Saturday, August 15, 2015

On the Big Screen: FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

The Marvel Age of Comics, as Stan Lee called it, began in 1961 with his and Jack Kirby's answer to DC Comics's Justice League of America. Everything else you've seen with the Marvel name on it in the past sixteen years, from the beginning of Twentieth Century-Fox's X-Men franchise and including the cycle of films produced by Marvel's own studio, begins with The Fantastic Four. Efforts to put them on film predate this era of movies, and studios are still trying to do them justice, though it arguably becomes more difficult the more these cinematic universes evolve without them. If Marvel ever does get the movie rights back, as so many fans wish, they might be better off putting them in a period piece, possibly set in the time the original comics were published, than making them latecomers to the ongoing MCU party. Goodness knows it's been hard to account for their existence in any other era. Nothing seems to work like the original idea that Reed Richards wanted to get to the moon before the Russians, and before his American handlers, not to mention his spaceship, were ready for him and his motley crew to go. Later generations of creators seemed to think that it should have sufficed for him to be an explorer, but the element of a race that Reed must win seemed to be important at the onset, and one thing Josh Trank gets right, out of very few, is that sense of aggressive impatience. In his already-infamous film, Reed has developed a teleportation device that will allow people to explore a world in another dimension. After a successful test sends a chimp over and brings him back alive, Reed and his collaborators expect to be the first men to cross over. But the boys are all too young -- Trank, apparently following the creators of the alternate-universe Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book, abandons Reed's patriarchal aspect and renders Johnny Storm, originally a token teen, redundant -- and the untrustworthy establishment types want to send astronauts or soldiers across. So in a move worthy of the creator of Chronicle, the found-footage superhero sleeper that earned Trank this perhaps career-destroying gig, Reed and his colleagues get drunk and decide to take a joyride to Planet Zero, leaving girl scientist Sue Storm (the doted-upon Kosovar-American adopted daughter of controversially-colored scientist Franklin Storm and thus envied by Franklin's hothead natural son Johnny) behind to save most of their bacon when the impromptu expedition goes inevitably south. In comics, Reed Richards has always combined impulsiveness with authority; he may be thought of as a careful if not bloodless calculator, but he's always in a position to act on his ideas without obstruction. In this movie Reed has no authority, but that seems to be part of the point.

If any point remains after all the reshoots and Trank's not-quickly-enough retracted repudiation of the finished product, it's a younger generation's struggle for autonomy, their effort to earn the right to control their own destiny. That's not what Stan and Jack's books were about, but it's a suitable topic for a revisionist movie -- and it's not as if Marvel Comics haven't gone revisionist on the FF over the years. I remember a miniseries called Unstable Molecules -- after the material Reed uses to make his team's infinitely-adaptable costumes -- that was done as a period piece in order to take a quite bleak view of the era that birthed the original comics, the repressive 1950s. It could have been seen as an insult to the original comics, but it actually was a fine book that promised sequels whose failure to appear is regrettable. Josh Trank's Fantastic 4 isn't a failure because it's revisionist; nor is it a failure because the studio tampered with Trank's vision, though its interventions most likely turned a mere misfire into a disaster.It may be, however, that The Fantastic Four is an idea that can't sustain very much revisionism. We'd know better if someone had actually made a satisfactory and faithful movie beforehand, but by most scorecards this is the fourth failure in as many tries. Whose fault is that? Is the foundational Marvel Comic possibly untranslatable into movies?

A big part of the problem this time is that Trank and his collaborators, if not his Ultimate precursors, fell into many of the same traps that threaten superhero filmmakers and anyone attempting to "reboot" a venerable pop-culture franchise. First and foremost comes an overdose of origins. In the very first Fantastic Four comic the team's origin is treated as an aside, a flashback to account for the strange people suddenly leaping into action on sight of an awkward-looking smoke signal before their initial adventure resumes. In time, Lee and Kirby would explain that Reed and Ben "The Thing" Grimm were college buddies who fought in World War II together, but those details either weren't worth mentioning in issue one or the creators hadn't thought of them yet. Such indifference is intolerable to our time, when we need detailed accounts of how each hero "begins" because heroism can't be taken for granted today. So now we start with Reed and Ben as children and grade-school classmates, which is all to explain why drunk Reed impulsively calls Ben in to participate in his ill-fated trip to Planet Zero. You'll notice, by the way, how convoluted a process it has become to put the four main characters into position to be transformed, all because no one finds it plausible anymore that a scientist going into space would take, along with his trusty pilot, his completely unqualified girlfriend and her kid brother. Revisionists trade dramatic neatness for plausibility -- in a superhero story! -- and they probably lose something crucial to this comic book's appeal.

