Hollywood’s current love affair with superhero properties has resulted in some big hits (“The Avengers”) and some even bigger misses (“Green Lantern”), but those failures have yet to hold back any studio hellbent on capitalizing on the cachet of a well-known and well-loved comic book property. That’s why we’re on our third Spider-Man in 13 years, our fifth Batman in less than three decades, our third Hulk in 12 years and, now, a brand new reboot of the entire “Fantastic Four” series, which was most recently turned into a big screen property in 2007.
That try, try again spirit that has apparently led studios to revamp their ailing heroes has yet to pay off in the form of a new solo film — Mark Ruffalo’s The Hulk, while a hit in “The Avengers” series, still doesn’t have his own feature — and that trend certainly won’t abate with the release of Josh Trank’s messy and unsatisfying “Fantastic Four,” a superhero film with no power and worse special effects that attempts to rewrite a story that’s yet to be told effectively.
The film opens in a fifth grade classroom, as young Reed Richards (Owen Judge) biffs a class-wide assignment to investigate and speak about a future career he might like to have, instead choosing to stand up in front of his unamused classmates (and really unamused teacher) to speak about his desire to invent a teleporter. Reed, it seems, has already invented one and sees no problem with touting that as his future career path. He’s actually not wrong. Reed’s big plans catch the eye and ear of young Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) and the pair soon start experimenting on the machine together in Reed’s garage.
Those brief scenes of Reed and Ben are some of the best in the movie, filled with genuine childlike wonder and a sense of discovery that’s lacking from the rest of the film. Seven years later, older Reed (Miles Teller) and older Ben (Jamie Bell) — who, yes, we are supposed to believe are 17 or so — debut a new version of the teleporter at their high school science fair. They’re nearly laughed out of the building, but visiting professor (and possible college administrator? it’s never clear) Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) is there, alongside his daughter Sue (Kate Mara), and the duo takes a shine to Reed’s machine, because they’ve been trying to build it themselves, and with limited success.
Like so many other superhero properties — from “The Avengers” to “Big Hero 6,” which has enough in common with the plot of “Fantastic Four” that it might be worth exploring in a legal sense — “Fantastic Four” is mainly concerned with inter-dimensional travel. Reed is soon swept off to the Baxter Institute (no high school graduation here, no prom, no word from his parents) to work for (or train under? again, not clear) the Storms on their fancy teleporter. Despite Reed’s apparent intelligence and curiosity, he never really questions what’s going on with the Storms, including street-racing son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) — and, later, with Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell, who appears to have had his “Doom is a hacker” storyline quite generously sliced during the film’s reported reshoots, as his first scene in the film feels as it has been ripped from an entirely different film) — and what exactly they’re building.
It’s just bad science. “Fantastic Four” has rejiggered the origin story of the titular group, but it fails to do it in a satisfying or coherent way. Instead of getting stuck with superpowers because of cosmic ray exposure (sure), the four (plus Victor) end up becoming freaks because Reed, Victor, Johnny and Ben (who is called up for the action after sitting it out for entire months, seemingly because Reed feels guilty) get drunk and decide to travel to the other dimension, just to say that they’ve done it first.
It’s a dumb, immature stunt, and while Dr. Storm repeatedly tries to remind everyone else in the film — and, by extension, the audience — that they’re all “just kids!,” the film’s actors are all so clearly not teenagers, not in looks, not in actions, not in mannerisms, that the theme fails to stick. It’s a shame, though, because there is something to that idea, that the film is really about a group of teens who end up being scarred, both mentally and physically, by something that they’re not experienced enough to comprehend.
That speaks to the film’s most interesting and genuinely chilling sequence, as the four grapple with their newfound powers — which, from the outset, closely resemble actual disfigurements and ailments — upon the boys’ ill-fated return to Earth. It’s a bit of body horror that we rarely see in supehero films, a genre that happens to be rooted in regular people being made extraordinary after violence is inflicted on their physical forms and never fully capitalizes on that idea. For a few brief, brilliant minutes, Teller and Bell are forced to face the hideous changes that have forever altered their bodies, while a screaming Jordan stays enflamed for what appears to be whole days and Mara simply flickers in and out of visibility, unaware of what she’s become.
“Fantastic Four” doesn’t bother to expand out on that idea, however, instead jumping ahead an entire year, only to find the four acclimated to their new powers — mostly thanks to fancy suits that are never fully explained — with Ben (and soon Johnny) aiding the government on a variety of black ops. Per usual, “the government” and “the military” and even “Tim Blake Nelson always chewing gum” are the obvious big bad guys in the film, a superhero trope that’s nearly as exhausted as the “random villain from another dimension” who, yes, also shows up in “Fantastic Four.”
The film grinds onward to a slapdash final battle, one marked by iffy CGI and less narrative coherence, that sees the four battling it out with an unexpected (well, to them) baddie with murky motives. It’s the first time the group has assembled to work together, but it lacks propulsion or excitement, instead feeling cut-short and cut-rate. That it all climaxes with a weirdly cutesy ending that cheerily plays up the possibility of a sequel is even more grating — who could possibly want more of this?
“Fantastic Four” opens nationwide on August 7.