Monday, August 10, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015) - The Chronicles of a Troubled Team

Way back in 2004, before the super hero film craze was quite as overwhelming as it is today, a film took the core themes and abilities of Marvel's Fantastic Four and gave us a wonderful adaptation. This film focused on family, transformation, and a campy yet nonetheless sympathetic villain bent on world domination. It was Brad Bird's animated film The Incredibles, a deep yet kid-friendly blend of Stan Lee's original super squad and Alan Moore's Watchmen.

A year later, Tim Story would direct an actual Fantastic Four adaptation that didn't have any lasting impact, followed by a sequel two years later that put the franchise into hibernation. In 2015, with super heroes hotter than ever (and with a legal obligation to continue working on Fantastic Four films lest the rights lapse back into Marvel Studios' hands), Fox handed a reboot of the series to newcomer Josh Trank, director of Chronicle, a phenomenally good found-footage "super hero" film that's part Carrie, part Akira.

Reed and Johnny share a moment.

With fellow Chronicle alumni Michael B. Jordan playing Johnny Storm / Human Torch, Whiplash's Miles Teller as Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic, House of Cards' Kate Mara as Sue Storm / The Invisible Woman, and Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm / The Thing, the film features a solid cast, a great up-and-coming director, and a score by the talented Philip Glass. It ended up being the most reviled comic book film in over a decade.

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama on this film: Trank and Fox did not share a creative vision and major reshoots took place close to release, allegedly without Trank's involvement. Fox scrambled cheap and fast to retool the film, leading to a couple of awful-looking moments in an otherwise nice-looking film (people are focusing on Kate Mara's wig; they should be focusing on the film suddenly shifting into empty gray rooms without any kind of interesting blocking).

The Thing fights tanks: Not in the final film.
Even without knowing any dramatic details, simply looking at the trailers and the final film reveals plenty of changes. While the majority of content in the film's trailers made it into the final product, both character moments and actions scenes have clearly been cut, and it's been done in a pretty haphazard manner. Dialogue is recontextualized (which isn't a surprise; most trailers do this.) The otherworldly dimension that our heroes visit is completely recolored from a fiery red primordial hellscape in the trailer to a gassy, sparkly green in the film. Scenes of Reed, Ben, and Johnny's home life (studying, fixing cars, playing baseball) are completely removed. A scene of The Thing being air-dropped into battle for a big action scene is completely gone in spite of it being the major hype line of two trailers, and a scene of him fighting tanks in a desert warzone is, in the final version, relegated to a montage stuck on a monitor in the background.

The Thing air drops onto a battlefield: Also not in the film.

Whatever happened between Trank and the studio, the film's production was undoubtedly a mess. The big action set piece finale, in which the heroes confront the villainous Dr. Doom, is written and directed in a way that resembles none of the film's slower, more grounded first hour. A film that opens as a character study and body-horror film becomes a goofy cartoon as Miles Teller struggles to read some abominable dialogue about how Together, We Are Strong.

Ben Grimm's baseball days: Still not in the film.
But in spite of all this, and in spite of the lashing the film's getting from both critics and audiences: It's actually not a bad movie. At a little over ninety minutes long, the film has a good hour of solid content that I really enjoyed. It's a shame it's also got thirty minutes that are decidedly mediocre. And that's the big thing for me here: At its worst, Fantastic Four is an average, unremarkable comic book adaptation. It fails to hit the highs that Trank's Chronicle hit, but it's an interesting failure that carried my attention more than the safe, pleasant, but unspectacular Ant-Man or Captain America films, and even with its problems it's better than 2012's dull, ugly, cinematic tire fire The Avengers, which somehow had critical praise heaped upon it.

Johnny working on his car: Do I even have to say it? Not in the film.
 Moving beyond the behind-the-scenes chaos, let's take a look at what's actually in the film itself.

Nerds getting ready to play mad scientist. A scene actually in the film.

