It’s easy to tell a lot of meddling went on with the latest Fantastic Four. Arcs are truncated, tone shifts wildly in spots, and scenes which were the highlights of trailers are absent. At its best, the film is an offbrand retooling, positing the accident which grants powers to the four–or five, since Dr. Doom is, like in Tim Story’s tepid entries, part of the initial team–as the tragic result of Millennial desperation to accomplish something. As a setup, it is a worthy successor to director Josh Trank’s debut film, Chronicle, which also dealt with disaffection and power.
His vision of Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a pockmarked, acne-scarred weirdo, shuffling uncomfortably in his skin. Other people respond to him with either outright hostility or bemusement. Faceless parents and dead-eyed school administrators are spiteful when he explains/uses his garage-built teleporter. Sleazy Pentagon types are disinterested until they realize his device can gain them resources to exploit and weaponize. Even his childhood friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), can only communicate with him through their shared love of mechanical tinkering–everything else they simply talk past one another. When Reed gets handpicked by a thinktank for child geniuses, Trank repeatedly closes in on Bell’s face, his Ben simmering with conflicted jealousy (a narrative thread which is sadly forgotten about, even when he’s yanked back into the plot in an offhand manner).
The rest of the principals are similarly abrasive: Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is an introvert with a sarcastic streak, her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) a smack-talking James Dean needing to prove himself, and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) a capricious brat, always looking to shoot down the smug usurper to his position as favored student. Their biggest worry, and common ground, is being cut out from their own accomplishments: when the government threatens to take over their dimension-hopping project, the group ponders the fates of NASA scientists whose hard work made other people rich and famous (possibly a jab thrown at Marvel for its treatment of Jack Kirby). Instead of waiting to share that fate, they hop over to “Planet Zero,” whereupon they are zapped by green energy and turned into freaks, then poked, prodded, and/or groomed by the military.
Conceptually, Trank aligns the bitter squabbling of Kirby/Lee’s early Fantastic Four comics with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira: difficult, often unlikeable individuals struggling to assert themselves against faceless systems. The film’s middle act is largely contained in the shadowy steel halls of a military complex, lacking even the minor personal touches of the Baxter Building’s school setting. The camera drinks in the body shock of the Four’s transformations–particularly Reed’s slack, rubber-band limbs and Ben’s neutered rock form–and the callous treatment from their captors, prompting a terrified escape by Reed.
Unfortunately, it’s here where the most cutting and reshuffling is apparent. Sequences of Ben used to squash terrorist cells, Reed on the lam, the group’s disaffection and the struggles of Sue and Johnny’s father (Reg E. Cathey) to reconcile them, and the reconstruction of the project which started this mess are either clipped or treated as background noise. Von Doom’s reappearance, his metal-fused body scarred with crackling energy and mind warped by trauma towards omnicide, seems especially gutted. Initially brimming with portent, the scene brushes the film against (and opens it to) Lovecraft’s cosmic horror by way of Matt Damon’s space madness in Interstellar. Instead, we’re cut immediately to a (surprisingly bloody) breakout, which launches into yet another green-screen, world-endangering climax. The calm, restrained pace of its first hour given way to attempts at replicating Disney/Marvel’s Avengers Assembly-line. Other scenes, including a chat about Sue’s parentage, act like panicked reshoots, ordered by Fox after seeing internet chatter. Ironically, individuality gets suppressed.