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Movie Review

‘Fantastic Four’ brings back quartet, but blows it up

(Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox)

In the comic book pages and onscreen, the thing that’s always distinguished the Fantastic Four from other superheroes is that they’re a family. The group includes brainiac scientist Reed Richards; his true love, Sue Storm; Sue’s brother, Johnny; and their rock of a friend, Ben Grimm,. Their bond, conflict, and interplay are rooted in their being an organic unit. It’s not just fate or some nefarious global menace bringing them together, as with the Avengers or the Justice League – the FF are kin.

Much as we dump on the Fantastic Four movie made in 2005 by comedy director Tim Story, the family theme did come through. Not that we had much reason to complain. We had already gotten a near-perfect version just a year prior – only it was animated and called “The Incredibles.”

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Director Josh Trank’s all-new, all-numbing “Fantastic Four” won’t make you forget any of it. If the franchise’s handlers were set on rebooting – is it ever too soon? – they made a promising pick with Trank, whose found-footage superhero flick “Chronicle” gave him definite credibility. But he and his writing team fixate so completely on trying to manufacture a “Dark Knight”-trendy grounded tone, the family element gets lost. So does the colorfully adventuresome, time-to-save-the-world exhilaration.

Miles Teller plays Reed, shown in a younger-years prologue as a preadolescent science genius with misunderstood dreams of inventing a matter-teleporting device. Cut to high school, where Reed’s refinements of the gadget with tough kid Ben (Jamie Bell) draw the attention of a cryptic think-tank guru (Reg E. Cathey) and his brainy, intense adopted daughter, Susan (Kate Mara). Reed is recruited to help jumpstart stalled experiments with interdimensional transport – no more of traditional FF mythology’s cosmic-ray quaintness – and he succeeds in briefly sending himself, Ben, restless Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, “Chronicle”) and haughty Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to a primordial world.

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(Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

This setup is solid enough, even playing like a science-academy riff on Teller’s “Whiplash” self-discovery at points. But the movie seems to blow up right along with the ill-fated dimension-skipping pod, an episode that leaves them all cursed with strange abilities. The characters’ familiar heroic monikers are dropped only teasingly, but fans know the rundown: Reed (a.k.a. Mister Fantastic) can stretch like a rubber band, Sue can morph into an Invisible Woman, Johnny is a veritable Human Torch, and Ben is this Thing, a pile of orange rock. They’re manipulated by the government, Reed goes on the run, and they reunite to take on abandoned, eerily mutated Victor in an interminable, visually stultifying CG slugfest.

Jordan’s much publicized color-blind casting as Johnny is progressive, sure, but the story does nothing to make it feel inspired, or even relevant. The Thing gets a digital makeover after the snickering at Michael Chiklis’s rubble suit from a decade ago, but Bell’s performance doesn’t show through. Ultimately, what “Fantastic Four” delivers is change for change’s sake, rather than change for the better. Oh, well – they can always reboot.


Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.