When you raise the bar really high, future examples in the genre have to meet or exceed that standard to become memorable. With the phenomenal success of Marvel's "Avengers", "Iron Man", "Captain America", and the critical success of "Batman Begins", we now realize what a `superhero' film can be. They can be darker, filled with believable characters, have interesting and intelligent stories. They can be excellent examples of filmmaking.
"Fantastic Four" isn't any of these things. So why bother? There are far better examples out there. Directed by Tim Story ("Barbershop"), starring Ioan Gruffudd ("Horatio Hornblower", TV's "Forever"), Jessica Alba, a young Chris Evans ("Captain America") and Michael Chiklis (TV's "The Shield"). The film has many problems, but for me the main problem is that each of the characters played by these actors is largely created through CGI and this doesn't give the audience a chance to identify with the character and get to know them because there is a shield, of sorts, between us and them. Also, who casts one of the world's most beautiful women as an invisible character?
Wait a minute.... This happened almost exactly a decade ago. There's a reboot already?
And, as they say, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Apparently, both Fox and I could stand to learn from this quote.
Because Marvel films are so hot right now, and because Fox wants to hold on to the rights to these characters, they decided to reboot "Fantastic Four", bringing in Josh Trank, a director whose previous big screen venture was "Chronicle", about three teenagers who gain super powers. I haven't seen "Chronicle", but it is apparently well-regarded. Enough so, for Fox to hand over the reins of this $120 million picture to the relative newcomer.
Apparently, this is the new trend. Universal hired Colin Treverrow to direct "Jurassic World", a $200 million film based on the success of his previous $750,000. "Chronicle" cost $12 million and earned $120 million at the box office, giving Trank the second largest jump of this summer. Unfortunately, Trank's work seems to be tanking where Treverrow's guaranteed him work for a while.
Trank's "Fantastic Four" is not as bad as the predecessor. But it is bad. Trank has also gone to rare, somewhat unprecedented lengths to distance himself from the film - he claims the studio reshot and edited the finale - and says his version would have been better. More on that later. Trank could probably survive the bad box office failure of this film. But his own acts will only serve to set his career even further back. And the publicity machine is working at breakneck speed; stories about Trank's behavior on set are now circulating.
What this version gets right is spending time on the origin of these characters. This gives us the ability to get to know them, to feel some feelings about them, so that when the special effects barrage happens, we actually care about the outcome. A little. The 2005 version began with each of the characters as adults and almost immediately gave them CGI suits to wear, making it impossible to care about them.
Reed Richards is the weird kid in class. Asked to talk about an assignment in class, he begins to explain his spatial displacement machine. Immediately, the other nine year-olds begin to call him names and his teacher (Dan Castallenata, Homer and many other voices on "The Simpsons") doesn't get it either. Years later, buddies Reed (Miles Teller, "Whiplash") and Ben (Jamie Bell, "Billy Elliot") presenting a working prototype of the same machine at the high school science fair. Their teacher still doesn't get it, but Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, Netflix's "House of Cards") and his adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara, TV's "American Horror Story", Netflix's "House of Cards") like what they see and offer Reed a scholarship to the Barnes Foundation, an institution which is part learning and think tank. They are working on a similar invention and think Reed has the answer. Dr. Storm's son, Johnny (Michael P. Jordan, "Fruitvale Station"), an adrenaline junkie, joins the team. And Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", TV's "The Escape Artist") rejoins the team - he started the project but left because he couldn't handle the pressure and government influence. When they eventually get to the point of trials, the government, as represented by Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson, Netflix's "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), threatens to take control just before the four are allowed to take a trip to the other dimension. Later that day, Reed, Johnny and Victor decide they should be the first humans to explore the other dimension and decide to use their invention. Reed calls Ben and asks him to join them. Sue gets wind of what the boys are doing and arrives at the lab just in time to monitor their voyage. The trip doesn't exactly go as planned.
Written by Trank, Jeremy Slater ("The Lazarus Effect") and Simon Kinberg (writer and producer of most of Fox's recent Marvel films), "Fantastic Four" is a mess. At 100 minutes, probably an hour of this is character development and getting the story going before the narrative abruptly shifts gears and everything becomes focused on a major superhero showdown between the Four and Von Doom. The transition between the two is really jarring and shows a clear point for the reported studio reshoots and re-edits. It's pretty remarkable that no one could see this and say "We're spending all this money. Let's make this transition better" when they are already looking at the film, trying to fix whatever they feel is wrong with it.
The origin story begins with Reed and Ben as ten or eleven-year olds. They meet and begin hanging out together and working on Reed's invention. After Reed gets invited to the Barnes Foundation, Ben sort of disappears and we don't revisit him until Reed calls him up and says they are going to take a trip to the other dimension. He should join them. He does - no one seems to think it is necessary to explain how his lack of training and knowledge about the mission will endanger him - and they take their first trip to the other side.
The disappearance of Ben Grimm for a significant period of time is just one of the problems with this origin story. Another, he joins the mission to another dimension on a whim, without the training the others have received.
While the character development is a good step in the right direction, it doesn't go far enough. All of the origin story time is given to Reed and Ben, who become buddies as children, working on Reed's invention together. We get some backstory for Sue, Johnny and Victor because we don't meet them until they are all working at the Barnes Foundation. Backstory is also good, but it isn't the same as seeing an origin story.
"Four" also has a grittier look than the other Marvel films, even the "X-Men" films made by the same studio. Because of this, you can't make the argument that this was a decision to make the films all seem similar, as though they are part of the same universe. Everything in this film looks like it was shot through a dirty lens. It's darker, less clear and just looks bad. This also makes the extensive use of special effects less spectacular and almost laughable. The CGI use to create Reed's stretching abilities look like something better suited to the "Wonder Woman" or even the original "Superman" television shows.
Once they get to the other dimension - which at times is described as a place to solve our energy problems and at others is described as a place to discover the origins of the universe. Which is it? - it appears to be a badly lit film set devoid of any life. I don't understand why they think it will help with either question because this is never really addressed. The filmmakers seem to think it is enough to simply say it. If they say it, we must believe it.
Once the shift happens, everything goes downhill.
But because of the earlier character development, Trank's version is still better than the version released a decade ago.
Because of the time spent with these guys, when they eventually take on their super powers, the use of CGI is less obtrusive a barrier between us and them. Also, Mara's Sue Storm tends to use a force field a lot, rather than simply disappearing.
Fox has already announced a sequel. It will be interesting to see if they carry on with these plans and hope for a better film. Or will they devote their energies into "X-Men: Apocalypse" and "Gambit"? Either way, they will take a hit. But the Marvel universe will continue. With or without the "Fantastic Four".