Perhaps it is destined to be that there will never be a truly great filmic imagining of Marvel’s longest running superhero properties. Josh Trank is the latest director tasked with bringing these characters to the big screen and, like those before him (Roger Corman in 1994 and Tim Story in 2005), he has been unable to deliver a film that is likely to be remembered as anything other than a blip on an increasingly crowded slate of comic book adaptations. That is not to say the film is the irredeemable mess that some critics have claimed, but it certainly doesn’t deliver in the ways that the most successful films in this genre have in recent times. Possessing neither the dark earnestness of a Christopher Nolan Batman, nor the over-the-top excesses of The Avengers nor the humour of a Guardians of the Galaxy, this incarnation of Fantastic Four is a somewhat uninspired effort that doesn’t really improve on earlier versions.
Hot on the heels of strong showings in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, Miles Teller takes on the lead role here as Reed Richards, a teenage science prodigy who has developed teleporting technology in his garage. Whilst his device fails to impress his teachers at the school science fair, he and his machine are snapped up by Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey) the head of an organisation developing similar technologies. When Richards and his crew – which comprises childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) – decide to take their creation for a test run, they find themselves whisked to an unknown planet where they become exposed to cosmic radiation from which they – along with Sue Storm (Kate Mara) who facilitates their return to Earth – emerge with unique physical and/or psychological attributes. Even for somebody with no previous knowledge of these characters, identifying which member of the group will emerge as the bad guy is as easy as a quick study of surnames; not to mention the darkened lair in which we first meet him or the grudge that he harbours towards all and sundry.
It has to be said that the first two-thirds of Fantastic Four are tolerable if you can overlook the complete lack of subtlety in the characterisations, but the final portion in which our heroes return to the mystery planet (through a portal opened by the all-powerful Dr Doom) for a showdown with their nemesis lacks any genuine tension and plays out as rather silly. Perhaps that is the problem with these films? Maybe the storylines that work in comic books simply don’t transfer to the cinema screen without being exposed as utterly preposterous, particularly when they take themselves so darn seriously. I mean, regardless of what you think about The Avengers series (or even the previous Fantastic Four), at least these films, and the characters in them, seem to realise the silliness of it all, often making light of the various predicaments in which they find themselves. This film is sullen and serious, but without the dynamism in the performances to compensate for the lack of fun.
It is great to see Cathey (TV’s House of Cards) secure such a significant role here, but it is a shame that he is burdened with some truly appalling dialogue. Likewise, the screenplay affords the rest of the accomplished cast little opportunity to really showcase their talents, with Tim Blake Nelson particularly short changed as the duplicitous Dr Allen. Whilst some have decried the fact that this production veers a long way from the comic book narrative on which it is based, the filmmakers have no obligation to faithfulness and, besides, there are numerous other failings inherent in Fantastic Four that are more worthy of their consternation and ultimately keep the film bunkered in a mire of mediocrity. Trank, whose only other directorial effort has been 2012’s Chronicle, has certainly been outspoken in blaming interference from Fox Studios for a finished product that supposedly doesn’t resemble his version, but with a substantial budget and a strong cast at his disposal, it is ultimately Trank who must assume responsibility for failing to bring something new and exciting to the table.