Review: Super powers not enough to save ‘Fantastic Four’

Los Angeles Times Film Critic

The gaining of super powers may sound like a swell deal, but in “Fantastic Four,” that acquisition not only ruins the lives of the four people involved, it upends the film as well.

Unlike most other movies from the Marvel Comics universe, “Fantastic Four,” in its first half at least, is determined to tell its origins story of brainy kids working on the science project of a lifetime, with an emphasis on the reality and believability of the characters and their relationships with one another.

In this, it’s helped by young actors — “Whiplash’s” Miles Teller, “Fruitvale Station’s” Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell — strong enough to make that happen.


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But as directed by Josh Trank (who shares screenplay credit with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg), this good work gets ignored in the film’s second half, when generic science fiction peril takes over and Hollywood’s umpteenth black hole gets press-ganged into service to once again threaten life on Earth as we know it.

The Fantastic Four was the first of the Jack Kirby-Stan Lee comic book series that revitalized the Marvel brand. A 2005 feature was successful enough to merit a sequel, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” but that was the end of the line.

The current reboot takes its origins storyline not from those venerable Kirby-Lee books but from a 2004 comics series called “Ultimate Fantastic Four” that had ideas of its own about how those four came together.

Back we go to a fifth-grade career day at an elementary school on Long Island’s Oyster Bay. A young Reed Richards announces to dumbfounded classmates that his goal in life is to be the first person in human history to teleport himself. In fact, he’s already working on the necessary machine in his parents’ garage.

Intrigued despite himself is classmate Ben Grimm, whose parents own a junkyard that has just the kind of equipment a young scientist needs for an attempt at greatness.


Cut to seven years later, when Reed (Teller) and Ben (Bell) exhibit a “cymatic matter shuttle” at a science fair. The organizers are not impressed, but the machinery catches the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, a regular on “The Wire”), who just happens to be dean of the Baxter Institute, a place where young brainiacs can try out their ideas.

Reed becomes part of the Baxter team, which includes Dr. Storm’s comely adopted daughter Sue (Mara), whose otherworldly look is perfect for a future superhero.

Joining next is Sue’s brother Johnny (Jordan), whose love of street racing gets him into trouble, as well as former Baxter dropout Victor von Doom (Kebbell), a disaffected type whose intelligence is matched only by his distrust of those in authority like Dr. Harvey Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), the shadowy figure in charge of Baxter’s finances.

What everyone is working on is a high-end version of Reed’s fifth-grade idea, now called the Quantum Gate Project, an impressive machine that can teleport people to another dimension (Imagine!). Perhaps there, Dr. Storm says earnestly, they can find answers to the Earth’s problems in this dimension.

Earnestness is the touchstone for this part of “Fantastic Four,” but, with Teller’s performance setting the tone, it is actually pleasant to experience, especially because it contrasts with the bombastic nature of other Marvel productions.

One thing leads to another, however, and a trip to this other dimension becomes something the team just has to try for itself. Things do not go well there (Do they ever?), and everyone morphs into something else: Reed becomes the shape-shifting Mr. Fantastic, Sue becomes the Invisible Woman, Johnny the Human Torch, Ben the Thing. As to Victor von Doom, his name alone lets you know that good works are not on his mind.

If “Fantastic Four” is pleasantly different in its introductory segment, once those super powers kick in, the whole film goes into a more standard gear. We’ve seen it all before, and it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing it all again as well.


“Fantastic Four”

MPAA rating: PG-13 for action violence and language

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: In general release