Fantastic Four Achieves Peak Fox Marvel

“Does it hurt?”

“Every time.”

That is an exchange from the first X-Men movie, which came out just over fifteen years ago. It’s a succinct example of why Bryan Singer’s film works so well, despite many superficial limitations. The question is posed by Rogue, a young mutant who has just met one of her own kind, the taciturn Wolverine. She’s asking about the metal claws that pop out through his skin, and Wolverine’s response, as played by Hugh Jackman, isn’t an emo lament. It’s plainspoken: sad but not whiny, and a little funny in its ruefulness. It conveys character through dialogue without exposition. Those handful of words (and the actors bringing them to life) say: Wolverine is a badass with metal claws, and every time he brandishes them, he feels a twinge of pain.

The filmmakers behind the new Fantastic Four either remember that scene very well, or not at all. In it, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) asks the same question of Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell and some very good CG). He says, speaking of Ben’s alternate-dimensional transformation into a rock monster: “Does it hurt?” And Ben replies without a yes or a no: “I’m used to it.” A pretty good little exchange for a superhero movie, admittedly slightly dampered by its resemblance to another, better superhero movie. That’s not all that Fantastic Four resembles. As much as it might attempt, like the X-Men films, to forge a path distinct from its unified and polished Marvel Studios cousins, this is a Fox Marvel film that functions as a crash course in all of the other Fox Marvel films, plus Ang Lee’s Hulk, which technically came from Universal but belongs to that elite fraternity of non-Marvel Studios, non-Spider-Man superhero movies from the past decade-plus.

Said fraternity includes two other Fantastic Four films, perhaps the nadir of Fox Marvel: chintzy, clumsy, cheesy, and essentially lost ’90s superhero movies that washed up in 2005 and 2007. This new one is different. Directed and cowritten by Josh Trank, who made the inventive teen-superhero movie (non-comics-based division) Chronicle, it endeavors to treat the characters more seriously. In this way it resembles the better moments of the X-Men series, especially that first one, which, like this one, ran significantly under two hours with a general sense of evaporating budgets, accelerating schedules, and general truncation. When Trank’s film makes a welcome detour into reframing super powers as body horror and science run amok, it resembles Ang Lee’s Hulk, minus the soulfulness or the poetry. It makes a brief trip to the Fox Forest, that Canadian setting for countless Fox superhero skirmishes, including scenes from X-Men: The Last Stand and Elektra. It also vaguely resembles Elektra in its nearly experimental lack of action; the Jennifer Garner movie has plenty of middling action sequences in its back half but spends a lot of time before that skulking in the shadows (and the Fox Forest).

My instincts say that Fantastic Four ’15 is a better movie than Elektra. It’s certainly one I’d be more interested in ever watching again (possibly influenced, though, by having recently seen Elektra a second time; it was actually slightly better than I remembered, but I’ve still likely hit my lifetime limit). But I’m not sure if that’s actually true; Fantastic Four isn’t a movie I like (like Hulk) or a movie I dislike (like the other Fantastic Four movies) but something more frustrating: an imitation of a movie I think I would like, an extremely involved pitch reel. Though I would have liked to see the Peyton Reed version of Fantastic Four, or would have liked to see Trank either cut loose on this project or cut loose from it, free to make a nonsuperhero film, mine is not to speculate about behind-the-scenes or development issues, regardless of how obvious it is that this movie experienced them. But I can say that this movie departs from the Fantastic Four backstory in interesting ways without actually depicting many of those ways onscreen. Reed Richards, Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm getting their powers through interdimensional travel gone wrong? OK, sounds cool, even if Sue is semi-inexplicably sidelined and just absorbs some of the boys’ radiation. The Four then separate, with Richards on the run, Grimm working for the government as a mysterious enforcer, and Sue toiling away in a laboratory? I kinda love it. Seeing flashbacks to their childhood relationships? Fraught with peril (see 2003’s Daredevil. Just kidding, don’t do that!) but potentially interesting.

