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'Fantastic Four' turns out to be not so super



If your superhero movie is 101 minutes long and it takes 75 minutes before the bad guys shows up, something is seriously wrong with your script. Just sayin'.

The problem with Fantastic Four isn't lack of visual inventiveness, or mostly bored actors, or pokey pace — though those things certainly don't help. It's that its filmmakers aren't grasping the inherent dramatic emptiness of the superhero origin story. With rare exceptions (Iron Man, in particular), the narrative landscape for such tales has been well-staked out by other Marvel and DC movies, offering little that is surprising or compelling. Many have made the mistake of reinventing an all-too familiar wheel, with diminishing returns (Marc Webb's two Amazing Spider-Man movies anyone?). Even this summer's Ant-Man, despite its sprightly tone, isn't quite as terrific as it might have been had the hero's origins been confined to the first act. Luckily, its charmingly reluctant lead, impish humor, and goofy, small-scale sense of adventure compensated for what was a fairly pedestrian storyline.

Fantastic Four tries to be the opposite of everything that made Ant-Man work. And nothing makes that clearer than when Kate Mara's Sue Storm (aka the Invisible Woman) angrily rebukes her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan's Human Torch) with "They're not powers, they're aggressively abnormal physical conditions."

Boy, you just know you're in for some big superhero fun when one of the heroes is a Debbie Downer who shits all over your cool world-saving abilities. That one line of dialogue couldn't be a better indication of the movie's glowering, there-will-be-no-fun-had approach to the material. Which is, I guess, a strong directorial choice. It's just a bad choice. For a broody vigilante whose parents were gunned down in front of him, moody nihilism works just fine. For a quartet of earnest scientific eggheads, not so much.

Director Josh Trank kicks Fantastic Four off with a Spielbergian opening — a prologue to a movie that already feels like a prologue — that focuses on grade-school Reed Richards and Ben Grimm becoming best chums as they tinker on a teleportation gizmo in Richards' garage. Flash forward to a high school science fair and their teen counterparts (played by 20somethings Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, respectively) catch the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a bigwig scientist working with the government on inter-dimensional travel.

Reed is invited to join to the Baxter Institute, where he ends up working with Storm's adopted daughter Sue (Mara), her wayward brother Johnny (Jordan), and an older student named Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). When the dudes crack the inter-dimensional travel code (Sue gets to design their suits), they realize that, like NASA, no one will ever remember who created their groundbreaking technology, only the astronauts who made the first journey. Fueled by whiskey, the three decide to make an impromptu trip. Reed, of course, insists his best bud Ben accompany them. Predictably, things go horribly wrong, and Victor is left behind while Reed, Johnny, Ben, and Sue (who rescues them) end up mutated. For those who don't know the comic: Reed gets all stretchy, Sue turns invisible and makes force fields, Johnny can ignite his body with fire, and Ben has turned to rock.

To get to this point in the story, Trank expends half the film's running time. It's passably engaging but not particularly fun. The teens are initially horrified by their mutations but this interesting reaction is promptly abandoned with a leap one year forward in time and some quickly resolved complications with the military. It's another 30 minutes before our heroes use their power for good, and by the time they finally square off against the villain (is it a spoiler to reveal that the guy named Doom returns?), it feels like everyone involved has pretty much given up, ceding the movie to not-very-special special effects. What's Doom's nefarious plan? To destroy Earth, of course. Why? Well, did you notice his last name?

Fantastic Four unfolds like the filmed version of a rushed, first draft script. None of the heroes have any defining traits, believably authentic emotions, or human motivations, and the only thing that makes them a team is their physical proximity to one another. The set designs are boring, the color palette is dank and dour, Doctor Doom looks like a half-melted action figure, and even his new head-exploding abilities aren't enough to make him seem threatening.

It's hard to decide whether Trank, who showed such promise with his clever, found footage Chronicle, was completely in over his head for a tent-pole blockbuster or if Fantastic Four suffers from intense studio meddling. Whatever the answer, this joyless, misguided reboot of two already underwhelming FF movies might convince audiences and Hollywood execs alike that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's classic comic book about a super-powered family is unfilmmable. Might I suggest they watch Pixar's brilliant The Incredibles for some pointers.

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