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Iconic imagery sometimes?

Oh man. This is starting to get old. 2015 is the year of genre movies that people begin sharpening pitchforks over months in advance, then eviscerate on release… whether they deserve it or not. The most egregious example of this was Jupiter Ascending because that one is pretty much a great movie, where as Chappie was seriously flawed. Which, by the way, so is Fantastic Four. Why it has dethroned Jupiter Ascending as the most egregious example of anticipatory hate unleashed without due diligence is simple. I think it’s obvious that the main thrust of the premature negativity for this movie, which followed it from inception, is basically “how dare anyone but Marvel make a Marvel movie?”. And this did not happen in a vacuum. Fox’s cynical attempts to maintain the right to these characters and stories are well known and lends a lot of skepticism to any attempts they may have made to do an honest to fuck movie with it. If Fox fails to produce stuff, the rights default back to Marvel and there’s a strong and mostly right-minded current of interest in all the Marvel going home sooner rather than later. But caught in the crossfire between the social context the movie was made and released in, and the hatchet-holders at Fox who obviously mangled it before release, is a budding filmmaker named Josh Trank who once made one of the best “original” (as in, not tied directly to any existing source material) superhero movies ever: Chronicle. This is only Trank’s second movie, and it has possibly crippled or killed his career to make it.

What makes this all the worse, though, is that this movie has many of the same problems that a lot of Marvel’s movies have… particularly an underdeveloped villain and cynically bombastic third act “superhero’s doing super shit” sequence. If this had been a Marvel movie, all would have been forgiven. I strongly believe that because, well, look at Ant-Man.

But anyway, that’s enough of the context. I’ll focus on the movie we got as much as possible from here on. The first thing to say is that Fantastic Four is nowhere near as bad as people are saying. Not even close. In fact, the first 2/3 of the movie work exceptionally well and even the last 1/3, which pretty well everyone agrees is half-baked garbage, has a few glimmers of something better in it. Some of my reaction can be attributed to genuinely lowered expectations, not only because it’s hard to remain optimistic (I don’t care about the Fantastic Four as an IP, but I did/do care about Trank and all the lead actors) in a release environment as bloodthirsty as this movie’s, but also because the reviews I did read made many salient points about where Fantastic Four goes off the rails in spectacular fashion… and I still agree with many of those.

And yet… and yet… this is still the best Fantastic Four movie. The one thing the old ones had, and I didn’t hate those, was a level of camaraderie and charm brought mostly to the table by Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis (Ioann Gruffud was a potato then and always, Jessica Alba was terribly miscast). That element is also a big part of why the Marvel movies are forgivable even when they are lazy, compromised, or make shortcuts (which is less all the time). Fantastic Four has some of that, and probably more that was cut, but the attitude behind it is very different. Where the old movies were closer to Raimi’s glitzy family-friendly aesthetic, 2015’s Fantastic Four has a very dark heart where the humour and wit of the characters has little in common either with Marvel’s pseudo-comedy approach or DC’s ultra-dour approach. This is something else, which again… works very well until it doesn’t.

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The casting is one of the movie’s strongest moves, but it’s a punch that gets pulled a bit too.

One bone I’ll toss the super-haters is that it may be entirely forgiveable to check out of this movie in the first five or ten minutes, during the extended intro with Reed Richards and Ben Grimm as little muppets who can’t fucking act. The kid who plays Reed, in particular is just… terrible. I feel bad saying this because they are children after all, but the whole “no kid actor is a good actor” thing is a stupid, pervasive myth. A tip for whoever makes these movies in future: spend the extra time getting decent kid actors so that the audience doesn’t turn on you before you even get a fair shot at proving the naysayers wrong.

