Josh Trank’s new film, in theaters Friday, is the third big-screen attempt to make Fantastic Four work, and it’s as tragically flawed as the previous two efforts, although for entirely different reasons. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, Fantastic Four was the first Marvel superhero comic, ushering in an era of protectors of justice who could also be imperfect human beings. The team obeys a family dynamic, with Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) as the stern father, Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) as the warm mother, Johnny Storm (Human Torch) as their smart-aleck kid, and Ben Grimm (The Thing) as his grumpy older brother. Lee and Kirby’s characters bicker and brawl, especially in the early days of the comic, but always stand united in the face of greater threats, like the imperious Doom.
The first Fantastic Four, filmed in 1994 but never released, is the stuff of bizarre Hollywood trivia. Made for only $1 million and produced by low-budget legend Roger Corman, the movie was seemingly created only so its production company could retain the rights to the property for future large-scale adaptations. These days, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube and marvel at its adorable ineptness. If nothing else, the film nails the kitsch factor, but it also makes some marvelously basic errors, like staging a point-of-view shot from the perspective of a character who is blind.
Hollywood’s first real crack at the comic came in 2005 with Tim Story’s Fantastic Four, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis as the super-team and Julian McMahon as Doctor Doom. Its budget was a hundred times bigger than its predecessor, and the script was largely faithful to Lee and Kirby’s origin story for the heroes, who get their strange powers after being exposed to “cosmic rays” during a spaceship flight. But the whole affair was depressingly tame, following the prescribed beats of a superhero movie—strange powers discovered, internal strife resolved, evil villain conquered through teamwork—without anything to distinguish itself. Coming in the early days of the superhero-movie boom, Fantastic Four lacked the visual punch of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, the allegorical weight of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, or the real-world grit of Christopher Nolan’s Batman. A sequel got marginally better reviews but took in less at the box office, and Fox shelved the franchise until Trank’s 2015 reboot.
Plagued by stories of production woes and studio-imposed re-shoots, Trank’s film hobbles onscreen this week to critical jeers, even though it at least tries a different approach. The onscreen mess has elements of Nolan’s grittiness (it’s mostly set in a dimly lit underground lab), Raimi’s pulpiness (Doom is re-imagined as an alien creature who can telepathically explode people’s heads), and even a touch of David Cronenberg-style body horror as the heroes discover their strange powers. It’s a catastrophe, but one clearly brought about by an effort to take a story rooted in both silliness and realism and somehow keep hold of both of those threads.