Monday, August 17, 2015

'Fantastic Four's Superpower Is Being So Dull It's Offensive

So, this was a new experience. I kind of figured that by now, having been reviewing movies semi-professionally for over a decade now (I mean, four years on this website alone), I had experienced every possible reaction to a film. I was wrong. I learned some new and important things about myself on Saturday as I sat in the empty theater watching Fantastic Four. I learned that it is, in fact, possible to be so bored that you are actually filled with hate.

Good to know?

I mean, I'm not really dissenting from anyone's expectations here when I say that Fantastic Four isn't just the worst superhero movie of the summer, it might actually be the worst movie of the year full stop. I don't know. It's up there with Pixels at least. But where Pixels reportedly managed to scrape together at least enough visual information to keep your brain paying attention, Fantastic Four was the kind of summer movie that feels like it's trying to murder you with boredom. It felt deliberate and evil how bad this movie was. It was like being forced to eat an entire block of cold tofu, except without the nutritional content. It was like eating an entire head of boiled cabbage: pointless and nauseating.

In case you can't tell then, I didn't like the movie. But not for any obvious flaw. That's what's so incredibly confounding and irritating about this film. There's nothing exactly wrong with it. It's not offensive or cheesy or relying on hackneyed stereotypes or even that badly plotted. 

Don't get me wrong, the plot wasn't good by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn't "write hatemail to the screenwriters" bad. The acting was okay. The directing was clearly devoted to using lots of grays and blues, but otherwise inoffensive. And yet somehow all of this nothingness added up to become the movie I have hated the most in years.

I'm really not kidding. There was a point in the film, about halfway through, when I realized that I wasn't just bored - I was definitely bored as well, but that was clear already - but I was actively infuriated by the movie. I wanted to hurt this film. I wanted to end it. I don't have any particular love for the Fantastic Four franchise, so it wasn't nerd rage at a property being mishandled, it was just like my soul rose up in protest at being forced to watch this garbage. It made me very angry.

But I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't tell you about it anyway, so here we go.

Fantastic Four is a classic reboot of the source material, and as such we are forced to pretend that the campy and hilarious 2005 Fantastic Four never happened. Here we are presented with an origin story for their superpowers and world-saving intentions, but this movie takes the whole origin story way further than most. They don't even get their superpowers until easily act two and they don't team up until most of the way through act three. 

The story starts in the past, with a ten year old Reed Richards announcing to his class one day that he's going to be the first person to teleport himself through space. This gets baby Ben Grimm's ears perked up because somehow this seems interesting to him and whoa, he's never noticed that this Reed kid was in his very small class before. Later that night, Ben catches Reed sneaking into his family's scrapyard to steal parts for the teleporter, and a friendship is born.

It's not a friendship that makes all that much sense, to be fair, but it is a friendship. We know that because they tell us so. And, seven years in the future, now seniors in high school Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie freaking Bell) have finished the teleporter and mostly gotten it to work. They're disqualified from their school science fair because their teachers don't believe them, but luckily Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathy) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) just happen to be there. 

Franklin and Sue recognize that Ben and Reed haven't built a teleporter but an interdimensional portal device and are very impressed. They immediately offer Reed a scholarship to join them at the Baxter Institute I think? It's some kind of prestigious program and it's also made eminently clear that this invitation is only for Reed and Ben can go suck it.

At the Baxter Institute, Reed and Sue and the always sulking Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel) work to make their interdimensional portal dreams a reality. Victor hates Reed because Reed is smarter than he is and Victor has some staggering self-esteem issues, and also because Reed and Sue have "chemistry". If by chemistry you mean that they react to each other much the way that two inert gases react to each other. They don't.

Oh, and lest I forget, they also work with Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), a brilliant but unmotivated mechanic who has a whole issue with his dad and sister being such nerds and angst angst angst. Eventually the four of them get the machine working, test it, succeed, and quickly find that the project will now be sold to NASA and they won't get any credit for it because it was a school project and they're like high school students. Or college students. It was not clear.

Clearly unhappy about this, the boys react by getting spectacularly drunk and deciding to go off and test the device themselves before NASA takes over. Which leads to a drunk Reed demanding that Ben come downtown so they can teleport themselves to another dimension at four in the morning. Obviously this is a terrible idea.

Everything goes wrong, the planet they land on is apparently sentient and decides to destroy them but also gives them superpowers, and Victor falls in a hole only to be left there. When they all get back the shuttle explodes and we see that everyone has gotten their superpowers. Even Sue, who didn't go with them, has gotten her superpowers by being caught in the explosion. Yay.

And then the military show up and do experiments on the kids and Reed runs away leaving everyone feeling very betrayed, then there's a time jump, and actually, recounting this plot is making me mad again, so here's the basic deal: Ben and Johnny and Sue become test subjects for the government while Reed runs away and tries to cure them in the jungle using car parts. Eventually they go back to the other dimension and find Victor still alive and pissed. Victor tries to end the world, they stop him, suddenly they can blackmail the US government, the end.

That's it, that's the movie.

As I'm sure you can tell, it's not a satisfying film. Reportedly a lot of it was scrubbed over and reshot and rewritten and it's not hard to see that. Sometimes Sue's hair will change dramatically from scene to scene, sometimes the plot makes almost no sense, and generally the emotional resonance of the film is just gone. I didn't care about a single character. I tried really hard and I just couldn't.

