Fourth Reboot: Dull, choppy "Fantastic Four" ends just as it's getting started

Fantastic Four (2015)
106 min., rated PG-13.

If any property was in need of hitting the reset button, it is a big-screen treatment of "Fantastic Four," Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's comic-book superhero team coming with a most checkered past. Since Roger Corman's 1994 production of these comic-book superheroes never saw a release, director-for-hire Tim Story brought forth a jokey, dopey 2005 incarnation of the same name, as well as a slightly better 2007 sequel, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." Now, 20th Century Fox takes a second crack at restarting the series with this corporately mandated re-monkeying that had a chance to deliver, but in reality, the best they have done is assemble a strong cast and an auspicious filmmaker. Looking back though, those two movies with Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, and a pre-"Captain America" Chris Evans were what they were: cheesy and unpretentious without an ounce of pomposity. This new "Fantastic Four" has its own problems to contend with; it's not as much of a marked improvement as it is a tonal departure from pandering and pun-heavy to grounded and more straight-faced. What begins with promise plummets into a dull non-starter that ends up in limbo.

Since the fifth grade, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has tried cracking the code for "interdimensional travel" with a prototype he and underprivileged best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) invented for the science fair. Now a high school senior in Oyster Bay, he grabs the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who offers him a free scholarship at Baxter Institute to assist in a portal project spearheaded by sulky shut-in Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Reed wants his work to make a difference, so in going against facility director Dr. Allen's (Tim Blake Nelson) wait-for-NASA orders, he goes on a rogue mission to parallel dimension "Planet Zero" that ends disastrously. Reed, Ben and Storm's children, daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), survive, but they come back infected with superhuman abilities. As the group is transported to the classified Area 54 and exploited as government weapons, they can either search for a way to reverse their powers or use them to change the course of history.

Entrusted to turn this Marvel brand around, writer-director Josh Trank (2012's "Chronicle") and co-screenwriters Simon Kinberg (2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past") & Jeremy Slater (2015's "The Lazarus Effect") certainly had their work cut out for them. Sight unseen, fanboys sharpened their knives for this new "Fantastic Four" reboot, foolishly reacting to casting decisions that went against the source material (yes, Johnny Storm is now black and Sue is his white, adopted sister, so get over it). Maybe they should have waited to react after seeing the film that made its way to the screen because one gets the nagging suspicion that the completed result 20th Century Fox is releasing into theaters everywhere is not the same one with director Trank's intended vision. Yet another origin story that goes back to square one, "Fantastic Four" plays like 106 minutes of setup for a sequel or a pilot to a TV show that's dead on arrival, but let's start with the few positives. Up until a one-year-later shift in the narrative that has the characters dealing with their powers, there is a workable one-third of a film. The early sections with a ten-year-old Reed (Owen Judge) and Ben (Evan Hannemann), who lives on a salvage yard with an abusive family, have a true Amblin sensibility with a sense of wonder when the two of them make progress with Reed's machine in his parents' garage and take out the entire town's electricity. The character relationships are also economically developed: Reed is a bespectacled nerd with a crush on Sue, who works better with earbuds playing Portishead; Johnny quits drag-racing to fulfill his potential and work in his father's lab; and Ben is later brought in by best friend Reed. Each of their newfound powers—Reed can stretch like elastic; Sue can go invisible on a dime and create force fields; Johnny becomes a human torch; and Ben is all rock—are less cartoonish and more impressively rendered as darkly nightmarish body-horror here. After that, it's all downhill and the viewer is left with a compressed, half-cocked botch job.

What about the Fantastic Four themselves? Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben are thinly drawn and only as interesting as the talented, charismatic actors playing them, and as the film goes on, it renders them all lifeless. They each only get a single personality trait apiece (Ben might get half) and every relationship is too undercooked to make a dramatic mark, and unfortunately, there is nothing memorable about any of the performances by Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell, who are blameless. That leaves Victor von Doom. Toby Kebbell has a sinister intensity inside of him—it showed in 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and that was all through motion-capture—but once Dr. Doom comes back so late into the game, the script's feeble motivations for the character don't help him any. Finally, the one cast member to approach any gravitas isn't even apart of the so-called Fantastic Four and that is Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Franklin Storm, an emotional rock for his own children and his students.

Whether or not director Josh Trank's vision was actually lost in rumored reshoots, the whole of "Fantastic Four" feels fatally unfinished, bereft of a third act. Everything the film hints at or seems to be building toward is thrown away for disjointed editing, perfunctory plotting, clunky go-team dialogue ("We opened this door, we're gonna close it!"), and overall by-committee filmmaking. Outside of the intense inciting incident taking place on the primordial Planet Zero, the film regrettably has but one major action sequence on that same damn green-screened planet, and it's half-hearted at best. The scope feels small, limited to research labs and remote government labs but never the real world, leading to a rushed, anticlimactic confrontation with Dr. Doom that stinks of studio interference. It should be assumed that more drama and excitement are yet to come, but they never do, closing out with a "is-that-really-all-there-is?" last shot when the adventure is just revving up. Knowing the depressing cycle of Hollywood, the "Fantastic Four" will be recast and take down another director with it in about five years, but let's just face it, these characters probably just aren't destined to leave the comic-book panels. Looking for a better superhero movie by director Josh Trank? Try his superior $12-million-budgeted debut, "Chronicle," rather than this $120-million-budgeted genre footnote. That film turns the superhero origin story on its head and it's actually fantastic.

Grade: C -