[WARNING: spoilers and all that]
The road to Fantastic Four was anything but easy. Ever since its conception it’s been bombarded with hate from fans for a variety of different reasons; the cast is too young, it isn’t comics-accurate, the movie is too dark, Johnny Storm is too black – it got ridiculous. For a long while I was optimistic about it. I loved Chronicle, the found-footage superhero from director Josh Trank, and I knew it would be in good hands with him. He had assembled a great cast and Fox’s recent movie output is miles ahead from where they used to be. What could go wrong?
Apparently, a lot. The production of this movie was a complete mess from start to finish involving 40 pages of reshoots and a ton of controversy surrounding Trank himself, with THR publishing a big exposé regarding his conduct on set. Rumours continued to swirl and back in May he allegedly posted a huge, disparaging rant against Fox on 4chan which has since been deleted. He addressed all of this in an interview with LA Times and set the record straight, but there have still been dozens of reports that he was more than difficult to work with. Because of this and all the fan hatred, I don’t think the movie ever really had a chance of winning over fans, even if it was God’s gift to comic book movies. Unfortunately, it’s not.
It currently boasts a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which is just horrendous, although let’s get this straight: it’s nowhere near as bad as people say. It’s bad, yes, but it’s not 9% bad. That’s lower than the previous two Fantastic Four movies, Batman and Robin and Green Lantern. C’mon, that’s ridiculous. I’m pretty sure the score is that low because of the aforementioned fan hatred and the fact that it’s an easy movie to just jump on the hate-wagon of; a messy production? Abandoning the source material? An apparently absent-and-high director? Get the pitchforks out! If you want to go a little more in-depth with the alleged production problems then this video does a pretty good job of covering all bases.
The first act of Fantastic Four is good. It’s quirky sci-fi with this nice little 80’s coming-of-age vibe that is refreshing for a superhero movie and feels just a tinsy bit edgier (but not dark) than the comics. Most people seem to be saying the same things, and I’m guessing that that’s all Trank since it’s similar to Chronicle. If the film had kept that tone and style throughout then I think everybody would have really liked it. It was an enjoyable ride and the cast had a little bit of chemistry. The second act (well, there isn’t one) takes on more of a horror vibe which is really creepy and interesting. The scenes in Dimension Zero – which I’m gonna guess would turn out to be the Negative Zone in a sequel – were at times tense and scary, which isn’t really like the comics but for the purposes of this movie, it worked. It’s the third act that is fucking abhorrent, but more on that later.
Jamie Bell was sweet as Ben and Miles Teller was suitably smart and obnoxious as Reed, who also happens to be the only truly-fleshed-out character in the film. Kate Mara is quite authoritative as Sue which was an interesting departure from Jessica Alba’s portrayal; to be honest, if I was a member of the team then I would listen to her over Reed. Michael B. Jordan undoubtedly gives the best performance of the four as the rebellious badboy Johnny, bringing some much-needed charisma to the movie. It’s a shame that it doesn’t focus on him nearly as much as you’d expect. Toby Kebbell did well with what he had and managed to pull off being a dick, being a creep and being a fun guy all at once. Again, he doesn’t get an awful lot of focus (which is largely due to the 100-minute running time) which is a shame and he should have been in it more. However, it’s right about his introduction where you can tell that the road to this was a messy and convoluted one.
Victor von Doom appears to be some kind of fallen-off-the-face-of-the-earth Reddit anarchist given his appearance and the multiple computer monitors, but nothing ever really comes of it – which is a big issue when his entire motivation seems to stem from that. That was the original character in the film, but it got such a poor reception from fans that they changed him back from Victor Domashev to von Doom. I thought it was an interesting premise and update to Doctor Doom, but it really could have been expanded on. He makes some comment to Tim Blake Nelson’s government official about “waterboarding in the other dimension” and when he suddenly decides that he wants to destroy Earth at the end it’s because of the state of our planet and the need to start anew. In fact, these motivations make him fairly sympathetic; our world is fucked up and it’s the people working with the Four who are fucking it all up. If you had the power to change things and build something better, then wouldn’t you?
