I don’t get the Fantastic Four haters.
I grew up reading the Fantastic Four comics – they and Spider-Man were my first and almost only comic book loves. I dug Fox’s first two Fantastic Four films, and was glad that I had kids the right age to appreciate them (10 and 8 when the first one came out). I haven’t watched them since, but my memories are (1) Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis nailed it, (2) Iaon Gruffudd was not great (3) forgot Jessica Alba was in it, (4) Doom wasn’t much better than he was in Roger Corman’s version. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer I remember got Silver Surfer dead-on (for me – though I was never a die-hard fan) and even cracked a big-screen Galactus: no mean feat.
I cheered when Chronicle director Josh Trank got the Fantastic Four reboot, and was even more excited when I heard the casting. But then the first trailer dropped, and I thought “Oh no, they’ve gone dark!” Bearing in mind I was just coming off the crushing Man of Steel disappointment, I was dreading a po-faced, ponderous, needlessly dark and dour Fantastic Four. I treat blogosphere scuttlebutt about reshoots, production difficulties – and even negative reviews – as so much white noise (I’m old enough to remember the outcry over Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman, as well as the kerfuffle over X-Men suit, Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man – and those films all turned out pretty good), so I really went into the film with an open mind – but with that 10-year-old Fantastic Four fan somewhere deep inside me hoping it would somehow work out in the end. For me – and the packed audience of kids I saw it with – it did. They applauded and hooted at the end. I didn’t, but I was applauding inside.
Fantastic Four basically had me at hello. I loved that they took the whole premise back to a singularity, much as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes did so cleverly. Just as somebody had thought, “If talking apes really were going to take over the world, what would be the starting point of that?”, somebody had bothered to ask, “If four or five kids were going to get astonishing powers – and nobody’s going to send teenagers into space – what would the starting point be?”
And so we see young Reed Richards (likable even pre-Miles Teller) building his home-made teleporter, Primer-style, in his shed. One by one, with (I thought) great care, the building blocks for a real-world Fantastic Four were assembled, while we got to know the characters: ‘born old’ square Reed (Teller), smart-mouthed daredevil Johnny, loyal friend Ben (Jamie Bell) – nice touch having “It’s clobberin’ time!” being the battle cry of his bullying older brother, by the way – and dependable-but-boring Sue/Susan (Kate Mara). They’re all played by talented, watchable actors – and Mara’s fellow House of Cards alumnus Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Franklin Storm doesn’t hurt either. Then, of course, I remembered that the great Toby Kebbell was Doom – and he’s even from Latveria! But still, nobody – nobody – could pull of a good Dr. Doom. Not even Kebbell.
So as the soon-to-be-awesome foursome assembled, and I enjoyed the mostly-not-CG, practical, nuts-and-bolts science-that-works (rather than science-that-plays-like-magic) approach of the science-y stuff, I still wondered, “Who’s going to send them through the interdimensional time portal? They’re kids!” Of course, nobody was going to. Not Dr. Storm, obviously (Johnny and Sue are his kids after all, even if one of them is adopted), and not even Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), head of the sinister cabal of Evil White Men who owns everything Storm and his team cooks up in the Baxter building laboratory. The kids were going to go by themselves, after a drunken but on-the-money speech about nobody remembering who built the Apollo 11 rocket, but everybody knowing the name Neil Armstrong. God damn if they weren’t going to sneak into the lab – with Reed’s loyal pal Ben Grimm along for no good reason other than he’s Reed’s loyal pal – and zap themselves into history! But, wait – hold the teleporter! If Susan’s not going (Victor is on board instead), how’s she going to get her powers!? Ah… gotcha. Okay, I buy it. Not bad. Not bad at all.
By now, we’re fifty minutes in – exactly half way through – and I’m realising that Fantastic Four is taking its time getting to its Big Action-y Stuff. But I don’t mind, because I’m enjoying the ride. Reed’s stretchy sequences look good, not silly. Johnny’s flames never look digital. The Thing is… just perfect. And Sue, well, Hollywood’s been able to do ‘invisible’ for about 90 years, so it’s mainly her energy abilities we’re going to want to see. As far as the powers go, I’m going to give the special effects a 10. Sue me.
Structure-wise, it’s reminding me of the slow build-ups of the superhero origin story touchstones like Richard Donner’s Superman and Bryan Singer’s X-Men. I still had no idea what Doom was going to be like, because he was barely glimpsed in the trailer, and I still doubted anyone could “do a good Doom” on screen. And then, there he was – and suddenly I felt like I was watching a classic Universal Monsters movie – but with 21st century monster make-up. Doom came on like Frankenstein’s monster, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mummy all rolled into one. He’s scary. Super smart. And he wants to destroy the world!
The final battle isn’t one of the long, drawn-out, we’ve-got-$150-million-and-they-might-want-it-back-if-we-don’t-spend-it battles we’ve come to expect from the bigger, boringer superhero movies. It’s more like the Statue of Liberty battle at the end of X-Men: they could have spent a bit more money on it, it could have lasted a bit longer, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been better if they did. When the film was over, the audience wanted more. It remains to be seen whether or not we’ll get it.
But whether or not there’s a Fantastic Four 2, or the X-Men and Fantastic Four will be brought together in the Simon Kinberg Comic Universe, is not important. What matters is that Trank has made a Fantastic Four film, enjoyable in its own right (kind of like Ant-Man works as a stand-alone film), that, like the original X-Men, is grounded and gritty, but not po-faced or ponderous (if you want a “bright and breezy” Fantastic Four, well, you can still rent the Tim Story ones). Sure, it’s not as good as X-Men – what the hell is? – but it’s far from the disaster my fellow critics would have you believe. My suggestion is that you make up your own mind – and, hey, try to keep it open as you go in.