Fantastic Friday Film Review: Fantastic 4 (2015)

I was actually excited about this movie when I first saw the trailer, but then . . . didn’t watch it. I was in a busy time in my life, both in work and personal matters. I was also swayed by reviews, one of which included the phrase “worst film of 2015”; well, I certainly wasn’t going to spend my hard-earned cash on that, was I? Wasn’t going to blow my money on buying it, and when it finally debuted on Showtime a couple months ago, it just never seemed urgent enough to figure out when it was on, then schedule my time around it. (I’ve been told about the wonders of DVR – and for some reason, I refuse to use it. I like streamining – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime – but recording to watch when it’s convenient to me? If I can’t watch something when it’s on, I don’t need to watch it . . .)

Anyway, I was picking up a few things the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and saw the remnants of Walmart’s Black Friday super cheap movie deal – which included Fantastic 4, appropriately priced at the $4 tier (okay, $3.96). I was still procrastinating on my writing that day (or was I just setting myself up for a dramatic finish to NaNoWriMo?), so the movie I had never made time for got watched right away.

And I’m writing a review of a movie that’s not a throwback, not a classic – because while it is neither throwback nor classic, I feel like the “professionals” steered me wrong. And I know that 2015 was not such an amazing year for movies that this might have been considered the “worst” by comparison.

But I think comparison is the place to start – and where Fantastic 4 may have suffered, unfairly. Marvel has become a brand unto itself since the first Iron Man film came out – you can easily find sites which will help you figure out how the characters and stories weave in and out of almost all films since Iron Man, and we all know that we have to stay through the entire list of credits to see some 30-60 second teaser of what is to come in the Marvel-verse.

Fantastic 4 doesn’t play that game.

When I’ve read the Fantastic Four, there’s always something a little different about them from your regular superhero titles. They manner in which they got their super powers is part of the key to the whole “Fantastic Four” story – first and foremost, this is a group of adventurers. In the ill-fated first adventure, the group is genetically altered, giving them their super powers – those in the case of Ben Grimm, being labeled as “The Thing” is often as much curse as his super strength and near invulnerability are fantastic powers. But if their genetic alterations/mutations give them “fantastic” physical abilities, their true “powers” have nothing to do with their accident: Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic is one of the world’s smartest people; Johnny Storm/Human Torch is fearless and bold, almost to the point of recklessness; Sue Storm/Invisible Woman is the emotional core of the group, keeping them all grounded; Ben Grimm/The Thing is unmatched in his loyalty to his friends, and his stone hard exterior protects a tender soul.

The 2005 version of the super family featured big stars, witty dialogue, spandex costumes – everything you would want in a standard superhero movie. It was pure entertainment, and while Jessica Alba would have had male audiences drooling as much in 1961 as she did in 2005, the story itself comes right out of the comic’s origin. The 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, felt a little more contemporary in its issues, but the characters stick with the standard, Silver Age camp. Good stuff, fun for the whole family, watch it comfortably with your kids – or your mom.

The 2015 reboot is a different animal. It’s grittier, an attempt to place people with super powers in our very real world. While the Baxter Foundation is clearly well funded (and run by a stereotypically creepy board of directors), the characters themselves are middle class geniuses, and even Franklin Storm’s children, Sue and Johnny, are there because of their abilities; even Victor von Doom, traditionally an Eastern European despot, is portrayed more as an underground hacker/scientist than any kind of aristocrat. Just “going into space” no longer excites the imagination as it must have in 1961, so the group is instead working on teleportation, and the group gains their super abilities in an accident on their return from another world.

What I liked about the story so much was that it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from superhero movies – this is the Fantastic Four presented as a sci-fi story. Because of licensing, it doesn’t play with the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe; had Disney been in control of the production rather than 20th Century Fox, we would have certainly seen Tony Stark (or at least had some kind of congratulatory note from him), or Dr. Bruce Banner may have been consulted on some technical issue. Fantastic 4 doesn’t even feature the gratuitous cameo by Stan Lee (which is a little sad, since the group is one of his finest creations). You can’t do the Fantastic Four without getting into their physical powers, but this story puts the focus on the science: putting together the project team, building the project, adapting to the accident, trying to return to the alternate planet in hopes of reversing (or recreating) the conditions when the powers were obtained.

That’s not to say that this is a great movie – I just don’t think the “worst of the year” ratings are justified. The sci-fi focus makes it interesting, and it had the potential to be one of the better Marvel movies out there – but it wasn’t. The plot almost is forgetten in the attempt to set up the scene; by the time Victor comes back as “Doom,” there’s little time left to set up tension, and the film goes right into “final battle” mode. The film begins with the charming, if somewhat cheesy, young Reed Richards building a teleporter in his garage; it might have been a little better had they put a few more years between that opening scene and the main events of the story, as it felt a little forced to have a group of late teens working on teleportation (with Reed presumably learning it . . . how? The indictment of the public school science department makes it clear he learned little there); Miles Teller would have worked just as well in his mid- to late-20’s, and the story may have been a little more authentic – and could have developed a more mature relationship between Reed and Sue, which is hinted at, but like most of the “plot,” is unexplored. The creepy government exploitation angle at this point has almost become cliché, and pulled what plot there was away from the science fiction, and into the B-movie realm.

Fox had initially intended to do at least one more film in this series; based on this film, I would definitely be interested in seeing it, and with the “origin” out of the way, developing the plot in the sequel could actually redeem this movie. Another possibility – but an unlikely one, since it would be a “business” issue – would be to throw this into the Netflix realm. The gritty feel of this film matches what Netflix has done with Daredevil and Luke Cage, and with a limited season – 7-10 episodes – there would be plenty of room to explore the relationships between the characters, build tension with villains who might appear more grey than black and white. That kind of story telling might have saved this film from its fate – instead of the forced ending on “Planet X,” Victor could have escaped the government facility, and the tension could have been built up with Doom being a more tragic villain, and a finale that would do justice to one of Marvel’s flagship franchises.