It’s stuff like that which could have made the movie great. Throw in his experience in Latveria and his hatred of America takes on a whole other level and makes total sense. Either through lack of expansion in the original script or meddling from Fox those parts didn’t come through at all – hell, this is all my own inference. That’s a major problem, and it’s not the only instance where this happens. Johnny seems to hold some ill-will towards Sue for some reason that isn’t ever really explained, although if I were to take a guess it would be because she was favoured more by Franklin Storm, his father, as the adopted child. This also only ever shows in one scene and is never mentioned again. Like, what?
There are even more script issues at hand here. While giving good performances, you never really get the impression that Reed and Ben are good friends. You don’t see any montages of them growing up together or chilling together talking about science; it’s just straight from meeting them to having them at a science fair where they’re scouted by Franklin and Sue. He’s even kind of a terrible friend since he just abandons him as soon as he gets his scholarship and then makes him come on some interdimensional adventure; if your buddy called you up to say all of that after not talking for weeks you’d be a little apprehensive. There was none of that family bond which is what makes the Fantastic Four, well, the Fantastic Four. Instead it was a bunch of guys thrown together for the sake of the plot, and even at the climax it doesn’t feel like any of them really like each other. There’s nothing “fantastic” about these characters, no matter what Reed would have you think from the ending.
I’m just gonna do a run-through of all of those script issues rather than making this a long review. Franklin really bugged me; Reg E. Kelley had personality in House of Cards but in this he’s very much a strict father figure, which we only truly see through scenes of his children yelling at him. His character is all over the place. One minute he wants to protect Johnny and Sue from harm, the next he seems perfectly happy with them being used as monkeys by the government, and then he’s back to wanting to protect them from the government. I wasn’t surprised when he died and it was an absolutely stereotypical death scene, complete with some “promise me” dialogue. It’s just weird how things like that can even make it into the final product.
Doom is ridiculously underused and the ending is rushed and crap. Tim Blake Nelson’s government character could have been ripped from a dozen other movies. Reed disappears for half the movie for some reason and then he’s the leader because that’s how it is in the comics. Why should they follow a guy who abandoned them to go and be a recluse in the forest and isn’t exactly the greatest leader to begin with? The Thing going on black-ops mission for the government felt weird because it didn’t seem like Ben would have agreed to that (although we didn’t really know anything about him) and the whole thing just came out of nowhere and there was no expansion of it. What did we know about Ben? He had a bad childhood and he got pissy with Reed. No character arc or development was there, unless you count him not being as pissy with Reed by the end of it. What did we know about Sue? She listens to music and is a pattern recognition analyst. That’s it. The movie is a structural mess, with the team only getting their powers something like an hour into the movie and then they only have half an hour left to cover two whole acts. It’s WAY too short and needed to be at least two hours, if not somewhere in the 130-minute range. Also, the Thing has no thing.
Right, glad that’s out the way.
Even without the reshoots and subsequent meddling from Fox, this movie is still dark as hell. The Thing’s famous line, “it’s clobberin’ time!” is what his older brother would say just before he beat him. I knew this going in and it still is a fucking stupid idea, making something light-hearted needlessly messed up. The colour palette is overly grey and gives the film a rather depressing tone which just seems so laughable considering this is the Fantastic Four. In terms of an adaptation, it was always going to be terrible, regardless of whether it was fully Trank’s vision which ended up on screen. For a long time it felt like he just wanted to make Chronicle 2 but was offered Fantastic Four instead and simply rolled them into one, but that evidently didn’t work. As a movie in itself that could have been great and I probably would have loved it but it would have been shit on even more by comic book fans.
The biggest problem, though? It doesn’t have a plot.
