WASHINGTON, September 23, 2015 – The ever-present question revolving around Marvel’s Fantastic Four is whether anyone can actually make a movie about it. That was the question even before Fox’s first venture into a feature length ‘Fantastic Four’ movie in 2005. (And the less that’s said about the never-released ‘90s ‘Fantastic Four’ film, the better.)
With apologies to Johnny Storm, that burning question is still the problem this property has never been able to escape. For that reason alone, from the very outset, Fox’s latest attempted “Fantastic Four” cinematic reboot opened in theaters last month laden with a ton of baggage, and, for the most part, it collapsed under that heavy weight.
Directed by Josh Trank and starring Miles Teller (Reed Richards), Kate Mara (Sue Storm), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm), Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm) and Toby Kebbell (Dr. Doom), PR blurbs describe the 2015 “Fantastic Four” as
“… a contemporary re-imagining of Marvel’s original and longest-running superhero team, centers on four young outsiders who teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe, which alters their physical form in shocking ways. Their lives irrevocably upended, the team must learn to harness their daunting new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.”
Don’t make any mistake though: the 2015 film iteration of Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” is not a good film. It’s easy to suspect that it might have been. But, given this franchise’s sorry silver screen track record, it’s actually hard to imagine that it would have been a successful film by most measure.
The film and the film franchise were doomed to fail before anyone was even hired to give things another go. Worse, the way things were fumbled on this latest reboot hints at early signs of decay sneaking in around the edges of the modern superhero blockbuster.
Before we start, though, let’s get in the mood by watching “Fantastic Four,” Trailer #2:
The Josh Trank Story
The problems with this film don’t just start and end with director Josh Trank, who’s already served as the fall guy for the movie’s many critics. But that’s where more people will begin the speculation anyway. Despite outside factors influencing the latest, failed Fantastic Four project, Trank received the lion’s share of the blame for what happened with this reboot, because, ultimately his name is attached to the film.
Trank’s initial intentions had a lot of merit. But they certainly didn’t line up to audience and critical expectations that his film would be what Hollywood accountants would describe as a summer “tentpole” movie that would score big at the box office while at the same time helping build necessary momentum behind this floundering franchise. If this film was supposed to be the kickoff for a series of popular “Fantastic Four” sequels, it was something much smaller in scale than anything Fox might have wanted.
This is where the laundry list of now-obvious problems might have started for Josh Trank. “Fantastic Four” marks the only second time he’s directed a feature-length film. His first venture was 2012’s “Chronicle,” which was a found-footage film about three high school kids who unexpectedly gain super powers. Initially unheralded, this small film was a surprise success, opening a lot of doors for Trank and rightfully so.
On the other hand, those fast-opening doors did not necessarily have to lead immediately to Fox’s planned “Fantastic Four” reboot. Promising high school and college baseball stars recruited for Major League teams usually begin their professional careers with a stint in the minor leagues. That’s called “seasoning,” and it often helps transition these young and sometimes major talents for the tougher competition they’ll encounter in the big leagues.
Jumping from directing a low budget indie film to helming a high-budget, high-pressure, potential franchise film is perhaps even a greater challenge for a newish director. It’s easy to see how Trank might have been in over his head in this project from the start.
Fox studios vs. Marvel’s original “Fantastic Four” comic book concept
Trank aside, the biggest problem with this 2015 reboot lies in Fox’s ambition to re-establish the Fantastic Four as the cornerstone of a new and successful superhero franchise. Evidence: the story, characters, and concept don’t really fit together organically in the enduring way they once did in their comic book originals.
The original comic book Fantastic Four were created by those classic old Marvel masters Jack Kirby and Stan Lee back in 1961. This super-powered quartet kick- started the stunning superhero boom at Marvel that has fundamentally dominated the comics industry ever since. The original comic is important for what it started, made popular, and how all this became a crucial component of pop culture in mid-to-late 20th century America.
The big problem today is that the original tropes longtime audiences associate with and expect from current superhero stories don’t fit the original comic universe, and worse, have always felt restrictive whenever applied to the Fantastic Four. The famous comic that started all that has echoed ever since, never quite seems to have become a part of it all, awkwardly fitting in to the Marvel universe ever since.
Lying at the very the heart of the original Fantastic Four are the themes of discovery and exploration. Against the orders of their superiors, four individuals – Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm – ride a spaceship into outer space to document the effects of cosmic rays. As it happens, those very same cosmic rays give each of them unique powers, and they become relative media darlings, and are dubbed by the press as the “Fantastic Four.”