Here’s where the movie really challenges me, because it practically begs for audience-participation rewrites. I thought of a lot of ways to restructure this movie (OK, I thought of like two, but that’s a lot for someone who tries not to backseat-filmmake), because the movie has thought of some interesting ways of handling these characters, does all of those things, and at the same time doesn’t do any of those things. It’s not even the lack of action that bothers me — I could use a break from superhero action, frankly — but the way the movie zips past all of its points of interest, racing to the end point of an origin story. The movie isn’t even racing to money shots of the Four in action, because there aren’t many; a big trailer moment of the Thing dropping onto his enemies from above, featuring a pushed-in, smoke-surrounded hero shot, isn’t in the movie at all. And so it’s difficult not to fall back on speculation: what scenes were cut? Why doesn’t this movie have a middle? Or is it missing parts of the beginning, with the middle transfused there in its place?

Yet the four actors in this movie are all pretty good, all endearing, all charming. The special effects, while spotty all over the place, are pretty great on The Thing that Ben Grimm turns into. There are quiet moments in Fantastic Four that really work: I like Teller’s dorkiness as he tries to connect with a Portishead-listening Mara. I like the way a transformed Grimm reaches out for his friend, horrified by his newly rockified body. I like the way the origin-story acquisition of powers leads into a jump ahead in time, finding the characters in unexpected places. For moments at a time, the movie comes alive, escapes its tin-eared wisecracks and cliche-ridden unwisecracks, and seems human, less concerned with superheroes than with the people who become them. Trank captures some iconic shots, although the movie’s drab visual scheme (most of it takes place either indoors, or in outdoors drab enough to look indoors) and sometimes by-the-numbers direction serves as a reminder that Chronicle, as a found-footage movie, didn’t show off a distinctive style but rather a smart gloss on a pre-existing one.

Mostly, despite its flashes of personality, the movie slips and slides around on the scale of Fox Marvel, easy to see in terms of other comics movies. In a weird way, this is what I find distancing about the Marvel Studios movies, even with all of their entertainment value: the nagging feeling that most of them are primarily about the joys of the Marvel Universe as lightly interpreted by the Marvel Studios crew, and secondarily about how hey, these Marvel Studios movies can really glance at some themes that seem serious and intelligent if you don’t apply too much scrutiny! That’s an oversimplification of the studio’s many joys, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and even the maligned and often quite wonderful Avengers: Age of Ultron. And, crucially, most of those Marvel Studios movies are pretty good, if sometimes overpraised.

But there’s no point in the way Fantastic Four, probably unintentionally, becomes about its Fox Marvelness: sometimes pointed in its attempts to be more serious and less quippy than its big-name competition, sometimes leaden in its adaptation of material that should really cook on the big screen. Plenty of Marvel fanboys will point to this movie as evidence that Marvel Studios must wrest back control of these characters and do right by them. I’m not so sure, not least because there’s barely a movie here for them to point to. Marvel Studios would likely have made a more satisfying movie out of this superhero team, with a few big laughs and crowd-pleasing moments. But that doesn’t really solve the problem of this particular movie, the way it touches smartness with such confounding skittishness. Nor does it simply portend simple studio monkeying; what studios monkey with movies to make them slower, to take out action moments, and cripple their franchise potential (unless franchise potential is defined as telling only a portion of the story so audiences have to pay for another ticket to get more; most of them are guilty of that). Fox has a bad rep thanks to those other Marvel movies, but their two biggest franchises at the moment, X-Men and Planet of the Apes, are both in good creative shape. Their recent hits include Gone Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, and Spy, as diverse (and female-friendly!) a slate as any big studio in recent years. (OK, their next movie is Hitman: Agent 47, but who cares! Ruin away!) Fantastic Four can’t be dismissed with a simple “Fox sucks.” It’s weirder than that; it plays like a movie the filmmakers and the studio just forgot to actually finish. Rarely do moviegoers have the opportunity to pay to attend a meeting about a movie that might have been made.