After this past weekend’s tumultuously disappointing debut, you certainly don’t need us to tell you that director Josh Tank’s preemptively snake-bit Fantastic Four reboot has become a proverbial open-source punching bag amongst movie critics of both professional circles and comment sections alike. For fans of Marvel movie efforts, the flop will likely place the cinematic aspirations of the comic company’s original super-team back into a shameful stasis.
The waters were already chummed from stories in recent weeks that have pointed to Trank, the 31 year-old upstart helmer who found innovative success with 2012’s Chronicle being unstable, uncompromising and even unprofessional. However, a quickly-recanted revelatory tweet from Trank, himself on the eve of the film’s inauspicious release preemptively pointed to meddlesome micromanaging from the studio overseers at 20th Century Fox as causing the ruination of what would have been a “fantastic” vision.
With that context established, this article, while remaining critical, is not here to take late swings at this low-hanging piñata. Regardless of what occurred behind the scenes, the final cut has hit theaters; standing on its own as a complete work. Certainly, there are lessons that can be derived from its failings. There are hopes that this faltering of the Fantastic Four franchise will result in better efforts farther down the road; possibly taking a cue from Sony’s recent compromise-laden collaboration that finally moves Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Thus, we are going to take a look at some of the movie’s major missteps and determine constructively what can be learned.
Moody Does Not Equal Moving
After Fox’s financially successful, but critically derided previous attempts at the property beginning with the 2005 Fantastic Four film and its slightly improved 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the general consensus seemed to indicate that comic book movies dwelling too far into the saccharine well of kitsch and tongue-in-cheek humor were not welcome in a genre that director Christopher Nolan had successfully injected with a delicate balance of action and solemnity in his moody The Dark Knight trilogy. Clearly, this latest iteration came to the table with hopes of evolving the traditionally lighthearted, sometimes corny story of The Fantastic Four into something similarly poignant. Unfortunately, that mandate seemed to clash with the studio’s apparent vision of the film as a bountiful merchandisable tent-pole; creating the unfortunate effect of the movie becoming disjointed.
The film’s script, originally penned by Jeremy Slater, was subjected to an intricate rewrite by visionary asset, Simon Kinberg, who worked with the director Josh Trank in crafting what aspired to be a serious film that immersed itself in the scientifically inspiring theme of discovering the unknown. However, the main course concept of the titular quartet’s acquired powers became an odd afterthought against a fixation on their general state of emotional discontent. Regardless of who or what was at fault, the pervasive gloom of the film did nothing to enhance the drama or complement the fantastical elements that fell into place. Future comic book efforts may want to be wary of the dangers of allowing an overload of obligatory pathos to pollute a rather basic premise.
If You’re Going To Focus Your Team Movie On One Character, Then Stick With Him
The film begins with childhood flashbacks focusing on the derision-absorbing past of the brilliant young Reed Richards (Miles Teller) in what seems to show signs of Trank’s early tonal Nolan-esque intentions for the entire movie. While the buildup in Reed’s flashback story is slow-burning, it’s still competent in its storytelling structure (barring the questionable veracity of a child building an interdimensional portal in his garage using junkyard scraps). However, after devoting the entire first hour of the 100-minute movie to telling Richards’ story, the final cut never quite makes the necessary tonal shift when it moves to the present.
With the first half of the film establishing the inquisitive social pariah Reed as the clear protagonist in this team movie, it creates the unfortunate effect of saddling the film’s gloomy tone with a backstory that seems to have little connection to the grandiosity of the later events. Consequently, the emotional resonance of Reed’s path from a high school science fair to being among scientific elite in the Baxter Foundation is perplexingly dominated not by hope and optimism, but by angst and a bland bleakness that insidiously sabotages the film, even manifesting in the darkish filters of the visuals.
Unfortunately, as much time is devoted to making the viewer empathize with Reed’s personal plight, his choices veer off into inexplicable paths such as the mid-movie low point after the group get their powers, when, like a stretchy John McClane, he squeezes into an air duct and escapes their government quarantine. It’s a move that, given as much time we’ve spent with Reed, is uncharacteristic as he goes on the run, abandoning his friends for an entire YEAR. Reed, who up until this point was the film’s protagonist, disappears for a chunk of the film. In doing so, he is subtly demoted to being a side player. With the movie shifting over to the other tepidly established team members, it turns out that much of Reed’s lengthy flashback was not entirely necessary. Thus, the lesson here is that if you are going to take up the audience’s time with an intricate backstory, it had better connect directly to the film’s plot. In the case of Fantastic Four, this was extremely valuable time that was wasted.
