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Fantastic Four (2015)


For the third time in a decade, the heroic Fantastic Four find themselves squaring off against merciless forces hell-bent on destroying them. I'm talking, of course, about comic book fans and the squabbling mega-corporations vying for the characters' very souls. Not even Reed Richards could wrap his head (or arms) around the myriad factors that converged to net this film half the Tomatometer rating of Pixels.

The possibility that Josh Trank's reboot might actually be good was practically dismissed before it even began filming. Between venomous fan dissatisfaction over suit designs; the changing of a main character's ethnicity; and the fact that lead villain Dr. Doom (Toby Kebbell) would be a blogger instead of a Latverian tyrant, the Internet (or at least Disney/Marvel brand loyalists) gleefully anticipated this movie bombing on release--leaving Fox little choice but to sell the property to The Mouse House, like Sony did after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperformed last summer.

Fox, I'm sure, had planned to connect the FF with its two Marvel-licensed properties, X-Men and Deadpool, as an entree into their very own off-brand Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, they assumed everyone had forgotten who these characters are or what they do, and opted for yet another superhero origin story--thus risking audience alienation, increasing the likelihood of a flop, etc., etc. For the record, Trank's film is not bad (or at least not "8%" bad). It's just ten years too late.

In Tim Story's 2005 film of the same name (which starred, among others, Chris "Captain America" Evans), a team of scientists and friends falls victim to otherworldly radiation that gives them each unique abilities. One of the group goes insane and skulks off into the shadows, while the others practice using their powers inside a luxury condo. A few days later, the bad guy shows up in the street outside their building; challenges them to a quick fight; loses, and is wheeled off into the shadows as the credits roll. Structurally, Story's film was pretty boring, but the actors showed sufficient "Next Time, Baby" promise.

Two years later, in The Rise of the Silver Surfer, Story and his writers expanded their narrative by introducing the titular herald of Galactus, a planet-eating monster and scourge of the Marvel Universe. The film was a huge improvement over the original, but still felt too restrained to capture the awe of a decades-long series about interdimensional do-gooders (Doom returns; the magnificent purple-costumed god Galactus is re-imagined as a silent space storm). Rise fell short of financial expectations, meaning this incarnation of the team--a playfully bickering quartet of adventurers navigating a heightened four-color reality--would be mothballed indefinitely.

A year later, Iron Man kicked the door open to "real", interconnected Marvel films. The movie was so successful that it led to sequels, other hero stand-alones, and, eventually, The Avengers. Long before that point, Disney bought Marvel outright and began re-acquiring properties that had floundered as one- or two-shot wonders in the early 2000s (Daredevil, Punisher)--with an ultimate goal of one day turning these disparate comics properties into a unified celluloid playground. In the last eight years, comic-book movies and TV series have become so ubiquitous that it can safely be said an entire generation was been weaned on superhero origin stories.

This presents a two-pronged, near-unwinnable predicament for any non-Disney/Marvel superhero movie. We'll use Trank's Fantastic Four as an example:

1. Fox needs to separate their perceived disappointments (Story's films) with the new, cross-branded path they hope to kick off. To reach the widest audience possible, this means changing the film's tone and starting from scratch, narratively. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. Trank is definitely a great choice to take the helm, after having expertly upended the comics and found-footage genres with 2012's Chronicle. I was elated to hear he was attached to Fantastic Four, as his name signaled a unique take on the material, if nothing else.

Watching Fantastic Four, it's clear just how much of Chronicle's success was due to Max Landis' screenplay. Trank has very little to work with here--no surprise, considering his co-writers are mixed-bag maestro Simon Kinberg (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Days of Future Past) and recycling specialist Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect). It's unclear how much of which writer went into Fantastic Four, but the end product is a greatest-hits of every origin-story trope we've seen in the last decade.

We're lucky enough to hit some occasional bright spots: Dr. Doom's emergence in a military facility is surprisingly brutal and offers a glimpse at the edge that Chronicle had in spades; Richards (Miles Teller) makes a bold move, mid-picture, that takes the film into refreshingly uncharted territory for a few minutes. But by the end, we're left with another group of gifted beings squaring off against a CGI maniac who's just opened up a reality-destroying portal in the sky.

2. On a large scale, Marvel fans seem to have succumbed to brand blindness. They're so eager for Fox to lose its hold on Fantastic Four so that Disney/Marvel can "do it right", that they perch themselves atop the Internet for any prime (or even sub-prime) sniping opportunities. When reports surfaced that Chronicle's Michael B. Jordan would play Johnny Storm (aka "The Human Torch"), cries of political correctness rang out. "How can you cast a black guy to play Johnny Storm if his sister's played by Kate Mara, a white girl?" The answer, of course, is "adoption", but I wonder if this would have even been a point of contention had the Russo Brothers made the same announcement, working for Disney?

Another favorite was Dr. Doom's "blogger" status. Many a clever meme about Fantastic Four being "doomed" was born out of a line from the character description--a word that doesn't really apply to Victor von Doom in the cut and released film. A similar cacophony of whines went up when Trank and company discussed the FF having "containment suits" as uniforms. The final costumes are more traditional than the limited imaginations of weeping Marvelites would have led you to believe seven months ago.

The point is this Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon really needs to stop. On one hand, fans don't want to see the same old story played out over and over again (unless that story has the name "Robert Downey Jr." above the title); on the other hand, they jump all over rumors of any tweaks to their beloved canon that might suggest a bold, new direction. The continued harping, sight unseen, leading up to and past the film's actual release, conjures a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. For those that do venture out to see it are so bogged down with psychic baggage that every misstep is not only a shortcoming but an unforgivable sin that the "real" Marvel would never commit.

Trank and his scripting cohorts (abetted, likely, by their Fox overlords) didn't do themselves any favors by indulging in an over-long, overly familiar track-laying exercise. Fans would have killed for this movie in 2005, but there have been too many subsequent efforts that go this one better to describe it as anything but "old-fashioned".

I've spent a lot of time talking about the past, and very little on the present. That's because, based on these results, I'm not convinced Fantastic Four has a future. The special effects are good, not consistently great. The cast is comprised of terrific actors who mostly bounce around each other, rather than off each other. Jamie Bell is strong as Ben Grimm--until he gets swallowed up by CGI rock (he shares a similar fate with Kebbell/Doom); Mara is a virtual non-presence, which I can semi-excuse because her character becomes The Invisible Woman; Miles Teller is one of my favorite young actors, but he's too confident a performer to play the geeky outsider--not to mention a seventeen-year-old.

Like it or not, there's a generation of kids who will discover this Fantastic Four and adopt it as their own--not Tim Story's version, not Roger Corman's version, not even the comic books, necessarily. There's a chance that Josh Trank's wonky, compromised vision will prove (cinematically speaking) Stan Lee's axiom that "every comic is someone's first comic", and that the would-be franchise's troubled history will mean nothing to those for whom the sky-beam Doomsday Device is breathtakingly original. There's also a chance it will disappear and rematerialize in another decade. Whatever the case, it seems Fox, the fanbase, and, yes, the filmmakers have unwittingly conspired to make a time-displaced flop. Fantastic Four isn't terrible. It's just generic and handcuffed by uncertainty. I can say the same thing about the last few "real" Marvel films I've seen, though, so I guess it all boils down to which fantasy you choose to believe.

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