While the 2015 Fantastic Four film directed by Josh Trank doesn’t quite deserve the immense hatred it attracts from some comic book fans, it is by no means a good film. Yes, it is flawed. But no, it wasn’t terrible. Could a further watch redeem it from a cinematic hell usually reserved for abject failures like Battlefield Earth or every Uwe Boll film? Fuck no.
The problems with the film started way before anybody saw it, with stories of egotistical and difficult direction by Trank, unhappy stars, meddling studios, and budgetary problems. The negative buzz in the build up to release was palpable and expectations from even the most ardent Fantastic Four fans were low.
But Trank’s Four isn’t the first film to experience such negativity and survive. Films like Waterworld and even James Cameron’s Oscar winning behemoth Titanic fought production woes to turn out ok (yes Titanic is only ok until the last half hour where it becomes amazing). The 2015 version of Fantastic Four is actually ok, and certainly no worse than its mediocre predecessors (2005’s Fantastic Four and 2007’s Rise of the Silver Surfer). But comparing it to previous films in the franchise is like comparing dog turds in the park to see which one is more pleasing on the eye.
Sometimes okay isn’t good enough. And for fans of comic books who’ve become accustomed to quality movies in the shape of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the burgeoning Avengers universe, 2015’s Fantastic Four was a massive downer.
I thought you said Fantastic Four was a bad movie?
Don’t mistake my incredibly faint praise for any sort of fondness for the movie. In many ways the film is a train wreck of infuriating ideas that veer from campy schlock, to noir grittiness, to total ridiculousness, with a bit of body horror thrown in for good measure. The film screams of meddling and you can see the vision of the director being destroyed at every turn.
That’s not to say that Trank’s original ideas for the film were good in the first place. His determination to veer from the source material and darken the tone of the movie shines through in the first two acts. And while these are easily the better parts of the movie, they just aren’t the Fantastic Four that fans had come to love and expect.
In some ways you have to applaud Trank’s bravery for the choices he (tried to) make, but there is a palpable feeling of disdain for the source material that begs the question why he chose (and was chosen) to do the movie in the first place.
So, the director was the problem?
There’s no doubt that Trank, under the right circumstances, is a good director and you can understand why 20th Century Fox chose him after his low budget superhero hit Chronicle hit the right notes with critics. But as is so often the case with directors who’d previously worked on tight budgets, the temptations of more money can lead to an overexuberance to try new things and push boundaries… that is until the studios realise what they are doing and step in.
On top of this, the pressures of handling a larger movie with higher expectations put them under and immense amount of pressure and can bring them into direct conflict with both the studio and producers. This can be especially true if the director in question is prickly in the first place and by all reports Trank can be pricklier than a cactus.
Hiring Trank was a calculated risk for Fox and like any decision of this type, was always prone to failure. Disney made a similar decision when they hired James Gunn, a director noted for his schlocky, gore filled horror films, to direct the first film in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Gunn was an even bigger risk than Trank who had no real experience in the superhero field other than the black-comedy flop (but still amazing) Super. At least Trank had a proper superhero movie in his locker that was both well reviewed and a box office success.
But the personalities of Gunn and Trank couldn’t be more different and while the Guardians of the Galaxy auteur was a self-confessed comic book fan, Trank hated the genre. Gunn’s enthusiasm can be seen in every aspect of Guardians, from the music, to the visuals, to the humorous script he wrote with Nicole Perlman. Trank shows no such love for Fantastic Four. His script actively subverts the expectations of fans (not in a good way) and he shows none of the visual flair displayed over at Disney in the Avenger’s universe.
The year of release was a problem
2015 was an exceptionally bad year for quality movies. While the likes of Mad Max (which itself was subjected to negative rumours before release), Pixar’s Inside Out, and Oscar darling Straight Outa Compton flew the flag for quality cinema, the majority of releases were mediocre at best. This led to an expectation from audiences that the films they paid to see would be disappointing.
But while films like the boring Terminator Genesis, the whitewashing Aloha, and the absolutely disgraceful Inspector Clouseau rip off Mortdecai were terrible, this didn’t stop people going to the cinema. In fact cinema attendance in 2015 were 8% higher than the previous year — a year that saw the release of films in big franchises like the Hobbit and Planet of the Apes trilogies, a new Michael Bay directed Transformers, James Gunn’s Gaurdians of the Galaxy, an X-Men movie, and the first part of the conclusion to The Hunger Games, to name but a few.
Laying the failure of Fantastic Four on the year it was released is way off the mark. People still went to the cinema despite the poor quality of the films on display. Fantastic Four’s problems were far more deep rooted than timing… or were they.
I feel the need… the need to retain the Fantastic Four movie rights
From its first inception, the 2015 version of Fantastic Four exists not as a legitimate cinematic passion project by Fox or its director, but as a cynical attempt to retain movie rights.
Fox bought the Fantastic Four film rights in 1993 at a time when comic book movies were derided and Marvel Comics were on the verge of bankruptcy. They got lucky. The pittance they paid was not lost on Fox executives and by the turn of the new century the prospect of bank balances flooded with comic book box office returns had them rubbing their hands with glee. But unlike Disney, Fox hadn’t got a plan and other than a couple of decent X-Men films, they failed to find the quality that would keep fans happy.
