The marketing for this year’s Fantastic Four movie reboot puzzled me. Its trailers featured almost exactly the same footage even months apart. The subway and phone ads featured the individual characters in stock hero poses, as if superheroes wrought into flesh are still unique, even though we’ve seen nearly 100 characters onscreen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone. It was generic. As if the characters didn’t have decades of rich backstory to plumb.
The appeal of the Fantastic Four seems obvious to me. They aren’t so much super heroes as they are super explorers. Reed Richards actively pushes into insane areas of scientific knowledge. He and his family interact with the unknown and unlock wonders and horrors, both of which they take full responsibility for. Theirs is a unique angle on the idea of superheroes. Why didn’t the marketing for the film utilize that?
Because it’s not in the movie. And unfortunately, there isn’t really anything in the Fantastic Four movie.
There are spoilers ahead for the movie, but honestly, there are no surprises in this film so I’m not entirely sure what there is to spoil.
Stand Back, We’re Not Going to Try Science
Fantastic Four opens with a 12 year-old Reed Richards bursting out from behind his glasses, constantly tinkering with ideas and jerry-rigged contraptions. Nothing is too stupid or impossible to try, and for the first few minutes the movie is off to a promising start. Then Reed’s character development stalls, and Reed’s interest in the world around him is ignored for the rest of the film. This has deleterious effects on the character arcs of the rest of the F4, as well. Reed is recruited into the Baxter think tank by Franklin Storm, but he shows no interest in the works of the other equally bright students around him. He asks Sue what her “thing” is, but never follows up on her answer, or her subsequent work on the unique space suits that they’re all going to use to survive their interdimensional trip. Once Johnny comes on board, Reed barely talks to him, despite Johnny’s mechanical knowledge being key to assembling the interdimensional podcraft. Reed shares a lot of common ground with Von Doom, as it’s revealed that they were both working on the theory of interdimensional travel independent of each other, but the two of them never come close to anything resembling rivalry or mutual respect. We never find out why Reed and Ben stayed best buds all throughout middle school, high school, and college. In fact, Ben simply isn’t present for a good chunk of the first third of the film. This is intensely frustrating, as these characters are interesting and, for the most part, the actors inhabiting them are quite engaging. We want to find out more about them, but our cipher Reed just refuses to interact with them. In fact, later on in the movie, after the four of them are transformed, Reed just leaves.
Reed isn’t even interested in his life’s work! The construction of an actual, giant, working interdimensional teleporter is handled via montage. We don’t get to see Reed rattle off insane theories at lightning speed, or construct impossible gadgets to assist the functioning of other impossible gadgets, or worry himself sleepless over an engineering problem he knows he should be able to beat. Have you ever watched Mythbusters? Or How It’s Made? Or played with Legos? Of course you have, because building an impossible thing is a wonderful, frustrating, unique, endorphin-fueled experience, even when it’s witnessed vicariously. None of that is in Fantastic Four, even though including it would develop Reed’s reputation as the capital-letters Genius of our time. If you’ve seen Ghostbusters (hah, “if”) then you recall how Egon is constantly spouting gibberish that makes it seem as if his breadth of knowledge is far beyond ours. What the heck is Tobin’s Spirit Guide? How did he build the proton packs? “This structure has exactly the same kind of telemetry that NASA uses to identify dead pulsars in deep space.” That is an actual sentence that Egon utters in jail and it has no importance to the plot but it’s GREAT because it’s yet another sign that Egon’s brain never stops working, never stops exploring. You get no such indication from this movie’s Reed Richards. In fact, when the interdimensional pod breaks down after its first hop, the circuitry of its power supply fails. In response, Reed just pounds a button screaming “I don’t know what to do!” even though he built the damn thing.
Your Body is a
There is one sequence that Fantastic Four really, impressively nails, and that is the horror that all four of them feel in reaction to the changes, to the betrayal, of their bodies. When we see them for the first time after the interdimensional pod crashes back onto Earth, its through the traumatic lens of the crash. Reed knows he’s alive, but he’s a speck of skin inside of a burnt spacesuit. He hears Ben’s voice, panicked and distant, but can’t determine where Ben might be. Not that it matters, as Reed’s own distended leg is pinned under a girder.
