The new superhero spectacle has been plagued by bad buzz, and reports of a troubled production. But the film is actually ‘refreshing’, writes critic Owen Gleiberman.

How decadently bloated is our summer-movie culture? It's so inflated that less, on occasion, really can feel like more. Josh Trank, who directs the new reboot of Fantastic Four, stages the film with the cheesy simplicity and plain, pre-digital visual language of a late 1960s B-movie – and, wouldn’t you know it, those very qualities allow it to come off as a light subversion of today’s blockbuster aesthetics. The material is conventional comic-book pulp, but the unfussy style of Fantastic Four doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re drowning in franchise tropes. The very squareness of it is refreshing.

Then again, let’s not overstate the virtues of that accomplishment. The new Fantastic Four is much better than the cutesy, cluttered version that came out 10 years ago, but it’s really just a slender wisp of an origin story. Miles Teller, so intense in last year’s Whiplash, dials down his charisma to a gentle hum to play Reed Richards, a smiley, whiz-kid science geek who leads a team of young geniuses in creating a teleportation machine. They’re working out of a New York think tank where even the mildest banter runs to deeply serious disquisitions on the quantum possibilities of movable matter. But let’s be clear: this stuff is no more plausible today than it was in the “Beam me up, Scotty!” era of the original Star Trek – it’s just magic dressed up to look like science.    

Once the gizmo is complete, it can teleport any object placed inside it to Planet Zero, a distant orb with jutting rock formations and glowing green rivulets of electromagnetic energy. As a lark, the team members decide to pay a quick visit there themselves, and once they’ve arrived, the unruly, almost mystical power of Planet Zero winds up causing a different mutation in each of them. Reed can suddenly stretch and bend his limbs as if they were made of rubber. Johnny Storm (Michael B Jordan) winds up with a body as engulfed in flame as a burner on a gas stove, and Johnny’s sister, Sue (Kate Mara), can now make herself, and the objects around her, invisible. As for Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), he becomes The Thing – a hulk of clattering rock fragments who resembles the world’s most indestructible Muppet. Once they’ve returned to earth, the characters are a little aghast at their newfound mutations, and the power these give them, and that’s more or less the entire plot. There’s no crime-fighting, no noisy media headlines, and though the US Department of Defense badly wants a piece of them, the film never descends into standard liberal Hollywood military-bashing. Johnny Storm, for one, even starts to enjoy his new role as a potential government secret weapon.

For a big-budget comic-book movie, Fantastic Four is so modestly scaled that it makes your average entry in the X-Men series look positively Pynchon-esque. Then again, the characters in those films are supposed to be grandly ‘alienated’ from society – a theme the movies manage to assert, over and over, without necessarily convincing you that it’s true. In Fantastic Four, when our heroes, now transformed, return from Planet Zero, they really are bummed, a quality the movie expresses through the human scale of its special effects. Trank, who made the ingenious indie fantasy Chronicle, isn’t using these familiar characters, with their built-in visual gimmickry, to wow us. He’s inviting us to react with sympathy to what is basically the bodily horror of their new abilities. They’ve been turned into mutilated super-freaks, and Fantastic Four invites you to feel their pain.

‘Hand-made’ heroes

In Hollywood comic-book cinema, even a character like Peter Parker adjusts to being Spider-Man in about 10 minutes, and that’s because most of these movies have a message, one that’s integral to selling their product: the heroes are cool! They’re who you want to be! But that doesn’t do justice to how the comics themselves once worked. They were a far less showy form, with panels that played up emotion over superpowers, and that’s the kind of mood that Trank captures. He builds this antique of a comic book story from the ground up and gives his gifted cast room to breathe life into characters who could have been the flattest of archetypes. Jordan's smooth anger, Mara's laser stare, Teller's flickering innocence: all say more than the otherwise creaky dialogue ever could.

The standout is Jordan. In the first major movie he’s appeared in since his searing performance in Fruitvale Station, he gives Johnny a casual command tinged with a creeping awareness that the flames he can turn on and off at will (by a flick of the switch on his body suit) have added a powerful new dimension to him but also, perhaps, diminished him as well. As Sue, Kate Mara has eyes that pop with sensual cunning, and Jamie Bell voices The Thing as a touchingly self-aware grouch – a giant of miserablism. Next to these energised troublemakers, Miles Teller’s Reed can seem the gentlest of souls, even when he’s bending his torso around bullets fired at him. Teller makes him a new kind of stalwart nerd, quiet but never passive.

The conflict, such as it is, could hardly be simpler: one of the team members, the scruffy hipster Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), has been abandoned on Planet Zero, where he melds with the orb’s energy to become… a really nasty nihilist superman who, behind the mask that's been fused to his face, wants to destroy earth. The climax, in which our heroes travel back to Planet Zero to stop him, is the most routine sequence in the film, because it’s the only one in which Trank leaves his hand-made style behind; the film’s effects begin to feel digital and corporate. Even so, it all happens quite quickly, with an improvised derring-do that expresses the will of characters who know, deep down, that they weren’t put on earth to be superheroes. Let’s hope they keep feeling that way.


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