After the relative failure of 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Fox shelved plans for more films in the franchise and the series seemed dead. That was until Disney gave it some much needed resuscitation when they bought Marvel and launched their own phenomenally successful cinematic universe. Once again emboldened by the prospect of making easy money, Fox rethought its approach.
The problem was, by the time Fox pulled its finger out, the Fantastic Four movie rights were set to return to Marvel. In a desperate attempt to keep them, Fox rushed into production the movie with no real goal. It is perhaps because of this that Trank, a self-confessed Marvel movie hater, was hired with little care or thought for what he would do with the franchise. It was only later in production that the studio realised how unenthusiastic Trank was and by this time wrestling back control was too difficult.
We will never know how Trank’s version of the movie could have turned out. It may actually have been good. But would it have been the type of Fantastic Four experience fans wanted? Not likely.
At the end of the day, neither Trank nor the studio can take full responsibility for the film’s abject failure, but each must take their own share of the blame for how it turned out.
The Fox Factor
We touched on this throughout the article, but it would be remiss to gloss over this aspect of Fantastic Four’s failure. 20th Century Fox are a studio with a long history of meddling in their own franchises. Whether it be the short sighted decision to allow George Lucas to keep the rights to the Star Wars universe because they had little faith in what he was doing, their constant meddling in the Alien films, or even their repeated cancelling of Family Guy only to reinstate the show later on, Fox are a studio with a vast history of trying to destroy what they create.
In the rush to keep up with the Disney’s (and keep the Fantastic Four rights) they failed to do their due diligence on the film. They hired the wrong director, green-lit a script that had little to do with the comics, and pushed ahead with a budget that was woefully inadequate for a film of this type.
By the time they woke up to the problems they’d created, it was too late and all they could do was butcher the film to mitigate costs leading to shonky special effects and a cheap ending bereft of excitement.
DC or Marvel? Who knows?
One of the biggest criticisms labelled at the film is that it is far too bleak and, in some ways, a joyless experience. It followed the trend of the DC movies at the time by taking itself far too seriously. But Fantastic Four isn’t a DC franchise and fans of Marvel movies expect a certain degree of humour and levity in their cinematic experiences.
In the comics the Fantastic Four ‘family’ are a mismatched collection of wacky heroes who go on fun adventures together. They revel in their situation and actively enjoy being heroes. By comparison, the characters in the film appear to hate what has happened to them. They don’t enjoy being heroes and when they are together all they do is bicker and argue.
To top it all off, the actors playing the quartet look like they are enjoying the experience just as much as their onscreen personas. They grunt and grumble their way woodenly through the film’s dialogue looking to all intents and purposes like they hate every part of the experience.
So, it’s the actors’ fault?
It would be easy to lay blame for the films lack of financial and critical success at the actors’ feet, but in Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller they had two stars on the rise with one (Teller) coming off the back of an Academy Award nomination for his role in the excellent Whiplash. Indeed, the supporting cast were no slouches either, with British actors Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell rounding out what on paper should have been a great ensemble.
The cast isn’t the problem. With the right material god only knows what they could have produced. But the film gives them so little to work with. The script is poorly written with no meaningful dialogue and the direction is at times sloppy with little flair. You can see the scenes that Trank found interesting, like the standout moment when the quartet find out they have super powers, and those he had little interest in — any of the science-based conversations between the characters. With so little enthusiasm behind the camera and a script that was on paper bare-boned, the actors were fighting an uphill battle from the get-go.
The script was the real issue: Characters
Fantastic Four’s script is full of missed opportunities and strange choices. The chemistry between the four lead characters is non-existent and the film gives them no time to develop their relationships.
We are told early on that Reed (Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) are lifelong friends but in the course of the entire movie they barely have any scenes together and there is no indication that they really know each other let alone are best buddies. Ben sulks his way through the film with no real purpose other than to look miserable. Reed, on the other hand, is a strange character and while he is painted as a genius his actions, including going on the run ala Bruce Banner but without the motivation, are idiotic.
But the worst character in the film has to be Kate Mara’s Sue Storm. Sue, normally a key player in every Fantastic Four story, is largely redundant for large parts of the film. When the group initially explore Planet Zero (as the film calls the parallel universe they open a door to), she doesn’t even go with them but somehow becomes mysteriously ‘affected’ by accident when they return. She then spends an eternity ‘mastering’ her abilities at the government base (despite telling the government that she wouldn’t work for them), which translates to doing very little. Her dialogue with the other characters is atrocious and though we are supposed to believe she has romantic feelings for Reed, there is little evidence to say she even likes him for the majority of the film. Hell, I don’t remember her having any dialogue with the character of Ben until the very last scenes of the movie.
The only character who has any really interesting story points is Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny Storm who at least seems like he has a purpose, even if said purpose is to accept being a tool for the government agencies. But just like the other characters, we never get any idea of his motivations and the chemistry between him and the other members of the group is non-existent.
