Family: it’s one of the most powerful things we experience as humans. If you share the same blood as another, there’s a bond – innate from birth, or built upon over the years – that will stay with you until you die. Because of its universal nature, family is one of the strongest themes cinema has enjoyed over the decades, and the one crucial thing we’ve learned from all these portrayals is that family comes in many forms, but it’s the same. Vin Diesel ain’t got friends; Woody and company face each peril together; John Lithgow may be an alien, but he’s still got kids to support. A movie about a superhero family should be bursting with possibilities, showing us what that word means through the context of incredible powers and world-shattering stakes. Fantastic Four, Josh Trank’s reboot of a franchise laughed into oblivion by its first two cartoonish attempts in 2005 and 2007, has the means to achieve those ends – and does nothing with them.
Beginning with a flashback, we witness child genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) invent the world’s first teleportation device with the help of his friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) – and he’s only in the fifth grade. This Spielbergian trip back in time sets up a modicum of wonder; where does Reed’s rip in spacetime actually lead? What does it mean for humankind? Seven years later, Richards has further developed his device, and his talents are spotted by Dr. Storm and his assiduous daughter, Sue (played by Reg E. Cathey and Kate Mara, whose characters apparently both just happen to be hanging out at a high school science fair). Brought to work at the Baxter corporation, and together with Ben and Sue’s brother, Johhny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) – and collaborator, Victor Von Doom, played by Toby Kebbell – become the first people to travel to another realm in the universe. When a freak energy source in the next dimension spells disaster for the expedition, they return to Earth with extraordinary powers and are incarcerated by the government. But Reed escapes: the others are trained by the military to exact their every whim. Following a ‘one year later’ cut (smartly smoothing over the origin-story groundwork we’re all bored of by now), a whole universe of potential is opened up; the genres of body-horror, man-on-the-run thriller and science fiction are all excitingly thrown into the same blender, and Fantastic Four gets its first true injection of intrigue and spectacle.
But it’s downhill from there. Ultimately, Trank’s film lacks the level of craft demanded by the story; even when you take away the less-than-dazzling visual effects, the basic storytelling is as dysfunctional as the family it’s trying to portray. And there lies the rub; there is barely any true character work here, such precious little chemistry between the otherwise individually talented young cast, that the movie quickly becomes tiresome, even boring to sit through, a feeling made even sharper by any shred of promise in the film’s considerable build-up. Even Simon Kinberg, who penned the razor-sharp X-Men: Days of Future Past and has a mastery of clarity amid chaos, is nowhere to be heard despite his screenwriting credit; all that’s left is the ticking of superhero-movie-trope boxes, and a third act that must have disappeared into the same hole that Reed Richards tore into the next dimension. While its brevity is to be appreciated in this age of bloated comic book movies, its supple 100 minutes isn’t a large enough framework to support everything that’s going on. Tragically, even upsettingly, as soon as Fantastic Four finally kicks into gear, it’s over.
Watching this franchise-kickstarter is as deeply unsatisfying as summer blockbusters get, despite some sturdy work that can be found between the more rushed elements. There was room for real gravitas here, but each time something of tangible quality rears its head, it’s quickly snatched away in favour of moving the uninspired plot along to that cosmically teeny whimper of a conclusion. I almost prefer the lurid awfulness of the original Fantastic Four movies – at least there was life in them. As popcorn-guzzling entertainment, Fantastic Four’s biggest failure is its almost dogged refusal to excite; as a picture about a group of outsiders coming together to form a family, it misses the crucial ingredient it needs to make that word mean something: blood.