Fantastic Four: Not Half Bad
…and I mean that literally. The first half of the film is an interesting approach to a superhero origin story that lays ground for a promising second half that never shows up. That second half appears to have been mugged on its way to the studio by 20th Century Fox executives worried that audiences wouldn’t go see a superhero movie that didn’t need a doomsday scenario and a high-stakes action set piece against the series’ most iconic villain to be interesting (though somehow, they still managed to give said villain an uninspired character design. You’d think they’d have learned from their first go at this).
The first part of the film starts with young Reed Richards and Ben Grimm discovering that, in addition to knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll, blowing up your parents’ garage with your homemade teleporter is one of those things that “you can’t share without ending up liking each other”. Fast forward to senior year of high school, and the two friends have perfected their device, which catches the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm at a science fair. Dr. Storm brings Richards onto a team with his children, Sue and Johnny; and his former protege, Victor von Doom. In a lapse of storycrafting, Ben is given nothing to do while the other characters set about building a larger scale teleportation device, one that can transport a small crew of humans. He is brought back into the story by Richards the night after the ‘Cymatic Matter Shuttle’ successfully transports an ape to another dimension and back. Agents of a Vague, Yet Menacing Government Agency swoop in in the wake of the success to seize control of the device, prompting Richards, Ben, Victor, and Johnny to take it for a spin in the other dimension before they are locked out of the program. Disaster strikes on ‘Planet Zero’, Victor is lost (yeah, right), and our heroes find themselves back on Earth scared, alone, and confined by military scientists studying the strange mutations wrought on them by cosmic rays!!!.
The first half plays out much more like a science fiction film than a superhero one, the character’s initial discovery and reaction to their powers has a strong body-horror vibe to it, and there is precious little spectacle until the incident on Planet Zero. I enjoyed this approach to a superhero story, as well as the character-driven nature of the plot, though that sometimes proved detrimental when the chemistry and dialogue between characters was less than stellar. There was good ground set up here for a second half in which the characters could adjust to their new abilities, deepen their relationships and form a team, and grapple (mentally and physically) with the idea of being studied and weaponized by the government.
And, as I said, that second half never showed up. Instead, we get a “1 Year Later” title card, a few combat recording shots of The Thing wrecking tanks on covert missions, and Reed Richards on the run, having abandoned his teammates in the hopes of solving all of their problems on his own. Ben and Johnny have embraced their roles as human weapons with little difficulty, and while Sue is not happy with the situation, she is not trying to subvert it either. Then Richards is recaptured with little difficulty, instantly agrees to join the program again, and a second Matter Shuttle is launched to Planet Zero, bringing back a mutated Victor von Doom. Doom wakes up, psychically slaughters a bunch of people in the compound, shuttles back to Planet Zero, and then, with the power of handwavium, sets up some kind of Evil Cosmic Pylon that will destroy the Earth, motivated, of course, by his earlier Darwinian misanthropy. Our heroes leap into action in a simplistic fight scene, the day is saved, and the government gives up on weaponizing them and gives them a fancy lab as an apology.
The thing is, apart from the utterly tacked on high-stakes fight at the end, the second half has all the elements that could have made a great second half, they are just horribly rushed and executed in a by-the-numbers manner. If you would indulge me for a bit, here is what I would have done instead. First, never lose Doom on Planet Zero; this is to set up an internal conflict for the group. Also, at this point, he shouldn’t be all metallic looking. This way, he can get proper powered armor between films. Second, Richards doesn’t flee the facility, thus keeping the group (currently of five) together. When the characters’ powers stabilize and they are allowed to see each other again, give each of them a few scenes to develop their relationships further, in particular, Reed and Ben (who could have the whole Elric Brothers thing going in regards to Ben’s mutation), and Johnny and Sue (whose sibling relationship did not get a lot of attention in the first half).
Now, for some middle act set pieces, have the team (including Doom) learn to use their powers through a series of field exercises. They’re starting to get used to them, having fun with them even, but even as they begin to view them less as horrible mutations, they start to realize as the scenarios grow more militaristic that they are being trained up as human weapons. This starts a conflict within the group: Doom is fine with slaughtering his way out of the compound, while the others want to avoid killing anyone in their escape. For extra thematic points, earlier in the film, establish Doom, like Richards, as a fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, except where Richards admires Nemo for his scientific genius, Doom admires him for his ubermensch morality. Give Doom a line about having left behind the laws of ordinary men or somesuch. For the time being, the others’ view prevails.
However, when the escape plan, which makes clever use of everyone’s powers, is underway, Doom discovers that the second Matter Shuttle has been completed. He abandons the peaceful escape plan to go on his Elfen Lied-lite rampage through the compound, intent on seizing the shuttle. Here the four can fight a more intimate, character-focused fight against him in the narrow confines of the compound. However, because it would be lame to kill off Doctor Doom before he has even reached the height of his power, Doom will successfully escape with the Matter Shuttle to sequel-knows-where. The Fantastic Four, though, will have saved many lives in the fight, and so though the villain is undefeated, we will still get a happy ending where the government abandons plans of forced weaponization, and gives them a fancy lab as a thank you (after all, they need all the scientists they can get to prepare for the return of Doom).
Just my two cents. I enjoyed the character driven sci-fi/horror approach of the first half, and wish it had been allowed to continue to its natural conclusion instead of being shoehorned into the usual superhero template.
Content Advisory: Sci-fi violence and peril. Some heads asplode. A scattering of cusses that feel rather out of place.