How bad is the latest effort to establish a cinematic franchise out of Marvel Comics’ iconic super-group the Fantastic Four? Well, it’s the worst to date—which is a substantial achievement, given the low quality of the (unreleased) 1994 Roger Corman adaptation and the let’s-test-drive-Chris-Evans-as-a-superhero films released in 2005 and 2007. This iteration, directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle) is a dull, sour, claustrophobic mess: 80 minutes of tedious origin story followed by 20 minutes of more-tedious-still climax. Anonymous “insiders” involved in the production have actively trashed Trank’s work (which was reportedly so unprofessional that it cost him a Star Wars directing gig), while Trank himself has claimed on Twitter that he had a “fantastic” version of the movie last year that was subsequently ruined by the studio, 20th Century Fox. Pretty much everyone in the otherwise talented cast appears resolutely uncommitted to their roles.
Which is to say, Fantastic Four is a perfect candidate for a spoilereview, and I will not pass up the opportunity. If you intend to see the movie and do not want plot details revealed to you in advance, stop reading now. If, by contrast, you would like to admire the awfulness of Fantastic Four without actually having to watch it—or if you’ve already seen the movie and are still reeling from the experience—read on. I apologize in advance for the length: There’s a lot of awful to cover.
1. When it was first announced that gifted young actor Miles Teller would be playing Reed Richards (a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic), I assumed he’d be “aging up” for the role. After all, since the launch of Marvel’s “first family” in 1961, Richards—whose primary physical signifiers included gray temples and pipe-smoking—had been among the most prominent patres familias in comic-dom. But in fact the reverse is the case. Teller, 28, plays Richards as an 18-year-old: a self-taught, world-class genius who cracks the secret of inter-dimensional travel for his high-school science fair. If this sounds like a peculiar knockoff of the 2007 animated comedy Meet the Robinsons, well, that’s exactly how it plays—though with considerably less charm.
2. I should note here that we in fact first meet Reed and his friend Ben Grimm (a.k.a. the Thing) as fifth-graders, growing up in working-class Oyster Bay on Long Island. Reed has already created a working prototype of an inter-dimensional teleporter from spare parts in his garage. Ben, meanwhile, is being bullied by a thuggish older brother who shouts, “it’s clobberin’ time” while beating him up. The addition of this sad backstory to the Thing’s trademark catchphrase (which, yes, we’ll hear at the end of the movie) is not an improvement.
3. But back to the science fair. Reed and Ben (Jamie Bell) show off their teleporter by sending a toy airplane into the beyond and back, but they are disqualified when their experiment also sends out an energy pulse that shatters the backboard of the school gymnasium. Luckily, who should show up at the fair but an avuncular scientist, Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara). They, too, have been experimenting with inter-dimensional travel, but they have never been able to bring back the objects they have sent out. (Why they are trolling high-school science fairs in search of talent to help them achieve this breakthrough is a question better left unasked.) Dr. Storm immediately offers Reed a full scholarship to the “Baxter Foundation” in Manhattan, which the latter gleefully accepts. Picture Peter Parker getting a job at Oscorp and you won’t be far off.
4. Reed is put to work building a teleporter large enough to transport a capsule containing human subjects. Sue is working on the project, too. The two have a meet-cute in the company library, in which she reveals that she studies “pattern recognition” and he reveals that he’s a fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (a book that he is somehow unaware is a famous classic—what a nerd!). Depressingly, both of these revelations will have narrative significance later on.
5. Seeking additional talent, Dr. Storm re-establishes contact with a former pupil, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), here presented as a surly, grungy cyber-hipster who reluctantly joins the team. He clearly has a thing for Sue, and he’s unhappy that she’s getting along so well with Reed. This theoretical love triangle is one of many instances in which the movie advertises its intentions and then makes no meaningful effort to fulfill them: You could cut the tension with a spoon.