Think about it. Characters meet up and have to build the interdimensional portal thing, they go there, get powers, a year goes by and then Doom shows up and it ends. That’s not a plot. That’s just prolonged build-up to nothing. Everything cool about the team is basically cut out or left for a sequel, so if one were to happen then it might have a chance of being pretty decent. The thing is, we don’t know if this comes from the original script/movie or whether it happened in post-production. Josh Trank insists that it’s the latter.
And thus the truth is out. Trank tweeted this last night and quickly deleted it, although the internet never forgets things like this. For a long time he and other key figures downplayed all the production rumours and insisted that everything was fine, but this suggests that Fox ruined his version. I think we all knew this anyway, and even though I’m a supporter of the guy he’s biased towards himself. Anybody would be when you put your all your efforts into something for years and then it’s received so horribly and shit on the entire time. And if somebody from Fox speaks up then it’s going to be in defense of the studio, so the only way we’ll really know what happened is from a third party in a few months, like when Andrew Garfield confirmed that Sony screwed up The Amazing Spider-Man 2. C’mon, Miles Teller.
Regardless, I’m inclined to believe Trank. I keep saying that the studio involvement is obvious, but it’s also obvious that there’s a great movie somewhere that’s just been lost in a mess. There’s a ton of footage from trailers that didn’t even end up in the finished product, but aside from that the 100-minute running time and the one-year jump in the middle of the movie is telling that this is a film which has been hacked to pieces and re-assembled into something completely different. As soon as ‘One Year Later’ appeared on the screen I knew that that was probably never in the original script, and instead it was actual content and growth in powers and characters. Maybe it didn’t work – we don’t know, but evidently something fucked up. Like I said, the first act is pretty good and there are glimmers of hope in the rest of the movie; they’ve just been buried under everything.
I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t been a detractor of Fantastic Four in the past. Even on UTF I’ve written about how the movie will likely suck because the footage released and all the rumours didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, even though I still held out a little hope because of Chronicle. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I shook all of that off and realised Trank may not be as bad as he’s made out to be. Why? Well, we talked a little bit on Twitter.
He didn’t seem like some drug-fuelled lunatic like the press made him out to be – he seemed pretty cool. I’m not gonna pretend that I’m some kind of special snowflake because a director replied to me, but he was also interacting with some of the other fans on Twitter (including the hosts of Cut To: Podcast which you can listen to on UTF), something that usually doesn’t happen. Aside from that, I sympathise with him. He’s thirty-one years old which is very young for a director in Hollywood (most are in their mid-to-late forties) and stated in an interview with LA Times yesterday that he’s suffered from a lot of self-image issues growing up, as well as suicidal thoughts, which could have all added up to letting everything get to his head on this one. If you were managing a $150m movie whilst trying to battle pressure from dozens of studio suits and getting loads of personal hate from fans then you would probably crack. For some reason people are taking pleasure in shitting all over Trank – if you’re one of them, then why? None of us know him personally, and at the end of the day everything we’ve been hearing is just rumours. He’s a talented young director who has really had his work cut out for him on this movie and he’s probably not at his best right now, hence sending out the earlier tweet. I hope he manages to get back on his feet at some point and make some smaller, low-budget passion projects.
This review has been pretty negative, so you’d probably be surprised to know that I enjoyed myself a little bit. I went in with the lowest expectations imaginable and it was actually watchable, although how that happened with everything that went wrong I have no idea. Maybe one day we’ll get a director’s cut.
Fantastic Four sucks, but there’s stuff in there to enjoy and there’s hints of a better movie which is a tremendous shame. At the end of the day it’ll go down as one of Hollywood’s most troubled productions, and we await with baited breath for news about the film’s opening weekend and what Fox will do with the property. Will they cling onto it and suck it dry, or will the rights just go back to Marvel? Either way, I’m excited to find out what’s next, for the movie and for Josh Trank.