Fantastic Four (2015)
(Previously, on And You Thought It Was Safe(?))
Evil Me: Now – pucker up, buttercup. And review Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four.
(And Now, The Conclusion)
I’d love to… but the closest we have is “Yet Another 20th Century Fox movie that everyone blamed on Josh Trank once it all went wrong.” For simplicities sake, I’m just going to call it what my friends started calling it as soon as they saw the poster: Fant4stic. Because nothing says, “Totally serious film” like trading a number for a vowel in the middle of your title. I’m looking at you, Scre4m. Actually, I’m not, because you shouldn’t exist.
Back to the Fantastic Four. As you probably know, they were the team that kick off Marvel comic’s initial success back in the mid-1960s. Before Spider-Man, before Dr. Strange, the Fantastic Four were there, kicking ass. So it’s pretty sad that, so far, all their movies have been made for grossly ulterior motives. 1994’s exists so the company that made it could keep the film rights, lest Marvel sell them off to someone richer…which is exactly what wound up happening. 2005’s Fantastic Four, and it’s sequel, were Fox’s attempt to make a more “family friendly” alternative to the X-Men that, like most attempts to make something more “family friendly,” produced the absolute worst kind of time-wasting pap. Not that the X-Men don’t appeal to kids from 1 to 92 – it’s just that they make kids ask their parents uncomfortable questions. Like, “Mom, what’s Auschwitz?” Or, “Mom, how come they make evolution look so cool? All of our homeschool material says it’s a tool of Satan!”
Movie-rights contracts usually run on a ten-year schedule and no one at Fox wanted to be the guy who let the Fantastic Four go. They no doubt had nightmares about what might happen if Disney ever got the Four’s rights back and made billions of dollars crossing them over with the Avengers. They pretty obviously wanted a quick, cheap cash-in they could use to move some branded merchandise in 2015’s third fiscal quarter And they might’ve gotten away with it, too…if they hadn’t hired a True Believer.
On paper, Josh Trank seems like a natural – the director of Chronicle, a.k.a. the best superhero film of 2012, and a lifelong Fantastic Four fan, as even a casual viewing of Chronicle makes clear. To the vampire squid who run Hollywood, I’m sure Trank looked like someone they could control. A young, hungry indie director they could blind with a six figure budget. That’s why they proceeded to fuck him over, probably from Day One.
Evil Me: That’s pure speculation on your part, based on nothing but second-, third-, and fourth-hand readings of unclear facts, from biased sources.
Well…yeah…shit. Someone won’t let me out of the house to do real research.
Evil Me: You’ve got work to do.
Alright, let’s do some math. That’s “work,” for most people…right? Apparently…“Fant4stic”…cost $120 million to make. Now, to you, me and everyone who isn’t a fucking bankster, that may sound like a lot. But we live in an age when you can’t even make a Batman movie for less than $200 million – and Batman doesn’t have any fucking superpowers. Captain America has what are generally called “peak human” powers – meaning he can’t throw an 18-wheeler at you, but he can throw a motorcycle at you – and his first movie still managed to cost $140 million. 2005’s Fantastic Four “only” cost $100 million, but it’s sequel finished north of $130, and that was before the age of Social Media and its premium ad space. You’ve got to pony up some cash if you want your movie’s trailer to play in front of every YouTube video every 18-35-year-old watches for six months straight.
All of which is to say, if I were the perspective director of a Fantastic Four film and somebody said,
Evil Me: Make us our own Avengers movie. For $120 million or less.
…I’d start checking behind the nearest couch for Ashton Kutcher. [“Am I being punked?”] For one thing, Avengers cost a hundred million more than this thing. The very name Fantastic Four implies you’ll need four characters with their own individualized superpowers,that they’ll all need to show off eventually. And a fifth person with superpowers better show up to play the villain at some point. Otherwise your core Four will wind up looking like a bunch of assholes wasting their superpowers on lame sight gags. (In other words, you’ll wind up remaking the 2005 film.)
It’s no surprise production troubles, and rumors of production troubles started leaking months before even the trailers debuted. Stories about Trank showing up to work drunk, behaving like an asshole to his cast and crew, trashing the house he rented on location. They all filled the internet for most of 2014. Plenty of directors do all that – and much, much worse – on the daily, but we poor movie peasants usually only hear about it when someone is out for their head. The way Trank tells it, Fox higher ups started fucking with him well before the cameras rolled, second guessing his every decision, and eventually locked him out of the editing room. He either doesn’t know, or won’t say, who the ass-end of this film belongs to, but he swears up and down it’s not his. And I believe him. No one who directed Chronicle could make a movie this bad. It’s physically impossible to be that drunk and live, unless you’re trying to Leave Las Vegas.
