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Non-Review Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

The second scene of Fantastic Four opens on a shot of a red neon sign reading “Grimm”, panning down slowly to a scrapyard packed with exhausted husks of old vehicles that have long outlived their usefulness. If you were to reduce Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four down to a single shot, that would be it; the purest possible distillation of this hundred-minute effort to adapt Marvel’s (literal) first family to the silver screen. It is possible to make a good Fantastic Four film, even if the movies bearing the family’s name suggest otherwise; The Incredibles proved as much.

What is remarkable about Fantastic Four is just how thoroughly and meticulously the edges have been sanded down, replaced with a misshapen grey blob that wants to be X-Men or The Avengers, or anything but what it is. All the moving parts of the film are compelling on their own merits. This is the first studio effort from Josh Trank. It is a vehicle for Miles Teller. It has a soundtrack from Philip Glass (and Marco Beltrami). It features Victor Von Doom in an era when studios have demonstrated they are not afraid of comic book tropes and absurdities.

Fantastic finish?

Fantastic finish?

Fantastic Four effortlessly squanders just about all that good will in a ruthlessly efficient manner, a demonstration of how brutal a bad script and a cynical edit can be. Trank only fleetingly shines through, commandeering the film for about ten minutes in the middle. Miles Teller is reduced to an exposition machine. Any unique identifiers on the Philip Glass soundtrack are pared down for generic superhero movie bombast. The film is so concerned that the audience won’t take a character named Doctor Doom seriously that he’s barely in the film.

The most interesting aspect of Fantastic Four is the recurring sense that the characters themselves openly resent the direction that the project took. Sadly, even Reed Richards cannot stretch far enough to bend the film back into shape.

Clobbering time...

Clobbering time…

The Fantastic Four require no small amount of historical context. They were effectively the building blocks of the shared Marvel Universe. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, they were part of a new era of superheroic characters. They predated The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers. They were on newstands long before Marvel decided to resurrect Golden Age hero Captain America. Over the franchise’s half-century history, the cover to Fantastic Four has repeatedly claimed to be “the world’s greatest comic book magazine.”

However, the Fantastic Four existed in a very particular cultural moment. Superheroes had been very popular in the thirties and forties, with various companies rushing to emulate the surprise success of Superman in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. The characters boomed during this so-called “Golden Age”, but they faded into obscurity towards the end of the forties and into the fifties. Eventually, it was time for the characters to come back and make an impression on a whole new generation of youngsters.

Flame on...

Flame on…

The Fantastic Four were not the first of the new wave of superheroes. Appropriately enough, Barry Allen got there first. However, the Fantastic Four did manage to tap into the spirit of the moment. The comic first appeared almost a year into the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and it spoke to a generation looking to the stars in wonder. There were crazy scientists, mad inventions, exploration, wonder. The team’s origin was explicitly tied to the space race. Later, Reed Richards opened a literal doorway to his own “new frontier” when he discovered “the Negative Zone.”

The success of the Fantastic Four during the nineteen sixties was because they really spoke to that moment in the American consciousness. It could be argued that the team is so firmly tied to sixties idealism and utopianism that they never quite managed to reach the same level of cultural import as they did in that initial run. There have been great stories featuring the characters since, but none that can quite challenge those original one-hundred-odd issues for sheer relevance and impact.

Suit up...

Suit up…

There is a reason that the team has proven difficult for Marvel. Early in the new millennium, when Marvel attempted to reintroduce their iconic characters via their “Ultimate” line, the Ultimate Fantastic Four proved the least critically and commercially successful of the attempts. (It was also the shortest-lived.) The difficulty adapting the team into film is legendary. The Fantastic Four brand is so tangential to Marvel’s modern publishing regime that there is actually no Fantastic Four comic on the stands to mark the release of the film.

There are some conspiracy theorists who suggest that this is simply an attempt on the part of Marvel to spite Twentieth-Century Fox, but those paranoid individuals can rest assured that Marvel’s X-Men and Deadpool lines won’t be going anywhere next year during the blockbuster reigns of those particular Fox properties. While characters like the X-Men became more relevant with time, and while characters like Spider-Man retained their relevance over time, it seemed like the moment of the Fantastic Four had passed.