6. Dr. Storm and the kids watch footage, sent back by a probe, of the planet in another dimension to which the teleporters connect. Said planet is a barren, red wasteland, but Storm et al. believe that it holds the key to humankind’s future. “It’s a whole new world ... ” one begins, “ ... that can save this one,” adds another. Then Victor grouses, “ ... not that it’s worth saving.” (This, too, will be significant later.) Sue laughs him off: “Dr. Doom over here.” Get it?
7. If you are wondering when Johnny Storm (a.k.a., the Human Torch) would show up, the answer is now. Dr. Storm’s other, non-adoptive kid is also brilliant, but in this case troubled. We meet Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) as he is out street racing at night, the superhero movie briefly interrupting itself to offer a scene out of American Graffiti. Alas, his engine catches fire when it hits 9,000 rpm, and he crashes spectacularly. Picking him up at the police station, Dr. Storm tells Johnny he can’t have the car back unless he comes to work on the inter-dimensional teleporter project at the Baxter Foundation. The rationale for his inclusion on the team? “He can build anything,” Dr. Storm explains. (Except, of course, a car engine that doesn’t explode.)
7a. Pretty much everyone involved in the film has been quick to argue that the decision to cast a white actress (Mara) and a black actor (Jordan) as brother and (adopted) sister is a sign of cultural progress. And that may well be the case. But if you’re going to make that argument, perhaps you shouldn’t have the white kid be the do-everything-right academic superstar and the black kid be the disobedient, chip-on-his-shoulder lawbreaker. Just a thought. (Not that it matters: Johnny’s bad-boy background is forgotten almost immediately.)
8. Our four wunderkinder—Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Victor (yes, I know, stick with me for now)—succeed in building their teleporter! They subject it to exactly one live-subject test: putting a chimp in the capsule, sending it to the planet in the alternate dimension, and bringing it back alive. “It’s safe!” declares Sue. There are no follow-up tests, no examinations of the chimp for long- (or even short-) term effects, no nothing. Everybody agrees that they’re immediately ready to begin human exploration. “I told you these kids could do it!” Dr. Storm tells his slightly villainous Baxter Foundation boss, Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson). Dr. Allen congratulates everyone on a job well done and says he’ll contact NASA about getting trained astronauts to help them explore this brave new world—which is, of course, the entirely reasonable thing to do.
9. But who wants to be reasonable? Reed, Victor, and Johnny are furious that they don’t get to be the first to travel to the other dimension/planet. Victor whips out a flask of booze, and as the three boys get drunk, they grow ever crankier. Who remembers the names of the engineers who built the Apollo spacecraft, they ask one another. No one! But everyone remembers the names “Neil Armstrong” and “Buzz Aldrin”! Those astronautical glory hogs got to live out the dreams that rightly belonged to the forgotten engineers, who the kids speculate probably died “penniless.” (Screw you, Armstrong and Aldrin! Screw you, crummy NASA retirement benefits!)
10. So the drunk boys decide, like infinite drunk boys before them, to take dad’s car out for a late-night spin—although in this case, dad’s car is a billion-dollar inter-dimensional teleporter. Reed even calls up his old friend Ben, who was there way back at the start, to come join them. (Remember Ben? He’s been stuck back in Oyster Bay all this time, a fact which the movie subtly conveys by presenting him wearing a shirt that says “Oyster Bay.”) So the four boys get into their space suits, hop in the teleporter, and zap themselves into another dimension. Amazingly, none of them thinks to invite Sue, who has of course (unlike Ben) been working with them on the project this whole time. Classy move, bros.
10a. It’s important to remember that for the remainder of the movie we’re expected to continue to take the side of these ridiculous drunk kids whenever they get into an argument with the awful corporate types who wanted to bring in trained grownup explorers from NASA.
10b. It’s also probably worth noting here that the movie has no theory whatsoever of what an alternate dimension might signify. The teleporter always sends matter to the exact same spot on the other-dimension planet, and there is never any suggestion that it could teleport anywhere else. That other planet basically just seems like an ordinary planet, except for the fact that it has some kind of green, liquefied power source coursing just beneath its crust like magma. (If anyone involved in the movie had any sense, the product tie-in for an energy drink practically writes itself.)