Then he sees Johnny.
Then we see Johnny. Or rather, we see a black man burnt to a crisp, his prone body still wreathed in flame. It is awful. It’s supposed to be awful. This is what Reed’s hubris has caused and the miracle is that we’re actually seeing the genesis of a group of superheroes, rather than a terrible, terrible tragedy.
The body horror continues from there. None of them know where they have been taken or what has happened to their loved ones. Reed is drawn and all but quartered. Sue’s father can’t even find her. Johnny’s father sees his son burning. And Ben begs and screams for help from the pile of rubble that is his body. The movie does an amazing job at making the Thing an emotional being. The face is incredibly expressive, the body language is powerful, and the eyes, the eyes just kill you every time you see them.
Then Doom shows up and he is horror personified. His spacesuit is fused to his skin. His mouth can’t move, making it more unnerving when you hear him speak clearly. You can’t tell which parts are metal and which are human, and energy leaks from cracks in his visage. His powers are predominantly telekinetic in nature in the movie, and he uses them to do terrible, startlingly bloody things in the calmest manner possible.
Everyone’s abilities look tremendous in the movie, really. Another point in Fantastic Four‘s favor. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.
No One is Given Any Motivation to Do Anything
Fantastic Four has a lot of great ingredients: the body horror, its effects, (most of) the cast, but none of it coheres into a whole. Instead, the movie just listlessly sways into scene after scene, the characters doing things because, well, it’s never clear. Because that’s what happens next in the screenplay, I guess.
This is a systemic problem with the movie. Young Reed’s science teacher (Dan Castellaneta, in a role that curiously utilizes none of his substantial comedic and character talents) can’t abide Reed’s impossible scientific theories, or the miniature teleporter that the teacher witnesses in full working order. Why would someone not react to something that insane? Who knows. Why are Sue and her dad haunting public school science fairs in Bay Ridge (sorry, “Oyster Bay”) Brooklyn? Also unknown. Why does Ben’s big brother beat the crap out of Ben without any provocation? For character development, I guess, even though it doesn’t come up again. Why does the Baxter Foundation think it needs to tunnel into another dimension to find a cheap source of energy? What is the reason behind anything that Evil Corporate Guy does? What was the point of Reed leaving Ben, Sue, and Johnny if the movie couldn’t progress without him returning? Why does the Thing never ever wear pants? Why is Von Doom convinced the Earth is doomed to extinction when he’s actually doing really well in life? Why does he want to go back to the dimension where he was essentially burned and starved to near-death? Why anything in that final battle? Why does the army give the F4 unlimited resources at the end of the movie when they just tore a huge crater into the landscape, causing many deaths?
(Oddly, the reason they hijack the interdimensional pod actually makes a lot of sense. Essentially, they ask themselves if they want to be remembered as the Neil Armstrongs of a new dimension, or the nobodies who built the craft for the Neil Armstrongs of a new dimension?)
The lack of clear motivation for any of the characters in the film ends up completely undermining the formation of the Fantastic Four, as well. By the end of the movie the four of them look over their new lab and try to figure out what it, and they, should be called. They make weak, polite jokes to each other, trying to force a camaraderie that doesn’t exist in the film. They’re a family now, the movie tries to say. They’ve been through a unique experience together. Except they haven’t, really. They spent the majority of the movie apart from each other, and the jocular dialogue thuds as a result. This isn’t a family, these are guests at a wedding, asking each other how they know the bride and groom.
In the end, Fantastic Four isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a good movie. Really, it’s not a movie at all. It’s something half-finished. A collection of promising elements waiting to be shaped into a story.
Maybe someday, someone will do that. Fifth time’s the charm?
Chris Lough writes a lot for Tor.com and loves that Johnny Torch. Go Johnny Torch!