Bad in a host of different, seemingly-incompatible ways, Fantastic Four was the fiasco of the summer of 2015, and for once everyone was right: this film is garbage.
Directed by Josh Trank
Written by Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, and Josh Trank
With Miles Teller (Reed Richards), Kate Mara (Susan Storm), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm), Jamie Bell (Benjamin Grimm), Reg E. Kathey (Dr. Franklin Storm), and Toby Kebbell (Dr. Victor Von Doom)
Spoiler alert: moderate
It's amazing how quickly a talent can flash into life these days—just take a look at Joe Kosinki or Gareth Edwards, offered budgets approaching two hundred million dollars, with resumes that twenty years ago wouldn't have guaranteed you ten. But those are the success stories. Today's subject, sadly, has nothing to do with success. Just as amazing is how quickly a talent can burn itself to ashes, and that's been a theme of Hollywood since the beginning.
Josh Trank sprang upon the scene in 2012, with the well-regarded lo-fi superheroics of Chronicle. Three years and what amounts to maybe 60-80% of one full motion picture later, he was taken off his Star Wars movie under a cloud of "creative differences," not too long after he "finished" work on his reboot of Fox' Fantastic Four franchise. Now, it's a low thing to take delight in somebody losing their job. But on the basis of his sophomore feature, is there a reason why he should have one in movies?
(And, no: I haven't seen Chronicle. I have it on good authority that its handheld found-footage is about the last thing I would ever want to see, let alone pay for; whereas I can still stick my finger down my throat for free.)
I wouldn't give the director all the credit for a triumph, however, so I'm not about to give one all the blame for a failure—even if much of that failure reportedly resulted from a director refusing to do his job, manage his departments, and sometimes even show up. But no: one need only look at FF's uniformly terrible performances, or its bafflingly unimaginative production design, or what seems like several different bad scripts kludged together, to recognize that Trank was hardly working in the first instance with the most forgiving material. Above all, FF smells of studio interference. That scent grows stronger as it marches grimly toward a dissonant conclusion, becoming there a genuine stench. FF is akin to watching a guy in a $3000 suit give CPR to a corpse, only it's more awkward.
First, however, a brief history. This particular attempt to bring the self-styled World's Greatest Comics Magazine to the silver screen marks the third in a rather ignominious line of discrete FF film franchises. It began in 1994 with Constatin Films' infamous ashcan, Fantastic Four: The Movie, allegedly produced solely to keep the rights—and apparently never intended to actually be seen by anybody. As a business move, it certainly worked: Marvel paid some multiple of FF: The Movie's miniscule budget to bury the picture. Eleven years later, Fox had the rights, producing Tim Story's big-budget/real-movie version. It made money, even if today nobody will admit to liking it. In fact, it earned enough to spawn a sequel, The Rise of the Silver Surfer, but this sufficiently underperformed for the franchise to be put on ice. So it stayed, until history repeated itself: facing the lapse of their own film rights, Fox commissioned yet another FF.
And at this point we kind of have to wonder if these particular rights could possibly be valuable enough to spend millions of dollars to keep.
It is well-known, of course, that all of the previous FF movies are various shades of bad, although our current Hyperbole Culture does easily oversell how bad. Certainly, each previous film has something to recommend it—whether it's the 1994 film's charming adaptation of dumbassed Silver Age comics storytelling, or Tim Story's lightweight exercises in frivolity. Each, at least, is meaningfully and recognizably a version of the comic book called The Fantastic Four. Then there's this one, and while it's not truly unrecognizable, it tries so very hard.
We start with young schoolmates Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, the former a misunderstood boy genius, the latter a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Their fast friendship begins on the night Reed sneaks into the Grimms' junkyard for science project materials... and, so, not ten minutes in, we find ourselves rapped violently across the brow and face with Trank's utter mismanagement of tone, manifested in his mind-boggling visual and narrative choices, like the gray remorselessness of Matthew Jensen's cinematography or the forced squalor of the Grimm and Richards households.
You can't say that Trank never had a vision for his film. He makes it perfectly clear what that vision was, when he has Ben's white trash adult brother punch Ben right in the skull, hollering out, in the midst of upsettingly-staged abuse, the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing's iconically cheesy catchphrase, "It's clobberin' time!" The implication, naturally, is that the beaten child heard those words often enough that, as a grown man, he would finally claim them as his own. And no moment could more efficiently sum up this film's commitment to the concept we call "fun."
Turns out we all owe Tim Story a handwritten apology.
As Weezer did before them, Reed and Ben find refuge in the garage. There, they engage in kid's super-science, breaking whatever laws of physics stand in the way of getting their project to work. Five years later, they've succeeded, building a gateway to an alternate Earth that does, indeed, just barely work. A demonstration brings the boys to the attention of one Dr. Franklin Storm, a collector of smart children, and Storm quickly whisks Reed away (while for reasons that make no real sense, Ben is left to languish). We meet Susan and Johnny, Storm's children; they're also both prodigies, because this film is founded on a misunderstanding of what makes the character dynamics of the Fantastic Four work. We also meet the imperious foreign genius, Victor Von Doom. After approximately four hours—or halfway through this 100 minute film, it's hard to say—our teengineers complete a full-scale device, only to have their dreams of discovery ruined when Storm brings in trained astronauts to actually explore the unknown world that lay on the other side.