11. Upon arrival on this new world, the boys get out of the capsule to explore. (The chimp did not do this, but it’s probably safe, right?) They’re intrigued by the green energy liquid and decide they want to know more about it. When Reed notices that it seems to be pooling down at the base of a 300-hundred-foot cliff, he encourages his pals, “C’mon, let’s go check it out!” They climb down and examine the energy pool, which they decide is “alive.” (What this means is anyone’s guess.) Moreover, to their surprise—though not that of any possible moviegoer—this green goo turns out not to be completely safe. It begins erupting from the ground, like volcanic discharge or an aggressively manipulated zit, and it swallows Victor as they climb back up the cliff. (There’s no chance we’ll see him again, is there?) The other boys run to the capsule and zap back to Earth, but all of them are spattered with some of the goo. So, too, is Sue—who’s been minding her own business back at the lab all this time—when the capsule explodes upon arrival.
12. This is where the movie takes a turn for the grim and self-serious, a tonal mode that almost no one other than Christopher Nolan has made work in a superhero movie, but one which pretty much everyone apart from Marvel Studios continues to attempt. (Again, Fantastic Four is a Fox property.) Josh Trank’s only previous film as a director, Chronicle, had many fans, but I was not among them. In it, three teenagers stumbled upon an energy source that gave them great powers, and they then spent the bulk of the film petulantly bickering among themselves over the proper use of those powers. Trank’s Fantastic Four follows a similar script, but it is much, much worse.
13. The immediate aftermath of the boys’ explosive return to the lab is bloody and horrible: Reed, pinned under debris, has a moment of Cronenbergian body horror when he discovers that his leg is stretching like overcooked pasta; Ben pleads for help from beneath a pile of rubble. But what happens next is worse. Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny wake up as captive subjects for observation at a secret military facility (“Area 57,” which is six more secret than Area 51, for those of you keeping track). Reed is strapped down and stretched out like a medieval martyr on the rack. Sue is unconscious, slipping in and out of visibility. Johnny is periodically bursting into an agonizing hellfire. And Ben—well, as he gradually extricates himself from the pile of rubble, it becomes clear that he is a pile of rubble.
14. In his hermetically sealed, impossibly secure prison room, Reed hears Ben begging for help through a convenient air vent. Squeezing into said air vent, Reed tries to save Ben, but ultimately he is forced to instead opt for saving himself and fleeing the facility. (Cue the many upcoming recriminations about his having “abandoned” his friends.)
14a. I think a pretty strong case can be made that a principal reason for the repeated cinematic failure of the Fantastic Four is that while Reed is the group’s unquestioned leader, his superpower—the ability to stretch himself like rubber—has always been remarkably silly. It’s not without reason that DC Comics’ Plastic Man was always pitched as a humorous figure, or that toy-of-my-youth Stretch Armstrong was promoted in TV ads such as this one. Would you prefer to fly and pitch fireballs (Johnny), become invisible and create force fields (Sue), be impervious to damage and super strong (Ben), or…stretch? The movie tries to make Reed a little cooler by allowing him to alter his face, a la the X-Men’s Mystique, but that’s really another power altogether. And in any case, it’s too little, too late.
15. With Reed gone, our remaining three heroes are offered an unpleasant bargain by the U.S. military and the increasingly villainous Dr. Allen: Serve as covert human weapons abroad in exchange for the promise that the government will try to rebuild the inter-dimensional teleporter and find a way to cure them. (Dr. Allen: “We’ll have control over more than that world. We’ll have control over ours.”)
16. We fast-forward one year to discover that Ben has already become a prime military asset, chalking up 43 “confirmed kills” in a single outing. (Thank you, Fox, for bringing us the Thing, mass killer.) Johnny will be the next asset to be deployed, as soon as he has better control over his powers. By now, angry recriminations are being launched in every conceivable direction. Sue is upset that Johnny is eager to work with the military (him: “We should use our powers to do something”; her: “I’m not going to be a tool”). Ben is perpetually angry because he looks like a caramel-flavored variation of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. (Plus: No one even gives him a pair of briefs to wear; happily, for reasons unclear, his rocky manhood seems not to have made the return trip from the other dimension.) And everyone, of course, is mad at Reed—the guy who got them all into this situation and then abandoned them.
