I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Fantastic Four

tn_fantastic4What you gotta do with some of these movies, you gotta wait a year, so it’s after it already came out and the director publicly disowned it and it flopped and everyone said it was a piece of shit and dissected how the studio reshoots ruined or failed to save it. That’s what I did and then FANTASTIC FOUR didn’t seem as bad. I’d go so far as to say I kind of enjoyed watching it.

The opening threatens to be GREEN LANTERN, with its kid versions of two of the four. But it’s okay, it just establishes that Reed Richards (Miles Teller, FOOTLOOSE) is a genius inventor prodigy and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell, SNOWPIERCER) is his working class buddy who helps. When their high school science project actually warps matter to another dimension, Reed gets a scholarship to The Baxter Institute, where Sue Storm (Kate Mara, TRANSSIBERIAN) and her dad Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, THE MACHINIST) plus grouchy ex-student Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) are working on a similar project. With Baxter’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, CREED) taking Ben’s assistant role, they build a dimensional portal to be used by NASA.

That’s when they make a poor decision: they get drunk and call Ben and try the thing out themselves. (Not “The Thing.” The dimensional portal thing.) That’s pretty original, actually. I believe Ultron is the only other comic book movie character with a scientists-had-a-few-too-many-beers origin.

What I liked best is how different the origin feels from other super hero movies. It plays more like a sci-fi horror movie. An accident fucks them up, they find themselves bolted to gurneys in “AREA 52 – UNDISCLOSED LOCATION.” It does a good job of showing how changes in your body like this would be horrifying. It honestly seems more inspired by THE FLY than SPIDER-MAN. Johnny looks like a burning corpse. Ben looks like a pile of rocks. Reed has monstrously long limbs, strapped down, begging first for information about his friends’ condition, then forgiveness. Victor doesn’t make it back. Until later.

mp_fantastic4From there the story doesn’t proceed at all as I expected. That’s a good thing. Reed escapes, and goes on the lam like Bruce Banner, and it skips ahead some time. Nobody has become a super hero. The other three stay and willingly live as test subjects, studied by the military, working to control their powers. Ben (not a.k.a. The Thing as far as they mention) is being sent around for black ops clobbering missions. Dr. Storm worries that Johnny will be next.

There’s an interesting class thing here. Ben recognizes, maybe with some resentment, that fighting is what he does. He’s not one of these geniuses. There’s a little tension there, but also some sense of duty. I think he feels alternately inferior and superior around them. And Johnny, who is not expected to be a military guy based on his background, does want to be one, and has to fight his father about it.

Reed feels guilty about getting Ben into this mess, and Ben doesn’t forgive him right away. Reed asks him if it hurts. That was done first – and better – in the first X-MEN. But I like that these “powers” really do look painful. It’s not a stretch (get it, because the one guy can stretch, I’m still working on this joke though sorry guys) to say that this is part super hero movie, part body horror.

John is maybe the most under-served character, but he has the coolest power. His face looks like a burning Halloween mask, but it’s recognizable as Jordan. An impressive special effect. And as much as we all appreciate the ol’ practical effects, I think we can also all agree as a society that this CGI The Thing looks way, way better than poor Michael Chiklis’s makeup version.

The characterization of their asshole colleague Victor is pretty corny, and not enough is made of him being tragically lost in the other dimension. They barely seem to give a shit! But his arrival as a weird metal/human hybrid (without moving mouth?) is another good horror type sequence. It has that I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER element of oh-shit-he’s-trying-to-kill-us-and-to-be-honest-we-kinda-deserve-this-in-my-opinion. Also I got a kick out of the awkwardness when some astronauts ran into him by accident while exploring the other dimension. “I knew you’d come back for me!” he says.

Uh… yeah. Yeah! That’s totally why we’re here!