Ahem. Anyway. Fantastic Four is focused on a new, revamped origin story for the titular heroes. As such, it dovetails in and out of familiar narrative territory. Superhero origins are getting to be old hat, but I think there’s enough genuine science fictional wonder in this one to undercut the fact that it is, indeed, an origin story. This time out, Reed (Miles Teller) has successfully invented interdimensional teleportation but doesn’t yet know it. He is recruited by Dr. Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) to help a young team of researchers and engineers work out how to send organic matter through the “Gate” and bring it back again. Storm also recruits his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), his thrill-seeking son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and troubled anti-authoritarian whiz-kid Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). There’s an interesting interplay between different facets of youth culture happening during these early scenes. Reed basically represents the bright-eyed inventiveness and optimism of the next generation’s great innovators, while Victor is our dark side of paranoid fantasies, panoramic focus, and over-reliance on stimulating drugs like video games and cheap calories. Meanwhile, Storm himself represents the clear-eyed hope of the passing generation that, if they empower our generation rightly, we might fix the mistakes they’ve made and left us with. Reed is up to that challenge, where Victor resents both it and the powerful people who have left the world in what he sees, and what the movie consistently says instead of shows, is a sorry state.

So some of the problems with the characterization and narrative are right there in that paragraph. It’s not so bad that Victor is kind of a facsimile of your average angry redditor, or that Reed is basically not much of a character at all outside of Teller’s typically winning performance. There’s also that Trank takes on some degree of risk for marrying his story about these people to a more honest than usual sense of their youth. For one thing, the casting would be perfect if these were all supposed to be mid-20’s versions of the characters, but the fact that 2-4 of them (it’s not clear with the Storm siblings) are 18 at most makes it jarring that they are being played by considerably older actors. Beyond that, I can also see people being right rankled about the fact that the decision to go into the other dimension, thereby setting all the shit in the movie in motion, is made by a bunch of kids while fucking drunk. Personally, I loved this because there’s something honest about it and there’s also that the dynamics here nicely undermine the oft-repeated complaint that Sue gets “left behind”. In this movie, she is the responsible and somewhat anal member of the group and it makes sense that she would be doing something she was supposed to do while the ego-bruised “boys” get up to no good. This doesn’t mean there isn’t something boring and trite about the gender politics here, it’s just less bad than the thing people are saying, which is that Sue doesn’t get to be an interdimensional traveler because she’s a girl. I suppose, though, that you could reduce what I’m saying to just that… which, well, okay then.

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The “other dimension” is cheap looking. Like a Star Wars prequel set.

The jaunt into wherever that leads to these characters getting their weird powers is some cool exploratory pulp scifi stuff, a thread that is running right through the movie anyway. But it’s also the first place where a certain veneer of cheapness begins to distract from the movie overall. These CG sets look almost ten years out of date and though the general effects are far better, too much of the movie takes place on Planet Zero (the stupid name they give the dimension) for it to not be distracting. There’s also that there are few locations in the movie in general, and that we don’t see the heroes use their powers much (though we do see some cool uses of them as concepts… more on this later), adding to a feeling of smallness that pervades the movie as it slides into it’s second act and gets about as good as it’s going to get.

When they get the powers, Trank’s smart handling of body horror (not too horrific, not too cool either) makes of this something special and something we don’t see in superhero movies. The Fantastic Four are deformed by Planet Zero’s weird green energy, trapped by powers they cannot control. Indulging some expository efficiency, the movie shows us how Reed’s limbs are grotesquely stretched, Sue can’t stay visible, Johnny can’t stop screaming as his body burns but is never consumed, and Ben is trapped in the rock that has become his body. But we also see the upsides, and occasionally the powers get used in theoretically cool ways that may be somewhat hampered by tone-deaf execution. I’m talking of course of Reed rubberizing his face to look Mexican. I was not sure what to make of that, really. Is that going to be a ship that launches 1000 think-pieces? Oh probably.

This is otherwise effective stuff, and Reed escaping and going off the grid makes sense in the context that all this implies: these people have become tortured experiments for the military to poke and prod at, which is the kind of thing Victor feared would happen to the Gate if Storm lost control of it. With Victor left, presumably dead, in Zero and Reed flying the coop, there’s no one to dissent against the military’s work “with” the remaining three affected individuals. They make containment suits, allowing them to control their powers. All this is briskly ran through, and shouldn’t have been. Shoots from Reed escaping to Ben agreeing to become a military asset, to oooh suits and super power training. The government is consistently shown to be mostly good about it, with Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) being the focal point of whatever half-arsed point the movie may once have been trying to make about the corruption inherent in leveraging scientific inquiry to military and/or commercial ends.

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The Thing looks better than people are saying too. Watch closely for the details in his animation, his chest moving with breath, the rocks on his face adjusting as he speaks.

