Despite being shrouded in mystery and receiving premature negative comments the latest on screen iteration of Fantastic Four deserves its prefix.
The Fantastic Four have always been a bit of a unique superhero formula: a family type unit of scientists with personality reflective superpowers that go on extravagant adventures and fight unusual villains (such as Mole Man). As characters and stories they’re full of fun and sci-fi but not much else beyond that, something reflected in the 2005 adaptation and its sequel (which I do enjoy). In 2015 this formula is played around with and it pays off beautifully.
Fantastic Four opens to the childhood of 2 of our protagonists, Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, showing that even as children they were born for something special. After an 11 year old Reed demonstrates his home made teleportation device to Ben, wiping out the city’s power supply, we are transported to the present day where Reed’s extraordinary invention finally gets the attention it deserves at his school science from Franklin Storm and his adopted daughter, Susan. The invention earns Reed a place on Franklin’s scholarship program which seems to be more of a personal project building on the work of former student Victor Von Doom; to master inter-dimensional travel with the final aim of looking at alternative power for our planet. Eventually Franklin persuades his renegade son Johnny Storm to come on to the team and we have all our characters set up for an original origin story.
Much criticism has been received along the way for its new take on the characters and its side-stepping from original source material. The film’s plot therefore comes to focus much more heavily on character and really is an examination of the immediate effects of these gifts on the characters, a huge strength of the film which allows it to stand out from the rest. While at times this can make it slow paced and action free it allows all the characters motivations and characteristics to be explored showing each to have a distinct purpose and drive. With some great performances, especially from my personal favourite Miles Teller, this makes everyone’s action seems perfectly normal and understanding, despite them being superheroes whose actions sometimes involve turning into fire. One Character this particularly impressed me with was Tony Kebbel’s Victor Von Doom who seemed like the most well thought out villain I’d seen in a long time, easily side stepping ‘mad scientist’ by being portrayed as a damaged ego who goes through some tough situations that would send anyone over the edge.
Visuals for the film are also beautifully designed and give it a feel that helps it stand out from other superhero films, balancing the comic book and sci-fi elements with realism. Director Josh Tranks’s stamp can be seen in these moments as he tries to present the reality of gaining powers and travelling to an alternate dimension. These designs stands out greatest when the characters gain their powers, especially in a great segment of the film where they first discover and test their gifts which seems heavily influenced by body horror films. This all adds to the film as a character exploration allowing the audience to feel how difficult having a set of new and strange powers loaded onto you may feel.
Whilst there is much to this film that makes it a unique and involving film it is not without its flaws. Focusing on the characters’ initial experiences with their powers leaves it by the end very much an origin movie, which can partly make it feel like not much has happened, but combined with the last scene makes it feel all too much like a teaser for a new franchise. Hopefully it is followed by a series of great films otherwise future film viewers may see at as a mere oddity. By itself it still gives lots of character but by the end is full of potential for places to go.
My main other gripe is something that often comes with superhero films: shoe-horning in comic names and phrases. Now this film is very much set in a realistic world and it very cleverly side steps some comic book mumbo jumbo by not expositioning the science behind the travel, but there are a couple of moments where it feels like the studio have demanded that certain names are used which does tear you away from the enjoyment of the film. While the film is ‘fantastic’ the way the word is jammed in made me want to clobber someone.
Overall the Fantastic Four is a very welcome addition to the newly formed Superhero genre, giving us a decent and well thought out character exploration that manages to sidestep some of the ridiculous aspects of comic books whilst still retaining the adventure. Not action-packed but gripping, effective and thoughtful: Fantastic Four is well deserved reboot that adds something new to the well worn superhero release schedule.