You may ask why I went to see Fantastic Four today with my 8-year-old? Given the positively dreadful reviews, it’s a reasonable question. First, some background.
I was actually mostly afraid Fantastic Four was going to be really good. Here’s why. At some point I will make the Madrona Heroes books into a series of films starring kids and young adults becoming superheroes. I will want Reg Cathey to star as present day Caleb Adams in these films. And of course, they will take place in Seattle.
Now Fantastic Four was nominally about a group of young adults becoming superheroes, Reg Cathey starred as the father figure in the film (and to a couple of characters the ‘actual’ father). And finally, the movie was directed by Josh Trank, director of the universally lauded Chronicle about kids getting superpowers in Seattle (which I still haven’t seen and won’t until I finish my final Madrona Heroes book as I don’t want it to affect my writing).
I realize it’s a bit of a mushy connection, but I very much didn’t want my books and the eventual movies to feel like an also-ran after a splashy Fantastic Four movie. Lucky me, and unlucky Fox and Josh Trank, there is absolutely zero danger of that. The only real danger at this point is not that everyone will look at my story as an also-ran, but that nobody will finance my film because they think it’s been tried. But given the approach I’m going to take, I’m not really concerned about that. If I have to rely solely on present-day style major studio financing to make the movie, then it will never happen anyway. Luckily we live in an age where there are lots of new ways to make things. :)
But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s get to this movie. First the good. And there were two good things about this film that I remember. The first was 5th grade Reed Richards. He was funny. I liked him. He was kind of clueless about other people. It was actually a really great start to the character. (I also noticed that Ben Grimm is Jewish which I had forgotten about the character. There was a really clear shot of the mezuzzah on the wall and the menorah on the shelf in his house as a kid.) The second thing that was good was when Victor Von Doom gave the standard superhero movie asshole bureaucrat/official the finger as he said a sarcastic “thank you.” It was atypical for a major superhero movie and I liked it. It made me like Victor. And I speculate that it’s that attitude that Josh Trank brought to the film — trying to make more realistic characters. (But as I mentioned above, that could have come from somewhere else as I have no idea and I haven’t even seen Chronicle.)
Now the bad. The most important thing you need to know about how little respect this movie had for its audience is that it felt the need for Reed Richards to confirm that Sue Storm was adopted given that she had an African-American brother and father. Duh. Does the film have so little respect for us that it thinks we need this explained? Does it think that we can’t handle an inter-racial family without some sort of explanation? That wondering how the hell caucasian Sue Storm could have a black father would distract us to the point of not noticing the rest of the movie? And if they were so desperate to deal with an assumedly racist audience’s desperate need for pat explanations for an inter-racial adoption, then why not make it part of the story? Why not see Johnny and Sue as kids? Why not develop those characters more? Who knows, perhaps that was in the original script and it got cut. No idea.
Anyway, things go down hill from there. The effects were not good. Especially the fire effects on Johnny when he first got his powers. It looked handdrawn somehow over him. So weird. Things were mentioned and then never mentioned again or barely mentioned. Could the Captain Nemo thing really not have been exploited for more thematic points throughout the film? I got that Sue found Reed using the reference, but that’s it? The whole Reed as explorer theme couldn’t have been more reinforced? And what about Ben Grimm being physically abused by his brother who is then smacked around by the mother? We saw it. And then it was gone. How exactly did that inform our view of Ben as an adult? Did Ben ever do anything as an adult that made us reflect on where he came from? Nope. Is it wrong to say that it was sexist that the main character with the least character development was the one female character? Not to mention the way she got her powers which seemed like an afterthought. Why not just have her come along on the initial mission? No clue.
And finally, the main problem with the film was that characters just did shit. And for the most part, I had no idea why.
- Why did Victor Von Doom want to destroy earth? Why wasn’t he happy to come home? Why was he even unhappy at the beginning of the film?
- Why did Victor say no to Franklin and then change his mind immediately? No idea?
- Why did Reed cooperate after he was captured? Hadn’t he spent a year avoiding everyone?
- And what the hell was Reed so intent on building down in Panama? No clue. He never mentioned it again.
- Why did Doom need to go to earth to set up his earth doom ray? Couldn’t he have done it from planet zero?
- Why did Ben Grimm forgive Reed Richards? One minute he was mad. Then he wasn’t. So confused.
- Franklin tells Sue that Johnny had it much harder than her growing up. Huh? Why? How?
- Did Ben Grimm have genitals made of stone? Did he eat? Go to the bathroom? This topic could have been a pretty great opportunity for some lighter moments in the film. SO MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS!
Even the way they came up with their name was decidedly lame. Just so uncreative.
And to the gossipy part of my brain, the real question is — why? Not why was the movie so bad in terms of what was poor in the film, but why did this happen? Who’s fault is it?
If I know anything about large corporations it’s that they have the ability to crush the creative spirit. They take independent artists and try to make them fit. Large corporations like safety, and predictability, and being comfy. Typically, independent artists don’t have the temperament to navigate those waters, satisfy the corporation, and still get to deliver on their artistic vision and in their voice. Some might, but they are the exceptions.
Of course the truth is, I don’t really know. I wasn’t there. And very few people know what really happened. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Maybe Josh Trank was a huge pain in the ass. Maybe it was justified. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was somewhere in between. Was Chronicle a fluke? Did Josh Trank not deserve credit for why it was good? Once again, this shit is very hard to figure out.
All I can base my guessing on is what ended up on screen. And from that it looked like there were plenty of attempts to build deeper characters early in the film that never followed through (Ben Grimm domestic violence, Captain Nemo, love triangle with Victor, Sue, and Reed, Johnny’s tough time growing up, etc.. That sounds like a film that was well-intentioned, but someone got to it and butchered it to make it fit some other vision. If I had to guess, at what happened, Trank’s biggest failing was at getting the executives at Fox to back his vision of the movie. Once he lost their confidence (or just pissed them off), the movie was (apologies in advance) doomed.