Missed Opportunities in ‘Fantastic Four’

Angry teenagers in the midst of superheros' origin stories.

“Maybe, if I set an example, Hollywood will start considering more people of color in other prominent roles, and maybe we can reach the people who are stuck in the mindset that ‘it has to be true to the comic book.’ Or maybe we have to reach past them.”

Michael B. Jordan

“Is this the way you want the rest of your life to be?” Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) is walking his son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) from the police station, where he’s landed after crashing his Toyota during a street race. Dad makes demands and Johnny sulks, as he must, being an angry teenager in the midst of a superhero’s origin story. The Human Torch to Be, Johnny in his moments on screen is all simmering rage.

Just why he’s mad is less than clear. Unfortunately, this makes his story like everyone else’s in Fantastic Four, a jumble of predictable but also incoherent plot turns, dreadful dialogue, and unfortunate visual choices (too many reaction shots, silly special effects). Franklin assembles Johnny and his fellow heroes to be — Reed (Miles Teller), Ben (Jamie Bell), and Johnny’s adoptive sister Sue (Kate Mara) — to build a portal to another dimension. They make their machine, they make some mistakes, they’re granted super powers, and they have to decide how to use them. (Per the comic book, they’re aided by another young mastermind, Victor [Toby Kebbell], whose last name — Von Doom — pretty much guarantees his choices.) The movie tracks the kids’ changing relationships with each other and also, with the world around them: they don’t trust adults, they do, and then they don’t.

For “adults”, you might substitute any authority figures, the sorts that are corrupt and greedy or inept, the sorts that populate comic book universes as these reflect the experiences of their readers. So, apart from Franklin, who means well but has limited appreciation of the kids’ angsts and outrages, the adults here tend to be corporate and military types, men with money who lord over their beholden creative geniuses al manner of power and demands. While the kids resist, they also lack a certain grounding intelligence — call it common sense — and so they run into trouble. Hence, their mutations into Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Thing, the Human Torch, and, well, Dr. Von Doom, sensational traumas that first divide them and then unite them.

The uniting is necessary, of course, being the jumping off point for the franchise to be. But it is awkward here, poorly motivated (it’s the way the comics go) and not a little boring. What the movie doesn’t do is try to make sense of its own premises, the kids’ various states before they come together, their experiences being geniuses, maybe, or what their houses look like, or some other detail beyond the rudimentary notes that one is geeky, another is poor, one is a girl, another is black.

All that said, the movie’s glaring omission is any mention of Johnny’s blackness. Think about it: this is a boy (actually, you don’t see him as a boy, only a teenager delivered onto the screen, apparently mad by definition) who will become the Human Torch. He’s in a movie directed by Josh Trank, Jordan’s director for Chronicle, a smarter, better made move about the traumatizing effects of superpowers). And he’s showing up now, when race and racism, institutional violence and resistance to same are increasingly available on screens, thanks to Ferguson and technologies that advance communication and visibility, an idea plainly related to the comic book and the movie, too.

This omission makes for a thematic and narrative sense kind of gap the movie never quite overcomes. Yes, comic book heroes and villains don’t typically adhere to rules or events in the world we inhabit, but the choice to cast Jordan did in fact draw attention, from Marvel fans and other people, too. Understanding Johnny’s story even before it was written, Jordan wrote publicly that he was willing to “shoulder all this hate“.

While Jordan’s open letter is aptly heroic, you might wonder why he’s the only one taking on this burden. Where is everyone else who worked on or might see Fantastic Four? When Franklin, in an effort to protect his team from the injudicious, avaricious powers that be — most effectively incarnated by Tim Blake Nelson, whose eyes sinking into his skull over a series of scenes is easily the most alarming special effect here — he urges the kids to try to fix what his generation has ruined (they’re suitably skeptical before they’re not, before they throw in with each other and with Franklin’s dream of unity). And he pleads their case for them, as an adult with a conscience and a sense of scale. “They’re a bunch of scared kids,” he says. They are and they’re not.

Fantastic Four is distracted by its stuff, by its dimensional travel and its romances going askew and its white boy center (Reed). But as such, it neglects the story that drives it, the pulsing dynamic between a black father and his son, the black bodies and lives in the midst of a drama involving the US military’s desire to exploit that son as a technology. (I won’t even mention how it drops the ball on the black father and white daughter relationship, the brilliant, sensitive daughter who becomes invisible: what was anyone on this project thinking, not to explore that storyline?)

At this point, it appears that whatever goes wrong with Johnny’s story is only one of many disappointments in Fantastic Four. But it’s a missed opportunity of a different order than the usual ones. As Franklin challenges his son, asks him to imagine a life beyond the one he’s living, he is also imagining another world literally, one in another dimension. That world is a long way off, yes. This movie makes it seem even farther.

RATING 4 / 10