What makes this worse is that I can actually see a good movie buried in here somewhere. Buried very very deep. See, one of the issues this movie has is that it's extremely low on action set pieces for a superhero film, but it's also really low on character development. Really interesting character revelations are brushed aside. 

Like, for example, Sue and Johnny's family dynamic. At one point Reed asks the obvious question to Sue: "Are you adopted?" And she explains that yes, she is, Dr. Storm adopted her from Kosovo. She's a war orphan of the Bosnian conflict.

You know when this is mentioned again? Literally never. And that's weird because they explain that Victor is clearly from Latveria and seems to have had some kind of traumatic experience in his home country that made him hate everyone and thing. But he and Sue never talk about their pasts or at all.

Johnny makes it clear a few times that he resents how close Sue is with their father. It seems possible that he feels like she's "stolen" his dad away from him. She's adopted and has become the perfect child he always wanted, while Johnny, his "real" son, is a screwup and a disappointment. There was room for some really complex emotional scenes and the movie just didn't go there at all.

Hell, they even had room for some really compelling drama when Johnny and Sue are arguing about whether or not they should let the US government use them as weapons. Sue is against it and Johnny feels like for once he's found his purpose. How much better would it have been to have them actually talk about how Sue still has nightmares about the war and Johnny resents Sue for ever coming into their life? That would have been character development you can build on.

Reed and Ben are supposed to have this epic friendship since childhood, but they have barely one or two scenes together. Ben's honestly barely in the movie, and it's like he's only there to remind us of Reed's failures as a human being. Ben clearly comes from an abusive home, is canonically Jewish and lower income, and probably had some bigger plans for himself than managing the family scrapyard. Hell, why not talk about how pissed Ben ought to be that Reed got a scholarship based on a machine that Ben helped build?

And Reed? Reed is so bland it's like watching paint dry. I know that Miles Teller is a good actor, but in this movie it feels like he's wading through quicksand. He's just terrible. Or rather, what he's given to work with is terrible. He's supposed to be this out of touch genius with an intellect far beyond his years, but mostly he just seems kind of dull and irritating. He abandons his best friend for a year without explanation, has the kind of "TV smart" characterization that bothers me so much, and just is so freaking boring.

In other words, it feels like every time this movie edged close to talking about something interesting, it changed the subject instead, leaving the end result to feel like a mush of half-thoughts and unsatisfied development. Nothing is planted or paid off, the characters really don't change at all, and no one seems to have any emotional connection whatsoever.

Obviously this movie suffered from the behind the scenes drama and the reshoot. There's no question that literally any other version of this film would have been better. The trailers themselves feature a lot of footage not found in the final cut of the film. We all knew this would be a bomb, it's just impressive how bomb-like the bomb turned out to be.

I could keep complaining - the actors are all in their late twenties and early thirties making them downright confusing as high school students, the whole film is shot through the grim-dark filter of your average Christopher Nolan movie for no clear reason, Victor Von Doom has absolutely no motivation as a villain - but I'll stop here. 

My main grievance with this film is that it didn't even risk enough to be bad in an interesting way. And it feels like a waste. All of these actors are actually amazing and it seems like it should have been a no-brainer to throw them together. 

Having Michael B. Jordan as your Johnny Storm and then sucking the humor out of the character? Feels bafflingly stupid. Casting Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm then requiring no physicality from him is weird. Making Miles Teller your Reed Richards and then not allowing him that glimmer of viciousness that makes him a good actor is bad directing. And putting Kate Mara in your movie at all and then giving her nothing to do is insulting.

It didn't have to be this bad. The movie actually feels deliberately, offensively terrible. Like someone tried to make the most dull and bland film of all time. Fantastic Four didn't have to be like this, and I am kind of disgusted that I watched it.

So, you know, probably don't see it in theaters?


  1. If it keeps the Fantastic Four away from the MCU, I can forgive its existence. But little else.

  2. If Marvel gets the rights back, they should just not do an origin movie for the Fantastic Four. Just have them show up in another hero's movie, then spin off and do a movie dedicated on them. Marvel's built up enough of a continuity that they don't really have to do dedicated movies to introduce specific heroes anymore.

    1. Yeah, the Fantastic Four are burdened with one of the more cumbersome origin stories. They should just plop the Fantastic Four into the story and get it over with. Personally, I would like to see some plotlines about Reed and Tony Stark's raging rivalry. It's one of the funnier side plots in the comics.

  3. If I'm honest, my main beef with this film which I haven't even seen yet is that it doesn't let Jamie Bell (or as you put it, "Jamie freaking Bell") be his typically impressive self. I don't know much about the other three but on my list of Actors Who Can Do Whatever The Hell They Want And I Will Like It, Bell is way up there. Until now, everything I've seen him in, he's been great in. Even films where he has a badly written character or little to no dialogue or just has to stand there and be in the background, you can bloody well *see* him *thinking*. Seriously, that guy can act!
    A movie that makes Jamie freaking Bell look lacklustre must be pretty freaking dull. I don't think I want to break that streak.

    1. Exactly. It's painful how dull this is and arguably even more painful how little Jamie Bell gets to do. Hollywood, why must you always get things wrong like this?!