All hope lies in Doom...

All hope lies in Doom…

At the same time, there is an argument that there has never been a better time for a Fantastic Four resurgence. The last decade has seen an incredible reengagement with sixties iconography and imagery. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek demonstrated that cult sixties properties would be eaten up by the masses; Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar yearned for a return to sixties optimism; there is a reason that the soft reboot of the X-Men franchise began with a trip to the sixties with X-Men: First Class.

Nostalgia for the sixties are absolutely everywhere at the moment. How often has Barrack Obama been compared to John F. Kennedy? Arguably even Mad Men constitutes an examination and exploration of this nostalgia, suggesting that the sixties were not as romantic or idealistic as many people would want to believe. If there ever was a moment for the Fantastic Four franchise to jump back into the spot light, this is it. Hiring a hungry young director and a great young cast is the perfect way to approach the premise.

Music to her ears...

Music to her ears…

Unfortunately, Fantastic Four lacks the courage of its convictions. “From the studio that brought you X-Men: Days of Future Past,” promise the posters to the film. That would seem to be the sentiment that the film is pushing. This is not a movie from the director who brought who Chronicle, this is a very carefully and meticulously crafted piece of brand synergy that is already moving towards a massive cinematic crossover with the X-Men. When you don’t have jelly, you have to settle for a peanut butter and ham sandwich.

The familiar X-Men elements abound. Gone are the colourful blue uniforms associated with the team, replaced with black jumpsuits that look like they came from the year 2000. Our heroes are not world-leading scientists and explorers, but a bunch of kids who are turned into freaks and forced to fight to protect a world that would probably fear and hate them if it had a chance to know them. Towards the end of the film, the script affords Doctor Doom nebulous superpowers that manifest themselves a little bit like those of Magneto.

Bit of a stretch...

Bit of a stretch…

Tim Blake Nelson shows up as Doctor Allen, conspiring to turn these young children into weapons; apparently Brian Cox was too busy to reprise his role from X-Men II. Scenes are borrowed almost wholeheartedly from Fox’s most successful superhero franchise. At one point, Reed Richards shares a long commute with his former (and somewhat jaded) friend Benjamin Grimm, who has found himself cursed through transformation. “Does it hurt?” Reed asks innocently. Grimm avoids answering, “Every time.”

Of course, X-Men is not the only superhero movie franchise that is mercilessly ransacked for anything of value. At one point in the middle of the film, Reed Richards goes into hiding in Latin America; he manages to avoid Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner. The climax steals quite blatantly from The Avengers, with a giant portal opening between worlds as our heroes attempt to stop the destruction of Earth. Fantastic Four is shrewd enough to avoid setting its climax in New York, but it still trades in 9/11 imagery.

Space out...

Space out…

With all of this mimickry taken place, how much room is left for the Fantastic Four itself? Very little, it turns out. As much affection as the film can muster for other superhero movie franchise, it spares none for its source material. The script’s most obvious cues come from Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar and Adam Kubert’s work on Ultimate Fantastic Four, the flawed attempt to modernise the family that ultimately decided to turn Reed into a supervillain. It feels like a rather strange source of inspiration when there is so much source material to draw upon.

(Quite a lot of the smaller story choices in the film can be traced back to the first arc of Ultimate Fantastic Four: the design of Reed’s teleportation device, the use of teleportation as a plot device, the inclusion of Doctor Doom in that initial experiment, even Ben’s first real conversation with Reed following their transformation. That said, there is a reason that Ultimate Fantastic Four never spawned the same level of interest and sequels asthe other contemporary modernisations of core Marvel properties.)

Pulled apart...

Pulled apart…

The nods that do exist to stories outside of Ultimate Fantastic Four are mostly winks and nudges – the phrase “clobbering time” appears twice, while “Doctor Doom” is applied in an ironic fashion in a piece of throwaway dialogue. (Although those white space suits might be a shout out to Jonathan Hickman’s Future Foundation.) In fact, the film’s reluctance to actually embrace its roots becomes a delightful cruel punchline in the final scene; it seems like Fantastic Four‘s reluctance to embrace its own identity is almost absolute. (Even the posters and branding get in on the joke; although FANT4STIC is probably quite difficult to pronounce.)