But to continue: another problem with today's originitis is the impulse to foreshadow a series' long history and make the origin story more -- ha! -- dramatically coherent by placing key characters at the scene who only emerged later in the original books or episodes. An early example of this was Tim Burton's writers making the Joker, in his earlier, naturally-pigmented state, the murderer of Batman's parents. A later example is the Gotham TV show making the future Catwoman a witness to the murder. For the Fantastic Four, what you do is involve Doctor Doom in the origin story as much as possible. Doom wasn't exactly a latecomer, making his debut in the fourth issue, and it would be understandable for a tentpole film project to lead with the franchise's strongest villain. But why embed him in the origin? In this film Victor Von Doom (the filmmakers retreated from an announced plan to give him a different civilian name) is a former employee of Franklin Storm working along lines similar to Reed's and brought back to help shepherd the project to fruition -- and he's supposed to have a thing for Sue. Modern writers apparently believe such extra details necessary to establish arch-enmity, as if Doom's irrepressible itch for world conquest, and a jealousy of Reed shown to predate the origin incident, wouldn't take care of that. But since this film is nothing but origin, if you want a supervillain in it he has to be part of the origin. So Victor is one of the drunken crew on the jaunt to Planet Zero, where he in seeming death acquires the superpowers that have never been necessary to one of comics' greatest mad scientists, as well as a motivation -- to prevent the new world from exploitation by humans -- that seems pretty miserable in comparison to the comics character's epic ambitions. Given how this all plays out, there's really no good reason for this character to be Doctor Doom except for the benefit of name recognition. By now FF fans are impatient to see any other of the series' deep roster of villains, so why not put one of them into the origin story and save Doom as your big selling point for your sequel a la The Dark Knight? The reason seems to be that despite all the self-conscious revisionism at work, the writers were really running on origin-story autopilot, until everyone started fighting over the controls and the plane went down.

The actors are mostly helpless passengers. Many of them have quite impressive recent credits that make their work here deeply disappointing. Kate Mara has no personality apart from an intellectual quirk -- Sue's expertise in pattern analysis allows her to track down a fugitive Reed even though his new ability to change his appearance presumably made it impossible to discover a pattern -- and her status as Daddy's Girl leaves her out of the youth-rebellion aspect of the story. Michael B. Jordan, meanwhile, has nothing but youthful rebellion going for him, Johnny being willing to become a living weapon, apparently, in order to stick it to Dad. Miles Teller made his name in a picture that was stolen from him and his standing as lead character, as Reed, is no more secure here. You may recognize Toby Kebbell's eyes and mouth as those of Koba, the evil chimp who steals Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from motion-capture master Andy Serkis. You won't recognize them once his Victor Von Doom is transformed into an emotionless, expressionless living mask. Jack Kirby and his successors could always cheat and make Doom's armored face plate (see also Iron Man) more expressive than it really could be, but the latest movie Doom is an all-too-honest debacle.

I've saved the worst for last: the multiply-misguided casting of Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm. It's revisionist, I guess, to have Ben, a football star before he became a pilot and superhero, be a runt regularly clobbered by an abusive older brother. You can have some nice role reversal once Ben becomes a giant rock monster and super soldier, but the real failure with Ben is the ultimate failure of the whole film -- leaving aside the ineptitudes of the re-shot action climax. The Thing embodies the unique tone that made Marvel so daringly different in the Silver Age of Comics. Like Conan the Barbarian, Ben Grimm is a man (or monster) of gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth. Fairly quickly, in one of Lee and Kirby's miracles of inspiration, Ben evolved from self-pitying grotesque into the series' comic relief, if not its heart and soul. At first feared, he was soon adored by the public, the irreconcilables of Yancy Street always excepted. He might occasionally lapse into an existential funk, but most of the time he was the Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Thing, the Idol of Millions. Like Spider-Man, the Thing echoed Stan Lee's inimitable narrative voice that managed to operate in two registers simultaneously, at once self-important and self-mocking. Is it fair to condemn Bell and Trank for inflicting upon us an utterly humorless Ben Grimm? In their defense it can be repeated that the Thing reached his definitive form, not only in content but in form as Kirby made him rockier and somehow cuter looking, only over time, and that just as he wasn't this way at the end of the first issue he shouldn't be expected to be that way by the end of this latest first movie. But just as writers want to encompass as much of the work of decades in two hours, why shouldn't we expect the first film to deliver the characters to us in their definitive forms by the time it's done? Writers may be obsessed with origins, but I doubt that characters' fans really want to see them in their earliest forms, especially when they're as uninspiring as this immature, introverted, bloodless quartet. Done wrong, an origin story is like showing people how sausage is made, and together Trank and Fox probably have killed most people's appetite for another FF movie, no matter how much some still wish that Marvel would make one themselves, for many years to come.


Tony Brubaker said...
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Sam Juliano said...

Well, I can't say I'm surprised by this superbly-written takedown. I haven't seen it yet, and am in no rush to remedy that.

hobbyfan said...


I had read one writer's viewpoint that the FF weren't really superheroes, which suggested to me a more appropriate analogue than the JLA, that being another team Jack Kirby was associated with---the Challengers of the Unknown.

Ultimate FF writers Mark Millar & Brian Bendis had rebooted Doom as Victor Van Damme, but you couldn't use that name in the movie without requisite references to a certain actor. The main complaint pre-release, of course, was the rebooting of Franklin & Johnny Storm as African-American, making Sue an adopted child by default. That's a poor attempt at aiming at the PC crowd in the name of cultural/racial diversity. After the movie, it's clear that Bell was the wrong choice, as I was afraid he'd be from the go. Too small, and no presence.

If they really, seriously wanted to do an FF movie that was true to the books, it might as well be a cartoon, because 3 live-action attempts to tell the story have all been flawed, and only one actually turned a profit at the box office (the 2005 version). They're better off not doing a sequel, or trying again, unless they go to a cartoon.