Film Review: Fantastic Four (PG-13) 20th Century Fox

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Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell (Twitter)

Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell (Twitter)

2015_Fantastic_Four_PosterSomehow the world got together and decided that the newest version of Fantastic FourMarvel comics’ super hero team, was the absolute worst film of 2015 (so far). Review after review has found critics tripping over themselves in an attempt to out slag one another about just how truly awful 20th Century Fox’s newest reboot is. Industry sites have made a big deal out of how supposedly difficult director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was to work with, repeating this over and over again in reports on how the film fared at the box office (nearly $27 million, but a far cry from the $40-50 million many assumed). The spin on how bad Fantastic Four is assumed to be has now become it’s own vehicle of perpetual motion. A few state the film stinks, others pick up on it in a hive mind sort of way and then it becomes fact, influencing people who go see it that it’s not good and worse, convincing many more to not bother seeing it at all.

I want to delve into the rumors that have surrounded the film, but let me first tell you that Fantastic Four, while not being among the very best super hero films ever made, is certainly a pretty damn good film. It’s also a unique super hero film in that it doesn’t follow every single beat and stroke that many super hero films have begun to fall into. As great as Marvel is, their plot patterns are beginning to wear thin. I liked Ant-Man enough, but so much of that film felt like the writing was by template, rather than anything original.

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Fantastic Four director and co-writer Josh Trank (Collider)

Awhile back, in a pretty interesting interview with Collider.com (which was done alongside writer/producer Simon Kinberg, I might add) Trank referenced David Cronenberg as a specific inspiration and his films Scanners and The Fly as inspiration for Fantastic Four‘s look and design. You definitely see The Fly‘s influence in the lab set and in the transformations the team goes through. Scanners comes in towards the end in a bit of horror that actually will jolt you considering the film is rated PG-13. The whole point of this reboot was to be more grounded, to treat the powers gained realistically. And though you can tell that some of the film’s “meat” was cut out (more on that later), you still can see everything that Trank and his co-writers were getting at.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a super smart kid that somehow figures out how to send and bring back physical objects to another dimension (though he assumes that he’s only sending them to another part of Earth at first). He’s found at a school science exhibit by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, turning in the film’s finest performance) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara, reminding me of Nancy Sinatra with her blond hair). Storm offers Richards a full scholarship to the Baxter Institute where Richards, along with Sue, Viktor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) and Storm’s hot head son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, one of the best young actors working today), work together to make inter-dimensional travel a reality.

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Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Sue Storm (Kate Mara) in a scene from Fantastic Four (Comic Book Movie)

Once they send and bring back a chimpanzee, Tim Blake Nelson, as a smarmy, gum chewing government rep, declares that NASA will have to be brought in so that qualified personnel take the first human trip. This doesn’t sit well with Reed, Viktor and Johnny, and, propelled by booze and Viktor’s persuasion, the three, along with Richards’ childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), decide to, in essence, take the car out for a drive while daddy’s not home.

Remember, these are young people. Teller’s Richards is no more than 18 years old. These are all smart, impulsive, excitable kids. The film handles this whole set up so perfectly because it’s highly intelligent people that do not like the idea of not being the first people to use the technology they created. So they do what kids do, they make a giant mistake and there are dire consequences for it. They are forever changed from the experience and one of them doesn’t even survive…or so they think.

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Michael B. Jordan and producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg on the set of Fantastic Four (Collider)

Trank’s film, even if it was gutted by Fox, is an interesting and involving film. Von Doom’s character is intriguing because he represents a facet of youth that doesn’t trust the government and feels that perhaps the world’s ultimate “doom” is warranted for what we’ve done to the Earth. He’s already a bit of a twisted character and his corruption on the other planet is understandable. He’s consumed by the energy that changed the four other characters, but he was also left (unknowingly) alone on a foreign planet for an entire year, which only fuels his twisted psyche.

Ben Grimm / The Thing (Jamie Bell) in Fantastic Four (Crave Online)

Ben Grimm / The Thing (Jamie Bell) in Fantastic Four (Crave Online)

Ben Grimm is changed into a hulking block of rocks and abandoned by his best friend. His hope is that those that are asking him to take care of sensitive government conflicts will actually try and cure him. But after a year he knows a cure is not coming and that his life is just reduced to being a brute, something he tried to avoid after being tormented by his older brother as a child

People’s primary complaint about Fantastic Four is that it’s all set up and no pay off. It’s not an incorrect statement, but I think the problem is that people are being trained to expect big “pops” every 20 minutes and, when they don’t get it, they begin getting twitchy. One of the bigger problems with perception on this film seems to be in the marketing and the assumption that it would be like all of the other super hero films. And, while there are certainly amusing moments, this isn’t as comic as the other Marvel films have been. It’s seriousness feels more in line with what Warner Bros. is doing with their DC properties.

As for that ending, yes, it’s problematic and needed something more, but it’s not the worst ending I’ve seen in a superhero film (I kind of want to say Age of Ultron is, but I’m sure there are worse). But there’s no indication of what it used to be since the trailers all show the end conflict that’s in the film there as well. The main missing part from the trailers appears to be Grimm’s military missions, something that is only shown in filmed footage during a meeting.