Even the words “negative zone” are glossed over in the film; the script cannot bring itself to use the hipper less goofy abbreviation “n-zone” that Bendis and Millar employed during their own reimagining of franchise. Instead, the deathly serious “planet zero” is used to refer to a plot element that serves the exact same function and purpose as the traditional “negative zone.” In fact, the movie goes out of its way to assure viewers that nothing too ridiculous will happen. Doctor Allen certainly isn’t turning into Mole Man any time soon.

A light at the end of the tunnel...

A light at the end of the tunnel…

Fantastic Four seems almost deathly allergic to colour. The film is dark and grim and desaturated. There are lots of browns and greys and blacks; the only blues that appear for extended periods of time are so dark as to practically be black. There are brief flashes of green, but even those are tightly regulated. There is apparently only so much colour that a frame of Fantastic Four can support. This aesthetic works well for characters like Batman or the X-Men, but it is ill-suited to characters who thrive in colour, like Superman or the Fantastic Four.

The most interesting aspect of Fantastic Four is how openly contemptuous the cast seem to be towards all of these elements. The characters at the heart of Fantastic Four seem to resent the film that was built around them. At one point, Victor discusses the way that memory works. Nobody remembers the people who designed the rockets; they only remember the people who went to the moon. It seems like nobody remembers what made Fantastic Four such a popular comic book; they only remember what made X-Men such a fantastic comic book film.

Signs of visible stress...

Signs of visible stress…

Towards the end of the film, Reed Richards is confronted with what the military have done to his work. He studies it for a moment before offering a conclusion. “You made it ugly,” he suggests. He could just as easily be talking about the aesthetic of the film. Shortly afterwards, Victor grows angry and frustrated with the fact that the powers that be could not simply leave him alone. “You had to come back,” he reflects, contemptuously. He might as easily be talking to the Fox executives unwilling to let the Fantastic Four property simply be.

Appropriately enough, colonisation and expansion are key themes of the film; perhaps a wry commentary on how thoroughly the script to Fantastic Four has been “colonised” be elements of more successful blockbuster franchises. The leads are actively searching for worlds that might provide resources to sustain their own planet. It is consumption rendered on a galactic scale; one world is not enough. The X-Men franchise is not enough, so it must consume all around it.

"We've got an entire franchise planned..."

“We’ve got an entire franchise planned…”

Of course, it is debatable just how aware Fantastic Four is of this irony. There is a very strong jingoistic theme running through it. Johnny Storm repeatedly identifies Victor by generic foreign names like “Adolf” or “Borat.” The fact that Victor is not German or Kazakhstanian does not matter; he is not American, and thus “other.” Victor is contrasted with the other immigrant in the cast, Susan Storm; Storm has completely assimilated, taking an American last name and completely losing her accent. To say nothing of Reed’s decision to plant an American flag.

More than that, the film absolutely mangles the character of Victor Von Doom. Fox has repeatedly struggled to adapt Doctor Doom into film, which seems ironic given his status as one of the best comic book villains in the history of the medium. Translating Doom to film is not a matter of faithfulness or fidelity; it is possible to be too faithful to the source material, after all. It is about understanding the fundamentals of why a particular character works, and how to make them work in another medium.

Explorers in the fourth dimension...

Explorers in the fourth dimension…

Doctor Doom does not endure because of Doomboots or green capes or any other trappings. Doctor Doom endures because he is the very definition of a comic book super villain. He is larger than life; he is hammy; he refers to himself in the third person; he makes stupid decisions based on pride. Yes, a lot of the superficial trappings reinforce these core ideas, but the reason that Doctor Doom has become one of Marvel’s best villains is because he is – along with the Joker or Lex Luthor or Magneto – a quintessential archetype of what a comic villain can be.

Fantastic Four goes completely out of its way to misunderstand everything that makes Doom unique and compelling. Doom is no longer an operatic character played in epic fashion; the film attempts a half-hearted romantic triangle between Victor and Reed and Susan. Fantastic Four plays Doom as an anti-authoritarian hacker, which seems like a rather strange choice when dealing with a character famed for his own authoritarian dictatorship. (It also puts Doom in the curious position of being right for most of the film.)

