Sifting through the rubble of Fantastic Four has proven a fascinating exercise. It is a project wrought with problems, from the very public feud between director Josh Trank and studio 20th Century Fox, to the tonal mishmash of scenes in the final product. I’m reminded of the making of Superman II, another film which saw its director’s vision overtaken and remade by new management. Which is precisely why film scholars will love dissecting this new Fantastic Four, the third cinematic attempt to bring Marvel’s First Family to the screen – to exercise their observational skills and debate the merits of two wildly opposing approaches. It’s a debate we’ll likely be having for years to come.
The film opens promisingly; two aspiring young boys with scientific know-how develop a tiny teleportation machine in their garage, but they are ridiculed at every turn by their adult superiors. Finally, as adult Reed Richards and Ben Grimm (Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, respectively), the boys are discovered by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and given a full scholarship to the Baxter Institute to pioneer a full-size version of the transporter to send humans to an alternate dimension. Without giving too much away, the new dimension leads the young heroes, including Dr. Storm’s devil-may-care son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and the scoffing elitist Victor (Toby Kebbell) to acquiring bizarre powers that they must struggle to come to terms with.
This is all strongly inspired by the first issues of Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four comic by Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis, and Adam Kubert. It’s also far darker and more solemn than the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby material of the 60’s, or any previous incarnations of the Four on film. In place of the realism offered by his found-footage superhero drama Chronicle, Trank peppers his Four with some funny, genuine dialogue that feels refreshing in a subgenre known for cheesy one-liners. But where Trank really deviates from the material is after the heroes receive their powers, in what Trank describes as “Cronenbergian body horror” after the style of director David Cronenberg. Trank shows the heroes in great pain after their transformations – Johnny constantly feels the burn of the fire around him, Sue can’t stay visible, etc. It’s a pretty far cry from the source material, but a compelling angle nonetheless.
And then the movie breaks. Hard.
Then it cranks into reverse and screams backwards.
We abruptly cut to “1 Year Later.” Characters are now acting completely out of character, awkwardly reshot sequences (look for Kate Mara’s wig) are being intercut into the movie to weave scenes together, and we’re taken on an entirely different narrative thread that clashes with the tone and direction of the first act.
It is abundantly clear this is the point in the film where Fox was taking some serious issues with Trank’s work, and we can feel the corporation yanking the reigns away from Trank to get their major summer tentpole back into standard superhero territory. Our heroes decide to use their powers for good, our villain is quickly introduced, and a big, epic battle for our world and the new dimension ensues. We are left to wonder what was really so objectionable in Trank’s approach that led to the studio releasing such a hugely disjointed version instead. Fantastic Four ends up two very different halves of an incomplete whole.
Granted, Trank’s vision was probably never going to be the Fantastic Four movie fans wanted. Indeed, the film is actually at its worst when it’s forced to hearken back to its pulp tradition – one scene sees a younger Ben Grimm’s abusive brother running at him announcing, “It’s clobberin’ time!” Oof.
The problem is that both the Fantastic Four comic and Trank’s vision can’t really be reconciled. Fantastic Four is supposed to be about family, about a group of very different personalities learning to work together as a unit. But neither Fox nor Trank develop the characters enough to where, when they inevitably team up to fight the bad guy, they can all work together and interact in any meaningful way.
So what else? Miles Teller rocks Reed Richards after losing out on the Spider-Man gig. He’s a funnier, hipper Mr. Fantastic, yet retains the core idealism the character is known for. Michael B. Jordan also overcomes casting concerns and owns his role as the Human Torch. But much like the film, this cast is divided strictly down the middle – Kate Mara proves a wooden and disinterested Invisible Woman, and Jamie Bell appears distant as Grimm, like he’s just keeping his motion-capture muscles warmed as the Thing until he can play Tintin again.
Those looking for a complete, cohesive narrative in Fantastic Four will be sorely disappointed. Those fascinated by movie “could’ve-would’ve-should’ve”s would do well to check it out. It’s half an interesting take on some beloved characters, and half cartoony, clichéd superheroics, held together with the thinnest, most visible glue the likes of which we rarely see in completed studio films. Both Trank and Fox are probably to blame to varying degrees, though Trank’s ideas are easily the superior of the two, and I at least would’ve liked to have seen Fox let Trank finish what he started. It’s a moot point; Trank single-handedly killed the film’s box office, and because of it, likely won’t be working on another studio movie for a long time.
Regardless, I found more food for thought in Fantastic Four than I did in Ant-Man, though a friend I attended the screening with wholeheartedly disagreed. “I would rather have half of something great than a whole of something mediocre,” I argued. “So you would rather have an unusable half of a $100 bill than a whole $1 bill?” he replied.
And…well, yes. I see $1 bills all the time. I get them, I give them away, they are nothing special. But let’s say I’m looking down and I find half of a $100 bill sticking up out of the sandy ground. When I bend down to pick it up out of the sand, I can see it’s really only half a $100, not a full $100 and thus not legal tender. But I had an experience. I was titillated. I got a rush of excitement thinking I’d hit the jackpot. And afterward, I got to tell an out-of-the-ordinary story to my friends. I wasn’t rewarded, but I still cherish that half-a-bill for jarring me out of my routine.
If you’re among the camp that agrees, you may just find something worth experiencing in Fantastic Four.