Piqued, the boys bring Ben back into the fold, taking an impromtu ride. They leave Sue out, naturally, because Trank's FF is somehow more retrograde than a comic written in 1961—or (and this is my theory), because the production designer and the director weren't speaking to one another, and during one of the many, many script rewrites, they realized that while Victor had to go with them, the prop had already been built with only four capsules. Fret not, though: Sue is standing outside the machine when things inevitably go wrong, finding herself likewise bathed in the weird sentient radiation that transforms her friends, and evidently kills Victor outright.
Now we leap forward, whereupon an entirely different, even worse movie begins, based upon the military's dual interests in the quartet's strange powers as well as the possibilities opened up by the teleporter. This new film is basically the laziest paranoid thriller ever made, so indifferently insisting upon the military's inherent villainy that it's not entirely clear that the four are actually prisoners at the eye-rollingly named "Area 52," except that Reed, in a panic over his metamorphosis, apparently sees a need to escape. The military co-opts Ben's rocky disfigurement and enormous strength for their black ops; but the dramatic conflict that actually plays out over the next twenty minutes is "will Johnny join the Army?" Trank clearly assumes that this would be terrible, without ever fully explaining why the man who can turn into fire and fly would not consider military service to be a career that matched his skills and temperament. Reed goes into hiding, trying to develop a cure, but his big brain never once consdiers simply going public with those stretchy arms of his—evidently solely because the screenwriters hoped you wouldn't think about that. Of course, it will be the only thing you'll think about, because the Fantastic Four are notably public superheroes, whereas Trank's FF—say it with me again!—is founded on a misunderstanding of what makes the character dynamics of the Fantastic Four work.
Thankfully (?), the military's teleporter rescues us from this boring story, by opening the doorway to an incoherent, stupid one. Doom returns, finally leading to the general kind of violent confrontation we go to superhero films to see, though it would be an undeserved compliment to FF to describe this battle as "too little, too late," since that would suggest it was the kind of effort that might've been adequate in another context. Instead, tacked on by the studio in reshoots, it's an impenetrable, ugly mess, powered by the gravest kind of filmmaking incompetence, possibly the worst action scene in any superhero film ever made—including the 1994 non-movie, which at least was bizarrely hilarious.
I realize I've been unusually detailed in my plot summary, but FF frankly invites it, virtually every moving part of it running headlong into some kind of serious logical, narrative, or conceptual objection. But the plot isn't even the worst of it: that's placeholder dialogue and the read-through delivery of it, given by a whole cast that appears to be on pain medication. When they do rouse from their stupor, which is rare, they shine only with contempt. Teller, especially, often looks like he'd rather be anywhere else, and you must pity him. But consider Kate Mara, who isn't even talented enough to think this is particularly below her—and you still can't bring yourself to blame her for her loathing of everything and everyone else around her. Michael Jordan probably comes the closest to giving a "good" performance, although FF sets an easy curve; Toby Kebbell, hamstrung by a fourth Fantastic Four script in a row that doesn't get Dr. Doom, flails; and Jamie Bell is just there. (Meanwhile, FF features the music of Philip fucking Glass, but the artist's general excellence meets its match in the feckless Marco Beltrami, who may never have delivered a fully satsifactory score in his career, and certainly isn't about to give us one now.)
From the broken pile of the film they released, you can nonetheless see the shape of what Trank hoped to achieve: a union of Joe Dante and David Cronenberg, 1980s kid's adventure mixed with 1980s body horror, Explorers meets The Fly. On paper, it's not even slightly an unsound idea. Why, body horror is the entire basis for Ben's characterization in the comics, while Cronenberg actually did make one of the greatest superhero films, calling it Scanners. So it's no accident that the only two parts of FF that are effective—discounting a neat time-lapse shot that stands out for being too charming and whimsical to work in a movie this sourpussed—are also the most unsettling. The most memorable image in the entire film sees Johnny, our old friend the Human Torch, unconscious and supine, appearing to be a corpse set aflame in the wake of our heroes' disastrous return through the teleporter. Later, Doom's PG-13-pushing ultraviolent rampage—indeed, even Doom's ridiculously unacceptable makeup—harken back to the horror of an earlier age, and, for that fleeting moment, FF becomes a slightly-glorious nightmare, letting you forget its hideous flaws as both an adaptation and as its own object.
The question is not, then, "How was Trank's vision compromised?", but rather, "Was Trank a giant idiot for ever thinking that Fox would actually let him make the film he wanted?" And the answer to that question is "Obviously"—especially when the film he wanted to make was surely distinct enough from the Fantastic Four that it never needed to be made in the context of a studio superhero franchise in the first place. Of course, it shall forever remain an open question whether Trank's movie would've been any good even if it had been something else—since even when the film that exists seems to be precisely the thing its director intended it to be, it still remains mostly very bad. In the end, unfortunately, the single biggest unanswered question about FF is why, this time, nobody suggested burning the prints.