There is good news and bad news to report now that Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four” is in theaters. The good news is that the Johnny Storm race-switch controversy is now officially at the bottom of the list of things to gripe about. The bad news is that the list is extensive.
Perhaps first and foremost is the fact that Doctor Doom is less of a villain than the U.S. government. To make matters worse, writers Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slate never actually define why the U.S. government is the root of all the world’s evil — it just is. Viewers are asked to blindly accept the premise and then cheer at the end as the “heroes” extort the U.S. government into providing them with their own research facility.
Over and over again, “Fantastic Four” portrays Dr. Franklin Storm’s (Reg E. Cathey) small group of children prodigies — who hope to unlock the key to interdimensional space travel — as the “good” guys and the U.S. government as a force for evil.
At one point Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) says that those “in charge” are running the earth “into the ground — so maybe it deserves what’s coming to it” if their experiments go wrong. The fact that they, the scientists assembled by Dr. Storm, are the ones who are reckless and naive is downplayed or ignored.
Take the following interaction between Sue (Kate Mara) and Reed (Miles Teller):
Sue Storm: “It’s amazing you didn’t black out the entire western hemisphere. You basically ripped a hole in the fabric of space-time with un-spec components and no supervision.
Reed Richards: “Yeah, that was an accident.”
Sue Storm: And if by accident you upped the power you could have created a runaway reaction that opened a black hole and swallowed the entire planet.
Reed Richards: Well, I’m glad that didn’t happen.
The writers treat Reed’s “accident” (a power surge that damaged a high school gymnasium) as a “nothing to see here” moment. Likewise, Dr. Baxter brushes off his own son’s reckless behavior and Doom’s cybercrimes during a time where the young man had divorced himself from the team. Even the chain of events that led to their disastrous voyage into another dimension (i.e., Planet Zero) began with a night of drinking. But yet, again, it is the U.S. government that cannot be trusted.
Prior to the group gaining their powers, a monkey is successfully sent to another dimension and then retrieved. When it is then proposed that NASA come in to provide technical expertise and astronauts, Doom reacts in disgust:
Dr. Blake: I won’t deny that what you’ve created here is incredible, but this isn’t the school science fair anymore. We have to bring in help now.
Victor: Why just NASA? Why not the Army? Or the CIA? We can send our political prisoners there. Water boarding in the 4th dimension could prove very effective.
Apparently the U.S. is running the earth “into the ground” because guys like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — were water boarded. Again, just don’t mention the fact that Reed Richards almost inadvertently killed six billion people.
After the heroes accidentally receive their powers on Planet Zero, a few of them become “tools” of the U.S. government. The audience is never told exactly what Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) or Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) are doing (Perhaps taking out members of the Islamic State group as they throw gay people off tall buildings?), but because their missions are for the Pentagon it’s just framed as something bad.
Director Josh Trank eventually leads the team through a showdown with Doom on Planet Zero when it becomes obvious the movie needs to draw to a close. Doom tries to create the same black hole that Reed almost brought into existence as a young scientist, but is stopped by his former peers working together. Soon they’re back on earth, and after Ben growls at a Pentagon official the newly minted Fantastic Four are given their own research facility. One of them even says something along the lines of “You work for us now” — because extortion is heroic if you can throw fireballs from your hands. (The audience is cued for laughter.)
Perhaps the saddest thing about “Fantastic Four” is that moviegoers have an idea of just how good it could have been. They have seen a director like Christopher Nolan take on superhero movies and science fiction. If Fox could have produced a “Dark Knight”-quality “Fantastic Four” film with the artistry of “Interstellar,” then they could have finally done the property justice. Instead, fans got a run-of-the-mill superhero film with a cast that seemed to be going through the motions.
Planet Zero? Try “Planet Zero Chemistry.”
There likely will not be a “Fantastic Four” sequel. If there is, then it’s a shame that Reg E. Cathey’s character was already killed off. He was probably the only character with real screen presence. In short, “Fantastic Four” is a fantastic miss by 21st Century Fox. Wait for it to debut on Netflix and pray that the rights to the characters are soon in the hands of Marvel Studios.
Update: Jeremy Jahn’s has reviewed “Fantastic Four.” He nails it.