If I were in Trank’s place, watching my Dream Come True turn into a Living Nightmare, I might just start showing up to work drunk, too. I’d try not to take it out on my cast, though – that’s bad form. And we’ve got a great acting troupe here. With their powers combined, they could’ve easily made the best Fantastic Four movie ever made by a wide margin. All they needed was something to work with…and the hell of it is, it looks like, at one point, they did.
Because this is the Fantastic Four movie for me. Yes, me. Specifically. I have no other way to explain the constant references to the horror movie work of our greatest living Canadian, David Cronenberg. In this version, the Four get their powers through a teleporter they decide to jump into one night after they all get drunk. Exactly like Seth Brundle in Cronenberg’s Fly. All of them react to their new powers with moments of naked body horror (except Sue, but we’ll get to her). And this Dr. Doom is a total Scanner, right down to his powers of head-explody.
Body horror has always been the flip side of the old-school, exploratory sci-fi wonderment that is the Fantastic Four’s bread and butter. As personified from the very beginning by everyone’s favorite character: Benjamin J. Grimm, the ever-loving, blue-eyed Thing. I was pleasantly surprised to find I’m not the only person on Earth who noticed this. The Fantastic Four have never shaken their reputation as a wacky, all-ages, no-stakes, brain-dead book, no matter how many times they’ve all died and come back to life. Twenty years ago (or, hell, maybe even ten) a successful movie adaptation that cast them in a slightly new light might’ve changed that perception. But we live in a world where emotions (including horror) are openly mocked, unless the thing you’re emoting is snide condescension. Everybody loves snide condescension. And anyone who says different is an emo pussy….there, see? It’s easy and fun. Try it yourself, kids! Oh, wait – you already are. Don’t deny it: I have Twitter. I see you.
Maybe this whole thing was doomed (pun very much intended) from the start. Regardless, in its current form, Fant4stic has so many basic problems even mainstream critics stooped to notice. Starting right at the “script” level…though I’m putting “script” in the airy-est air quotes I can make. It’s clear this thing veered into Mandatory Re-write territory at full speed with a pack of drunks arguing over the wheel. Mandatory re-shoots and re-edits destroyed whatever potential the re-writes didn’t and here we are.
You know how, in most movies, the First Act lasts about thirty minutes? It’s like the climb up that first hill on a roller-coaster. You want to build anticipation, but you don’t want to bore anyone, or they’ll just yawn through the Second Act – which is gonna be the longest part anyway. That’s usually where all the Stuff in your story happens.
Well, the First Act of Fant4stic is over an hour long…and this movie only clocks in at an hour and forty. Meaning the Second and Third acts have only twenty minutes each to get all their shit done, and it’s more like fifteen when you subtract the agonizingly long end credits. If you turned this into a first year script-writing class, they’d laugh you all the way back to English 95: The Shit You Would’ve Learned In High School if You Hadn’t Been So Busy Preping For Statewide Tests.
The early stuff, with Child Reed and Child Ben Grimm perfecting Reed’s teleporter, is actually alright. The idea of Franklin Storm recruiting Reed out of a High School science fair was always contrived as hell…but then again, so is Franklin Storm. In fact, he’s a better Reed Richards than this Reed Richards. His kids – and his star worker, Victor Von Doom – even casually rip on him for monologing about how the Powers of Teamwork and Science Will Save Us All, You Guys! And It’ll Be Awesome! Historically, that been Reed’s job, and he never really gets time to grow into it here, because no one has time to grow into anything.
What’s sadder is, this cast looks like they have real chemistry. I even believe this Reed and this Sue Storm might actually see something in each other beyond the physical. Which is more than I could say for the last Reed & Sue, even as I watched their wedding. I suspect all these beginning bits were filmed first, before all hope was lost. But I could be wrong. After all, for some stupid reason, Ben doesn’t join Reed in Franklin Storm’s Super Science Academy. If this movie’s front half point towards its back half, you could read this as the first rift in Reed and Ben’s friendship. A rift Ben’s transformation into a rock monster will only exacerbate, before Reed can patch it up with promises of A Cure. As it stands, though, Ben Grimm – the character with the maximum amount of both pathos and bathos – the team mascot with the most toyetic appearance and the built in catch-phrase – the man/monster whose story arguably forms the closest thing the Fantastic Four have to an emotional core – disappears for twenty minutes of the first act. Even in this top-heavy monstrosity, they still didn’t have enough room for all these characters.