When it’s over, and you think through everything that happened, it’s clear that something’s missing. Even more than SUICIDE SQUAD or BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, the parts that are successful feel like loose puzzle pieces that you have to figure would’ve fit together better if they hadn’t thrown a bunch of them away and replaced them with pieces from a different puzzle. There are different character moments that make me like these guys, but they don’t seem to have complete arcs.

Then they just have a fight out in the middle of nowhere against Victor and his, uh… make-cars-fly-around powers? If it were real it would be the most spectacular thing that ever happened, but in a super hero movie it seems like small potatoes. The story ends up feeling so small and simple in the end that you’d almost think it was a low budget movie. I’m sure they wish it was.

The screenplay is credited to Jeremy Slater (THE LAZARUS EFFECT, upcoming Adam Wingard DEATH NOTE) and Simon Kinberg (xXx: STATE OF THE UNION, MR. & MRS. SMITH, X-MEN 3, 5 and 6) & director Josh Trank, who reportedly had to sit by helplessly as others reshot and re-edited the movie when his version allegedly wasn’t working. I forgot while watching it, but at least one of the trailers had a cool action moment with The Thing doing his special ops missions, something that’s only tantalizingly glimpsed on a monitor in the finished movie. It’s weird if a studio wanted less action in a movie like this. I wonder what’s up with that?

As a feature director, Trank had only done CHRONICLE, the super hero found footage movie written by M*x Landis. The two things I remember being good in that movie were Michael B. Jordan (who Trank fought to have as The Human Torch) and some clever gimmicks where the super powers move the cameras around so they can have good camera work in a found footage movie.

And people don’t normally mention this, but Trank was editor and co-producer of BIG FAN, which should count for something.

At the time I thought it was weird that he got hired for both THE FANTASTIC FOUR and a STAR WARS spin-off movie on the strength of that not-that-great found footage thing being a hit. Seemed like the studio knew something we didn’t. But maybe not. I feel bad for him that this movie got taken away from him, he maybe killed his career by tweeting bitterly about it just before the release, and he left/got fired from the STAR WARS movie. There was gossip about allegedly yelling at everybody and a story about his small dogs doing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to a rental house, which I’m hoping will be the subject of a future James Cameron 3D Imax documentary. In the old days a guy who got a movie taken away from him by a studio would be seen as the underdog hero (think Sergio Leone on ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, Terry Gilliam on BRAZIL, David Fincher on ALIEN 3, Brian Helgeland on PAYBACK, Louis C.K. on POOTIE TANG, etc.), but the entertainment media immediately made Trank out to be the bad guy.

I don’t know what happened. Not having been there it seems plausible that he was completely blowing it and they didn’t have much of a choice. But if they did have a choice, they did hire him for his vision, they shoulda let him see it through, in my opinion. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any historical examples where a studio reworked a bad movie without the director and made it into a hit.

Now that I’ve seen FANTASTIC FOUR I gotta say, the stuff I liked in the movie was the kind of stuff Trank talked about in interviews, comparing it to a Cronenberg movie or something. It seems completely wrong-headed for the fucking Fantastic Four, who have the word Fantastic in their name, and in their last movie met “The Silver Surfer,” to be the characters to have this type of approach for. Trank put them in a world where it wouldn’t work if The Thing was wearing underwear. Is it really worth making FANTASTIC FOUR if it can’t have a rock man wearing blue undies? You would think no.

And yet, honestly, it comes closer to working than those silly ones with Jessica Alba and Chris Evans. Maybe you’re disappointed that they don’t have a funny robot guy in a cloak who’s the dictator of a country, and that’s completely fair. But they do have a creepy looking guy made of some kind of… bio-metal… created on a mysterious plane that, in the better scenes, has an effective sense of fear-of-the-unknown danger. They got part way there. In different circumstances maybe it could’ve been something.

Maybe next time. And there will be a next time. These film rights aren’t gonna renew themselves.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 10th, 2016 at 10:46 am and is filed under Comic strips/Super heroes, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

36 Responses to “Fantastic Four”

  1. Crushinator Jones

    August 10th, 2016 at 10:59 am

    I found the body horror stuff, and that tracking shot of Doom walking down the corridor popping heads, to be very effective.

