Although they launched the Marvel Comics brand 54 years ago, the superhero team called the Fantastic Four has yet to successfully make the transition to movies. This might be because, in live-action visual terms, they're so uncool. A stretchy guy? A flame-y guy? An invisible woman? Anybody for a man who looks like a pile of rocks? No?
The last attempt to turn these characters into a franchise, a decade ago, made money, but was so critically reviled that after one floundering sequel the Four were put back in storage. Now they're being trotted out again, in a movie so dull and awkwardly structured that you wonder why anyone would want to telegraph a sequel at the end.
The movie stirs our indifference right at the beginning, with a long childhood sequence in which young science wiz Reed Richards, jeered for his commitment to building a teleportation machine, makes friends with Ben Grimm, who knows nothing about science but at least doesn't jeer. Years pass. Reed (now played by Miles Teller) gets a scholarship to the Baxter Institute, a haven for young brainiacs overseen by a sinister executive named Allen (Tim Blake Nelson, projecting menace through aggressive gum-chewing). At the institute, Reed is taken under the wing of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, of House of Cards), and meets Storm's son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, of Fruitvale Station) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara, last stranded in Transcendence). Also lurking about is Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell, of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), a man who would seem in no need of a super-villain moniker, but who later adopts one anyway. ("Dr. Doom," right?)
This team finally builds Reed's teleportation machine, and after calling in Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) for reasons not at all apparent, three of them clamber into the teleportation shuttle (Sue stays behind to work the computers) and take off for Planet Zero. This is either an actual planet or another dimension, whatever. Upon arriving, we see that it's a place cobbled together from the weariest forms of CGI—dark, roiling clouds, stabs of lightning in the distance. There's also a bubbling neon-green pond into which Victor inexplicably sticks his hand. Bad move. Victor is left behind as his fellow voyagers, transformed by their off-world experience, return to Earth as Mister Fantastic (Reed), The Human Torch (Johnny), and the Thing (Ben).
Now they're taken to "Area 57" for examination by military warmongers. Reed has turned into a human taffy-pull. Johnny is on fire. Ben has donned a boulder suit. Sue, who never left the building, is now the Invisible Woman, floating around very visibly in some sort of energy bubble. (Oddly, none of the team's super-names are ever actually uttered.) Reed escapes. Then he's recaptured. Then Victor returns, wearing a metallic mask right out of a no-budget '50s sci-fi movie—much like Marco Beltrami's uber-cheesy score. By the time the film's climactic super-commotion erupts, we have very little interest left to lose.
It's easy to believe this movie had a "troubled production." Director Josh Trank was said to be in such ill favor by the end of it that he found himself removed from a future gig directing a Star Wars movie. (He says that was his decision.) This is too bad. Trank made a clever little superhero film called Chronicle three years ago for the metaphorical equivalent of a buck-fifty. Here he's blown a budget of a hundred-some million dollars more on generic action (and not a lot of it), skeletal scripting, and boring lab sets and drab interiors. The picture has none of the flair of the other Marvel movies, but so what, I guess—that sequel is already on its way.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
San Francisco, 1976. The hippie era is waning, turning into something else. There's disco now, and the first rumblings of punk. But 15-year-old Minnie Goetze has other things on her mind. One thing in particular. "Does everyone think about fucking as much as I do?" she wonders.
Possibly not. You can feel that The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a movie made by women. (It's based on a 2002 book by writer-cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner, which was later adapted for the stage by actress Marielle Heller, who has now directed this screen version.) It's a coming-of-age story told from a fresh, female perspective. Sex is front and center, but Minnie, the film's focus, isn't waiting around for a hunky guy to relieve her of her virginity; she's on a mission to give it up herself.
English actress Bel Powley is terrific in the role of Minnie, a girl living life without a clue. She's at sea in a period when aging-hippie parents thought it fine to treat children like little adults and generally leave them to their own devices while the grownups smoked pot, chopped coke and knocked back wine. Minnie lives with her divorced mother (Kristen Wiig), her sister (Abby Wait) and, quite often, her mom's current boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Monroe is 35 years old, but he's still among the most passive of potheads, and Minnie sees him as a prime candidate for seduction. ("I want you to fuck me," she tells him. "All right," he mumbles.)
Given the current bog of retro-puritanism in which we find ourselves mired, this is a pretty bold story. But it's not played for shock. Monroe isn't a predator; he's little more than a child himself. And since Minnie is the aggressor in this relationship, we don't see her as being exploited. She's learning about sex and love in the usual try-it-and-see way. And as she expands her circle of hookups to include younger guys in bars and bathrooms, and we see her making some creepy mistakes, it's clear that whatever may happen in this freewheeling time and place, it won't be the end of the world.
There's also more to Minnie than her erupting sexual desire. In the San Francisco of new-breed underground comics by artists like R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and the scabrous S. Clay Wilson, Minnie is determined to become a cartoonist, modeling herself on her idol, Aline Kominsky. Kominsky, who later married Crumb, doesn't appear in the movie, but she's a consistent presence. At one point we see Minnie perusing an issue of the older artist's Twisted Sisters series; later, in one of the film's many animation overlays, a comic-book Kominsky appears to Minnie on the street for a helpful chat. (These fantastical animations, by Icelandic artist Sara Gunnarsdottir, are surprisingly effective at conveying both Minnie's states of mind and the psychedelic milieu in which she's growing up.)
Powley navigates the movie's nudity and non-graphic sex scenes with wonderful deadpan aplomb, and Wiig and Skarsgård are often touching as leftover emblems of a passing age. Unlike them, Minnie sees a happily beckoning future. And by the end, a little older and quite a bit wiser, she's ready to seize it.