'Fantastic Four'

What a waste. Fantastic Four is so comprehensively poor that it's a little difficult, even right at this moment, to resist playing the blame game, from attempting a thorough post-mortem to figure out just how it got to be the way that is. I'll get to that. But first, it feels appropriate, maybe even a little cathartic, to catalogue all the waste.

It is a waste of money, a reported $122 million for 20th Century Fox and $13 a pop for the poor saps like me who paid to see the film. Just as troubling, it is a waste of precious time for a whole lot of talented people. Director Josh Trank, fresh off the unexpected success of Chronicle, could have been doing just about anything else this whole time. So could have Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell and a stellar supporting cast featuring the likes of Reg E. Cathey and Tim Blake Nelson.

There are moments -- plural -- during the film that demonstrate its clear potential. And yet somehow I'm struggling to think of even one overall positive. I guess Dr. Doom looked pretty cool? The special effects weren't noticeably awful, and, especially when Teller was stretching and contorting, were actually kind of impressive?

This is a reboot of a failed, familiar comic book franchise, but just in case you need your memory jogged, gifted scientist Reed Richards (Teller), childhood friend Ben Grimm (Bell) and brother-sister duo Sue and Johnny Storm (Jordan and Mara, respectively) acquire special powers after building a working interdimensional portal and then traveling through it. Victor Von Doom, Richards' equally gifted counterpart, helped build the machine and also winds up with special gifts, but, as his surname portends, he doesn't plan to use them for the benefit of the planet.

Of course, a reboot in the world of comic book movies these days means being forced to sit through the same origin story you saw a scant 10 years ago, and that’s annoying enough. It’s downright exasperating, though, that the first act of this one takes well over an hour to plod through.

Trank and 20th Century Fox found enough time to introduce the Four plus Doom one by one, and at a deliberate pace. Here are a young Richards and Grimm building a prototype of the portal in Richards’ garage. There is Johnny Storm street racing. Here is an angsty Victor reluctantly agreeing to work again for the team’s erstwhile leader Dr. Franklin Storm (Cathey), with no real explanation for their initial fallout or for his angst. There are Franklin and Sue visiting a high school science fair where Richards and Grimm have refined their work. And finally, there is Franklin coercing his son in to working with the rest of the team so that he can get his car back after he wrecks it.

For all the exposition, you don’t end up all that clear why everyone is there under Franklin’s guidance. Johnny wants his car back — a heckuva price to pay for a dinged up Toyota that Dom Toretto wouldn’t be caught dead near, but OK, I’ll play along. Sue seems to enjoy the company of her adoptive father. That passes the smell test, I suppose. And Reed, at least theoretically, seems to be enjoying the financial backing of Franklin’s institution after spending most of his life tinkering in his parent’s garage with junkyard metal. Teller doesn’t convince you of this because he is probably incapable of doing so, but the fact that he’s horribly miscast isn’t his fault. And, for what it’s worth, he nails the flirty parts with Sue (probably a little bit too well), and those are part of this comic book series’ canon too.

Victor and Ben, though? Couldn’t tell you what they are after. Gotta have the rock guy and the metal-faced baddie, though, so … there they are.

This is unconscionable in retrospect. It takes roughly sixty percent of the film just to get all these characters to another dimension — to gift them their new powers and to begin to deal with the fallout — and yet it’s somehow hard to understand why they are all there to begin with and why they act the way they do subsequently. That should be enough time to be pretty clear on this stuff.

Is there a second act? I think so, and I’m pretty sure Tim Blake Nelson, the Lockheed Martin-lite suit who sees the military potential in the Fantastic Four and so tries to tightly control them, is the villain during it. The third act, only slightly less rushed than the second, brings Doom back in to the fold for a final showdown that is especially awkward and forced. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think the supposed primary villain of a film should sit in an interdimensional penalty box off screen during the rising action.

The crazy thing is that Fantastic Four isn’t bloated in the tradition of so many other comic book films. It doesn’t compensate for all that exposition with a taxing runtime. Instead, it settles on going from shaky to a complete shambles in the time it takes to say “Flame on!” By the time the confusion of the second and third acts has worn off, you are left with the most clear example I have yet seen of what studio tampering looks like — of focus groups and risk-averse money men derailing a film so thoroughly that it is rendered incoherent. It plays like a film that has had large chunks indiscriminately cut from it — indeed that is what reportedly did happen — and as such is a searingly painful cautionary tale.