20th Century Fox
I liked it.
Most of it, anyway.
Here’s the thing about a movie like Fantastic Four. It’s been through quite a lot, as our own Adam Bellotto examined on Friday. Having covered the movie for years, I was acutely aware of all the trouble that had plagued its production. It was bound to be a mess.
But here’s the thing I learned when I walked into a theater on Sunday afternoon hell-bent on forming my own opinion despite carrying with me all the baggage that surrounded the film – up to and including the fact that I already knew it was failing mightily at the box office – somewhere inside the Fantastic Four that made it to theaters exists a very interesting, moody, unique superhero movie. It just got buried in a mess of studio meddling.
The first two-thirds of Josh Trank’s movie seem to be just that, Josh Trank’s movie. You can see what the Chronicle director wanted to make: a slow-burning, thoughtful movie about Reed Richards that evolved into a body horror movie. That’s an interesting take on the Fantastic Four and their powers. Marvel’s First Family, as they’re known, have always been a pretty silly group to me. Compared with X-Men or any of The Avengers, their powers have always been sort of underwhelming. They are mostly interesting as side characters in the stories of other groups. And as their cinematic history has shown us, it’s easy to get fruitlessly lost in the very soap opera nature of their family dynamic and the Reed-Victor-Sue love triangle.
But Trank seems to have wanted to make a movie that explores some of the more horrific elements of the Fantastic Four’s powers. Like the sheer terror of waking up with your entire body engulfed in flames. Or the potentially painful nature of Reed Richards’ ability to stretch his limbs. There’s one moment in Fantastic Four, the first time we see Reed retracting his arms after being stretched out, in which we hear some unnerving bone friction and see him in a very palpable sense of agony. This, to me, is far more interesting than the inevitable big final battle scene (we’ll get to this shortly).
There are also hints within the first two-thirds of the film that Trank and co-writer Simon Kinberg had a great feel for the dynamic that exists between the characters. The brotherly relationship between Reed and Ben Grimm is there. The contentious, but protective relationship that Sue Storm has with her brother Johnny is there. The searing jealousy of Victor Von Doom toward the budding relationship between Reed and Sue is not only present, but is made very real with some great Toby Kebbell death glares before the entire dynamic is discarded later in the movie. There’s so much inside this movie that illustrates the fact that when they began making it, someone knew what they were doing.
Right around the two-thirds mark, the story makes a one-year jump into the future – right after the team has received its powers. At this point, it’s clear that another creative entity has taken over. The tone of the movie shifts ever-so-slightly, Kate Mara’s hair changes drastically thanks to a terrible wig, and the action begins to ramp up in scale and down in coherence. This single story element – a time jump – will be studied for years in film schools as an example of what happens when a director clashes with a studio and the studio wins.
The final third of this movie is complete garbage. It’s the kind of incoherent mess that sends someone like me, who has read many a comic, out of the theater and straight to the Wikipedia page for Dr. Doom because clearly one of us – me or the movie – has no idea what his powers are. Between the dramatic shift in tone, the rampage of a climax (and resolution mere minutes later) and the big, poorly choreographed final action sequence, the final third of Fantastic Four is indefensible. Whoever ultimately cut the final version of this film should be ashamed of themselves.
But by far the most frustrating element of Fantastic Four isn’t that it goes completely off the rails. It’s that in the first two-thirds of the movie, there exists a movie that I really liked. A fresh vision of superheroes that is grim, but in a way that’s interesting. A keen eye can see the movie that Josh Trank might have made if Fox hadn’t decided half-way through that it needed to be a more traditional superhero blockbuster. All of this movie’s behind the scenes problems exist on screen, in a way that’s easily understood by the viewer. You can see the moment, marked with a ‘One Year Later’ title card, in which the studio gave up and decided to try and salvage this weirdo version of Fantastic Four with a more traditional action finale. I don’t know exactly how Trank’s vision would have played out – it could have been just as bad if not worse – but I can tell you that I’d like to have seen it. At least it would have been interesting.
To me, this is clear evidence of a studio giving up on creativity and trying to take the easy road. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of clickbait. You start with something interesting – let’s say a critic who wants to write substantial and insightful articles about films that challenge us – then half way through their career, they realize that you have to get the clicks and pay the bills. So you give up those principals, you take shortcuts, and you end up writing headlines like, ‘I Went To See Fantastic Four. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.’
And friends, that’s just not something in which I am interested.