Superhero movies seem to be morphing this summer. Ant-Man was the most tongue-in-cheek of recent comic-book adventures. Now, with the updated reboot of Fantastic Four, the Fox-inherited Marvel property moves into Weird Science territory. For its first half, at least, the new film is a story about a nerdy, science-loving teenager whose only power lies in his formidable intelligence.
The film is short compared to Marvel Studios' output, at barely more than 90 minutes. An "origin story", it feels more like an overture than a full opera. Its obvious purpose is to kickstart a new franchise and to establish characters who will return at full throttle in later movies – providing this one is successful enough. It is enjoyable enough in patches, sometimes ingenious, and boasts some impressive special effects. The irony is that the film is at its most appealing before its heroes assume their superhuman powers and decide among themselves that they are, indeed, "fantastic".
We are first introduced to the main character, Reed Richards, on "career day" in a dusty classroom in Oyster Bay, New York, in 2007. Reed is played as a young boy by Owen Judge. His ambition is to build a teleporter that can carry objects into new dimensions. His teacher scorns his experiments. The only one who takes him seriously is his classmate Ben (played as a young boy by Evan Hannemann), a blue-collar kid whose family runs a salvage yard. Ben agrees to help provide some spare parts for Reed's makeshift machine. They manage to make a toy car disappear... but it doesn't come back.
One of the more bizarre elements in the film is how distant 2007 is made to seem. It is as if we are in the 1950s, in a pre-digital era in which inventors use scrap metal and used car parts.
Flash-forward seven years. Reed (now played by Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) are competing in a high-school science fair. Their "cymatic matter shuffle", as the machine is called, has been refined. When Reed sends objects into different dimensions, they now come back – albeit not in quite the same shape.
Black holes feature in the story – and there are one or two in the screenplay as well. It is never explained just why Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey from TV's House of Cards and The Wire), dean of the Baxter Institute, just happens to be pottering around at Reed's high school. Reed, inevitably, is enlisted to work on Dr Storm's top-secret project to break on through to the other side.
Here, Reed is working alongside Dr Storm's adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), a brilliant young scientist who listens to Portishead when she is working. Also on the team are Dr Storm's rebellious son Johnny Storm (Michael B Jordan) and his former star student Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). With a name like that, it doesn't take a great deal to work out that Victor is the one most likely to be drawn to the dark side.
The first half of the film is almost completely bereft of anything approaching action. We see Johnny racing cars and Reed causing electrical interference when he tests his transporter but, for most of the time, the young scientists are in the labs. There is little sense of what they're trying to achieve or where they hope to go. The closest thing to a villain is Dr Storm's backer Dr Allen (Tim Blake Nelson). By his dark suits, scowl and the way he chews gum, we guess he stands for the corruption of corporate America and is bound to sell Storm's discoveries to the military or the CIA at the first opportunity.
So little is happening at this point that the film comes close to stalling. The young scientists' mission is vaguely defined. They are looking to explore new planets which might have natural resources that can "save" Earth and, perhaps, explain "the origin of our species". Romantic and family tensions simmer in the background. Reed is drawn to Sue, but there are hints that she may previously have been in a relationship with Victor, who seems to be the jealous type. Johnny, meanwhile, feels that his father has been neglecting him. Teller, Mara and company are very capable young actors who bring sensitivity and humour to their roles, but that isn't necessarily what audiences want from Marvel-era superhero blockbusters.
As the lab rats observe among themselves, everyone remembers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin but no one knows the names of the scientists who made possible their trips to the Moon; that is why they are desperate to use their own transporter. The film receives a much-needed infusion of energy when they finally do so, inviting Bell's Ben along for their illicit ride. They are whisked off to a strange, volcanic world, which looks a little like Earth but appears to be uninhabited. After their exposure to its molten power, their bodies begin to alter in disturbing ways. Sue is able to "produce force fields" that make her invisible. Ben turns into "Thing", the hugely powerful rock man. Reed develops a body as elongated and stretchy as synthetic cheese, and Johnny becomes a human fire torch. Victor the baddie, meanwhile, learns how to harness raw energy.
The director Josh Trank (Chronicle) belatedly throws in plenty of shock-and-awe spectacle in the final reel. We see cars sucked into a vortex. There are rumblings on the soundtrack and cosmic fight sequences. This, though, presents a new set of problems. The characters are so transformed from what they were that we seem to be watching a completely different movie.
Introductions are often the hardest part when it comes to movie franchises. Fantastic Four is a little awkward at giving us the backstory and explaining just what got into the superheroes' soup, but it manages to make its explanations in the end. The next outing for the Fantastic Four (presuming there is one) should prove a much smoother ride.
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