    I’m sad that we didn’t get weird auteur horror-comic out of this. But this seems to be par for the course.

    As someone else put it, “The main difference between Marvel and these other guys is that Marvel has the good sense to do all their meddling up front, before they start shooting the film.”

  2. Vern, thank you so much for reviewing this and giving it a fair shake. I love this stray dog of a mess of a movie.

  3. The second half of this movie feels like the low-budget DTV sequel/stealth remake to the first half. Other than it’s better than its reputation would have you believe but still not very good. I’ve never seen a summer tentpole movie with such an aversion to spectacle.

    Plus the treatment of Sue was some Katherine Heigl in KNOCKED UP shit. The boys get to go out and have adventures and she gets to stay home and nag them about it.

  4. That’s not entirely true, she also gets to watch the guys fight and lend them her invisibility powers that she shouldn’t use herself because she’s just a girl.

  5. I had the chance to watch it on a plane a few weeks ago. Settled for other movies, but the scenes I saw on the monitor from the guy in front of me, looked interesting. Now I actually regret not watching it.

  6. Yet another mess of a movie that I enjoyed it. I can’t fully go to semi-bat for it like I do with BvS but found it an interesting curio of a mainstream movie. I mean seriously what was Fox thinking when Trank pitched them this thing, “I want to make an anti-spectacle movie that’s more a somber horror/drama than action/superhero”? I mean did he lie and pitch them this great, fun movie that emulates the really fun and imaginative Kirby days and then secretly film the serious morose version which shocked Fox? It doesn’t really work but I’m glad they made this thing (no pun intended), it’s different at the very least.

    I guess if HULK were made today, Ang Lee would have the movie taken from him and it would be re-shot at the last minute and made even worse (I really like the movie btw) by trying to make it more mainstream when everyone approved a very-not-mainstream version from the get-go.

  7. The origin of “It’s clobberin’ time” in this movie feels like a joke. And I don’t mean the movie is making a joke. I mean it feels like something that would be suggested as a parody of superhero movies going dark and Nolan-y. Like “What’s next, is ‘It’s clobberin’ time’ gonna be something Ben Grimm’s abusive brother used to tell him when he smacked him around?'”

  8. grimgrinningchris

    August 10th, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    So to invoke a one time Trank collaborator… She’s not a Mary-Sue Storm? That’s what y’all re saying?

  9. I love you guys because you can like any any piece of shit and somehow find negatives in good movies.

  10. I saw this at the movies because even though pretty much everyone at the time was saying it was an irredeemable piece of shit I honestly thought that it might have potential to be better than expected. And honestly for most of this thing, even with the obvious reshoots sticking out like a sore dick, I was thinking “THIS is the movie that everyone is shitting on!?” I was shocked by how into it I was. By the time the credits rolled all I could think was “THIS is the movie that everyone is shitting on.”

    I found the focus on character and science shit over spectacle to be imperfect but refreshing. I think the score is great. I think it feels like a film made, for the most part, with craft and care. I also think that everything following the awesome “hallway” scene is amongst the worst garbage I’ve ever endured in a tentpole movie, superhero or otherwise.

    Shown this to a few people since it dropped and not a single one liked it but for reasons I still haven’t been able to quantify I genuinely love this one.

  11. It’s the outlaw way, Sternshein. It takes courage to ride with this pack. And really weird tastes.

  12. So Freddie is Zoe’s dad in this one?

  13. The reworked Payback is a lot more fun, enjoyable, and flows better than Helgeland’s limp version, and that’s because of Mel’s voiceovers alone,

  14. I remember being surprised at the reception for this. I thought it was pretty good experience, and it had a few visual moments that stuck with me after after the film.

    A bit of a failure, not an entirely noble one, but it held my interest and was distinctive. I think the ways in which it doesn’t work is part of what made it so interesting.