The script was the real issue: The plot
As mentioned previously, the plot of Fantastic Four is bare boned. But even the most paper-thin stories can be interesting in the right hands (look at pretty much every successful horror film). Unfortunately, Fantastic Four never makes any attempt to rise above its poor scripting.
The entire 3 act format is disjointed and rife with continuity errors. The film starts in in 2007 where we meet a young Reed Richards as he is being scolded by a science teacher for misbehaving. What did he do to attract the teacher’s ire? Did he wipe bogeys on his desk or throw a ruler out the window? Hell no. He built an interdimensional portal in the classroom. Such a strange and uncalled for reaction might be forgivable if the film used it to highlight Reed’s personality change in the face of such negativity. But it doesn’t and the film skips to modern day without giving it a second thought.
The interdimensional portal does pay a key part in the film and on return to the present we are treated to a long, long, long (do you get my point) section of the film where Reed and the others create one for real. This would have been a great section to build up the characters and let their relationships grow. But instead we are treated to a series of boring dialogue sequences and some ridiculously intense stares.
Once the portal is active and the gang head to Planet Zero things feel like they are about to get exciting, but they don’t. I may be being a little unfair on this section of the movie as it is by far the best part of the film. Seeing the group get their powers on Planet Zero is one of the few spectacles in the film. But once they have them instead of exploring how the gang adapt, rebel against, and finally accept their new powers, we skip to a year later, missing out on what could have been a hugely entertaining part of the story.
And then instead of building to a rousing finale, the gang meander through melancholy until the newly demented Doom returns to destroy the world for shits and giggles. Did I mention that the script was bare-boned?
The script was the real issue: Continuity
As mentioned earlier, the film suffers from a variety of continuity errors that are often jarring and sometimes hilarious. For a film riddled with reshoots, it is perhaps understandable, but the sheer number of issues in Fantastic Four makes you question if the production team really gave a shit in the first place.
Amongst the many humdingers are Sue’s constantly changing hair style and different shades of blonde. In many scenes, her hair changes depending on the camera angle. Reed’s facial hair is similarly comical and can disappear and reappear depending on which room he is in.
Hell, there are so many continuity issues in the film (such as appearing and disappearing nosebleeds; equations that magically erase themselves from whiteboards; pancakes that change position constantly; and the mystery of where Johnny’s girlfriends have their hands) that I could write a full article on this alone. But I wont because doing so would mean having to watch the film again… anyway, let’s move on.
The Fantastic Four final act
Its safe to say that the final third of Fantastic Four is where the real problems start. Up until this point the film is at least interesting, even if it is very un-Fantastic Four like. Trank’s style shines through in the opening acts and his dark stylings are… palatable.
You can almost see the point where Fox took over production and Trank gave up. The final section of the film should be where the spectacle of a superhero movie takes hold. But instead we are treated to more boring dialogue, cheap looking sets, and a generic ending that is about as anti-climatic as you can get.
When the newly armoured Victor Von Doom arrives as the big bad, his entrance is poorly constructed and his destruction via a punch from Ben Grimm is about as piss poor a demise as you can get.
The Doom Criticism
Do you know what, I’m going to start this final section of the article by saying how much I like the 2005 film Doom based on the videogame of the same name and starring the ever-dependable Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Karl Urban. Doom is another film that met with much derision on release and was criticised heavily for its schlocky dialogue, hammy acting, and inept script. But that’s exactly why the film is so good. It knows what it is and never hides from it. It is a ridiculous film and by the time Johnson’s Sarge transforms into a monster ripped straight out of a Resident Evil game, you can’t help but smile.
By comparison, when Victor Von Doom appears at the end of Fantastic Four the last vestiges of goodwill towards the film are ripped from you as if a demon from hell had reached in and torn them out themselves.
The only real compliment you can give to the film’s antagonist is that he is called Victor Von Doom, something that was up in the air in early cuts of the film.
Doom is about as one note a character as you can get. None of his motivations are explored and his only reason for destroying the world is… a vague hatred of the government. He and the members of the Fantastic Four gang never really engage in any meaningful way until the poorly staged finale and no real tension is developed between the characters.
But the worst offence made with the Doom character is in his transformation from soppy scientist to the iconic comic book baddie. Unlike Doom in the comic books who uses intelligence to gain and steal powers, the film’s version is ‘born’ with god-like powers. By doing this the script turns him into another generic cackling villain with no need for smarts. How I would have loved to see the viscously intelligent Doom from the comics spar with our heroes to outwit them rather than mysteriously be able to do pretty much anything he wants with a blank face and creepy voice. The entire look of the character is a travesty and instead of the iconic armour of the comics, we are left with a monster who looks equal parts medical droid from Star Wars and blank-faced Twiki from Buck Rogers (Google it).
At the end of the day, the 2015 reboot of the Fantastic Film franchise is an abject failure. It is a poorly directed, badly scripted, and under-funded bore fest. And while we can lament the meddling of Fox in the production of the film, can we truly say that Trank’s vision would have been better? I doubt it. Even in the earlier, more interesting scenes of the movie (before the meddling began) there is a distinct lack of character development or motivation suggesting that no matter what, this movie, just like its antagonist, was Doomed from the start.
WRITTEN BY Ian Ford