As further evidence, I submit People’s Exibit B: Victor Von Doom. The Fantastic Four villain even non-comic book readers have heard about (if only as “that guy who inspired Darth Vader’s look”). He seems to’ve been reincarnated as a misanthropic nerd with a healthy distrust of corporate/military funded science projects. So I instantly identify with him…but he looses me once his villain motivations are (again!) boiled down to, “That guy’s smarter than me. And Sue likes him more. I’m going to sulk in this corner about it, like a bitch, until I get superpowers. Then everybody’s gonna die.” By the end, this Doom turns out like any other cinematic Spider-Man villain: a weirdo, driven crazy by superpowers, because that’s what superpowers do to people whose names aren’t in the title.
And then there’s Johnny Storm. The casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch was pretty much all anyone talked about in this flick’s lead up. Production troubles may cause controversy, but casting a black actor in the role of a traditionally blonde, blue-eyed character will make the Controversy Train smack right into you. And don’t kid yourselves: Fox counted on this happening. It guaranteed free advertising from every media outlet that wanted to run a story about it. I don’t think they expected to pull quite so many racists out of the woodwork…but then again, they don’t live on the internet. They don’t know what we have to deal with out here.
Heaven forbid a hungry, young indie director try to pull one of his hungry, young actor friends up from obscurity by casting him as a A-list superhero in a Guaranteed Franchise Starter. That kind of quote-unquote “nepotism” is just beyond the pale these days, apparently. God knows what people would do if a modern day Sam Raimi ever tried to help the next Bruce Campbell become what the real Bruce Campbell is today.
Evil Me: Some people don’t see it that way.
Oh, believe me, I know. I know these people in my goddamn blood. I remember those, like, five minutes after Obama got elected, when all the millionaires on TV declared we were living in a “post-racial society.” Yeah…good times…I didn’t believe it then, either. And within a few months, the Tea Party came along, Idris Elba got cast as Heimdall in “Thor,” and knee jerk reactionary bullshit continued to be de rigueur in my fucked-up little corner of this fucked-up mudball planet. Same as it ever was. Hell, even little Rue, from the Hunger Games, caught shit for being too brown-skinned for some…people…
Evil Me: You’re just mad because another liberal Hollywood plot to increase diversity and become politically correct crashed and burned before your eyes. You can’t use this film to bludgeon your ideological enemies!
Oh no – go on…keep going. One more buzz word I know you don’t believe in and I get bingo.
Evil Me: Cultural Marxist.
Thank you. Now…I really liked Jordan in Chronicle, where he played the Class President. No surprise: I like him here as Johnny, the Rebel Without a Cause Other Than Himself, because the kid’s got real range. Especially when he’s acting off of a seasoned vet, like Reg E. Cathey, one of my favorite actors nobody’s heard of, apart from fans of Law & Order. And House of Cards. And The Wire. He deserved a better movie than this after so long in the TV trenches. Hell, they both did. Everybody did! Goddamnit. Why did this have to happen?
Evil Me: Because Trank endangered the Brand Synergy! Don’t you see? This film has to sell toys to children. How in Adam Smith’s name are we going to do that if our director keeps trying to make some kind of…Horror movie…?
Yeah, because Horror movies never appeal to the Youth. Ask anyone who ever worked at New Line Cinema.
Evil Me: Exactly! This is supposed to be a superhero film! Fun, light-hearted entertainment children can nag their parents into seeing in theaters. Ensuring the parents will buy it on home video in order to silence their children, so they can continue drinking in peace.
Even on those terms, it fails. Large sections of this movie are just…missing. Usually, trailers give away all of a movie’s good parts six months early, but this thing has the opposite problems. It’s trailers spoiled so little they defy Spoiler Warnings! They might qualify as false advertising in a sane world, but we obviously don’t live in one of those.
My alarm bells went off when the Four who actually get drunk and jump in the teleporter turned out to be Reed, Johnny, Doom, and Ben…whom Reed woke up in the middle of the night because otherwise, he would’ve exited the film completely. Sue’s always been Team Mom, for better and worse, but I like her best when she grows into that role instead of starting there. “You get back in that teleporter right now, young men. Don’t make me tell dad on you!” Apparently, Trank didn’t want Kate Mara to be his Sue, and considering she winds up back in the control room while the boys get to visit Planet Zero, I believe it. She only catches that last blast of I-Can’t-Believe-They-Aren’t-Comic-Rays and winds up sleeping through all the body horror.