The film opens in 2007 (the year of Tim Story's Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer), with the trials and tribulations of elementary-school versions of Reed Richards and Ben Grimm. Reed is a self-centered genius with ambitions of building a matter teleportation device using scavenged junk, including a server farm consisting of a series of Nintendo 64s wired together (perhaps the young Richards had read about the exciting world of using game consoles to launch missiles.) He befriends Ben after stealing some kind of power converter from a junk yard the Grimm family runs. Ben is a lonely kid who quickly latches on to Reed's enthusiasm, and becomes his science buddy, in part to escape from his dreary home life and his jerk older brother.

As an aside, I'd like to point out an absurdity that's been circulating around the film, namely this Tweet from Matthew Buck which reads, " 'It's clobbering time' is something Ben Grimm's abusive brother used to say before he slapped him about. Comic book fans will love that." Buck is correct; Ben's older brother slaps him in the head after using that line. But, this being the internet, we have to elevate everything to a moral panic, thus leading to articles such as one written by Rob Bricken for i09 that I'm not going to link and give hits to. Bricken writes:
Well, goddamn. I really though Batman V. Superman was gunning for the most depressing interpretation of superhero comic books ever, but turning The Thing’s cheesy battlecry into an oath uttered by his brother right before he beat young Ben is practically the grimmest, darkest, grim-dark utilization of comics canon I can even conceive of.
Literally the only way I think DC can match it is if they decided to have had Alfred sexually abuse Bruce Wayne when he was a boy, which I have to imagine even Zack Snyder would go, “Enh, maybe that’s a bit much.” So well done, guys! You may bomb at the box office but at least you’re the best at turning originally fun comic books into something uttering joyless and depressing!
This is a man who hadn't seen the film, of course, and embarrasses himself falling down the stairs of hyperbole. From the useless dig at Snyder to the comparison of slapping your bro upside the head to sexual abuse, Bricken's outrage is part of a bizarre belching of the internet's collective unconscious which has agreed, somehow, that The Film is Bad (largely without seeing it.) Of course, in the film itself, Ben gets slapped once before his mother rushes in to protect him and to give his brother hell for being an asshole. His brother's a bad person, and Ben's life isn't sunshine, but it's a far cry from the "grim-dark" abusive nightmare some are painting it as. Ultimately, it's tamer than any of the abuse in Harry Potter.

Sue Storm listening to Portishead, showing good taste.

Back to the film: Reed and Ben grow up and enter a high school science fair where they attract the attention of Franklin Storm, head of the Baxter Science Institute, and his daughter, Sue. Sue is an adopted child, but is in every sense her father's daughter; a little stuffy, overly calculating, and with a keen mind for theoretical science. There's not a lot of warm chemistry between them, but they're remarkably like one another. Franklin's biological son, Johnny, is an impulsive hot head even before he becomes The Human Torch. The difference between the two kids is a good, if brief, look at family being more than just blood. I would have liked to have seen more of their home life.

Reed goes off to school with Professor Storm and Ben stays behind; while Reed cares for his friend, he's willing to leave him behind to further his own ambitions of "doing something important" while Ben rots away in the junkyard. It's important to show that Reed teeters on the edge of coldness and compassion. He's willing to leave people behind rather than risk his own safety, but still believes that what he's doing is for the greater good. Whether it's true or not, he does care about his friends, even if he has trouble showing it. Miles Teller's Reed isn't a lovable guy, but rather a flawed human being with a strong ego and a social awkwardness that never slows him down, but doesn't help endear him to others. While some critics chastise the character or the performance for being unlikeable, I think that's precisely why it works so well.

The metal-faced villain.
One thing leads to another, and eventually our team of nerds, along with the nihilistic Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), crack open the keys to interdimensional travel. After learning that their work might fall into the hands of NASA, who would possibly take their credit and glory, Victor and Reed decide that the best thing to do is give in to their egos, crunk out, and take the world's first interdimensional trip before anyone else gets a chance to become the next Neil Armstrong. They convince Johnny and Ben to come along for the ride.

