In November of 1961, readers of Marvel Comics readers witnessed four intrepid explorers be bathed in mysterious cosmic rays and forever changed. On that day, they became known as the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes, and went on to be the first of many colourful superheroes for Marvel Comics as well as feature in numerous cartoons, videogames, and live-action movies. This year, I’ve been dedicating every Friday in November to commemorating the debut of Marvel’s most famous dysfunctional family.
Released: 7 August 2015
Director: Josh Trank
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $120 to 155 million
Stars: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, and Tim Blake Nelson
Genius scientist Reed Richards’ (Teller) research into teleportation attracts the attention of Professor Franklin Storm (Cathey), who invites him to help complete Victor Von Doom’s (Kebbell) “Quantum Gate”, which he recklessly travels through to a parallel dimension alongside his co-workers. Though they are transformed by their exposure, Doom is stranded and Reed becomes a fugitive, but he is forced to repair his fractured relationships when Doom plots to harness the dimension’s power for his own nefarious ends.
Considering that there is some controversy surrounding the creation of Marvel’s First Family of superheroes, perhaps it’s fitting that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s dysfunctional family of intrepid adventurers has had a rocky road towards a big-budget, live-action adaptation. Although German producer Bernd Eichinger’s attempts to get a film off the ground resulted in the production being shut down and the negatives being confiscated to keep it from seeing the light of day, director Tim Story’s efforts at least resulted in actual movies being released. While the films were both modest successes at the box office, they were met with mixed reviews, despite praise for some of their performances, and plans for further movies and spin-offs were cancelled because of this mediocre reception. 20th Century Fox first announced their intentions to reboot the franchise in 2009; the initial script included another interpretation of Galactus but, when director Josh Trank signed on to the film, he immediately set about reworking the script into something more grounded and realistic.
While Trank sought to evoke a specific tone and atmosphere with his new take on the Fantastic Four’s origin, other creators and producers offered contradictory statements regarding the reboot’s connection to Fox’s X-Men franchise (Various, 2000 to 2020), and the film attracted controversy by casting up-and-coming actor Michael B. Jordan in the role of Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, a character traditionally depicted as white (though Trank later revealed that he planned to make the entire Storm family black to create more diversity within the team). Additional problems occurred when 20th Century Fox ordered a number of reshoots after being dissatisfied with Trank’s efforts, and the film was further cut up and changed from Trank’s original vision in the editing room. The result was one of the most ridiculed superhero films ever made; Fant4stic’s underwhelming $167.9 million gross made it a box office flop and critics universally panned it, with even Trank actively distancing himself from the finished product. Although 20th Century Fox initially planned to produce a sequel, the film was quietly removed from their production slate; the characters subsequently became the property of Marvel Studios when Disney purchased 20th Century Fox in 2017 and another reboot was soon announced as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While Tim Story’s Fantastic 4 movies may not have bee the greatest superhero or science-fiction tales ever produced, they were decent enough in their own right and seemed to be heading in the right direction with the second film; a third movie, and a spin-off, seemed likely and I have to say that I was a little let down that we never got to see another entry in that series of films. When I first heard that 20th Century Fox were producing a reboot, I was sceptical until I saw the first few trailers; the movie seemed to be advertised as a cross between Interstellar (Nolan, 2014) and easily Trank’s most notable film, the excellent Chronicle (Trank, 2012), with its darker, gritter approach and focusing more on the scientific aspects of the team. I was actually okay with this, and some of the casting changes, and barring one exception everything seemed to be shaping up okay…until I started hearing that it really wasn’t very good and saw how poorly it performed. When I first saw it, I remember actually thinking it wasn’t that bad, but it’s true that it’s probably my least-watched of the three commercially released movies.