No more worlds to conquer...

No more worlds to conquer…

Fox actually got very lucky when it came to the distribution of iconic Marvel characters. One of the biggest problems facing Marvel Studios in establishing their shared universe has been the difficulty in finding suitable or compelling villains; there are only so many times that Tony Stark can fight an evil industrialist making technologically-enhanced super soldiers. This is because the best villains got sold to Sony with the Spider-Man license and because Marvel ended up with both Magneto and Doctor Doom.

The X-Men franchise has done quite well with Magneto, casting two amazing actors in a role that really demonstrated the potential for large-scale tragedy within the superhero genre. The opening sequence of the first X-Men was a milestone for the genre, using Magneto’s origin story to demonstrate the comic book movies could be more than camp classics. With great work by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender, Magneto has arguably been affirmed as one of pop culture’s great anti-heroes.

Take it as Reed...

Take it as Reed…

The problem that Fantastic Four has with Doom is quite simple; Doom is not an anti-hero. Doom is a villain who might aspire to be an anti-hero in his own internal narrative. There are elements of tragedy to certain interpretations of the character, but they are not as fundamental to his character as those that drive Magneto. First and foremost, Doom is a villain. He is silly and ridiculous, but that is the charm. Adaptations of the Fantastic Four have repeatedly demonstrated a reluctance to embrace that ridiculousness.

To be fair, there are moments of Fantastic Four that come close to working. Those are the moments that feel at once least generic and also closest to the spirit of the source material. There is an interesting middle section of the film that chooses to play the transformations as body horror. There have been shapes of this before, particularly in the Spider-Man adaptations and the X-Men films, but never to this extent. It feels like Josh Trank is channelling the work of David Cronenberg, and gives the film a unique flavour – however fleetingly.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

(It also plays as something of a short and understated homage to the source material. In keeping with the idea that Fantastic Four #1 founded Marvel universe, the title characters début in a manner more appropriate to a horror story than a superhero origin. There is something decidedly uncanny about the way that Lee and Kirby introduce Reed, Susan, Johnny and Ben to the audience, emphasising the creepiness of their powers and the uncomfortable reactions of those who happen to be standing nearby.)

Perhaps the most interesting change to the film – and the one that actually integrates most effectively with the themes of the source material is to make Susan and Johnny Storm adopted siblings rather than blood relatives. Not only does this allow the production team to cast the woefully underused Michael B. Jordan, but it also plays into the themes of “found family” that have defined many iterations of the Fantastic Four. At its core, the Fantastic Four is family brought together by chance or fate rather than by biology.

Cooking up a Storm...

Cooking up a Storm…

Still, these elements  are drowned out by everything around them. In the opening scene of Fantastic Four, Reed Richards explains that he is working on a teleportation system that will change the future of mankind. Apparently he abandoned his initial plans for a flying car. Maybe he should get back to them.

14 Responses

  1. “Nostalgia for the sixties are absolutely everywhere at the moment”

    Paul Mavis said, “TV romanticizes everything by its very nature.” Well, I definitely see a nostalgia for the fifties. You know, we had stolid, dependable Don Drapers who would do anything, from running a fortune 500 company to fixing a sink. Even The Incredibles was about a faded golden age.

    The sixties is where everything went very wrong. The supermen were forced to assimilate, and make way for the Syndromes and Pete Campbells.

    (I don’t agree with that sentiment, I’m just echoing what I, as a kid, was taught about the sixties. The sixties actually have a really bad press, partly because the establishment hasn’t quite managed to beat back all the progressive gains of the decade, but also because of SJWs and third-wave feminists who have monetized what used to be a grassroots movement.)

    Sorry about that tangent Darren. 🙂 Love your review.

    • Interesting.

