I recently saw the movie Fantastic Four (2015) and these are my thoughts about it (this review contains some spoilers). It should be noted that I am a big fan of comic books, and Marvel Comics in particular, and have been so since I was at least five years old. I am sure that fandom biases my review in some way.
This movie is based on the Marvel Comic books’ Fantastic Four series and characters (see here) and is a reboot of an earlier Fantastic Four movie franchise which consisted of two movies, one in 2005 (see here) and one in 2007 (see here).
I think one can approach this film from two angles. One is as simply a superhero/sci-fi movie and one as a Fantastic Four movie. As a superhero/sci-fi movie, it is a mediocre movie for that genre. I would say that it is the sort of movie that, if it came on television on a lazy Saturday afternoon or evening, you would not turn it off, but not necessarily seek it out either. As a Fantastic Four movie, it totally misses the mark.
Before I get into the meat of the film, I want to mention that this movie has been caught into the relatively new trend to make superhero movies “dark” and/or “gritty.” Apparently, though, the filmmakers took this rather literally and made this movie literally quite dark. Almost the entire movie largely takes takes place in a dark lab, a dark garage, a dark house, a dark alternate dimension, or at night. I cannot really recall seeing the sun at all at any time during the entire movie.
The film presents five people who are each loners or misfits in their own way coming together under the guidance of a wise father (/father-figure) in order to use their collective talents to achieve scientific advancement by developing and using technology to teleport to another dimension.
- Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) is a super genius singleton who does not at all fit in with, or relate to, his ordinary working class modestly educated mother and step-father (in the film he states he wishes he were adopted), or even his high school science teacher;
- Ben Grimm (the Thing) is the loner son of a working class family that owns (or at least works at) an automobile mechanic shop, who is bullied by his brother and verbally (if not physically) abused by his mother. His father is never shown;
- Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) is adopted into the Storm family and, therefore, an “outsider” in some way and emotionally reserved;
- Johnny Storm (Human Torch) is the (apparently) angry and alienated son of a prominent scientists who has a difficult relationship with his father and his mother is never seen;
- Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom) is a misunderstood and anti-social millennial super genius who appears to have no family connections and is, more-or-less, a loner who has worked with the Storms’ father prior to the movie but has discontinued doing so prior to the events of the film;
- Franklin Storm is the father of Johnny (and adopted father of Sue), and is the architect of the project which leads to the dimensional teleportation. He is the person who discovers and recruits Richards, and re-recruits Doom to help him.
Franklin heads up the teleportation project, finds and recruits Reed, persuades Doom to return to the project (apparently he is disinterested in the project). Grimm tags along with Reed as his buddy without any direction in his life. Sue works with her father (and seems the most well-adjusted of them all). Johnny is recruited after crashing his father’s car (due to illegally drag racing it), and needs to work off the cost of repairs.
Now, all of the elements for some human drama are there. All the young characters are “orphans” in their own way, and find family and belonging in their Fantastic Four. Franklin is the father-figure for them all. The problem is that, aside from pointing out all of the things I note above through a sentence or two of dialogue here and there, these issues are never actually ever explored. There is practically no dialogue in the movie beyond a lot of sci-fi tech-speak. You never really see how Reed and Ben’s friendship blossoms. Indeed, Ben Grimm says almost nothing in the movie. None of the Four is shown to make friends let alone the “family” they are to create. Doom is nothing more than a spoiled genius who is unhappy over not getting his way with the project. There are some glances here and there regarding romantic interest between Reed and Sue and Doom’s jealousy over it, but beyond that, it, too, goes unexplored. In short, even though they are to form this new “family” by the end of the film, the viewer still feels like they hardly know one another. There is no emotional fall out from the events of the film, and the viewer is supposed to believe that, after all that has happened, they’ll just unite as a team to do whatever it is that they will do somehow and for some reason.
At some point, impatient with the slowness of the process, the five younger characters engage in an unauthorized use of the dimensional transportation device and go to another dimension. As one may expect, something goes wrong, and, instead of dying, they are all genetically altered. All but Doom escape back to the Earth. Upon their return, the film focuses on the U.S. government’s (or military’s) interest in their powers and their technology. There is virtually no exposition on how the characters feel about their powers, their reactions to them, their reaction to each other, discovering the extent or cause of their powers. or them trying to use their powers. The viewer never really learns anything about them. Everything – like their relationships mentioned above – is done through a line or two or a momentary scene here or there. Nothing is explored. The Thing (who is CGI), weirdly, is also never dressed in the film. Now, unlike Dr. Manhattan, his nakedness is not part of the commentary of the story and includes, strangely, no genitals; instead, he is completely anatomically blank in that region of his body and, as a result, he wears no pants or shorts. I found his nakedness distracting because it was out of place and he looked like a Ken doll. It is not that I want to see the Thing’s thing, I just found it weird to have a genital-less naked character walking around without explanation. I have to say that, despite CGI technology, this Thing does not look nearly as good as the body suit worn by Michael Chiklis in the original franchise.