Fant4stic separates itself from its predecessors by beginning in 2007 to show us Reed’s childhood as a child genius (Owen Judge) who has aspirations of building a teleportation device; although he is mocked by students and even his teacher, Mr. Kenny (Dan Castellaneta), for his claims to already be building the device, he catches the eye of young Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann). While Reed is unfazed by the mockery he receives, Ben comes from a rough neighbourhood and an even rougher home where he is continuously abused by his brutish older brother, Jimmy (Chat Hanks), and forms a fast friendship with Reed when he sees first-hand that the boy’s prototype (powered by a number of Nintendo 64’s and materials scrounged from Ben’s family junkyard) is able to transport matter to an unknown dimension (though it also causes a massive blackout in the process). Seven years later, the now grown-up friends confidently display their newest prototype at their high school’s science fair (despite clearly being in their mid-thirties rather than around seventeen/eighteen); although Reed’s device is still a little wonky and destructive, it nevertheless works but, oddly, Mr. Kenny continues to be unimpressed (labelling it as a magic trick), and Reed is left dejected at the response to his lifelong project.
His sprits soon turn, however, when Dr. Storm and his daughter, Sue (Mara), approach him, seeing the potential in Reed’s research and impressed by his progress; Storm has been working on a similar project but has been unable to retrieve matter from the source dimension, and immediately offers Reed a full scholarship to the Baxter Foundation so that he can help them finalise an interdimensional transporter. Reed jumps at the chance to move to the city and be appreciated for his intellect for a change and, though it means being separated from his childhood friend, Ben fully supports his academic endeavours. Reed awkwardly tries to strike up a conversation with Sue, an intelligent young woman in her own right who uses music to help her concentrate on her work and specialises in “pattern recognition”. Still, Storm’s project attracts scrutiny from Doctor Harvey Allen (Nelson), who doesn’t subscribe to Storm’s claims of alternative dimensions, or his tendency to recruit children from science fairs or unpredictable wild cards like Victor Von Doom. Reimagined as a reclusive, unappreciated genius, Victor distrusts the military and governmental officials behind the Baxter Foundation but agrees to return to the project out of his affection and trust for Sue. Initially, Victor is so paranoid that he believes that Reed stole his research, but despite being critical of Reed’s childish drawings, is nevertheless impressed with his efforts; although he has little faith in the future of humanity or Storm’s dreams of using the Quantum Gate to repair the environmental damage done to the world, he’s willing to work alongside Sue and Reed on the proviso that they get to be the first ones through the gate to explore this mysterious other dimension.
To complete the project, Storm drafts in his outspoken, hotshot son Johnny (Jordan), a rebellious youngster who’s more interested in street racing than putting his incredible engineering talents to good use alongside his father. Resentful of his father’s work, which has left him feeling undervalued, Johnny is forced to join the project after smashing up his car, but forms a fast friendship with Reed after he actually speaks to and treats him with some respect on a peer-to-peer level. In time, the four complete the Quantum Gate and successfully transport a chimp to this other dimension, dubbed “Planet Zero”, a primordial world of chaos that Storm believes holds the key to understanding human evolution and providing clean, renewable energy sources for the entire planet. However, the team is distraught and angered when Allen refuses to allow the four to be the first to travel to Planet Zero, resulting in them deciding the make the trip against orders after getting half-cut on alcohol. Intoxicated, Reed calls Ben and insists that he join them in making the trip, and in a bizarre turn of events Ben is transported alongside Reed, Johnny, and Victor while Sue…stays behind in the control room and wasn’t even asked to be a part of the experiment. In fact, she only finds out that they’re using the machine when her computer alerts her, meaning that she misses out on visiting the new world, which turns out to be an extremely hostile environment and home to a protoplasmic substance. However, when a series of eruptions force them back into the Quantum Gate, Victor is left stranded and the three are bombarded with the strange energy of the planet, which fundamentally alters their genetic structure to bond them with the four elements of the planet (with Sue being caught by a burst of energy from the returning gate).