In the other world, things go terribly wrong and our hapless goons are struck with all sorts of magical radiation before they can teleport home. Sue rushes in to save the day, and she too gets a blast of Space Magic. This leads to one of the film's best sequences, and its most horrific: Reed discovers his body has become a stretchy flesh elastic as he crawls across a burning floor to save Ben, buried under rubble. His legs trail behind him, growing ever longer in a grotesque sequence that really hits home how awful an abrupt transformation/disfigurement could be. Ben becomes a rock-monster, Johnny is constantly on fire and panics as any real human being would, Sue fades in and out of physicality, and Victor is lost to the ether.

A not so light-hearted take on waking up on fire and burning forever.

Rather than a fun, exciting montage of the four learning to use their powers, we're treated to each of them suffering in an underground military hospital. Reed, slithering out of his restraints and into an air duct, becomes completely alien as he flees, leaving Ben behind. It's body-horror akin to a less gross version of a Cronenberg film (a later, graphic scene with Dr. Doom also calls to mind Cronenberg's Scanners), and yes, it's not fun. It doesn't have to be. Some object to such a grounded, physical take on the origin story of a team that, in the comics, fights Mole Men and giant, hungry purple space men, but it's incredibly effective. Then again, I'm really not someone who cares at all about loyalty to Comic Book Canon. A good story's a good story, and effective horror is hard to pull off.

Abruptly, the horrors stop, and ONE YEAR LATER appears on-screen. Reed is a fugitive, and Johnny and Ben are working for the government. Sue trains her force field and phasing abilities, but like her father, resists government recruitment. Ben is deployed to war zones in scenes that look exciting and tragic, but are seen only in monitors in the background. He harbors a loathing for Reed, who he feels has abandoned him one too many times. When they meet again, their relationship is broken, with Reed desperately trying to find the friend he once had inside this bitter shell. The relationship between Reed and Ben is one of the strongest parts of the film, but it's sadly resolved off screen; they're more or less cool with each other again just in time for the big action climax. Something had to have been cut here.

A good relationship problem cut short.

The big action, of course, resolves around Dr. Doom. Victor von Doom returns from the other dimension with his space suit fused to his body as a form of both life support and imprisonment. He's become a naked machine man with a ragged hood, deprived of his humanity more thoroughly than any of the other drunken explorers. Earlier in the film, we see that there's some unstated history between Victor and Sue; she's the only real bright spot in his life, and the only person he seems to respect. After being encased in metal, Victor, now just Doom, is neutered. He becomes a sexless facade of humanity, interested only in death. With his drive for life, passion, and sex gone, he takes up his hood and becomes the Grim Reaper.

Doom guarding some kind of subspace throne of souls.
We get two encounters with Doom; one where he escapes from the military installment, brutally and effortlessly killing with his mere presence, and one where he has an exaggerated punch-fight with the newly united Fantastic Four while both sides trade Saturday morning cartoon barbs. You can guess which of the two I preferred. The whole finale is amazingly cheesy, and if the whole film had been that way, maybe that would work. But coming off of a grounded tale of brotherhood, abandonment, and egotism, it just feels like the train went off the tracks and went headlong into clown town. The final act feels like a by-the-numbers Marvel Studios film; largely weightless, needlessly quippy, and without any evident danger to our heroes, even if they do struggle more than Thor and Captain America ever do.

I liked Josh Trank's Fantastic Four. It's filled with good moments, but is weighed down enough by missing scenes and an overly silly ending that it can't, in this form, be called a great film. It's still better on a whole than many of its comic book contemporaries, even with its pacing issues. Though I'm sure both sides fought hard, I've got to imagine Fox is largely at fault for the film's problems; after all, Trank made Chronicle, while Fox cut up Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past, a good but uneven film that was much improved in the later-released director's cut. I would love to see a director's cut of Fantastic Four and see Trank's own authentic vision, but it sounds like there's enough bad blood that it would really be a stretch to expect one any time soon, especially as this film isn't burning up the box office.

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