This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Maybe "Fantastic Four" is a cursed property, or maybe just one that
shouldn't be turned into a film? In any case, this new version, directed by Josh Trank,
is the third major big screen attempt to tell the story of Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm aka The Thing and Dr. Doom, the core characters in one of Marvel Comics' most durable properties. The good news is, it's short. The bad news is, it feels longer than an afternoon spent at the DMV—and at least at the DMV, you can pass the time by people-watching. There are no people to watch in "Fantastic Four," only collections of character traits and attitudes brought fitfully to life by actors who might've mistakenly thought they were hitching a ride on the superhero movie gravy train by signing up for this misfire.
The movie starts off on an intriguing note, with 11-year old Reed Richards and his buddy Ben Grimm meeting for the first time when Reed sneaks into Grimm's family's junkyard to steal a transformer he needs to build a tiny teleportation device. Then the movie flashes forward to the present day, with Reed, now played by Miles Teller, and Ben, played by Jamie Bell, wreaking havoc with their invention at a science fair. Although the machine browns-out the power and creates an unnerving rumble and shatters a backboard in the gymnasium, it's an impressive enough display to cause Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) to hire Teller to work at the Baxter Institute, which has been trying to solve the mystery of Planet Zero, the place where Reed's teleported objects always end up.
The next hour of the film is another superhero origin story, introducing the doctor's two kids, the super-intelligent, science-minded Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and her juvenile delinquent brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, who's introduced in a street race that feels like an outtake from a "Fast and the Furious" movie). The comic's arch-villain Dr. Victor von Doom (what a name; wonder if he changed it from "Vahndüm"?) is also part of the team, and if you know even a little bit about the source material, you wait for the other iron boot to drop and turn him into an all-powerful megalomaniac. Doom used to be Sue's boyfriend and doesn't take kindly to the way she and Reed banter over keyboards and monitors. He's played by Toby Kebbell, who, to borrow a line from Andrew Sarris, looks like half the waiters on Melrose Avenue, but is quite good. His world-weariness and punk-Byronic glowering contrasts appealingly against the blandness of the other characters—even Jordan's Johnny, who's supposed to be a hot-rodding bad-boy a la Han Solo but reads, rather like Chris Evans in the last "Four" films, like a muscular male ingenue who occasionally quips and sneers.
For a while, anyway, "The Fantastic Four" seems to be re-conceiving the superhero movie as a scientific mystery-adventure about how to solve the puzzle of the teleportation gate, send a manned mission to Planet Zero, and see what's there. This is only a partially effective approach, though, because the characters are so flat that not even this gifted cast can fill them with life, and because we're waiting for the characters to gain superpowers and figure out how to master them and then become a team. The latter is the whole point of an origin story, which has been rightly rapped as an overdone and mostly unimaginative movie template, but that still provides basic satisfaction when properly executed. You don't put the "getting powers" part an hour into a movie, as this one chose to, for some cockamamie reason, postponing the inevitable disastrous manned mission to Planet Zero, which is filled with body-warping cosmic radiation, until long past the point when anyone particularly cares about it.