    I worry about the trend atm of Marvel films making shedloads and all the others comparatively failing, because I find Marvel studios to be pretty bland and risk-averse. It’s a shame to have a massively successful franchise that doesn’t really have things as basic as memorable music cues, or dialogue, or a cinematographer (more or less). The bland house-style since Iron Man in 2008 is one of the most baffling, worrying things in recent cinema.

  15. I enjoyed this for much the same reasons cited in the review, but the second half *is* pretty awkward and I doubt I would have accepted it from a film every man, woman and child hadn’t already declared to be garbage. Still, weird studio decision or not, the relative dearth and brevity of action was quite refreshing.

  16. You forgot to mention that another rumor was that Trank spent a lot of time holed up in his trailer smoking weed instead of ya know, directing, which certainly sounds unprofessional.

    It sounds to me like he was in over his head, I mean “dude, what if we did a David Cronenberg take on a superhero movie?” definitly sounds like something a pot head would come up with.

  17. All of these comments are actually making me interested in watching a Fantastic Four film. Injecting some Cronenbergian body horror into a FF film is both bizarre and weirdly obvious.

    Michael Chabon actually did some sort of proposal for a FF movie, and I believe he had it set in kind of a retrofuturistic 60s, which I think might actually work with these characters. There’s something about them that makes it hard to transfer them from comic books to the screen.

  18. I’d say SUPERMAN II is the most obvious example of a crap film reworked by the studio into something good ― though in that case they took the film away from an untalented hack and gave it to someone brilliant; more commonly it’s the other way around.

    (Yeah, I’m aware the Donner cut has its defenders. I can’t see the appeal of interminable “comedy” bits about bed-wetting, Superman blowing women’s skirts up, flushing toilets in the Fortress of Solitude, etc., but apparently some people love that kind of thing.)

  19. Donner doesn’t deserve to be called a hack though.

  20. Donner’s not technically incompetent or anything, but his movies are as generic as it gets. There’s almost never any spark of personality. I do like LETHAL WEAPON a lot, but that’s mainly down to Shane Black.

  21. The CGI make the Thing’s condition looks more horrible than usual but other than that, the whole “being mopey about having turned into a monster” has always been part of the character and the movie doesn’t really do anything particularly interesting with it. Yes, at first they’re all horrified by their transformation, but then it quickly skips to the part where they’ve learned to control it/use it for superheroics and by the end I think they’ve even given up the idea of finding a cure. So I think people who are considering watching the movie specifically because they’re interested in the concept of “Cronenbergian body horror in a superhero movie” should probably watch DEADPOOL instead.

  22. The word you’re looking for is “journeyman.” A journeyman does what the material requires and doesn’t slather it with his own fetishes. A journeyman can make a wide variety of films and pull them all off, because he’s not beholden to one style. Don Seigel was considered the ultimate journeyman director, and Clint Eastwood based much of his directing career on what he learned working with him.

  23. Crushinator Jones

    August 11th, 2016 at 7:53 am

    There’s no body horror in Deadpool. He’s just pissed off he’s ugly. The part where his hand grows back and starts tiny is used for a (decent) jerk-off joke. Think about how horrifying that actually is.

  24. I think the transformation scene qualifies.

  25. Really? We are now calling directors, who cranked out lots and lots of highly re-watchable to damn great movie for over 30 years now “hacks” and their outputs “generic”? What does the director of THE OMEN, SUPERMAN, LETHAL WEAPON 1-4, LADYHAWKE, SCROOGED, RADIO FLYER and what the hell, let’s just put THE GOONIES on the list too, because it has a shit ton of fans, to do, do get the reckognition he deserves?

  26. Donner isn’t a hack; he simply works in a lot of crowd-pleasing genres that maybe don’t share a philosophy. His compositions, particularly in his widescreen movies (GOONIES, LADYHAWKE, SUPERMAN, THE OMEN), are pretty sophisticated.

