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What the ‘FF’ is everybody’s problem?

by Thom Yee

Fantastic Four images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Fantastic Four images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

We live in a dismissive culture.

Deriding people staring at their smartphones.

Telling people their video games are a waste of time.

Throwing away our children’s’ comicbooks.

Locking all the doors and throwing away all the keys, whether we’re doing it consciously or simply as a reflex, because there’s surely nothing important on that screen, nothing to learn from video games, and no meaningful stories in comicbooks. There is only us and what we value, not you and yours, and when everyone says a movie is terrible, we pile on without care, without question, often without even witnessing, always so happy and only too eager to have found something new to reject.

Y’know how I know you haven’t seen Fantastic Four? Because Rotten Tomatoes told you not to see Fantastic Four. Because all you hear about it is what a box office disappointment it was. And because those numbers, beyond financial results and franchise implications, literally say that you haven’t seen Fantastic Four.

fantastic-four-three-cover

Witness the power of the Fantastic flying bath tub car! See the Fantastic costumes that probably should’ve been a part of the book from the beginning!

To Marvel Comics, the Fantastic Four is the first family, the world’s greatest comic magazine, the book that finally pulled them out of making monster comics and back into the superhero game, but it’s also a concept that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you break it down to its component parts. As much as it was one of the first modern superhero comics with characters and concepts meant to reflect the real world and what it would really be like to be given (or be cursed) with) superpowers, it’s very much mired in a ‘60s storytelling mentality where men were scholarly, adventurous science heroes who married beneath their age, women were secondary to the point of invisibility (in this case literally), ruffian best friends with hearts of gold outright told you when it was time to clobber things, and kid brothers tagged along on dangerous, unproven space missions without the proper cosmic-radiation shielding. It’s a comicbook that’s never quite managed to reach far beyond its first 100 issues by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and somewhere in the mid-‘80s it lost its title as Marvel Comics’ most important book to the X-Men (which in turn has more recently lost that title to the Avengers).

To Marvel Studios, the Fantastic Four is a Fox-owned property that it doesn’t want back as badly as it did Spider-Man, a vestigial piece that, but for a few related IPs (Galactus, Silver Surfer, maybe Kang?), it could take or leave, but is also a property it can certainly rest assured that no other studio will get right. That last bit alone is reason enough to hope that Marvel gets the Fantastic Four movie rights back from Fox sooner rather than later, however, because I don’t know if the brand (or the genre) can afford to take any more damage.

 What’s it about?

It’s 2007 and young scientific genius, Reed Richards, and his soon-to-be best friend, Ben Grimm, have found the final parts from Ben’s family’s salvage yard to build Reed’s teleportation device. Their experiment blows out the neighbourhood power grid.
It’s 2014 and the two now-best friends are ready to show their work to the public, drawing the attention of Professor Franklin Storm and resulting in Reed’s induction into the Baxter Foundation, a research institute for young scientific prodigies, where he meets Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and the mysterious Victor von Doom. Together, the four successfully build a machine capable of transporting people across dimensions, but catastrophe occurs on their first trip, leaving Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben infused with and transformed and Victor lost in the mysterious alternate dimension.
It’s one year later and as the four have adjusted to their new abilities and forms, the government shows every intention of weaponizing these powers and discoveries, but calamity ensues when their first trip back to the alternate dimension finds the now-insane von Doom ready to destroy the world.

 

I still think that first teaser looks bad ass, especially that pre-stretching cut of Reed thrusting forward that suggests that the movie might finally have found a way to make a superhero with stretching powers look cool.

This iteration of the Fantastic Four takes significant cues from the Ultimate Fantastic Four comicbooks first published in 2004 as an attempt (alongside “Ultimatized” versions of Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Avengers) to revitalize the core concepts in a contemporary, younger-looking, new-reader friendly, baggage-free setting. Of course over almost 15 years of publishing, eventually the whole Ultimate Universe turned into a baggage-heavy alternate universe continuity all its own, with increasingly subpar storytelling and artwork (except Ultimate Spider-Man which was really excellent all throughout and better at the end with the introduction of Miles Morales), where the Ultimate Fantastic Four in particular suffered, their story concluding with a team made up of Sue Storm, the Falcon, Machine Man, Iron Man, Phil Coulson, and Doctor Doom himself, Ben able to transform at will into a strange energy form and married to Sue, and Reed a demented, scarred, universe-shattering villain. But we won’t talk about that any more here (if ever).

Instead of a crazed, irrational story about a 40-year-old man taking his best-friend pilot, 20-something-year-old girlfriend and her teenage younger brother on a dangerous (and early) mission to space, we got a more grounded story about interdimensional travel for the new onscreen Fantastic Four, and that’s kind of too bad.

