, ,

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 9.39.27 PMDirector: Josh Trank

Screenplay: Josh Trank, Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg

Comic Book: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Miles Teller: Reed Richards

Jamie Bell: Benn Grimm/The Thing

Michael B. Jordan: Johnny Storm

Kate Mara: Sue Storm

Toby Kebbell: Victor Von Doom

Reg. E. Cathey: Dr. Franklin Storm

In 2005, the first Fantastic Four origins movie was released. Ioan Gruffudd starred as Reed Richards, Michael Chiklis starred as Ben Grimm, Jessica Alba played Sue Storm and a young Chris Evans played Johnny Storm. Julian McMahon played Victor VonDoom. It was followed in 2007 by Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, starring the same cast.

Both movies were mostly true to the Marvel comic book universe. The Baxter Building was their headquarters. Reed was a graying at the temples, brilliant, if a bit absent-minded scientist. Von Doom was a villain driven mad by jealously and an inferiority complex as big as the Baxter Building. Johnny Storm was young, brash and hot-headed, and Ben Grimm’s transformed appearance paralleled his normal human appearance. Sue Storm was the small, quiet blonde whose courage and determination was the rock upon which the team stood.

All of the actors played their parts well, and despite the Thing’s costume and portrayal being at bit cartoonish at times, the chemistry of the cast and the pacing of the movies worked. The primary factor I found jarring is Jessica Alba is not believable as a blonde. She’s a fine young actress and did well in each film, but her skin tone ended up looking a bit–orange. The trademark humor of Marvel characters was present, the sight gags worked, and Stan Lee’s cameos, as always, were fun in-jokes.

While neither film held a candle to The Avengers, which is still the high water mark of superhero movies, both movies worked and are very much worth watching more than once on DVD. In fact, they worked because they were true to the universe created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I watched both movies before seeing the second origins movie, which is the subject of this review.

I have, for some time, wondered when the first Marvel-inspired superhero movie would spectacularly fail. I suspected it might be Ant-Man, but that was a delightful surprise. I need wonder no longer.

This version of the origins story takes everything that made the Marvel comic book universe work, everything that made the characters admirable and likeable, everything that touched on archetypal, mythic imagery, everything that was attractive about the Fantastic 4 and left it on the floor of the editing suite. Virtually all that remains is the names of the primary characters.

Reed Richards, played by Miles Teller, is an 18-year-old science nerd with all of the warmth and charisma of the average 18-year-old science nerd. Ben Grimm, played by Jamie Bell in an absolutely minimal role, is much smaller and shorter than Richards to begin, and after his transformation is essentially an enormous, CG-generated rock monster. One assumes that Bell’s voice is dubbed into the rock monster’s mumblings, but if so, it’s no artistic accomplishment for the movie or Bell. Unlike the original Thing, he wears no clothing, but fortunately, has no obvious, rocky, dangling–ahem–outcroppings.

Reg. E. Cathey plays Dr. Franklin Storm, who is sort of the dean of students–it’s never clarified–of the Baxter Foundation (or something), who is gathering genius adolescents (why would one want actual adult scientists?) to build a device that will transport–Star Trek-like–matter to another dimension and back. His adopted daughter, an expert in pattern recognition(?), is Sue Storm. His son, played by Michael B. Jordan, is a wastrel juvenile street racer in the Fast and Furious style. Oh yes, Sue is white and Franklin and his son are black, which is apparently the mandatory nod to diversity. And Sue, played by the interesting Kate Mara, doesn’t a blonde make either, though she doesn’t look quite as orange as poor Jessica Alba did.

The plot, such as it is, is both simple and confusing. Victor VonDoom almost invented the transporter, but gave up in a fit of adolescent pique, and is hanging around playing video games and doing mostly nothing. Reed Richards does invent it for a high school science fair, which Dr. Franklin and Sue just happen to attend. Franklin recruits Reed, inspires VonDoom, and forces Johnny to help after he wrecks his car (no car for you unless you help build a device that will change the world, you juvenile delinquent, you!), and before you know it, they’ve sent a chimp to the planet in the other dimension–wherever that is–and brought it safely back.

But the evil money man controlling the puppet strings tells them thanks, and now we’ll bring in the professionals from NASA. So the kids get drunk and decide to go on their own, and Reed calls Ben, who suits up and off they go.

