A version of this review was published at the Film Experience

The best and maybe the only compliment I can pay to Fantastic Four, the third unsuccessful attempt at bringing the oldest of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's creations at Marvel Comics to the big screen, is that it's not obviously the worst of a sorry lot. Its big budget and generally solid (though not at all state-of-the-art) visual effects don't nearly compensate for the gung-ho charm of the unreleased 1994 film, famously made for $1 million to secure the production rights to the material, which improbably remains the best version of the story despite resembling a fan video made by some sugar-jacked kids in the basement. But its insipidness, and it is very insipid, isn't inherently worse than that of the ghastly 2005 big-budget version, just different. That film heralded the end of the "brightly colored larks that are wholly insubstantial but also not much fun" era of comic book movies; time alone will tell if its 2015 sibling will similarly ring down the curtains on the "ludicrously dark and serious-minded exercises in bitterness and misery" era, though I think we should be hopeful. Because Fantastic Four '15 is, if it is anything, alarmingly dark and serious-minded, to the point of parody.

How much of this is due to the awkwardly visible fencing match between director Josh Trank and the executives at 20th Century Fox is beyond our ability to say for certain. It does feel like a movie that wants to be anything than what it is: I am especially thinking of the rumors that Trank was hoping to make PG-13, summer-friendly body horror. There are vestigial traces of that conception: most notably, the giant rock-man Ben "The Thing" Grimm (Jamie Bell) darkly responding "I'm used to it" when asked if his body hurts. I guess it would have been better for the film to have gone all the way; at least then the incongruous bleakness of tone would have felt like it had some actual purpose. As it is, the movie doesn't have any clear intentions or personality, flattening everything into a single mood of aimless, sullen detachment, not caring about anything but just grinding through its leaden 100 minutes and getting it the hell over with. If it is possible for cinema to suffer from clinical depression, this is exactly what I'd expect it to look like.

The film laboriously reworks one of the most well-known origin stories in superhero comics, taking its cues from the Ultimate Marvel line rather than the more familiar story initially set out by Lee in 1961 (that is, the Fantastic Four are unlikable teenagers): in 2007, genius 5th grader Reed Richards (Owen Judge) set himself to the task of building a matter transporter, along the way picking up the support and friendship of classmate Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), a tough kid from a love-starved family, whose cruel older brother (Chet Hanks) would gleefully announce "it's clobberin' time!" before beating the 11-year-old into paste. Even if I had no goal but to write the bleakest possible grimdark parody of Silver Age comics, I don't think I could have come up with such a punishing origin for the Thing's corny-ass catchphrase. Anyway, Reed's early experiments are inconclusive, but by the time the two arrive in their senior year of college, with Reed now played by Miles Teller while Bell takes over Ben, he's almost got it down. And that brings him to the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), the director of the Baxter Institute, a research facility that has been working on very similar technology to open a portal to another dimension. Reed finds himself working alongside Franklin's son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), as well as the former prodigy and current joyless slacker Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), and they succeed in cracking the technology necessary to travel to Planet Zero, a physical space made out of pure energy, or something like that.

Sadly, an unauthorised drunken trip to that dimension goes wildly wrong, leaving Victor stranded on Planet Zero and the other three boys warped by the transportation back, while Sue also gets fucked up even though she wasn't part of the trip for some reason. This leaves them with the usual suite of powers: Reed can extend his limbs far beyond their normal range, Sue can phase out of the visible spectrum and create force fields, Johnny can set his entire body on fire, and Ben is an invulnerable rock monster. They are immediately taken by the U.S. government in the form of Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), who hopes to weaponise them; Reed escapes and tries to hunt for a cure while the other three sullenly learn to harness their new powers. A year later, the dimensional gate has been rebuilt, and a path re-opened to Planet Zero, which has now become Doom's hellish personal playground, from which he plans destroy all life on Earth.

Origin stories are all well and good, but this one is exceptionally methodical; it's not enough to show us how the Fantastic Four (not so named until the line immediately following the last line spoken in the film) came into being, we also need to understand in exact detail what their lives were like prior to the accident. That's literally all this film is, a distended first act that fleshes out backstory in three times the fulness it probably requires, minutely spelling out points that could be implied, and generally using expository dialogue on the principal that you can never be too specific and it's better to have characters say everything germane to the moment all at once than to make them sound like human beings. I do not think we should blame the writers - Trank, with Simon Kinberg & Jeremy Slater are credited - who were dealing with one of the most extensive reshoots of any major tentpole film in recent years, and could hardly be expected to make a shapely creation out of this gross hybrid.

Besides, there's probably something in this: a more psychologically-oriented, character-driven superhero movie is exactly what pop culture needs. It's a shame that Fantastic Four ends up with such compromised, indifferently-performed characters: to look at the highs and lows of their respective careers, one might not think that Teller, Jordan, Mara, and Bell would all end up underplaying their roles in more or less exactly the same way (for which we can almost certainly blame Trank), each of them walling themselves off from the other three and completely failing to make the connections that the "modern families can look weird but still be loving" conceit of the script absolutely demands: Mara and Jordan have a prickly dislike between them that's especially damaging given what a big deal the film makes about their polyglot family, while Teller responds to Mara with hostile chilliness in all the places that the script indicates that they should be flirting. And Bell (who is visibly far too old for the role) is completely checked-out, swallowed up by an American accent that sounds acutely painful.

Even setting aside its failure to execute the one thing that might have made it distinctive, Fantastic Four turns on itself the second that it puts its characters through their mutation. I can't recall if there's ever been a major big-budget superhero movie that breaks down so quickly and so completely as this one does after that "One Year Later" card. We know that whole sequences were ripped from the film, we know that much of it was re-conceived and re-shot, but it doesn't take following the gossip rags to sense that something went deeply wrong in putting the film together: Reed's escape ends up serving as nothing but a parenthetical, the return to Planet Zero is rushed and Doom's return and the battle to stop him abrupt and confusing, and the whole last 40 minutes generally ape the shape of a superhero movie without having any kind of meaningful content. It is as dysfunctional as anything in the genre has been since... I don't even know, Blade: Trinity? It's a damned ghastly wreck, anyway.

There is absolutely nothing in the aesthetics to prop this up: Matthew Jensen's cinematography uses the full palette of slate greys to be as unattractive as possible, and George L. Little's costume design fully commits to the trend of superhero garb looking functional in the bluntest way, all drab blacks and technologicalish lines. The score by Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass is a heartbreaking disappointment outside of its main collaborative motif, which mixes midcentury scientific optimism and contemporary soaring action music well, but otherwise sounds like a slightly less generic version of the banalities that show up in all the Marvel Studios films. The CGI is serviceable to very good, and is especially fin in the case of the Thing, captured in terrifically realistic shifts of rock against rock, aided by some great sound design. But the same veil of grimness that coats the rest of the visuals infringes on the CGI as well, and instead of being bowled over by how real and imaginative things are, it's easier to be depressed by how morbid Planet Zero looks, and how irritatingly off-putting they've made Doom's design.

It is, all told, a greatly joyless film, without any purpose to that joylessness; and it's dragged down further by its perfunctory, formless narrative. The homogeneity of recent superhero movies has very little to recommend it, but it means a certain level of basic competence: films this bad in that genre have been driven almost to the point of extinction. Hopefully, the failure of Fantastic Four on all fronts will be enough to finish the job.