The negative buzz around the new Fantastic Four is so radioactive you could almost expect to develop superpowers just by reading about it. Ah, but that’s old-fashioned talk. In the 1960s radioactivity was mysterious and eldritch, capable of producing all manner of hulks and spider-men and what have you. In the 1950s you could even get godzillas.

But it’s the 21st century now. Today we recognize that you have to mess with something like genetic engineering to get spider-men, and a hulk is almost as complex to produce as a super-soldier. The old idea that cosmic rays encountered via a short hop into space might result in powers worthy of celebration in the world’s greatest comic magazine no longer holds water; for that kind of power, you must go further afield. Another dimension would do the trick.

The Fantastic Four are Marvel superheroes, but, as with the X-Men and Spider-Man, Disney doesn’t control the film rights, and none of the movies with these characters are connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The FF currently live at Fox, which has presumably rebooted the FF for the same reason Sony rebooted Spider-Man in the two Andrew Garfield movies: to prevent the film rights from reverting to Disney.

That’s a lousy reason to make a movie, but one hopes the filmmakers still want to make the best movie they can. One thing you have to give the new Fantastic Four, co-written and directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle), is that it feels like an attempt to respect the material while updating and reworking it in a thoughtful way.

This does not go without saying. The previous big-screen incarnation of Fantastic Four — the two Tim Story films starring Captain America as the Human Torch, William Wilberforce as Mr. Fantastic, Dark Angel as Invisible Woman and the Commish as the Thing — felt actively insulting, both to the characters and their mythology as well as to the audience. Those films made me angry. The new film doesn’t make me angry. It would be easier to review if it did.

Based on Marvel’s revisionist “Ultimate Universe” series, this Fantastic Four begins like a superhero movie that has never heard of superhero movies, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The first two acts have more in common with a sci-fi thriller like Interstellar than the patented superhero action template at which the MCU has become so proficient.

Young Reed Richards (Miles Teller, Whiplash) and his childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell, King Kong) have spent years developing what Reed believes is a matter shuttle or teleporter, though in fact it turns out to be an interdimensional portal. His breakthough attracts the attention of a scientist named Franklin Storm (House of Cards’ Reg E. Cathey), landing Reed a position at the Baxter Foundation, which is working on interdimensional travel.

There he finds himself working side by side with Storm’s adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara, also House of Cards), and biological son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station), as well as Franklin’s estranged protégé, a disaffected computer scientist who is really and truly named Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell, Wrath of the Titans).

So far, Fantastic Four is not so much doing a bad thing as doing a potentially interesting thing in a profoundly dull way. Not one character is written with any complexity or flair. I would go so far as to say I am hard-pressed to put adjectives to the main characters to describe their personalities in any meaningful way.

Reed is a nerd, but that’s not a personality trait. There’s nothing that suggests the makings of a team leader — someone who is not only the smartest guy in the room, but knows it and is used to it and is comfortable taking charge.

Ben seems like a nice guy, especially for someone who had a rough upbringing (he’s the only character into whose early family life we get any glimpse, not that it matters). Bell has described his character as the “heart of the group,” which might be true in the comics, but this Ben’s only significant relationship is with Reed.

Mara imbues Sue with toughness and focused intelligence, and both Johnny and Victor have rather bad attitudes directed at their shared father-figure Franklin. Franklin is very serious and responsible. Actually, everyone is very serious. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have more humor than Fantastic Four.

There are essentially no dramatic surprises. The film hits each beat in turn, and the story lumbers forward. One superhero-movie cliché that surprises the characters is when the government steps in to exploit the interdimensional gate the moment it’s finished. I’m so tired of that one. Not that it’s unrealistic, but if it wouldn’t surprise a 12-year-old in the audience, it shouldn’t take the smart heroes by surprise.

As the story pivots toward comic-book action mode, the movie collapses under its own weight. Not only do we get the origin of the FF, we also get the origin of a revisionist version of the FF’s archnemesis, Doctor Doom, from prickly colleague to would-be world-destroyer — and a cosmic battle to save the Earth from annihilation.

This is a classic origin-story blunder: covering the origins of the hero and their archnemesis and wrapping things up with an ultimate battle all in one movie. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which tells the whole story of the origins of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin and their entire conflict, is a perfect example. How much weight can such a climax possibly carry?

Ironically, the granddaddy of blockbuster superhero movies, Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Superman II, dodged this bullet, splitting what was originally a single tale in two and saving General Zod for the sequel. Too often that example has been ignored — most ironically by Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. (Conversely, where Tim Burton’s Batman reduced the whole story of Batman vs. the Joker to one film, Nolan, perhaps influenced by Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, wisely saved the Joker for The Dark Knight.)

The FF’s ultimate showdown with Doctor Doom takes place on a generic, Mordor-like blasted landscape. There is nothing creative or interesting about how the battle is staged or filmed, or how the characters’ powers are used. (Well, there is one modest twist at the very end, but it’s undermined by an attempted zinger from Reed that suggests he thinks it’s brilliant.)

The climax embodies another one of the most hackneyed of superhero-movie clichés, in which the villain easily takes the heroes apart as they hotheadedly attack one at a time, until the heroes prevail by coming together as a team, fighting as one. I’m not saying I want self-aware superhero movies with heroes who have actually seen superhero movies, but I definitely don’t want heroes who would be smarter if they had.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.

 

Caveat Spectator: Much intense comic-book action, including some gruesome killings; some profanity, cursing and crude language; mild inebriation. Teens and up.