Many of the early adventures of this new superhero quartet revolve around Reed Richards’ discovering something new or different, which promptly ends up getting them all into some sort of trouble. When they find themselves ending up in battle, it’s more a chance occurrence rather than something they consciously attempted to seek out.
As part of their informal mission statement, the original team wasn’t really all that interested in protecting the public. If they ended up doing just that, it was merely something they did as an extension of whatever adventure they happened to be on.
The original four were heroes by circumstance – in short, they were heroes in the same way the first American astronauts were, as research scientists and pioneers boldly going where no other astronauts had gone before. Like those astronauts, their heroism, such as it was, extended from doing things that the ordinary people thought were beyond the bounds of mere mortals. They were willing to consistently charge into the unknown. Or, at least Reed was, though the others followed his lead more often than not.
This was the original aura that surrounded the comic book Fantastic Four, and is one of the main reasons why the quartet of that era might not connect with audiences who are generally lining up to see the 21st century superheroes the comic influenced: contemporary characters who have fewer dimensions and complications than the Fantastic Four possessed when their stories were at their best.
Comic book superheroes vs. moviemaker needs: The “origin story”
That Fantastic Four concept doesn’t fit the mold of what the public today views as a superhero. Thus, they are always fighting an uphill battle to capture the fan attention the Avengers possess at the moment.
Throughout the first half of 2015’s “Fantastic Four” film, Josh Trank seems to have grasped this conflict, choosing to go with it rather than fight it. Trank stated early on in production that his intent was capture the feel of David Cronenberg (in “The Fly,” circa 1986) and early Steven Spielberg.
In essence, Trank hinted broadly that he wasn’t angling to create an action film in any currently traditional sense. Instead, he wanted to focus on the reactions of personal horror on the part of the characters as they simultaneously confront their unexpected bodily transformations. His eventual goal, it seems, was to capture the sense of wonder that is inherent within the original comic’s premise.
The sense of personal horror as the budding quartet observes each of their bodies transforming into something otherworldly and perhaps unhuman—particularly in the case of Ben Grimm—is usually something that is missed in discussions of the Fantastic Four. Yet this was a core part of the concept when they were first introduced, a key element that drove the entire run of the series while Jack Kirby was working on it.
One of the most famous early stories in Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” comics is called “This Man, This Monster” which consists essentially of Lee’s and Kirby’s ruminations on Ben Grimm as “The Thing”: what it means for him still to be “human,” or whether he even considers himself to be human. It’s that kind of intellectual and personal challenge that fascinated Kirby throughout his entire, storied career, and it’s a theme that came up numerous times during the time Kirby drove the Fantastic Four.
In a similar vein, Reed Richards’ early endeavors after returning to Earth were, in part, directed toward attempts to revert his compatriots back to their original humanity, an extension of his own guilt for effectively turning them into what they had become.
Trank attempts to create these somber atmospherics that were a key of the Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comics. Unfortunately, it takes too long for this “Fantastic Four” to actually discover and deal with what makes them tick because so much of the film’s running time is devoted to the setup. We never really get to learn who these characters actually were and are or why.
Worse, so little time is focused on the fantastic side of these four unlikely superheroes because, it seems, there’s no real confidence the audience will actually accept the Fantastic Four without showing in great detail how they acquired their powers.
In 2006, Grant Morrison wrote the first issue of “All Star Superman,” which condensed the origin of the most iconic superhero in history to 4 panels on a single page with less than 10 words of narration explanation. This is the kind of concise origin story efficiency that doesn’t ever seem to happen in superhero films.
When the Fantastic Four were introduced, their origin comic consisted of 22 pages. Realistically, the origin tale was considerably less than that because, after returning to Earth possessing their new and untried powers, they were immediately launched right into an adventure involving Mole Man. After that issue, the premise was considered firmly established, enabling Lee and Kirby to tell the stories they actually wanted to tell.
In a movie, this kind of approach might have consumed 5 minutes, give or take. In a similar way, the 1950s “Superman” TV series flashed a perfectly condensed version of Superman’s origin story across the screen every week during each show’s opening theme and credits. It took less than 30 seconds and was all that even new viewers needed to know.
The overemphasis on the origin story sinks the 2015 “Fantastic Four.” It demonstrates that either the director, the writers or the studio had no faith their audience would be able to get it without plenty of explanation and exposition. All the audience really needs to know is that four adventurers were involved in an exploration accident that imbued with abilities far beyond that of mortal men. Instead, studios like this one still insist on subjecting audiences through what are arguably the most boring aspects of the story just to make sure they “get it.”