Everyone else wakes up in Area 51…oh, excuse me. Area 51 was patching itself up from Mulder and Scully’s last break-in, so this is Area 57. You know all those posters with the Four in front of some half-destroyed city, getting pelted by meteors or burning starship parts, or something? Lies! The rest of the movie takes place in the best non-descript warehouse and labs the military-industrial complex can afford.
Reed escapes, because fuck all that, and it looks like shit’s finally getting started when…the hardest hard-cut in the history of movies skips us ahead two whole years. On the other side of that, the not-yet-Fantastic Three are government lab rats…except for Ben, who’s moonlighting as a human bomb, dropped into hotspots the world over, whenever our Always Victorious Army decides its clobbering time. Sue describes them, accurately, as “tools,” an old army term for ass-kissers and willing sycophants. But they need Reed to get the teleporter back online, so she finds him through the power of music, and Ben catches him through the power of a fist in the mouth. What was he doing on the run, all that time? Finding a cure for Bens’ new skin condition, Bruce Banner style? Or his own? Does he bemoan the loss of whatever research was in that tin-roof shack of his? Even hint that all his progress might be getting rained on? Nope.
We spent an hour setting up these characters – and then skipped over their actual development, making all that set-up worse than pointless. Only Johnny and his dad keep some kind of relationship continuity – the rest might as well be new characters. Instead of being “the part where all the stuff happens” this movie’s second act becomes massive a cul-de-sac. Why am I supposed to like this Reed again? Just going by this film, he’s a dick who left his so-called friends to rot in that vault from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why are we supposed to care about Sue? What’s Sue’s conflict again? Does she wish she could’ve bugged out before the jump cut, like Reed did? Is she planning to? With or without her brother, whose fire powers are in much higher demand than her invisible force fields? And then there’s her obvious wig…which was all anyone could talk about after this movie came out. Proof of late-stage re-shoots and a general lack of shits to give. Every time I see that mop, I sense a great disturbance through The Force. As if every hairstylist the world over is weeping in shared torment. Even as I weep for the former First Family of Marvel Comics.
Our Third Act begins when Reed fixes the teleporter and the DOD finds Doom, dragging him back to the lab since the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Cosmic-Rays have fused him to his encounter suit. And given him mind bullets. Cue telekinetic killing spree, which eventually claims Sue and Johnny’s dad, because of course my favorite actor in this piece has to die. Our Heroes obviously need a Personal Stake to power them through the Climactic Battle. Cuz a guy outright saying he’s going to destroy the world is just too…like…abstract, man…you mean, like, the whole world? Who gives a shit?
It’s all over too fast at any rate. Even if it didn’t look so cheap, there’s no time to ratchet the tension back up. In the end, the Four save our world from the Black Hole Doom just magiked up, cuz he can, by magik-ing it back into non-existence, cuz they can, cuz they’re name is the title (stupid number-for-vowel swap notwithstanding) The Military Industrial Complex tries to keep Shanghaing our newly mented super team, but Sue and Johnny (having recently inherited a tech company) tell the brass to fuck off. They themselves then fuck off to an out-of-town mountain stronghold where they can have one of those agonizingly twee conversations where someone casually suggests what their superhero name should be and then it cuts to the title before anyone can say it outright. Yea! It’s finally The End. Of an entirely traditional superhero origin story, circa 2007, when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was still the template for every origin story under the sun.
For once, I’m not being facetious. That’s really all there is to it. A company bought the rights to a Marvel property back when Marvel was a bankrupt shell, milked that property for what they thought was all its worth, and then squatted on it until an expiration date forced them to cobble together whatever ol’ bullshit they had. And then they cut it down to a length that would allow theaters to show it a maximum amount of times per day before word got out about how much it sucked. I’m having flashbacks to Green Lantern, Not-So-Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2…and, hell, even Catwoman.
I get that sense that some in Fox either don’t want to be in this superhero game anymore…or they’re content to milk the X-Men until Hugh Jackman keels over from dehydration. When Ben first sees the Mark II version of the teleporter, Reed describes it as, “Like ours, but more expensive.” And that’s probably what everyone who worked on 1994’s Fantastic Four thought when they saw this thing. It’s accurate.
And I’m sad…but still here, you bastard. What else you got?
Evil Me: An entirely typical superhero origin story, circa 2007. It even has an insect theme.
Spiders aren’t insects…oh, never mind…