So I Didn’t Just See Fantastic Four

Alright, I’ve mentioned this movie a couple times in the past few months, primarily because I was intrigued by its casting choices, and the direction that I saw it taking in the second big trailer they released had me hopeful that this might be an interesting take on the characters with more of an emphasis on the weird science aspect of their history over the bizarrely lowbrow take that I recall from Rise of the Silver Surfer (I watched it on an airplane a couple years ago; it was really bad, and the only thing I remember is there was a product placement joke about the Fantasticar being powered by a Hemi engine).

I’m writing this on the Sunday of Fantastic Four‘s opening weekend when reports are being posted about the movie’s initial theater performance (which is dismal), and I’ve been mulling over some thoughts about the kind of impact this kind of reception could have on the franchise in particular and superhero movies more generally (and movies at large even more generally).

Let’s start with the first thing that has been the major source of my interest in this project: Michael B. Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm.  By all accounts that I’ve seen, Jordan’s done as well as can be expected with the script he was given, and while his character is portrayed with some problematic elements (in the familial relationship between Johnny and Sue, the black male Johnny is a rebellious troublemaker while his white sister is an academic whiz), his casting is not being cited as a weakness in the film as a whole.  I think this is pretty important because of much of the fan backlash that’s been floating around for a while about the studio casting  a black actor for a traditionally white character.  Seeing how all the criticism of the film doesn’t point to that particular decision as a bad one, I hope that the decision makers at Fox won’t apply some insane troll logic that dictates the movie must have failed because they tried to diversify their cast.  The issues with the movie seem to be mostly due to a mismatch between director and material.

Better try changing again, apparently. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Second, let’s talk about the tone of the movie.  Due to its universally poor reviews The Atlantic decided to post a spoilereview of the film with a complete plot summary which explains in excruciating detail all the story beats that happen.  As Charlie Jane Anders points out in her review from io9, this is a superhero movie that’s embarrassed to be a superhero movie.  Every decision about characterization, from the introduction of Ben Grimm’s catchphrase as originating from childhood trauma to everyone’s hatred of Reed Richards after he escapes captivity by himself, is built around the idea of making the story as dark, gritty, and unheroic as possible.  There’s moving away from a four-color sensibility, which can be bonkers, and then there’s completely removing the joy of the superhero fantasy from a superhero story.  If this current iteration of the Fantastic Four survives for a sequel, I’m pretty confident Josh Trank won’t be returning to direct it.

See, I’m all for trying out new interpretations of old material.  A gritty Fantastic Four that focuses on the body horror of having severe irreversible changes forced on these characters sounds like it could have some potential, but this attempt clearly isn’t doing that concept right.  I think a better choice with the Fantastic Four, at least for right now, when movie makers are still trying to figure out how to turn the property into something with widespread appeal, would be to go for a retro futuristic feel.  The Fantastic Four launched the Silver Age of Marvel Comics, and that era has always been their most definitive.  The aesthetic should be bright and reminiscent of the optimism of the ’60s when space exploration was a national craze (I don’t necessarily think that a reboot would need to be grounded in the ’60s as a period piece, but it should definitely take cues from the attitudes of that decade).  The plot should be bonkers, with a villain who isn’t presented with pretensions of being a threat if they existed in the real world (the Mole Man might be a good choice, because his nature invites exploration of a strange location removed from the real world, which is the kind of backdrop absurd powers like stretchiness or bursting into flame would work best in).

All in all, I’m disappointed to see this new version of Fantastic Four do so poorly, but after learning about what it was trying to do, I can see why it went that way.  As for whether or not I’m actually going to see it, I suppose that’s something better left answered in a few months when it’s out of theaters and making the rounds on video and streaming services.

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