“Fantastic Four” a Maddening Marvel Mishmash

Human Torch!

Michael B. Jordan gets into character while the film crew shields themselves from the toxic work environment.

As a longtime comics fan, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four was one of my favorite Marvel series as a kid. Years later I developed an appreciation for the first 103 issues in which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby gave us some of the greatest stories among their many collaborations. My FF fandom came and went as creative teams, interpretations, and times changed, but I have fond memories of great runs by Walt Simonson, Dwayne McDuffie and Paul Pelletier, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, and the long-forgotten team of Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz (#219, 222-231) who introduced Marvel’s First Family to this impressionable eight-year-old. I have those runs, and I have my warm memories, but my emotional attachment to them as individual characters has faded enough over time that I’m open to seeing new and different reinterpretations. Honestly, though, I haven’t encountered a worthwhile use of the FF in years.

Meanwhile in the more recent past, I previously named Chronicle my favorite film of 2012. A previous entry already used up a couple hundred words explaining what impressed me about this found-footage mini-epic that imagined what would happen if one of Disney’s Witch Mountain films were remade as an episode of Black Mirror. Credit remains due to lead actors Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and The Wire‘s Michael B. Jordan; to screenwriter Max Landis making a heck of a feature-film debut; to cinematographer Matthew Jensen, editor Elliot Greenberg, and numerous other cast and crew members for an experience that still rattles me whenever I think back to key scenes.

In the MCC capsule summary I’d expressed my hopes of seeing big things from director Josh Trank in the future. Here we are today, living in that bleak future where the boundaries of Chronicle‘s imagination are visible in maybe two sequences from Fox’s newly rebooted Fantastic Four, which was mostly directed by Trank and finished by a producers’ committee using Trank as their contractually subjugated proxy/scapegoat. In a short-lived tweet last week Trank publicly blamed the studio for all the faults in the finished product. The multiple flaws that riddle this slipshod corporate product from start to finish belie Trank’s sorry attempt at a total cop-out.

Short version for the unfamiliar: The classic FF alredy hit the big screen in Tim Story’s two feature-length sitcoms and grainy back-alley VHS in Roger Corman’s infamous, unreleased joke. In this fourth try (putting this one numerically on par with Lethal Weapon 4 and Jaws: the Revenge) the filmmakers borrow the template from Marvel’s Ultimate FF, which reimagined the team as four precocious teens working for a top-secret Big Science program when a freak accident involving an experimental teleportation machine leaves them transformed, powerful, and argumentative. Your all-star lineup of science heroes:

* House of Cards‘ Kate Mara as Sue Storm, a capable scientist following in her adopted dad’s footsteps, who gains the power to create and manipulate force fields. Also, every so often she can make herself or other things invisible. But mostly her name here should be something like Force Field Femme, or maybe Wonderwall.

* Chronicle‘s Michael B. Jordan is Sue’s brother Johnny, who’s less scientifically inclined than Sue but works well with machines. Johnny sublimates his strained father/son issues through street racing and sarcasm. This combination of speed and burning comes in handy when an agonizing fire-and-radiation bath turns him into the Human Torch.

* Miles Teller, who was awesome and scary in Whiplash, is prodigal inventor Reed Richards, neglected by mediocre parents and scarred by bad science fair experiences. Reed yearns to better the world with his smarts, but then he’s stuck with the power of super-stretching. In comics that means he shape-shifts into other objects or rubber-bands himself around bad guys. Here, he can rearrange his facial features better than an IMF agent or develop his own hand-to-hand combat style you could call “stretch-fu”. It’s silly and exciting at the same time.

* Jamie Bell, star of several movies and AMC’s Turn, is Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm, an undertall scrapper who stood by Reed while the rest of the world laughed. He’s along for the ride because best friends, but cruel fate and an irradiated mini-avalanche turns him into an all-CG rock monster. This looming, misshapen Thing essentially swallows Bell whole and we never see him again. I guess that’s still Bell talking and glaring through fake eyes for the rest of the film, but I can’t prove it.

Their exotic travel experiment gone awry unites them through tragedy but estranges their fifth teammate: Toby Kebbell, last “seen” as a malevolent primate in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is disgraced Latverian immigrant scientist Victor Von Doom. (Remember the rumors and interviews we all read last year about angry blogger-troll Victor Domashev? Either those parts were rewritten from the top down, or it was all pre-release balderdash, like that one time Benedict Cumberbatch played a Star Trek villain totally named Not Khan.) The project brings von Doom back into the fold when Richards’ new ideas dovetail with his own, but science disaster leaves him scarred, unhinged, encased in metal, and gifted with high-end telekinetic powers.