Fantastic Four (This Is Film)

Fantastic Four (This Is Film)

So Collider recently ran a video piece where John Campea, someone who isn’t known for discussing rumors unless he has sources to back it up, stated that it appears that Fox, Trank and the producers had agreed to a script, a budget and everything else when, days before filming was to start, Fox demanded three major action set pieces be removed from the film to, ostensibly, cut the budget. Right there is everyone’s complaint about the film! What would have probably guaranteed a huge box office win was scuttled by the studio.

Then there were rumors of Trank being “difficult” on the set, which may be true, but it seems that almost all directors can have this put on them at one point or another. There was also talk, reported by the Hollywood Reporter, about Trank supposedly damaging the house he stayed in during filming. No clue how or why that is part of the discussion or what the damage even was, but that it somehow totaled $100,000 and was caused by Trank’s little dogs, something that Trank, in an LA Times joint interview with Kinberg, again at his side, said was “crazy” and “not true.” The interview came about because Kinberg and Trank were set to work together on a Star Wars spinoff film, but Trank had left it, with most assuming the Disney/Lucasfilm folks were put off by the rumors and kicked Trank off of the film.

Kinberg and Trank both state in this interview that Trank just wanted to do a smaller film after tackling Fantastic Four as the reason for his leaving. Whether or not this is damage control or not will be open for speculation, but it seems as if Kinberg and Trank are still on friendly terms, “Simon and I have become closer friends through this,” Trank states in the interview. Kinberg had this to say about Trank’s treatment: “This, I would say, is particularly cruel. I haven’t really seen this level of vehemence against a filmmaker. And it’s surreal and unfair.”

Kinberg was still defending Trank the week of the film’s release, which EW, in the most comprehensive reporting of the different rumors and discussion, wrote about  on August 6 and updated over consistently over the weekend.

From EW: “What I do think we had was a very young director making a very big movie. And a director that, for whatever reason, people were either rooting against or his personality troubled the press. So it just got viewed differently than any other movie that’s a tough movie. We came in on schedule, under budget, [with] a movie that was pretty true to the original intent of the film. Whether people like it or not, it was his vision, which was a more grounded, a much more real version of Fantastic Four. Was it an easy production? No. Was it harder than a lot of the movies I’ve been on? No. But I may also have a higher threshold. I think there was something about Josh’s identity that made him a good target. I’m not sure what that is.”

Toby Kebbell as Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four (The Critical Critics)

Toby Kebbell as Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four (The Critical Critics)

The story came on the heels of Trank tweeting the following on August 6:

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Presumably, Trank is not referring to a “director’s cut,” but rather the original vision and script that he, Kinberg and Jeremy Slater wrote, since principal filming only ended about a year ago. Unless he had a work cut assembled in that time. Regardless, Trank deleted that tweet but enough key people grabbed a screenshot of it that it’s now become a big to-do.

ff_imdbIt’s weird, someone dropped the ball on this big time. All signs ultimately point to Fox, as they should have protected Trank and the potential franchise, which is needed for Fox to keep control of the series. The PR on this film has been handled terribly and obviously someone should have done better damage control with what either did or didn’t happen during filming. Not sure how people can keep their jobs when they handle films this poorly.

Fox delivered two extremely shitty, silly films from director Tim Story that, despite how crappy they were, actually made a ton of money. For critics to say that Trank’s film, one that dares to have a more original take on the material, is somehow worse than the ones Story put out is laughable. Trank’s Fantastic Four doesn’t need to spell everything out to make it clear what’s going on with the characters. You don’t need a ton of back and forth about why Johnny resents his father. It’s obvious that Cathey’s character has devoted his life to science and that he only wanted his son to be there with him like his adopted daughter is. Critics asking for more from that would probably be put off if the film detoured too far away from the main plot. So we get the beats of who these characters are and it’s easy to figure out what’s happening and the plot is advanced. It’s simple! I’m at a loss to figure out what critics have been thinking on this one.

Personally, I would love for Trank to be able to assemble a director’s cut, but I have to imagine that ship has sailed after that tweet got out there. I hope I’m wrong. I’d also love for Fox to greenlight a sequel with these same four actors, who are actually all pretty perfect in their roles, and Trank as the director. Maybe someone can just suck it up over there and pull this together. Get everyone into a room and say, we fucked up, we’re going to do right by all of you on the next one.

But if this is it for the Fantastic Four, in about a decade Marvel will get the rights back and be able to do something with it. Maybe that’s what people would like to happen. I for one want to see a sequel. Hell, I’d love to work on the damn thing. Consider this me throwing my hat into the ring, Fox.

Update: Collider has a brief video of behind the scenes footage showing Trank and the actors interacting on set (he and Mara have a rather nice exchange, so I wonder about this rumor about Trank being cold or abusive towards her) as well as some crude vehicle that Reed Richards appears to have created. The car comes into play a few times and is involved in a rather dramatic moment involving Reed, Sue and Johnny where Johnny has done something, perhaps attempted to put himself in harm’s way for the others. This could possibly have been the original third act of the film.

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