The Four feel compelled to return to the other dimension to save Doom. Once there, they find him, too, transformed. Without explanation, he wishes to rule that dimension claiming it as his realm and suddenly engages in a conflict with the Four in which he is defeated. There is no explanation as to why he changed the way he did, what the extent of his powers are, why he no longer wants relationships with the Four or Franklin (or the Earth for that matter), why he wants to rule a barren realm, or really anything. Mercifully the final fight scene is rather short. Notably, as a side note, this movie does not present scene after scene of constant action. The movie really centers on tech-speak and Franklin’s relationship with the military.
So, weirdly, the movie has all the pieces of a decent film, but does nothing at with with them. Little dialogue, minimal actual exposition, and no personal exploration make this film rather mediocre. No one really has a fleshed out personality at all. The only thing I can think of is that the film makers viewed this movie as the first of a franchise, and all of the missing elements would be explained over the life of the franchise. Otherwise, I cannot imagine a reason (beyond poor writing) why so much seems left out.
As far as being a Fantastic Four movie, this film significantly misses the mark. I concede I am something of a purist and sentimental, so I sometimes overreact when films do not adhere strictly to the source material. I like to think, as I have gotten older, I am more adaptable. Therefore, I am okay with their powers being the result of inter-dimensional travel as opposed to cosmic rays in space, and Franklin and Johnny Storm being black and Sue being adopted. The problem I have with this film is not these minor changes, but that it simply is not a Fantastic Four movie. The Fantastic Four, as a series, is not “dark and gritty,” so that approach is totally foreign to the characters and their personalities. Further, the characters in the comics are not these sullen social misfits. They are each fairly lighthearted people. In the comics, Reed is the smart guy who has trouble with girls because his nose is in a book. He is not the depressed loner who stays in his garage. In the comics, Ben Grimm is a affable guy who protects the geeks from the bullies, not the also sullen and almost non-communicative dumb-guy side kick to the smart guy. As a side note, and this may be a symptom of my nostalgia, the actor that played Grimm was completely wrong. Chiklis was perfect for the role and looks just like Grimm. Grimm is a big stocky guy, not an athletic slender guy. Sue is a rather serious all-business emotionally reserved character in the movie, while in the comics she is a nice friendly person. Johnny is not an angry disaffected twenty-something, in the comics he is a fun loving goofball who flirts with girls all the time. Everyone in this film was so serious and without personality, and what they did have was not at all who they are in the comics. Doom is the biggest offender. In the comics, Doom is the son of a wealthy Eastern European baron and has a genius which rivals Reed’s, but his breeding gives him feeling of superiority over Reed. In this movie, as noted above, he is a anti-social former scientists who simply views himself as too intelligent for others. There is nothing particularly special about him. Suffice it to say, these are not just “updated” Fantastic Four characters in a “modern” setting and “modern” tone. No, these are entirely different characters in a misplaced setting and foreign tone to that of the Fantastic Four. They just happen to have similar powers and names.
Finally, it is worth noting that none of the Fantastic Four really take on their superhero names (“Dr. Doom” is muttered once as a joke long before his transformation), and the team is never named either.
20th Century Fox, the creators of the franchise, must make a sequel of the movie or else ownership of the source material reverts back to Marvel. I am hoping that they do not make a sequel, or 2oth Century Fox works out a deal with Marvel for a joint venture, as happened with Marvel and Sony for Spider-Man. I hope this for two reasons. First, I think Marvel will do a far better job at doing these movies than 20th Century Fox has. Second, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently planned out to three phases (including 21 or 22 films) with its overarching villain being Thanos. Phase Four is currently only speculative and projected to begin no sooner than 2019 with a possible movie about the Inhumans (see here). There are few villains with enough gravitas to pull together the entire franchise. Thanos is one of them; Dr. Doom is another, as is Galactus. Both Dr. Doom and Galactus are owned by 20th Century Fox and both are classic Marvel characters with ties to all sorts of characters and many classic stories, and both are substantial enough to be a threat to all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as opposed to a single film. I would love to see the Fantastic Four enter into the Avengers’ universe, and to see how the Avengers would deal with Dr. Doom and/or Galactus (and vice/versa). Right now, due to the poor reception and performance of Fantastic Four (2015), the plans for a sequel have been taken off the table. So, there is hope! All of the Marvel Comics need to come home to the Marvel Cinematic Universe!