After an eight year absence from the screen, “The Fantastic Four” are back, but little about this polished-looking but predictable pabulum may tempt you to watch it twice. Twentieth Century Fox and gifted “Chronicle” director Josh Trank have rebooted “The Fantastic Four” (** OUT OF ****) with Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbell as Doctor Doom. If you’re counting, this marks the third time the classic Marvel superhero ensemble has appeared on the big screen. Mind you, the initial attempt to immortalize “The Fantastic Four” never made it to theaters. Low-budget producer Roger Corman wrought the original “Fantastic Four” (1994) with a no-name cast and a couple of measly million to make everything look like reasonable facsimile. Moreover, Corman’s obscure New Horizons release never received a theatrical release. The company that produced it wanted to retain the copyright which it was in danger of losing if production on the film didn’t gear up by a certain date. (Incidentally, you can catch this minor masterpiece at YouTube.) Next, “Barbershop” director Tim Story achieved greater success the second time out with “The Fantastic Four” starring “San Andreas” villain Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards, “Sin City” heroine Jessica Alba as Susan Storm, “Captain America’s” Chris Evans as Johnny Storm, Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, and “Nip/Tuck’s” Julian McMahon as Victor Von Doom. Stan Lee appeared briefly as mailman Willie Lumpkin. Personally, I enjoyed this guilty pleasure along with its 2007 sequel “The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” I must confess in retrospect that the two movies, charming as they are, don’t hold a candle to later Marvel releases. Jessica Alba’s performance induces cringes every time that I see it. The way that Story and his scenarists treated her invisibility power is simply juvenile. Evans, Chiklis, and McMahon took up the slack for the adolescent romance between Reed and Sue. Everything that director Tim Story’s two “Fantastic Four” movies did wrong, director Josh Trunks’ “Fantastic Four” fixes. Unfortunately, the new “Fantastic Four” does virtually everything else wrong. Trank’s “Fantastic Four” takes forever to introduce the heroic quartet along with their dastardly adversary and then pits them against each other for a humdrum finale. Happily, this foursome doesn’t don spandex costumes, and the tone of Trank’s “Fantastic Four” is laudably solemn compared to Story’s colorful but goofy “Fantastic Four.” Indeed, the biggest departure between Trank’s “Four” and the two previous versions lies with the source material. Trank and “X-Men” scenarist Simon Kinberg with “Lazarus Effect” scribe Jeremy Slater didn’t adapt the Stan Lee & Jack Kirby original. Instead, they are working from the reimagined graphic novels that Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Millar penned and Adam Kubert illustrated.
If you’ve read the Bendis and Millar “Ultimate Fantastic Four,” you have justifiable reason to be disappointed with its respectable but routine cinematic counterpart. The film unfolds in 2007 with Oyster Bay fifth graders Reed Richards and Ben Grimm as visionaries who win no respect. Young Reed blacks out his neighborhood while trying to teleport a toy car to another dimension. Comparatively, Reed’s efforts aren’t as trendy as the high school students in “Project Almanac.” Nevertheless, Trank and his writers remain in part faithful to their source material. They have jettisoned the scenes where Ben rescued Reed from the clutches of high school bullies. The “Ultimate Fantastic Four” graphic novel opens with a gang of bullies flushing Reed’s face in a toilet until Ben intervenes. The message that bullying is bad has been beaten to death. Furthermore, the filmmakers have eliminated the contentious relationship between Reed and his father. Anyway, the action leaps ahead seven years with Miles Teller and Jamie Bell replacing child actors Evan Hannemann and Chet Hanks respectively as Reed and Ben. Although the academic intellects that command Oyster Bay don’t appreciate Reed’s explosive experiments, two New York City outsiders appreciate Reed’s potential. Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey of “American Psycho”) and his adopted daughter Sue Storm (Kate Mara of “Iron Man 2”) represent the Baxter Foundation, a government-sponsored think-tank for young prodigies, and they offer Reed a scholarship he cannot refuse. Reed encounters Dr. Storm’s insubordinate son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan of “Chronicle”) and the obnoxious Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell of “Prince of Persia”) who have little use for each other. Later, when Victor catches Reed getting chummy with Sue, the jealous Von Doom reminds Reed to maintain professional detachment. Actually, Von Doom hates Reed because Reed has engineered a way to complete Von Doom’s original project. Grudgingly, Von Doom acknowledges Reed’s genius.
Naturally, the powers-that-be at the Baxter Foundation are suitably impressed when the teens teleport a chimp intact to another dimension and then bring the simian back alive. Indeed, the adults plan to invite NASA to supervise the project. Our impertinent quartet balks at such meddling and commences with human teleportation before NASA can interfere. Reed summons Ben from Oyster Bay to participate in this landmark adventure. However, things go awry when our heroes enter another dimension and land on a desolate, uninhabited planet oozing with green slime that has dire consequences for them. An earthquake separates Victor from his colleagues, and a defective door seals Ben’s fate on take-off. When all but Von Doom return from the other dimension, things have changed drastically for them as well as for Sue who monitored their flight. Indeed, Reed has become freakishly elastic, while Ben resembles a heap of stone masonry. Johnny has acquired incendiary intensity, while Sue can turn invisible and forge powerful force fields. The Pentagon imprisons our heroes and then exploits their powers for military purposes. This is another shortcoming to “The Fantastic Four.” They show Pentagon luminaries what these mutants can do, but Trank and company never devote time to dramatizing those episodes. We get to see Ben tear the turret off a tank. Basically, these scenes amount to nothing less than demos rather than dramas. The producers could have created at least forty minutes of actual battle scenes to give the characters as well as the film some bite. Meanwhile, Ben abhors Reed because he looks hideous as a result of his door not closing properly on their transporter module. The resourceful Reed escapes from captivity and searches for a cure so Ben can recover his humanity. Back on Planet Zero, evil Victor dons a hoodie and plots vengeance.
The problem with “The Fantastic Four” isn’t the acting. The cast is exceptional, especially Teller as the bespectacled Reed. The scene where Reed changes his appearance by scrunching up his face was nothing short of brilliant, but these moments of inspiration are too few and far between. Jamie Bell looks extraordinary as boulder-shouldered behemoth The Thing. Michael B. Jordan is appropriately combustible as the incandescent Johnny Storm, but he ignites none of the charisma that Chris Evans brought to the second “Fantastic Four.” Kate Mara’s Sue stands out vividly against the predominantly male cast. Mara and her character are ten times stronger than Jessica Alba’s prudish Sue. Unfortunately, the collateral damage that Dr. Doom’s inflicts on Earth seems trifling by comparison to all the “Avengers’” epics along with the two “Thor” films. Glacial pacing and hopeless predictability sabotage “The Fantastic Four.” You can guess whatever happens before it happens or what anybody will say before they utter it. Ultimately, the graphic novel with its striking visuals and narrative content surpasses the film. Had Trank and his CGI artists generated images as compelling as those envisioned by Bendis, Millar, and Kubert, then “The Fantastic Four” might truly have qualified as fantastic.