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Reed: “I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring my untrained young fiancé and her equally untrained and even younger brother along on the first manned space flight in human history, but we’re doing it because science! And commies!”

As much as 2004 was a time of shuttle disasters and right in the midst of the god-fearing, science-denying Bush-Cheney regime, our present 2015 is arguably more space-obsessed than its ever been since the ‘60s, with proposed missions to Mars, popular figureheads in Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chris Hadfield, and real-life genius billionaire philanthropists whose private companies build commercial space rockets, and it could’ve been amazing to see a Fantastic Four movie that took on the same sense of transdimensional space exploration that we saw in movies like Interstellar (though one would hope for a better ending than was in that particular film). Embracing or rejecting a space-exploration-centric premise is neither here nor there and entirely dependent on execution, but that’s definitely a take that would’ve flown in a 2015-era Fantastic Four.

Unfortunately, the stories surrounding this Fantastic Four are more fantastical than anything that was likely to make it to the screen, with tales of studio mismanagement and abuse, director breakdowns, and reshoots, reshoots, reshoots. Prior to the release of Fantastic Four, director Josh Trank’s only major credit was Chronicle, a story of three teenagers discovering strange telekinetic powers after exposure to an alien substance. I encourage you all to see it, and it’s my previous viewings (plural) of it that made me feel so encouraged when it was announced that he’d be directing our new Fantastic Four. Trank’s original vision of the Fantastic Four leaned much more toward the intimate and on the side of horror, specifically body horror and self-transformation in the same vein as Cronenberg’s The Fly, and that much is obvious when (or if) you watch this movie.

Is it any good?

Well no, not technically, but to frame it in the way it’s been publicly portrayed as an utter waste is to diminish what we ultimately get to and should be able to see. The tale of Trank’s Fantastic Four is a tale of two very different movies, one where Trank and his team put together a certain type of story and were given a budget for three separate action set pieces, and another where the studio seemingly set the director up for a fall by cutting that budget, forcing reshoots, and mixing together something entirely different. While there are never any guarantees, and while there exist stories of Trank’s on- and off-set instability, and while the director should never have expressed his concerns with the film in the public public manner that he did (if only out of professionalism and personal decorum), there’s some pretty clear studio interference in the movie that really does make me want to see what Trank and his team originally intended.

We all know who the real villains are — those sleazy Hollywood producers.

We all know who the real heroes are — those talented Hollywood producers.

If you watch the first half, right up until the “1 YEAR LATER” title card, there’s a decent, borderline good movie to be found. The story of young Reed and Ben and the formation of the group and its eventual nemesis is reasonably strong, and most importantly I believed in most of the relationships, in particular Reed and Ben’s friendship. There’s a moment where Reed messages Ben to show him how far he’s gotten at the Baxter Institute and his interdimensional transporter where you can feel the genuine pride Ben feels in seeing his best friend succeed, and it shows what an unselfish, caring person Ben Grimm is at heart.  It’s those character beats that allow the movie to take on a sense of identity and meaning.

Eventually Reed, Johnny, and Victor make the fateful decision to be the first to use the transporter, largely due to their misgivings over the inevitable government interventions with the technology (but also because they were drunk), and their trip, though a little unspectacular-looking considering what it represents, really does feel like a dangerous, dread-at-every corner sojourn into a world of equal parts opportunity and horror. Later, when you see the group’s initial transformations, you get a strong sense of what a horrible accident everyone’s been through, especially the shot of Professor Storm as he sees his only son literally on fire. When removed from a superheroic reality, that’s a strikingly horrific image that strongly embodies the type of pain no father ever wants to see his children go through. For me, the first half of the movie works pretty well, even without the benefit of bombastic superheroics, and even with its recognizable failings (more on that in a bit), I bought into a lot of the key emotionality of the movie, and that’s not an easy thing for a lot of movies to get right, superhero or not.

Just so we're clear, that kid wasn't always on fire, was he? I don't know, I got here late.

Just so we’re clear, that kid wasn’t always on fire, right? I don’t know, I got here late.