Let’s get to the destruction and mayhem part…
The film’s overstuffed origin narrative takes up a little over an hour. That’s bad enough. But then this film’s real problems begin to set in, leaving dedicated superhero film fans wondering how much more of the original film was left on the cutting room floor when the final was released.
The reason why? While the film’s first act is grossly overdeveloped, its key second half payoff is woefully underdeveloped. After returning from an expedition to another world and losing one of their own – Victor von Doom – Reed escapes the compound and then disappears, leaving his friends behind.
The film then slingshots forward a year as we view Ben Grimm, now the rocky “Thing,” who has become a wartime tool of the U.S. government. We learn those wily Feds have also convinces Sue and Johnny to join them as well.
Oops, now there’s a haphazard capture of Reed, who’s been working on a way to cure his friends. Cinematic whiplash then occurs, as our suddenly re-united heroes have to protect their entire compound – and then presumably the world – from a returning, uber-powerful Victor, aka “Dr. Doom.”
Everything that occurs after after the four discover their powers takes 30 to 40 minutes of screen time, giving the film very little room to breathe before our heroes are suddenly asked to save the world from a vague plot cooked up by an underutilized Dr. Doom.
Whirling at warp speed through the second act and the grand finale the way this movie does is in total conflict with the meticulously constructed by terribly plodding setup. The human connections among the characters are severed because… well, because there’s really no time left to spend on this kind of crucial character and team development.
Those personal connections are the key to the Fantastic Four and were the driver that made their comic book stories work so well for so many. In franchises ranging from “Star Trek” even to something completely different like TV’s long-running and still popular “NCIS,” while stories are key, audiences ultimately keep coming back because they love the characters and their constantly evolving personal relationships.
Likewise, a lot of people will throw out the term “family” when referring to the Fantastic Four. Given that Reed and Sue eventually get married and have two kids together, that “family” thing is a no brainer for longtime fans at least. But regarding the four in this way at least during their early days as a team misses the point entirely.
What always makes Marvel’s comic book Four interesting in the first place is that they’re four loosely connected individuals who find themselves thrust into a situation none of them is prepared for; yet they are still forced to succeed as a team. Power, exploration, discovery – all three are extensions of what these characters are, and any connections they develop are based on their common joy of learning and discovery.
The final portion of the film puts the metaphorical final nail in its coffin. It completely nullifies anything we’ve learned about the characters. They’re placed entirely in service to a plot that has been hacked to the point where it is indecipherable. The finale is such a mess that the audience is left with a sense that whoever remained in charge of the film’s final cut simply wanted to get it done and get out, because what remained was clearly not the film they had wanted it to be.
With the success in the last decade of the recent “Batman” trilogy and the ongoing success of the “Avengers” films, one can reasonably ask if the Fantastic Four can continue to exist with integrity in the current superhero landscape.
How do you do superheroes who don’t fit the formula?
Most studios are trying their hand it crafting the next giant franchise. But what if some elements simply don’t fit into that mold?
Most superhero movies have become tropes into themselves. There must always be a city, country, or a world to save and some villain or villains must ultimately be defeated by our superheroes. In the process, catastrophic destruction and loss of life always occurs, and amidst that kind of destruction and slaughter, everything and everyone gets a bit cynical.
Unfortunately, at least under this concept, that’s not who the Fantastic Four really are. They’ve never been about fighting and thus are deemed boring by filmmakers eager for the next megahit or mega-franchise. If superheroes aren’t out there doing super things, so this reasoning goes, what’s the point?
To its credit, Trank’s film engages this paradox, at least to a point. But a successfully rebooted “Fantastic Four” was never going to be an easy film to create, and Trank and/or Fox Studios generally fail to deliver a movie with much promise even though it is at times fitfully interesting.
If it’s “three strikes and you’re out,” this muddled 2015 edition of “Fantastic Four,” coming as it does after two earlier complete failures will lead nearly everyone to question whether the Fantastic Four can even be turned into a successful film.
The answer is plain to see if anyone cares to look for it. Instead of revolving around action set pieces that rely on one or more character attacking one or more others with a clear hero/villain dynamic, any film involving the Fantastic Four should always be about wonder, discovery, and personal connection. The 2015 “Fantastic Four” completely misses the mark. And to this day, the reason remains that no one in Hollywood really “gets it.”