The third big-budget attempt to tell the origin story of the Fantastic Four superhero saga on film hasn’t turned out to be the charm.
With director Josh Trank of “Chronicle” success at the helm and a stellar cast, this reboot had promising potential. But sluggish pacing and inadequate action make it more fair-to-middling than formidable.
Teleportation wunderkind Reed Richards (Miles Teller) blossoms from tween nerd, trying to crack interdimensional time travel in his garage, to science superstar hired by the Baxter Foundation research lab as his best childhood buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) cheers him on. There, Reed meets and feels sparks for Sue Storm (Kate Mara), adopted daughter of Baxter director Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). The pair join forces with Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) to finish the “Quantum Gate” project begun by foundation dropout Victor von Doom (brooding Brit Toby Kebbell), who still nurses unreturned pinings for Sue.
Frustrated that Baxter executive Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson in a masterful turn as corporate despot) has recruited astronauts to man the virgin voyage of their triumph to Planet Zero, the group decides to pre-empt plans and go on a dry run themselves. Reed calls upon his old pal Ben to join them in the expedition.
Leaving Sue behind to man the controls (does the girl always have to be stuck in the office as Moneypenny while the boys get to go off and be Bond?), the guys meet disaster on the planet, with Victor being sucked into fiery oblivion and the others physically altered by mysterious forces.
Finally, after 40 minutes, the foursome acquires its superpowers. Reed’s limbs now stretch to insane lengths like rubber bands, making him “Mr. Fantastic.” Ben has become Thing, a rock monster impervious to all threats. Johnny is the Human Torch, shooting flames at will, and Sue (somehow affected through her computer screen) glimmers in and out of sight as the Invisible Woman.
Here’s where you start waiting for the payoff that never quite comes. The film’s slow buildup could be forgiven if Trank started flinging conflicts as fast as Johnny does fireballs. But writers Simon Kinberg (who worked on two films in the “X-Men” franchise), Jeremy Slater and Trank slog along punching doughnut holes when they should have been drumming up crackling dialogue and humorous one-offs to fill the empty spots. When inspirational bromides about togetherness and lines like “Oh, yeah, this one’s definitely going on Instagram” is as close as you get, you’d best hurl as much action the audience’s way as possible. Which they don’t.
It’s certainly no fault of the actors. Stretchy, Craggy, Ghostie and Red-Hot avoid hamminess while nearly straining themselves off the screen in a futile stab at making the movie more exciting, more funny, more intriguing, more anything.
To Trank’s credit, an understated sophistication permeates the film, from its moody lighting to performances that are refreshingly subtle for the genre. In the beginning, when fifth-grader Reed fends off discouragement from his teacher and bonds with Ben, the story even suggests the possibility of breakthrough genre-bending greatness — which makes the eventual spiral into dullness all the more disappointing.
Trank’s intentions are ambitious. But Marvel Comics’ longest-running team deserves better.