This seems like it might be a good point to address the feminist invalidation movement that’s sprung up from Sue Storm’s lack of inclusion on the trip. While it’s admittedly an odd choice for the group to leave Sue out and it is dismissive of her role on the team and, by extension, dismissive of women in media representation, I really saw it more as a compliment. I feel it’s a choice that shows that she’s the only one of the group that would never have done something so stupid, irresponsible, and ego-driven. Really, the more damning element of female representation in the movie is how little she’s given to do overall, but that’s a problem shared by pretty much everyone who’s not Reed or Ben. A lot of people have pointed to The Incredibles as a the Fantastic Four done right, but that movie has the benefit of being about a literal family rather than a makeshift one, and Sue Storm as the de facto mom figure of the group — where Reed is the father and Johnny and Ben are the kids — is a little hard to convincingly convey in a two-hour film, especially one where there are no actual kids and everybody’s approximately the same age. Still, I will concede that they could’ve made her a little bit more noticeable (and probably a lot more upbeat).

Just one question, Doom — where did you get that hoodie from?

I only have one question, Doom — where did that hoodie come from?

Doom, and therefore the last half of the movie, is where things really fall apart, particularly as the character becomes a blank slate with highly questionable motivations. Traditionally Doom has been a figure of pure genius and pure ego, and the combination of a lack of character work on the front half and a complete lack of character exploration on the back half really undoes the character. I actually kind of liked him in the first half and thought he was a decent fit with the team as a bit of wild card, but in his final form it’s unclear what his powers are, it’s unclear what happened to him in the other dimension, and it’s unclear what he wants other than to get back and be left alone (a thin motivation that’s then stretched into a desire to destroy the world). Like I’ve said all throughout this review, the Fantastic Four is a pretty silly, ‘60s-era concept and Doctor Doom is very silly to go along with that, and what a lot of people love about the character is also really hard to translate convincingly to the screen. Just like the idea of the characters coming together the way they do in the end, ignoring all of the direction of everything the movie lays down in its first half, failing that direction by not building on it to its logical conclusion, and drawing on character work that never actually made it onscreen to fill in the blanks.

What’s clear is that a lot of the movie was messed with and a lot of content, literal and emotional, was cut because Fox didn’t have respect or trust in its creators or its audience. There are several scenes cut even from the trailers, including the Thing’s drop from a stealth bomber, scenes with Ben playing baseball or Johnny working on his car that probably would’ve included key character moments, and Reed’s first confrontation with the transformed Doom where he tells Reed what’s coming (it’s “the answers”, by the way, answers we apparently didn’t need in the final cut). When you break down the story of the Fantastic Four into a real, coherent, and resonant story, you realize that it’s a story about the enormous guilt one man, Reed Richards, feels about what he did to the people he most cares about in his overzealous pursuit of scientific discovery, and even the scene that sells that idea, where Reed says “I just want to fix my friends”, is cut.

So should I see it?

Outside of a few questionable edits and some underserved characters, Fantastic Four’s first half mostly works, but it’s undone entirely by a last half that devolves into the dumb, empty, SyFy-level superhero movie that the first half so desperately doesn’t want to be. Trank’s vision was clearly ruined, and that should be obvious from the way the movie is cut and how much of a tonal departure its third act displays, and even if it was never going to be good, you should at least be able to recognize it for what it could have been rather than the through-and-through tragedy everyone would have you believe it is.

I’m not saying Fantastic Four is good enough to make sure you see it before it’s out of theatres (or ever), but the reviews would suggest it’s a catastrophe on the level of if not exceeding a Transformers movie, and that’s a conclusion that denies the promise the movie holds in its stronger moments and the intentions you should be able to detect from it if you were giving it a chance rather than dismissing it. Where a movie like Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction is a cynical piece explicitly meant to earn money in different world markets while satiating the shallow desires of an ego-maniacal director who’s discernibly mistrusting and ultimately disdainful of his audience, Trank’s Fantastic Four holds obvious strengths and a potential direction that seems like it was worth exploring. That we didn’t get to see his movie is the true failing and that should be the verbal coming out of the reviews, because it’s not all bad.

Thom’s Fantastic Four final score

2.5


On the Edge

  • WTF school was young Reed going to? The I-Hate-Reed-Richards-and-Want-Him-to-Fail School for the Ungifted? “There’s no such job as inventor, Reed! Where’s your flying car, Reed? Do the assignment over, Reed! I don’t see any science here, Reed!” That teacher was such a d*ck, even if he is the voice of Homer Simpson in his spare time.
  • The 1984 Japanese car of the year, the mid-engine legend, ladies and gentleman, it’s the first generation Toyota MR2 AW11!
  • Don’t they make, like, self-retracting mountain-climbing cables?
  • After the first accident, did they seriously not take any more precautions to avoid what happened to the first team that went through? The suits look the same and I don’t think they’re carrying much more equipment.
  • Of course like most men, and especially with the character’s lack of pants, it’s hard not to think about what happened to the Thing’s junk.
  • And don’t call me Shirley.

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