After an hour-long origin sequence, then there’s standard super-heroics and they fight and fight and fight. Once. And that’s it. The movie is shorter than this entry.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Sue and Johnny’s dad is the marvelous Reg E. Cathey, a.k.a. political adviser Norman Wilson from The Wire. In a better movie, he would’ve been the main character acting as the wise Professor X to a quartet of plucky young mutates looking to him for leadership through every single film in the series. Oh, man, if only.

The Simpsons‘ Dan Castellaneta is the dumbest science teacher in the world. Tim Blake Nelson, who last popped up in the Marvel Universe as scientist Sam Sterns in The Incredible Hulk, is a military man whose attitude is either “Your work belongs to US now!” or “Your work belongs to THEM now!” depending on which half of the film you’re watching.

Fair warning: this film contains no Stan Lee cameo. I hope it wasn’t deleted due to awfulness.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? From the first half of the film: friendship can come from the unlikeliest allies. Teamwork is cool. Science is also cool, but fame is cooler. Science plus fame is awesome.

Working as an inventor for a major government that’s funding your massively expensive experiments is cool until you find out the government that spent all that taxpayer money on your flights of fancy now owns said flights. Because obviously they misled you into believing they would spend an eight- or nine-figure sum, stand back and applaud you, then let you keep the patent, all rights thereto, and all profits derived therefrom. Because school taught us governments are all about trust-fund philanthropy, and you know all this because you’re a super genius.

From the second half of the film: everything military is bad. Period. Well, unless you save their entire home planet and species. Then it’s cool to negotiate a meal ticket with them so you can keep more of the profits from your weapons designs.

So what’s to like? Every performer in this movie gives the material more dedication and verve than it deserves. Teller is a convincing brainiac, Mara is possibly the most strong-willed of the bunch in the few scenes she commands, Bell works as a steely-eyed Igor, and Jordan is a stubborn young instigator determined to be his own man rather than let his dad and sister tell him how to live his life. Kebbell, who was previously menacing in a PBS Masterpiece Mystery miniseries we saw called The Escape Artist, could take or leave his faint Latverian accent, but his brooding, disenfranchised Victor eventually upgrades into a wrathful fiend who could easily eat some of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe villains for breakfast. For a few terrifying minutes, anyway.

Two effective sequences in particular point toward What Might Have Been. After the accident, Our Heroes each take turns awakening to their strange new reality, shocked to the core by the grotesques their bodies have become. (Well, the guys do, at least. Sue is seen but not central.) There’s no Peter Parker moment of “WHOA” followed by elated exploration. They’re straight through the Looking Glass, and the other side is a nightmare.

Later in the film, it’s Victor’s turn to show us what he’s got…and what he’s got isn’t pretty. His first trip back to the military base is a gruesome rampage that evokes memories of Carrie, Scanners, and, once again, Chronicle. Frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it for younger viewers and I’m surprised it cleared a PG-13. In early interviews Trank talked about his interest in taking a “body horror” approach to the powers process. That interest remains very much evident and, had his vision been fully realized, would’ve given us the grimmest, grittiest FF of all time. I wager quite a few comics fans would’ve embraced it and demanded Marvel reboot them in comics exactly like that. (It might be a more dignified fate than the current plan — shelving them and using them only in summer crossover events.)

Nitpicking? Unfortunately, David Cronenberg homages aren’t gonna sell toys to boys. Those moments are short-lived and quickly overthrown by the final act, which kicks off with an unambiguous signal to the audience that Josh Trank’s FF is over and a completely different popcorn flick has begun. (Trust me, when that signal is given, you can’t miss it.) Before the shock of transmogrification has finished setting in, let alone worn off, we learn that Our Heroes got used to their powers when we weren’t looking and everything’s brighter and closer to super-heroic now. We’re rocketed from “powers are scary” to “powers are cool” in an eyeblink, denied the experience of our five victims dealing with their trauma and learning how to use their powers at the same measured pace as the previous acts, because someone in charge wanted to hurry up and get to the part where everyone punches Doom in the face.