17. It is determined, improbably, that it is not possible to rebuild the teleporter without Reed’s help. This, despite the fact that we saw the many iterations of plans and technical diagrams that were produced when the previous transporter was made, plus the fact that, you know, he’s an 18-year-old kid and America presumably has plenty of adult engineers who can remake things that have already been made once before.
18. But no Reed, no teleporter, and although the FBI, CIA, and NSA have picked up traces of him here and there, they’ve never been able to pin him down. And so, unable to track down an untrained teen, the U.S. government—which, again, has many highly specialized employees—finds itself in need of someone versed in “pattern recognition.” (I told you this would come up again!) So they ask Sue to find Reed, which she does by figuring out that his email server is a variant on “Captain Nemo.” (See? That early meet-cute scene was packed with important information.)
19. They find Reed in South America and bring him back to Area 57, Ben punching him unconscious in the process. (Reed: “You were my best friend.” Ben: “I’m not your friend. You turned me into something else.”) Reed feels very bad about everything that’s happened. He asks Sue, “ Do you ever wonder what life would have been like if you hadn’t come to the science fair that day?” Heartbreakingly, Sue does not give the obvious answer: “No, but I wonder what life would have been like if you assholes hadn’t drunk-driven our teleporter into another dimension.”
20. With Reed back, they build a new inter-dimensional teleporter and send a squad of soldiers back to the other-dimension planet. There, they encounter a weak, limping figure in a cloak whom they bring back to Earth. Yes, it’s Victor. Yes, he’s now Doctor Doom. No, he doesn’t have his classically cool battleship-gray riveted armor. Instead, the green goo has fused his spacesuit to his body, giving him a more zombie-skeleton-lich aesthetic. But, yes, he was faking his infirmity and it was (unsurprisingly) a very bad idea to bring him back to Earth.
21. Doom, who can manipulate objects in space like Magneto though without the metallic limitation (plus his eyes glow green), kills Dr. Allen and innumerable nameless Area 57 employees. He announces “If this world must die so that mine might live”—he means that alternate dimension-planet, of which he’s evidently grown rather fond—“then so be it.” Then he kills Dr. Storm, because that’s what happens to likable black supporting characters in movies such as this one. As Storm dies, he offers the kids one last avuncular nugget: “Promise me: Look after each other.”
22. Doom returns to the alternate dimension-planet and creates a wormhole that will suck in and destroy the Earth. (His motivations are rather obscure here, as it’s unclear why anyone would want to spend eternity alone on a desolate planet in another dimension. But to each their own.) Our heroes follow Doom and engage in a dull, visually unimaginative, and notably repetitive fight sequence. Ben worries that it’s hopeless—“We can’t beat him, he’s stronger than any of us”—before the always-brilliant Reed points out, “Yeah, but he’s not stronger than all of us.” The good guys win, and Ben gets to work out his childhood-abuse issues by yelling, “It’s clobberin’ time!”
23. Back on Earth, the U.S. government proposes that the superheroes continue working as military assets. They decline. “We don’t need you or anyone else to keep an eye on us,” says Sue—which is pretty rich, if anyone cares to remember the whole “let’s get drunk and teleport into another dimension” level of discretion the kids displayed earlier in the movie. They demand that the government give them their own huge, remote, fully-staffed scientific facility, and the government, for incomprehensible reasons, agrees to do so. (Yes, the kids saved the world; but they were also the only reason the world needed saving.) Overlooking their gleaming new domain, Reed suggests “I think the four of us should have a name.” They all chuckle for a moment, before Ben offers, “It’s fantastic.” Reed leaps on this: “Guys! I’ve got it…”
24. The movie coyly ends before Reed can finish. But it ends, thank God.