Speaking of half-arsed points, it’s interesting how one of the characters who gets simultaneously the least and most meat in the movie is Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). As a kid, we see that he comes from a disadvantaged junkyard family and his brother is a huge asshole. The movie makes a rare super-indulgent spin on a comic book staple by recasting The Thing’s famous phrase “it’s clobberin’ time” as something originally uttered by his abusive brother. This means that, when Ben says it, in the context of fighting which is something he’s been forced to do more than being inclined to it, there’s a note of sadness and resignation about what he’s become. I’m sure that there was more to this, originally, because this bit of subtext is pretty much all there is going on past the really underserved subplot of Ben feeling betrayed by Reed’s running from Area 57, where they live after the Gate accident. This never really comes together into anything meaningful, though it’s Ben who brings Reed back just in time for another Gate experiment which the Four hope will cure them, but that Allen wants to use to prove to the bigwigs and chickenhawks that the Gate has military applications.

Unfortunately for all, Doom is still alive on the other end and this is pretty much where the movie begins to fall apart.

A lot of people are bitching about Doom’s design. It’s kind of silly, yes, but there’s a creepiness to his face especially that is in keeping with the light horror elements of the film’s aesthetic. Beyond that, though, he’s a terribly weak villain in which none of the character development (slight though it may have been) and none of Toby Kebbell’s simmering, slightly tortured performance are recalled to add any kind of dramatic or narrative weight. The barely-therest it gets is his coveting of Sue and his rivalry with Reed, elements that are barely there! Doom becomes your standard Marvel villain at this point, all pomp and circumstance and noise and bombastic powers and poorly thought out motivations. In this case, he’s been waiting for the Gate to be reopened so he can destroy Earth to prevent Zero from being ruined the way he says, and Storm says, and we never see, that Earth was.

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See, aside from the glowing green shit… this is creepy to me. Maybe it’s the mouth.

Inexplicably, Doom has a black cloak and a passing familiarity with the Four’s powers. He also murders a lot of people in a rampage sequence that, I believe, is the last time the movie is really any good. I think a lot of people will find his head-exploding murder spree to be jarring and out of place, but I think it’s exactly why Trank went this way. The dark underbelly of what these people are now, or could become, is right there to see as Doom straight up explodes people’s heads and acts the part of a terrifying, unstoppable, and unknowable thing from beyond the Gate. The pulp again, guys. However, this doesn’t excuse the conventional “destroy the world” light show, the stupid villain monologuing, or just how little this guy resembles or reflects the character we saw sort of growing before he was left behind on Zero.

Then, as many have pointed out, the rest of the movie is about the Four getting together and giving Doom the beats. Unfortunately, this involves much CG with little artistry in about as conventional and boring a big super brawl as you might imagine. You’ve seen this kind of stuff before and it’s as bad as it sounds, mostly because it’s all rushed through and feels profoundly hollow. This leads the ending, with the Four being given the Keys the Whatever Kingdom by the government and left to become whatever they will now become, being totally hollow as well. The way the movie starts stuttering and then VCR-skipping its way to a conclusion just saps whatever good will the “mostly good” and “definitely at least okay” work done up to that point. It’s Green Lantern levels terrible, though thankfully without the pandering humor or weird ableist politics.

Maybe the most disappointing thing about it, though, is how it fails to be the last chance this movie had to bring it’s relatively shallow characterizations into some kind of meaningful place, where an audience would be willing to revisit all these guys in another movie with more room for them to breathe. This franchise is DOA, and I’m not sad about that. Marvel should get these guys back and should definitely keep working on their own flaws, some of which this movie shared. The one thing that might have saved it, being the thing that saved those weaker early Marvel movies, is more investment in poignant moments for the characters, whether that comes in the form of comedy, or horror, or whatever. Marvel always does that well in their movies. Fantastic Four is trying to do something different, true, but it never really finds an anchoring point for any of its heroes. They bounce of each other a bit, they have a few nice moments, even a few comedic ones, but mostly there’s nothing particularly memorable or iconic about any of them except for maybe the special effects that give them their otherworldiness. This is the one thing that doesn’t just become a problem in the last third of the movie, but is a problem all throughout. And it’s the one thing I would bet was lost when Fox undermined Josh Trank and recut his movie.

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This .gif basically sums up my feelings about the movie.

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