A Movie About A Superhero Team Needs A Team Dynamic
This might seem like a basic concept, but it is one that the groupthink-plagued Fantastic Four nevertheless seems to have egregiously overlooked in its apparent struggles. With Reed’s backstory sabotaging much of the dramatic tone, there was very little time to establish the deeper motivations of the other team members, resulting in their being nothing more than disparate character concepts defined by the most superficial of attributes, with little effort going into crafting how they would eventually mesh together. As a result, this described “reimagining” of the Fantastic Four comic-book mythos seemed to overlook a team dynamic that needed to be central.
Sue Storm (Kate Mara), other than brief mentions of her foster familial ties to Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), has no depth beyond the (now conventional) idea that she’s the total package; smart, beautiful, listens to progressive ’90s music like Portishead and competently contributes to the film’s fateful Quantum Gate experiment. The doctor’s prodigal son, Johnny Storm/Human Torch (Michael B. Jordan), is, oddly enough, not introduced until the middle of the movie, joining the team as a technician. He's only defined by his “acting out” in street racing, which seems to stem from the technician’s ill-conceived attempt to address an identity crisis.
Getting the shortest end of the straw is Ben Grimm/The Thing (Jamie Bell), who is portrayed as a normal, non-genius, blue-collar sap who happened to be childhood friends with Reed. Ben gets dragged into the ill-conceived interdimensional experiment, receiving a monstrous fate in the resulting post-trip transformations. Being part of the experiment was really more of a favor to Reed, which makes him the only true victim in all of this, since the gang petulantly went into the experiment unsupervised, against the wishes of Dr. Franklin. While Ben’s lament over his new rocky form is a traditional angle on the comics, this movie dwells on it in an excessively tragic way. It makes us pity Ben in an unproductive way when we should be spending some time laughing with him as he becomes the powerful, bellicose, yet gregarious character who often serves as comic relief and traditionally plays off the insulting quips of Johnny.
While intricate backstories for the team members were not necessary, there is nothing here resembling a proper team dynamic balancing the necessary clever back-and-forth banter or the occasional blow-up. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like they made any such attempt in this effort. Rather, we have four miserable saps who would never be friends in any other context who are essentially stuck together due to circumstance. The pivotal moment when the team finally does come together doesn’t even occur until maybe the last 20 minutes. In actuality, their interpersonal chemistry needed to be crucial throughout the entire film.
Your Main Villain Can’t Just Be An Afterthought
Perhaps the most heartbreakingly disappointing aspect of Fantastic Four was the widely perceived mishandling of one of Marvel Comics’ most important villains in Doctor Doom. When the film's last-push trailers revealed his hyper-stylized, sinuous melted metal body covered with glowing green veins, it was a tough pill to swallow for comic-book purists who were already wary of this effort. However, there was still hope that this film would manage to capture the egotistical, megalomaniacal quintessence of Doom’s traditional representation in a way that Julian McMahon’s depiction in the previous films may have failed. Unfortunately, much like the film’s rutted narrative structure, Doom’s character was equally disjointed in its presentation and usage.
The metal-clad miscreant first takes form as bratty genius slacker, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who is presented as a former star pupil of Dr. Storm who has become a bitter, eccentric hacker type with quasi-Malthusian political woes and extreme issues with authority figures. After being coaxed back to Baxter to work on the Quantum Gate, possibly due to a crush over Sue, he actually seems to coexist as one of the group and could even be likeable … in spurts. This aspect made his eventual victimhood in the interdimensional accident into a tragic moment.
However, with about 30 minutes left in the film, we learn that Victor, who was presumed to have died on the interdimensional experiment’s destination, “Planet Zero,” has spent a year over there in exile, transformed into a power-imbued organic metal being. The isolation has also apparently magnified his miserable beliefs, making him into a powerful, nihilistic ne’er-do-well with earthly destruction on his agenda. It’s a pretty far cry from the iconic, sophisticated, armor-clad, machination-plotting wealthy dictator of the fictional European nation of Latveria that comic-book fans know and love. Thus, disappointment is especially rampant on this aspect.
Comic-book deviations aside, the most technically sloppy offense concerning Doom is that his presence in the film served no purpose to the greater plot, other than providing a timely late-entry antagonist for the newly unified team to hastily battle in the concluding minutes of the movie. Even the underwhelming Green Lantern knew enough to build Parallax as a contextual threat from the very beginning. Seeing as villains have traditionally embodied the general theme in comic-book movies, one can’t help but conclude that Fantastic Four serves as a prime example of what happens when your main villain is relegated to being a hastily concocted opportune escape from a plethora of rather aimless drama.
There’s surely a plethora of other lessons that we could glean from Fantastic Four. Can you think of any? Pop in to the comments section and give your thoughts.