Not that everything in the first half was thumbs-up material. Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Victor make the initial teleporter voyage not out of intellectual curiosity, but because they decide while they’re drunk that they want to be famous astronauts. I mean, Armageddon proved it only takes about a week of training, and they’ve been scientists for lots of weeks, and an astronaut pretty much is a scientist, like Batman, so why not. At this point it’s clear that the Ultimate FF rascally-teen paradigm was trumping both the original “family” interpretation and the part where Reed and Victor are quote-unquote “smart”.

Later in the second movie, Ben does a stint working for the government as an overseas troubleshooter in various hot spots. I’m not sure if he has a military rank or is treated as an independent contractor, but at one point a home base monitor confirms 43 kills to his credit. That’s arguably in line with the original Thing, who was a WWII veteran. Johnny decides he’s up for some action too because they’ve offered and he has skills he thinks he can use to serve his country, or maybe because shooting down enemy drones is awesome video game fun. While they’re making their career choices, Reed’s all like, “NO, you guys! The military is bad! Because, like, they stole my patents!” As far as the movie shows us, that’s the military’s worst sin. We don’t get any sense that Ben is taking down innocents, or that Johnny is being duped. And yet the military are the bad guys because…they’re military? Period? That’s it?

That enmity and an early malnourished Reed/Sue/Victor love triangle subplot are swept aside for the inevitable super-hero showdown, by which time the grunts and adults are equally useless, Our Heroes are a team even though they’ve settled none of their differences, and Victor’s morphed from egotistical scientist to deranged, incoherent nihilist. In some camera angles he’s a spooky monster; at other times, he’s Dark Iron Man. And yet, most of the murderous, unstoppable abilities he had are quickly forgotten as the showdown reduces him to literally throwing rocks at everyone.

Meanwhile in the background, a generic super-showdown light-beam show throbs and roars and kills civilians and is pretty easy to ignore because the foreground drowns it out with lines like, “THERE IS NO VICTOR. THERE IS ONLY DOOM.” An actual line not left on the cutting room floor, bellowed with no trace of self-awareness.

Even before that jaw-dropping moment, I’d already been shaking my head at what passed for “dialogue”, so much of it artless and perfunctory, like coming up with lines for all the cast was such a chore that the writers would’ve skipped it if they thought they could get away with doing this as a silent film. But much to their chagrin, there had to be lines. No one said they had to be good (“His biochemistry is off the charts!” “Check out ‘Dr. Doom’!”), but the audience expects some. Several exchanges exist only to explain things they couldn’t bother to show, such as how totally useful and desirable the other dimension/planet/whatever is. I have to go all the way back to X-Men: the Last Stand to recall a film of equal verbal banality.

I don’t even want to get started on how badly they ruined the Thing’s immortal catchphrase “It’s Clobberin’ Time!” Someone thought that needed its own origin. The resulting psychological implications of its source suggest a darkest-timeline Ben Grimm who may just be a damaged powder keg in dire need of extensive counseling before he’s allowed anywhere near a battlefield or a toy aisle.

If Fantastic Four had been two-thirds awesome thriller and one-third conventional super-hero product, I might be inclined to subscribe more readily to the simplistic schism of Trank=good/Fox=bad. I’m not convinced all the worst parts are his fault, but if he has any intention of staying in Hollywood, first he’ll need to take responsibility for his mistakes that made it into the final cut and for the missteps that necessitated a producer intervention in the first place. I had high hopes for this ostensible reinvention of the FF, but I think the characters were better off without this intrusion into their history.

If we assume everything in Act Three is creative damage control (most likely led by producer/co-writer Simon Kinberg), then…well, let me randomly put this in Simpsons terms, as befits a high-profile Fox misfire: in my mind, the first half of the new FF is “Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie”, and the back half is “The Death of Poochie”. Trank is Poochie, and Kinberg is Roger Myers sending Trank back to his home planet using one animation cel and a black marker.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Fantastic Four end credits. I recognized the names of Tim Burgard and Aaron Sowd among the storyboard artists who once worked in comics. Onetime FF artist Bryan Hitch receives billing above them as a “Consultant”. Near the end I noticed it’s one of several thousand films partly shot in Louisiana, which has practically become the new Hollywood.

In between those bits, it was hard to pay attention because my family and I couldn’t wait to start bickering over what we’d just put up with.

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