Marvel’s super family has had a rough ride at the cinema. After a mid-90s film that was never released and two instalments from Tim Story that were met with negative reviews and audience disappointment, hopes were high for Chronicle director Josh Trank’s reboot. But amidst review embargoes, accusations of studio tampering and dismal box office, Fantastic Four (2015) looks set to continue the awesome foursome’s misfortunes. But considering the painful mess that is Catwoman or the embarrassed denial of Batman & Robin, Fantastic Four is far from the worst that the superhero genre has to offer. Trank lends the film a sombre mood, with gloomy visuals from DOP Matthew Jensen and some surprisingly gory moments. The central characters, Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are a decently disparate group, with suggestions of the snippy but affectionate relationships central to the mythos. They are not the family unit of the comic books (or earlier films), but as a group of young friends experiencing some unusual growing pains they just about work. The film’s strongest moments are those featuring our four heroes experiencing their altered states, with some genuinely unsettling moments of body horror, such as when Reed looks down at his elastic limbs and Ben’s evident sadness and disgust at his monstrous state once he becomes the Thing. The family dynamic is seen between Sue and Johnny and their father Franklin (Reg E. Cathey), and while their interchanges are clichéd they are at least consistent. Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) offers some interesting views on the hijacking of scientific discovery by the military-industrial complex, but his final act appearance as Dr Doom is wasted and undoes much of the solid work done previously.
This is the central problem of the film. It begins as a dour drama about friends grappling with changes that manifest in horrifying ways. Yet it also needs to be a superpowered adventure with grand set pieces and spectacular displays of amazing abilities. Perhaps Trank’s original version was more drama and less spectacle, and the reshoots forced in the rushed finale. The end result is unbalanced but still manages some interesting depictions of the body and explorations of outsiderness, ambition and hubris. The best super-family movie remains Pixar’s The Incredibles, but Fantastic Four (or perhaps Fantastic Flaw) is still worth a look.