Unlike in the 1994 movie and Tim Story’s first film, the four are immediately and horrifically changed by this process; Johnny is left a burning body, Ben is buried under a pile of alien rocks, Sue flickers in and out of sight, and Reed’s limbs are left strewn around the ruined laboratory. Following this, the four are subjected to a series of studies and tests by governmental officials as their powers rage out of control. Interestingly, in this version of the story, neither Ben or Johnny can control their powers; Johnny requires a specially-modified suit to regulate his flames, and even Reed struggles to concentrate on keeping himself in proportion, making the four’s abilities far more monstrous and dangerous as a result. Since she wasn’t at ground zero like the others, Sue’s powers are far more stable and, in time and with training, she’s able to control them, but Ben is left in constant pain and horrified by his rock-like appearance. Terrified and guilt-ridden, Reed flees the facility and goes on the run in a desperate attempt to stabilise his condition and find a cure for Ben’s hideous affliction, however this results in Allen manipulating Ben into becoming a weapon for the government and preparing Johnny for the same fate. After a year in hiding, Reed is finally tracked down by Sue, brought in by the enraged Ben, and agrees to complete a new Quantum Gate in return for the resources to cure his friends, and himself, of their dangerous powers, only to find that Victor also survived and has been irrevocably and dangerously altered by Planet Zero.
I mentioned above that Fant4stic is far more focused on the scientific content of the film, and that’s true; once Reed arrives at the Baxter Foundation, he is awestruck by the scope, resources, and technology offered by the facility and much of the film’s first act is devoted entirely to the fledgling team and Victor’s efforts to finalise the Quantum Gate. This involves a hefty montage of such science stuff involving Reed and Victor scribbling on a whiteboard, Sue creating the team’s protective suits, and the construction of the Quantum Gate itself. This is juxtaposed with the four slowly bonding over time, sharing meals and a real enthusiasm for the work they’re doing, though Ben is noticeably absent from the entire team-building process as Reed never once thinks to bring him in on the project.
Once the team returns from Planet Zero, the film takes a dark and dramatic turn; as a stereotypical governmental sleazeball, Allen is determined to not only take advantage of Ben, Johnny, and Sue to sell them as assets to the military, but to also mine the transformative properties of Planet Zero for similar uses. While Johnny is all for using his powers for something worthwhile, and pushing them (and himself) to the limit, Sue is determined to not be used as some tool for the government like Ben, who has become a despondent and stoic killing machine in Reed’s absence. While I question the casting of Jamie Bell in the role of Ben since he lacks the physicality and stature typically associated with the character, he does a pretty good job at portraying a loyal friend to Reed and the Thing’s torment at the emotional and physical pained caused by his grotesque transformation. Kate Mara is a much better fit for Susan Storm compared to Jessica Alba since she’s not some glamorous supermodel cosplaying as the Invisible Girl; instead, she’s a smart and slightly quirky scientist in her own right and has far better chemistry with Reed and Johnny than Alba’s version of the character. All I ever hear is people banging on about the reshoots and Mara’s wig but I can’t say it really bothered me that much or was even something I noticed; similarly, I really enjoyed Teller’s version of Reed as an awkward but likeable young man who is incredibly smart but still very relatable, and Michael B. Jordan delivered a great performance as the Human Torch thanks to his boundless charisma. The only real criticism I had about the casting was to do with some of the script and narrative choices; leaving Ben out of the team means that we don’t really get to see the same rapport between him and Johnny as in the previous movies and comics (Johnny generally directs his snark towards Victor instead), but otherwise this was a really strong cast.
One area where Fant4stic excels above its predecessors is in the CGI and special effects used to bring the titular heroes to life; while I have to say that I do prefer a practical suit to be used for the Thing, the CGI employed here goes a long way to emphasising just how monstrous and fearsome this version of the character is. A hulking, destructive being of superhuman strength and durability, the tragedy of the Thing is only heightened by his grotesque appearance and his being turned into a weapon by Allen. Similarly, the fire effects used to render the Human Torch are worlds better than in the previous film and probably some of the best fire effects I’ve ever seen, resulting in him being a fittingly blazing inferno. Sue’s invisibility is about the same, though there’s more of a blue tint to her forcefields and such; generally, her powers are used more to protect the others from harm and to allow the Thing to get the drop on Doom in the finale, meaning the vast potential of her abilities is again set aside in favour of trying to highlight each member of the time. Finally, there’s Reed; while he looks a little plasticy when he’s all stretched out following his return to Earth, his elasticity mostly looks much better (while his cobbled together suit isn’t massively comic accurate, it seems more suited to the CGI than the blue used in the last films) and we even get a scene that better showcases his ability to disguise his features.
