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Review: ‘Fantastic Four’ builds a family on shaky foundations (Includes first-hand account)

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer left a bad taste in the mouths of viewers and critics alike way back in 2007, and now in 2015 the seemingly long-suffering reboot is finally ready to come out in theatres this Friday, August 7. News about this movie came so slowly and sporadically that it seemed to be in permanent development hell, but eventually casting was announced, then a trailer came out that had its intended audience cautiously optimistic.

The lack of major hype seemed to suggest 20th Century Fox was trying to bury this movie, but the film is a good news, bad news situation. On the one hand, the more mature, sci-fi tone of the movie separates it from the hyperkinetic world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the dark, grim DC Universe Warner Bros. wants to create. However, the biggest flaws of the movie are the questionable pacing and worst of all, the thin characterization.

The new cast of the film is noticeably younger, and it’s a good move if 20th Century Fox wants to build a few sequels. It will (theoretically) allow the comics-sanctioned relationship of Susan Storm (Kate Mara) and Reed Richards (Miles Teller) to blossom, and show how they’ve grown as a family over time.

Family is the key theme of this movie. It spends considerable time on Reed and his best friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who later meet Susan and lastly her brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan). The origin story starts with Reed and Ben as 10-year-olds as they almost cause a black hole, and then as teenagers as they are disqualified from a science fair but recruited by Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and Susan. They work with the genius/asshole Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to create a matter transporter that can bring people and objects to an alternate dimension.

This alternate dimension, of course, is where the accident occurs that gives everyone their powers, and thus the team is born — only not right away. Reed runs away, Ben becomes essentially a weapon (with Johnny on his way to the same fate) while Susan tries to find a “cure.”

The film’s strengths lie in its visuals and real-world grounding. The time spent in the other dimension is breathtaking to behold, and the powers (particularly Johnny’s flames and Ben’s rocky exterior) are a lot better-looking than the previous franchise’s attempts. It’s also refreshing that the “incident” does not happen in a vacuum. The four are immediately detained in a secure military facility, and the top brass only seem intent on turning them into tools of the military.

Unfortunately, that’s where the praise ends. The pacing of the film is strange — it spends a long time getting Reed, Ben, Victor, Susan and Johnny together, but once the accident occurs it skips to a year later, where all four people have a better grasp on how their powers work. While director Josh Trank is likely trying to avoid the “hero learning to control his or her power” trope, it seems strange to not delve into how their powers really work, especially because how they got their powers is also not adequately explained. Even for a movie based on comic books, there are multiple plot holes and a high need for suspension of disbelief.

But worse is the characterization. The film spends plenty of time showing how Reed and Ben bond, but audiences are expected to take as a given that over a series of time jumps and montages, everyone is a perfectly functional team. Each member of the team is given a fairly paper-thin character: Reed is the awkward nerd; Ben is the endlessly loyal best friend; Johnny is the arrogant hothead; Susan is the calm nerve centre. The film doesn’t spend enough time giving the audience a real reason to care about them all, and it’s also worth noting that the film fails the Bechdel test — Susan is the only named female character in the entire movie.

It’s a shame that this film is saddled with the baggage of two films it had nothing to do with, but while it can successfully shed some of that weight, it can’t escape its storytelling flaws. A sequel is apparently on its way — maybe those involved may be able to learn from its forbear’s mistakes.

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