Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On the Big Screen :: Despite What You've Probably Heard, There's No Ultimate Nullifyer Required for Josh Trank's Fantastic Four (2015)

You know, Josh Trank and 20th Century Fox might've really had something with Fantastic Four (2015). As is, one can easily sense and see the two distinct and clashing sensibilities behind it, which resulted in the discombobulated mess that wound up onscreen that, for the record, is nowhere near the scorched-earth shit-pile some would have you believe it to be. It should've been, perhaps. For on one hand you had a director trying to emulate the disquieting body-horror of David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers) and on the other you had a studio demanding a whiz-bang costumed punch-'em-up. Is it any wonder things got so ugly during the production? Still, even patched together as it was, the end result wasn't that far off and with some careful ironing over a few bumps they really and truly could've flattened it out and had it both ways. As is, it almost works. Almost, and nowhere near quite. But almost.

Now, the film we got was not the traditional Fantastic Four of Kirby and Lee, Byrne, Waid and Wieringo, or Hickman and Epting; or the myriad cartoons by Hanna-Barbera; or Tim Story's slightly botched film adaptations from the aughts; or even Roger Corman's aborted version, which, so help me, is probably the closest we'll ever get to a classic version of Marvel's First Family. No, the source inspiration for Trank's film is the Ultimate Universe of Bendis and Millar, which is a little more grounded but needling toward the dreaded and counter-intuitive grimdark nonsense that personally gives me the hives. On the bright side, this could quite possibly lead to the world's first superheroes vs. zombies flick (Marvel Zombies originated in the FF Ultimate universe, 'natch), but, judging by this weekend's box-office returns and critical drubbing of a film that seemed (forgive me) doomed from the beginning, the already announced sequel could very easily disappear and never be heard from again -- well, at least until Fox's licensing contract with Marvel comes up for renewal.

As for the film, the first major stumbling point is the choice of villain. Like with Sherlock Homes and Professor Moriarty, the first instinct is to match the Fantastic Four against their arch-nemesis, Dr. Doom. Seems like a no-brainer. But in Sherlock's case, there is no real mystery to solve if Moriarty is behind the plot. Here, I have no real problem with Victor Von Doom being involved in the construction of the matter-transporter that "creates" our heroes; I don't even have a problem with him being along for the ride when the others are hit with the cosmic radiation that grants them their powers. What I would do from there, though, would be to put him in a pocket and save him for that sequel. And so, Von Doom should've made it back with the others instead of being left for dead on Planet X like Trank did, which, quite inexplicably, seemed to be the only place the teleportation machine could connect to -- that's right, folks, a transporter that cannot be aimed but blindly lands you wherever it feels like. Woof. Paging Mr. Scott. Mr. Montgomery Scott...

To me, everything else in the film leading up to that point worked fine, with a group of socially awkward science nerds doing nerdy science things while being socially awkward, but then fell apart once the brain-trust of teenage wunderkinds, Reed Richards (Teller), Sue Storm (Mara), and Von Doom (Kebbell), with an assist from Sue's brother, Johnny (Jordan), and moral support from Reed's bestest bud, Ben Grimm (Bell), unwittingly perfect the matter-transferring machine for a secret cabal of ... who exactly, I cannot say, except they are connected to the military industrial complex. So, they're evil, and led by Dr. Allen (Nelson), also evil, whose gum-chewing sets a new standard for mustache-twirling. And when he tells them trained-astronauts will be the ones transported to the newly discovered planet, our group of upstarts is having none of that; and so, with a little liquid courage, four of them hijack the machine, port over, and start poking around the hellish alien world.

Things go awry from there, when a violent discharge of unknown energy engulfs them as they try to get back to Earth, leaving Sue, who had no idea what they were doing, to get them back home. In the film, as I said, Von Doom is left behind and presumed dead, ready to be brought back for the climax when the transporter is eventually repaired, leading to some gruesome head-popping and a truncated final battle that is both clumsy and forced and never gels properly, and then the movie's over. Well, except for that slightly embarrassing final coda.