  27. I guess we could argue over whether Donner is a better-than-average hack or a worse-than-average journeyman, but suffice to say he’s mediocre. Better than Chris Columbus, worse than Ivan Reitman. Somewhere in there. I think comparisons to Don Siegel are kind of nuts — Siegel might not have been as stylistically distinctive as some other directors, but he had his own quirks, like his fondness for assholes and antiheroes as protagonists. More to the point, the guy had an amazing track record. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE KILLERS, DIRTY HARRY, THE BEGUILED, CHARLEY VARRICK — what does Donner have to compare to that? And none of Donner’s films are really visually striking except for LADYHAWKE (thanks, Vittorio Storaro) and the first half of CONSPIRACY THEORY (all right, I’ll give Donner credit for that one).

    Can we agree that he can’t do comedy? He’s responsible for THE TOY, ferchrissake. SCROOGED is the closest he’s come to something actually funny, and even there screenwriter Michael O’Donoghue disowned it afterward because Donner put in too much broad mugging and stripped out all the subtle bits. I’m baffled by people who think that what SUPERMAN II needed was more Lex and Otis.

  28. Don’t fans of his cut of SUPERMAN II claim his cut is “darker”?

    Not sure I agree with you on Donner, but I certainly think that Lester’s very impressive body of work pre-SUPES is too easily ignored or dismissed by the AICN crowd (or wherever they hang these days).

  29. Yeah, most of Richard Lesters comedy bits are taken out. I believe “Sheriff pepper” is nowhere to be seen in the Donner
    cut.

    Speaking of Lester, I love HELP. Crazy movie with awesome Beatles music.

  30. Yeah, I’ve always found this incomprehensible. The AICN types claim that Donner’s cut is more serious, and it categorically isn’t — it just has different, lamer, jokes. The big sticking point for them with Lester’s cut seems to be that scene during the fight in Metropolis where the villains use their super breath to blow a guy’s toupee off, push a roller-skater backwards, knock over a guy in a phone booth (who continues talking), and so on. And sure, maybe that’s tonally out of place, or at least longer than it needs to be. But come on, there must be like five times in the Donner cut where there’s a joke about wetting the bed or pissing your pants or some other kind of toilet humour. Are they just not noticing this stuff?

    Shoot McKay: The two cops are still in the Donner cut, but their roles are cut down. You get the “They must be from L.A.” joke without any of the establishing stuff beforehand that lets it make sense.

    (Oh, and the bad comedy is far from my only problem with Donner’s version. The movie’s whole structure is half-baked — e.g., it makes no sense for Superman to decide to give up his powers after he’s already sleeping with Lois Lane.)

  31. The problem with the theatrical cut is the forced Paris stuff. I think the Donner cut weaves in the first film better by using the atomic bomb from the first film that Superman push into space blow up the phantom zone and therefore unleashing the threee Kryptonians.

    I think it works for the most part better than the theatrical cut.

  32. I think I prefer the ambitious failure of the Superman 2 Donner cut….

  33. The material at hand was I think flawed to make a Directors cut to begin with. I still for mostly nostalgic reasons like the theatrical cut better even though it is quite horrendous in all honestly. It is still a fun fucking movie to watch and the score is better suited to the events on the screen than in the Directors Cut.

  34. It’s basically a cool DVD extra, like a Workprint cut, it’s just that’s not how it was marketed (or, indeed, in some territories, literally sold).

  35. Lester’s Musketeer movies have stood the test of time. His SUPERMAN II? not so much. With that said I’ve never in my life ever watched The Donner Cut so by default Lester’s version is still very much MY SUPERMAN II.

  36. Why bad guys wear cheap Chinese plastic masks and helmets in superhero movies? For example in X-Men there’s usually plastic pot on Magneto’s head and the older FF had Victor Von Doom wearing silver 2$ mask and Dafoe’s character in Spiderman felt absurd also – reminding me Power Rangers low-budget crap.
    Don’t know, maybe I’m the only one who’s complaining about cheapness in helmet department

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