, I’ve no objection to color-blind casting — to a point — but it seems ludicrous to put the African-American Jordan alongside the lily-white Mara, and call them brother and sister. (Lip-service about this film’s Sue being “adopted” doesn’t cut it.) If you want progressive casting, make ’em both black; that would have been fine.

But that’s small stuff, which pales alongside Trank’s many other sins. Teller, Bell and Jordan are strong actors, with excellent work behind them, but you’d never know that here. Mara usually is a solid supporting performer, but her Sue Storm is equally stiff and one-dimensional. Trank can’t direct his cast into delivering good work ... or, perhaps sensing his incompetence, they simply didn’t try.

The result is that we really don’t like any of our heroes. Johnny is a jerk; Ben and Reed are blank slates; Sue, perhaps the most sympathetic, can’t give the team heart all by herself.

Everything builds to the anticlimactic calm after the storm, perhaps the silliest scene in a movie laden with dumb scenes, as Reed decides that their new team — everybody now best buddies, despite plenty of earlier squabbling — needs a suitable name. Enduring the so-called “banter” that eventually produces the iconic designation, which then cues the supposedly triumphant end titles, is beyond painful.

What a sad, sad muddle.

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