Now, in fairness to Trank, that mess of an ending absolutely reeked of studio dickering, with an eye for franchise building, looking for that global billion dollar payday. Again, probably not gonna happen now. From what I saw, Trank's material came off as more interesting, and less of a retread, so Fox might've been better off just letting that ride as is. I guess the only other option would've been to blow it up completely and start all over. It's all kinda moot, anyways. Can't change it now. But out there, somewhere, in some alternate universe, Fantastic Four might've gone something like this instead:

Instead of Planet X, in a nod to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, their destination should've been the Negative Zone. And upon arrival, the team runs into Annihilus or something akin to the swarming Annihilation Wave, which, along with the weird energy discharge, would be the main cause for the hasty retreat back home, setting up a giant big battle for the end. Once they escape the Zone, all four surviving dimensionauts, including Sue, who was caught in the blast when the machine overloaded and exploded, are reduced to lab-rats in some secret secluded base. And while the others are stretchy, rocky, invisible, and on fire, Doom's power is yet unknown. (And nix the head-popping power for heaven's sake. And the love triangle between Reed, Sue and Victor needs to be ret-conned out of existence as soon as possible.) And when Richards escapes, Von Doom should escape with him. And with his protective gear fused to his body and face, Von Doom ignores the plea for help to find a cure for their friends, vows revenge on all involved, and the two part ways.

In Trank's film, one year magically passes, and while Reed is on the run, the other three have been trained to hone their powers for dubious purposes (think personalized weapons of mass-destruction) in return for a promised cure. Lets say the same thing happens here. Meanwhile, work continues to rebuild the transporter, despite dire warnings from the survivors of what is on the other side. All concerns are ignored by Allen over a desire for, essentially, more super-soldiers. When Reed is recaptured and brought back, he barely has enough time to convince the others that what they're doing is wrong. But he's already too late to stop the activation of the defective transporter, which essentially punches a hole into the Negative Zone and opens the door for Annihilus and his army of flying space-piranhas to invade the Earth with only four would be superheroes standing in their way who don't trust each other all that much. Biff. Bang. Pow! Sorry. I mean, "It's clobbering time!"

And once the tide is turned and the dimensional rift sealed, our new team of heroes are granted their own playhouse with a promise to step in if the world ever needs them again. And just before the credits roll, we cut to Von Doom in some slightly modified armor and see what he's been up to over the past year, which is currently finishing off a bloody coup in his native Latveria and declaring himself emperor. The end.

But this did not happen and we got what we got instead. *sigh* I know, I know, you're saying, dude, that's basically the plot of the first Avengers movie. And you'd be right. But, I figured since Fox was already aping almost everything else in that rival franchise and cramming it into Trank's movie, including a giant space laser and a dimensional rift and a massive amount of property damage, you might as well go all in. But on top of everything else it got wrong, one of the biggest sins the final cut of Fantastic Four made was to, essentially, turn Ben Grimm into nothing more than Reed Richards' Pet Rock. The digital realization of the Thing was spot on, despite the lack of pants or his rock dongle, but his wetwork clobbering were pale carbons of the Hulk smashing. The greatest part about the character is how Grimm's humanity always shined through his rough hide. And we nary get a whiff of that here. This was my only real beef with the film. One of the gripes I'd heard going in was the FF would never consent to be used by the military. Well, on that they were duped, with false promises of a cure or, worse yet, remain in the lab permanently, and in several sample jars at that, if they failed to cooperate. This wasn't the only gripe. No. This was merely the tip of the gripeberg.

One thing I haven't heard anyone complain about yet was the film's score, which can sometimes really help glue an otherwise shaky film together. Needing that kind of help desperately, I can hardly recall any music cues from Fantastic Four at all. And what I do was pretty generic and uninspiring. If each hero had a theme, I failed to pick it up. And while sorting through layer upon layer of harsh invectives and venomous reactions to the film over the weekend, everything else got pasted; from the director to the studio to the cast, who, I think, all did the best they could trying to serve both warring factions higher up the film chain. A good chunk of the regurgitated bile was leveled on Kate Mara, her tell-tale wig, and the treatment of Sue Storm. And I'd like to set a few things straight on that:

Apparently, Trank had wanted someone else for the part but the studio wouldn't budge and things went south between the two from there. I think Mara (whose character was a war orphan from Kosovo, later adopted by the Storms,) was quite brilliant in her portrayal of the introverted Sue. (Bored and wooden? I think not.) But the main complaints were not about her portrayal but over how her character, "the girl", wasn't allowed to go along on any space adventures, got left behind, and was in charge of sewing the costumes. Not to blow anyone's agenda on that, but, *thbbbtthhhhhh* For not only did Susan Storm help design and build the transporter, those "costumes" she was in charge of engineering were the environmental suits needed to withstand, basically, the rigors of outer-space. As for her not being able to go along, not having a fifth pod on the transporter is a legitimate beef but, while the boys were getting drunk and going for a hubris-fueled joyride, Sue was with her father (Cathey), fighting and failing to convince Allen to let them be the ones to use the machine first. And once she sniffed out what the "smartest men in the room" had done, Sue's the one who pulled their hash out of the fire. Sure, after that all of her character moments got really repetitive and redundant. But to be fair, so did everyone else's.

Yeah, after a pretty good first hour the film just lost its legs and then teetered and flailed toward full collapse until the end. But it was still standing when I left the theater. Barely. I don't know, perhaps my expectations, which were already pretty low to begin with, being pummeled to absolute zero might've factored in to my slightly more favorable reaction to Fantastic Four than everyone else's. But I honestly haven't seen a film so thoroughly and unjustly trashed, to this degree, since John Carter (2012) died before it even premiered. (And aside from that first twenty minutes, John Carter was, well, fantastic.) It's just not as bad as you've heard. Honest. Hell, I don't think anything could be THAT bad. I guess the best criticism I've read and the one that came closest to hitting it right on the head was this: "Fantastic Four felt like I just watched a 100-minute trailer for a movie that never happened." And while that feature-length trailer held my attention well enough, it's what could've happened that I found most frustrating.

Fantastic Four (2015) Marvel Entertainment :: TSG Entertainment :: Genre Films :: 20th Century Fox / EP: Avi Arad, Stan Lee / P: Gregory Goodman, Simon Kinberg, Robert Kulzer, Hutch Parker, Matthew Vaughn / D: Josh Trank / W: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank, Stan Lee (comics), Jack Kirby (comics) / C: Matthew Jensen / E: Elliot Greenberg, Stephen E. Rivkin / M: Marco Beltrami, Philip Glass / S: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson


Randy said...

I have a confession to make, which my esteemed host will be shocked to find out (since not only am I a movie nerd, I owned his favorite comic shop for 14 years). I have never seen a Fantastic Four movie! There, I said it. Yes, this coming from a guy who A) joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society with Fantastic Four #5 (First Doctor Doom), B) Knew what eternity felt like at age 11, as I impatiently waited the long month between FF #25 and FF #26---aka first Hulk/Thing fights. But, I, like most Merry Marvelites grew bored of The quartet that comprised Marvel's Self-Promoted WORLD'S GREATEST COMIC! I always thought the biggest problem with the FF, and its films, is their chief protagonist, Reed Richards. Too often in their 50 year history, old Reed, would just invent something to get the gang and the world, if not the universe, out of a major hole. If I could borrow Doom's time machine and rectify Marvel history, I would have killed Reed off somewhere after the Galactus Trilogy, and replaced him with The Sub-Mariner! Not only would it have been a better team, I think Susan would have been happier!

W.B. Kelso said...

I'd probably skip this one, too. It's bad, just not as bad as people are making it out to be. I've always liked the FF well enough. (Ben and Sue have always been my faves.) I started reading about the same time Byrne took over and his early stuff is still great, his later not so much. Waid had a great run with them, as did Jonathan Hickman. In fact, Hickman's run concerning The Negative Zone, Galactus, and The Council of Reeds is some of the best comics I've read in the past ten years. Of course, the FF doesn't exist anymore in the comics. Marvel has spread the characters to the four winds at the behest of Disney in a pissing contest with Fox over the film rights to the characters. Same with the X-Men, which are kinda being wound down and replaced with the Inhumans. It's a mess and kinda sad. Good time to just get out. And I mean it this time.

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