The planet is dark and foreboding, and there is a lot of glowing, pulsing green goo underfoot everywhere, so of course, they have to climb down a cliff to the biggest pool of goo in sight, and VonDoom sticks his hand in it, and everything starts exploding and there are earth–or whatever the planet is–quakes, and everybody gets slimed and the goo starts dissolving VonDoom who falls off the cliff and the others get in the goo-covered machine, which won’t work, but Sue brings them back and everything explodes and she gets covered with goo too. Gee, maybe they should have waited for NASA?

Fast forward to waking up in a secret military bunker where the four of them are strapped down and sedated, and Reed is stretchy, Sue is invisible, Johnny is flaming and Ben is rocky. Reed manages, naked, to escape, and everyone else is turned into more or less willing weapons, except they’re really doing good things, fighting terrorists and that sort of thing, except Sue, who won’t be turned into a “tool,” and the evil military won’t even force her! What bad guys!

Eventually they use Sue to find Reed–pattern recognition, you know– capture him and convince him to rebuild the machine. Oddly, as time goes by, he’s still wearing the same funky cross between a wet suit and a gay leather boy harness Reed was wearing when they captured him. They send a new team–apparently adults–to the planet, they meet VonDoom, who kills them all, and returns to tell everyone he is now going to destroy Earth to preserve his planet because he’s now kind of a glowing goo monster with glowing green, beady eyes, who is his planet–sort of, kind of, it’s pretty murky–and he returns to his world to set up a sort of black hole thingy, which is sort of pulling stuff from Earth into it.

The Four go to green goo world and defeat VonDoom, save the world, and are rewarded by the government with their very own trillion-dollar science playground/lair, but what do they call themselves? Ben, looking around the new lair mutters, “it’s fantastic.” Reed says “I know! Fantastic…” cut to credits. Good thing Ben didn’t say “holy shit!” The cut was merciful. The movie was not.

To be sure, the production values are professional, the costumes, sets, CG work, and other elements of movie making are professional as well. What’s missing is a coherent plot and continuous story universe that connects the audience to the characters.

There are no dynamic characters; no one learns and grows. Miles Teller demonstrates virtually no emotional range–which is probably a direction issue–and Mara, a good actress, is wasted, with much of her close-up time devoted to either adolescent moony-eyes or grimaces of concentration. Jamie Bell is absolutely unmemorable, and it’s not his fault. In the comics and the earlier movies, the resemblance between Benn Grimm and the Thing is reasonable and believable. Grimm’s personality is an integral part of The Thing, and his acceptance of his fate for the greater good, ennobling. Bell is transformed from a slight, unremarkable teen into a shambling, loosely held together pile of rocks, complete with occasional rock sliding on rock sound effects. There is little humanity there, and no emotional connection with Grimm’s anxiety over the change in his appearance, which is essentially left out of the script.

The script seems to want to be in that genre of movie that plays to teenage sensibilities and angst: conflicted urges, identity crises, unreasonable anger and impulsive behavior, crushes, emotional confusion, unrestrained emotion, not qualities one wants to see in people who must save the planet. Johnny Storm is actually reasonably mature and responsible. It’s the rest of the team that’s pretty goofy. There is a plot thread of the individuals exploring their powers–except Richards–and becoming more powerful, but that too isn’t explored in any significant way. The script can’t stick with this genre, because it requires the characters to behave as fully functioning adults, yet immediately revert to juvenile irresponsibility.

The pacing of the movie is often plodding, and the action sequences few and far between. The dialogue is brief and has no profundity, and it is virtually impossible to care about any of the characters. There is nothing admirable about them. The viewer knows they’re going to triumph because it’s in the script, but if they didn’t, if any of them were killed, it would have just another incongruous moment in a movie filled with them.

The final scene seems to promise a sequel, but there is no point. And, I suspect, no financial reason. I saw the movie only three days after its initial release in a huge theater with about ten other popcorn-munching people.

Ultimately, the movie fails because Trank took well-defined, inherently human and interesting characters and ripped out their personalities, along with virtually every plot and story element that makes the Fantastic 4 who and what they are. It’s hard to imagine where the franchise could possibly go from here. Trank has sunk it. I can’t, in good conscience, even recommend buying this in DVD form, unless one finds it in the dollar remainder bin, a fate that will be coming much sooner than even most straight-to-DVD movies. Even then, it will be primarily useful as a lesson in how not to make a superhero movie.