1. Really, it’s all in one line of dialogue. Late in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, that ever-lovin’ man-mountain Benjamin J. Grimm sets himself at last to the good work of bad-guy punching. As he rushes off to pound Doctor Doom, he mutters, “This is what I do.” He’s resigned to it, not amped or proud.
It’s hard not to imagine the filmmakers, too, saying that, with a shrug, as these scenes play back: “This is what we do.”
A couple minutes later, after a pep talk from Miles Teller’s Cusackian Reed Richards, Grimm — i.e., the Thing — finally speaks the words that some contract probably insists that he must: “It’s clobberin’ time.” Note the period at the end of that sentence. Did a grown-up ever make you say something nice about a sibling you’ve been fighting with? That’s how this Thing says “It’s clobberin’ time.”
2. In the first issue of The Fantastic Four, from 1961, a tweedy scientist, a fighter pilot, a hot-rodder, and a girl who would develop traits later all hijacked a rocket, launched into space, developed vaguely elemental powers, and then ka-powed the proto-kaijus of Monster Island. This took twenty pages or so. Ben Grimm, the fighter pilot, had become a lumpy rock-beast the color of candy circus peanuts, and he blames the scientist, Richards, for his fate. Yet with square-jawed, last-century certainty, Grimm still pledges himself to heroism: “You don’t have to make a speech, big shot! We understand! We gotta use that power to help mankind, right?” Then, perhaps to be sure Richards never forgets that being a rock-beast isn’t a happy life, he dubs himself “the Thing,” the most self-pitying, passive-aggressive moniker in all superherodom.
That’s the Fantastic Four: guilt, pathos, fractious relations, two-fisted monster-clobbering, excursions to impossible lands, grandeur and goofiness and a pulpy sense of adventure as joyous duty. Look at Giganto, the mammoth cave-mawed monster wrecking, on that issue’s cover, what Stan Lee would call “the world outside your window.” Drafting that, Jack Kirby wasn’t thinking “This is what I do.” He was clobberin’.
3. In 2015’s Fantastic Four movie, a teen scientist who looks 25 jaunts into another dimension with a hot-rodder, a buddy from a junkyard, and young Doctor Doom. (From here on out, spoilers will be blasting at you like cosmic rays.) The first three of those fellows get powers, and so does Sue Storm (Kate Mara), despite not even being invited along on the mission even though she’s also a brilliant scientist. (Is Reed Richards ’15 less inclusive a bro than Reed Richards ’61?) A year passes, with Doom and Richards gone missing, and this new Thing bashing tanks overseas for the U.S. government while Sue and her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), the Human Torch, are prisoners of the military-industrial complex. (I think they’re prisoners. The movie’s not clear on much of this stuff.)
Eventually, they all return to that other dimension, where Richards gives a speech that the Thing of the comics wouldn’t even need to hear, inspiring them all to have a go at clobbering Doctor Doom, whose face is gel-capped, for some reason, and coursing with veins the color of Double Dare slime. At one point, the Thing says to Richards, “I stopped believing in your bullshit a long time ago.”
This takes 100 minutes. Don’t expect monsters.
4. The model here isn’t adventure pulp. It’s dystopian Y.A., junked up with scenes of medical horror too scary for kids and too unpleasant to be enjoyed by anyone. The most reliable pleasure of superhero origin stories is the dream-along discovery of what their bodies suddenly can do. Richards, the scientist, gets the Plastic Man stretching powers, which has always seemed a perverse choice — why give the funny, rubber-limbed abilities to such a stiff? In Trank’s film, though, stretchy flesh is a curse: Here’s Teller, shirtless and sweaty, strapped to a hospital table in a crucified-Christ pose, his arms and legs three times the length of a normal man’s. Teller keeps his eyes closed as he cries, again and again, “Where are my friends?” The scene looks like some Elm Street nightmare, the moment just before Freddy yanks those limbs right off.
The Human Torch, meanwhile, yowls in confused pain, not a man with the powers of flame and flight but a man immolated for long, miserable moments. And the Thing (played by Jamie Bell) is rubble piled in the dark, in a cell, pleading in a tiny voice, “Help me, Reed.” All of the film’s ingenuity seems to have been invested in these scenes, the only ones here that haven’t appeared in some other recent superhero film. Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four seized its medium, showing how rich and inventive and emotionally engaging comics could be. Trank’s Fantastic Four shows only that its medium can get more grimdumb still. This is all they could think to clobber us with.
5. Some things work better as illustrations. The flesh of Reed Richards, in a comic, is a pale, pinkish suggestion of flesh, a couple lines whose crazy-straw stretching invites you to imagine the thrill of elongation — what does that feel like? my twelve-year-old self would wonder. Here, at last, we learn that it is excruciating: The visual-effects team has mocked up Teller’s full physiology — his musculature, the hairs on his limbs — and animated that stretching so that it looks something like the movement of a contortionist popping a shoulder from its socket. There’s sickening motion under the skin, a shifting of meat and sinew, a vision not to imagine but to cower from.
The Thing, meanwhile, spends his earliest scenes in shadows, probably because it’s best that we don’t get a good look at him — he’s most persuasive a presence when our minds are doing the work and summoning him up. When he’s revealed — well, it’s not this particular photorealistic talking rock-mound’s fault that it looks ridiculous, as that’s the fate to be suffered by all photorealistic talking rock-mounds. If there’s one superhero property that would benefit from the Pixar approach, it’s The Fantastic Four — The Incredibles is practically a demo reel.
6. The Thing is nude, here. And, sadly, he’s neutered. If you’ve read the comics, you’ve probably wondered what was under his little blue trunks. Here, it’s just exposed whenever he’s on screen, which makes the climactic team-building, sequel-booting scenes the film’s most hilarious: Here’s all these government suits, sitting in a room, and there’s the Thing’s crotch right behind them. Would a close-up of it look like a Georgia O’Keeffe canyon?
7. Counting Roger Corman’s unreleased stab, this is the fourth Fantastic Four movie. It’s also the fourth whose producers seem embarrassed at the thought of making a Fantastic Four movie.
There are moments that work. Mara is an excellent Sue Storm, and Teller’s likable egghead deserves a movie better than this. And the scene where the guys get drunk and dare each other to test-drive a teleporter? That’s on the right track.
Of course the filmmakers have changed and updated the origin, the characters, and the conflicts — that’s no betrayal. It’s also no crime that they have deviated from the tone of Lee and Kirby. The comics themselves have done that, again and again. (In recent years Marvel created an evil teenaged Reed Richards who, in one reality, murdered the president, the Congress, and much of D.C.) And some early scenes display the smarts and craft of Trank’s superior debut, Chronicle.
Where they fail the Four, again, is in their paucity of imagination. In their routine, workaday approach. In their refusal to rise to the challenge of Lee and Kirby, who dared to expand and enrich a medium. “The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours,” says Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a fiftyish Tomorrowland-style benefactor who, in the early scenes, funds teen Richards’s interdimensional-transporter project. That line took more effort than “This is what I do,” but it’s much less honest: As Fantastic Four reminds us, in studio filmmaking, it’s the big-idea opportunities seized by previous generations that get hauled out, all summer long, to be today’s failures.
Directed by Josh Trank
20th Century Fox
Opens August 7