Rather than being a despicable monarch or a sleazy corporate scumbag, this version of Victor Von Doom is an arrogant, cynical slimeball who believes himself to be the most intelligent person in any room and who is obsessed with Sue (why that has to keep happening in these films is beyond me). Determined that the world will remember his name for his contributions to science, he refuses to be forgotten in favour of some hot-shot astronaut and his obsessions lead to him blundering into Planet Zero’s protoplasmic substance without thought for the consequences, causing the planet to erupt around them, granting the four their powers, and leaving him stranded on Planet Zero, where he is consumed by its strange energies. Infused with his suit and with a mysterious, otherworldly power coursing through his veins, Victor is transformed into a monstrous and vicious being who exhibits deadly telekinetic powers that he uses to explode people’s heads, repel bullets, and lay waste to the facility in order to return to Planet Zero. Driven mad by his powers and time in isolation, Victor takes the name “Doom” and plans to turn the destructive energies of Planet Zero against the Earth in order to forever transform it, reshaping it in his own image in order to avenge himself on those who have wronged him, killing both Allen and Storm in the process and refusing to listen to reason. To put an end to Doom’s plot to destroy the world using a black hole, the four travel to Planet Zero, where they find themselves overwhelmed by Doom’s command of the landscape; when their individual efforts to stop Doom are met with failure, the four set aside their differences in order to work together to defeat him. Following a co-ordinated assault using all of their powers in unison, the four are able to set Doom up so that the Thing can smash him into his own energy beam, disintegrating him and sparing the Earth (though the immediate area is left devastated). In the aftermath, the four are commended by the United States government and enter into an agreement where they are afforded the freedom to operate independently in return for lending their services for the good of the world as a superpowered team.
I’m a bit torn, to be honest; I feel there’s a lot of potential in Fant4stic, especially in the cast and the general direction that the film took. Focusing on the science and being this more gritty, grim retelling of the team’s origin was a good way to separate it from what had come before (which, to be fair, is essential for a good reboot), but I can see why this would have put off long-term or even casual Fantastic Four fans. There are some stumbles in the story that I seriously doubt even a director’s cut could fix; not having Ben be part of the Quantum Gate team until the machine is complete being chief among them, as is Sue not accompanying the team to Planet Zero, both of which were very strange choices to make. I liked that the film tied the team’s origin in with an adaptation of the Negative Zone to help mix things up, and having the Thing be tormented by physical pain and turned into a tool for the military was an interesting wrinkle to add to the story, as was the focus on the government desiring to harness and manipulate the team’s powers and those of Planet Zero. As ever, it’s the depiction of Doom where the film falters; had the script stuck to the original idea of him being a herald for Galactus, this may have helped with this new depiction of the character, but this is still a far cry from the maniacal despot of the comics and I almost feel like it would’ve been better to leave Doom’s fate unresolved and have the team battle a Planet Zero native, someone like Annihilus maybe, and tie up Doom’s loose end in the sequel. But, then again, I doubt even that change would have helped a sequel being produced, and that’s a real shame as I feel like a follow-up could have really improved upon the missed potential of this film and given everyone a bit more time to shine. Overall, I find myself actually enjoying this more than I expected, but it’s maybe a little too far away from the source material and the core of what makes these characters work, though I don’t actually think it deserves as much hate as it often gets.
Could Be Better
What did you think to Fant4stic? Were you a fan of the new cast and their depictions of the characters and what did you think to Johnny Storm being race swapped? Were you disappointed that Ben wasn’t a part of the machine’s construction and that Sue didn’t travel to Planet Zero? What did you think to the depiction of Victor Von Doom this time around? Do you think CGI is a better way to bring the Thing to life or did you prefer the practical suits of the previous films? Would you have liked to see a sequel to this film, or an extended director’s cut release someday? How have you been celebrating the debut of Marvel’s First Family this month? Whatever your thoughts on Fant4stic, you can sign up to leave a comment below or let me know on my social media.
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