      Maybe it’s a geographical thing; Ireland has only recently come to embrace liberalism in the last decade or so,so maybe that’s why I get a sense of yearning towards the romantic imagery of the sixties. We were always taught that the idealism of the sixties was defeated and commodified, trodden down by the grim authoritarianism of the seventies. Of course, as with any one-sentence summary of an era, it is a grotesque over-simplification of a vastly more complex reality. But I think pop culture’s sixties icons are Kennedy, Kirk and the Fantastic Four as drawn by Jack Kirby. In contrast to Vietnam, Nixon and generic earthy tones. (And again, that involves ignoring the fact that Vietnam was itself a product of and a major part of the sixties.)

      As an aside, while I tend to imagine the sixties as hyper saturated high definition imagery, the seventies always look like fuzzy desaturated television pictures.

      • I really liked your analysis of Inherent Vice. For an Irishman you have a good grasp on seventies America.

        Frank Zappa said we owe more, culturally, to the seventies than to any other decade. It was a time of freedom but also of a renaissance of public relation..

      • Thanks for the kind words, Ed!

  2. Great review, even if the movie sounds depressing. Another ‘Man of Steel’ it seems.

    Also, Magneto an ‘anti-hero’? If so I think that’s nearly entirely thanks to the gravitas of his actors. I re-watched the first three ‘X-Men’ films sometime ago and I was surprised how much of a jerkass Magneto actually is in them. It’s not that he’s a villain, obviously we expect him to do villainous things, it’s that he’s a weasel, a coward and a phony who constantly sacrifices others for his goals while being careful to avoid the risks himself.

    That’s not to take away from the great performances of Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender but I am bemused how many people seem to view the character as admirable.

    • On the Magneto thing, I suspect it depends on how loosely you define “anti-hero.”

      Maybe sympathetic antagonist is closer; there’s a sense that he is at least understandable in some of his goals – if not in extreme, and certainly not in his methods. But I think you’re right, a certain amount of that is down to McKellen and Fassbander. (I’d also credit Chris Claremont, who doesn’t get enough credit for his contributions to mainstream superhero comics.)

      (There’s a great quote from comic book writer Grant Morrison, who adopted a strong “Magneto is an unambiguous villain” line in his work, basically saying, “What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen, is a mad old terrorist twat.” I’m as guilty of that as anyone; and I say that adoring Morrison’s work, which was quite… polarising… to long-term fans.)

      • Yeah I love that quote. 😀

        I should say I think Magneto – especially in the movies – is a very fun character which is maybe why people inside the universe and out get caught up in his myth.

        For me the signature scene for (movie) Magneto is in the first movie when after Erik talks about sacrificing Rogue for the greater good of mutantkind Wolverine awesomely calls out Magneto on not being willing to sacrifice himself. It was a great way to puncture Magneto’s… um… mystique, that for all his supposed high mindedness he’s actually a bit of a coward and phony, always ready to let others throw down their lives for his grand design.

        (It is actually very similar to the in-universe regard of Dr. Doom – being percieved as a grandly tragic villain is almost as good as being percieved as a hero and far better than being revealed as a small and petty man.)

      • Yep, the first X-Men makes Magneto a clear villain in an unambiguous fashion, although I think the second softens him a bit by adding Stryker. (Sure, you get the attempted genocide at the end, coupled with the use of his best friend as an instrument of genocide, but Magneto is arguably more useful than any of the actual “heroes” in solving the crisis.) But you’re right.

  3. I have yet to see this film, but it has a lower score than Batman and Robin on Rotten Tomatoes, and I refuse to believe it is that bad.

    • Batman and Robin has a certain camp appeal. (I actually prefer it to Forever.) Fantastic Four is so grim that it barely has a pulse. Which is a shame, as I was looking forward to it.

  4. You write realy very nice about this movie. You give many unknown information. I love this movie very much. The previous part of this movie was fantastic. So I think this part will be owsam. I am waiting for this movie.
    For more information about this movie visit this blog

  5. Great article, always happy to appreciate the work of my fellow Irish men. This film is oddly bad full of half assed ideas and an AWOL second act. Also if your gonna reference Latveria then why not go the whole nine yards and have the real Doctor Doom.

    • Thanks. I think the biggest reference to Latvaria was an insert shot of his resumé/CV, possibly? (I’m not sure, though.) It could have been a last-minute edit into the film.

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