In Defense of... Fantastic 4 (2015)
Updated: Mar 12, 2023
10% on Rotten Tomatoes. Damn, that’s actually DOWN from when I looked at it yesterday (it was 11% then). If you switch over to the audience, it’s a whopping 20%.
Let’s talk about why they’re all wrong. [Thus beginning our slow descent into megalomania. – Ed.]
First, as always, some context, because in this instance, I feel very much that the world that Josh Trank’s adaptation of the Fantastic 4 was released in was at least partly responsible for its poor reception. [We might even start this with an homage to the late, great, Don Lafontaine…IN A WORLD… - Ed.] First off, let’s talk about Fox vs. Disney. Now, if you look at the history of the Batman TV show, you’ll see that Fox has absolutely zero problem being a dick to originators of properties they have the license to. On the other side of that, once Disney acquired Marvel, naturally they went about doing their best to get all their movie franchises under one roof. In the time since Fox released their two lackluster Fantastic Four movies, Disney and Marvel had launched a wildly successful cinematic universe that the FF would be a natural fit into tonally. In what from the outside looked to be a classic game of one-upmanship, the feud between the two movie studios began in earnest. Fox rushed a reboot of the FF into production to keep the rights from going back to Marvel. Marvel, in turn, brings the FF comic to a close, scatters the characters into other titles and limits the amount the associated characters are seen on other licensed goods. (Imagine if this had happened to Batman in the 60s, or Supergirl when that film was distributed by Tri-Star and not Warners.) For example, FF members were removed from various images (where they had once been present) on t-shirts, posters and such. Another instance is that the Fantastic Four expansion set for Upper Deck’s Legendary Marvel deck-building game on received a single printing, now making it very rare on the collectibles market. Sure, this could further be argued if we look at the changes within the X-Men titles too, another Fox film franchise licensed from Marvel (less mutants/more Inhumans, killing Wolverine and so on), but let’s keep this on the subject at hand. [You can do that? – Ed.] Stop and think about the implications of this conflict. You’re releasing a movie based on a comic, which should already guarantee you a consistent form of secondary merchandising and advertising…keeping the name out there…but no. Not only is that taken away from you, but the rampant speculation of the aforementioned one-upmanship…hello, consumer uncertainty. And while I’m sure as hell not an economist, well, it’s pretty obvious that’s the sort of press you don’t need. Not helping matters were the rumors/reports of tensions on the set between director Trank and the producers/studio, culminating in an opening day tweet from Trank saying that there’s a version of the film that is spectacular that audiences will never see.
To analogize this, it’s like getting ready to run a marathon by breaking your own ankles with a sledge hammer.
So let’s talk about the movie in general before we go into the general viewing audience’s gripes as well as my own gripes. A year before Tim Story’s first FF movie made it to theaters, Marvel opted to do an Ultimate version of the team, stripping away years and years of continuity, asking ‘what if they were created TODAY?’. Instead of four friends jumping on a rocket, being subjected to cosmic rays then returning to earth with, dare I say it, fantastic powers…we’re shown in this Ultimate version that Reed and crew were changed by exposure to interdimensional energies when travelling to the Negative zone. This is the origin that Trank’s film runs with and it’s a smart move. It accomplishes the same thing cinematically as what they achieved in the comics, updating the origin and informing you that this is different from the continuity that came before. Trank’s cinematic take is also very different from that which came before, playing the FF as hard science fiction with a pinch of David Cronenberg-esque body-horror thrown in for good measure. The hard science take is certainly understandable, with Reed being the foremost scientific mind in the Marvel Universe. Don’t get me wrong, science was certainly part of the Tim Story films as well, but it was there more like it is in Star Trek, spouting off techno-babble in order to sound impressive and let everyone know that yes, this is science-y. In Trank’s film, the science feels more like Interstellar; sure, there’s its own fair amount of techno-babble, but there’s a realistic feel to the science…it’s not all holographic touch screens and gee-wiz flying cars…it’s a science that’s rooted in our current science then branches off to be where the movie needs it to be. Entering into the body-horror aspect of the film, believe it or not, that has its roots in the very first issue of the comic, as none of the Four are particularly thrilled by their powers…they are indeed scared by them. I’d say that’s perfectly normal. Think about if you had to concentrate to keep yourself visible, or to keep from falling apart…or to keep from bursting into flame. Oh…or that you look to see you’ve become a giant rock monster. Pretty traumatic? Yeah…definitely gonna need a session or two with a good therapist. [For those of you reading at home, that’s what we call a ‘gross understatement’. – Ed.] But just a couple of pages later, yeah, they’re fine with it, let’s go beat up Mole Man. Sure, I’m exaggerating (slightly), but comics prior to…let’s say the mid-70s…weren’t exactly known for their depth. They simply told an adventure story for 22 pages with the occasional multi-part story…definitely not the long arcs we’re accustomed to now. Speaking of arcs, it seems like this is the point to highlight that this film is definitely a slow burn. Weird to say that about a 90 minute film, but it’s true. The movie takes its time allowing each of the characters to come to terms with their new identities before gelling into the titular team in the final act. Compare this to previous Marvel team movies. Avengers had the benefit of each of the teams members having their own solo film first (except Black Widow…we’ll get to that…) and X-Men could have just as easily been retitled “Wolverine and friends”. Fox’s initial Fantastic Four movie got around that by having everyone essentially knowing everyone else to begin with, relationships already established in a referenced but never shown past. Trank’s FF are two groups of strangers; Reed and Ben, Johnny, Sue and Victor and he tries to give each of them some degree of spotlight or background…as permitted by such a short run time. These factors, when mixed in with the standard FF plot of ‘team gets powers, so does Doom then big conflict in the third act’ give this Fantastic 4 a very different feel from its cinematic predecessors. And I’d think that’s exactly what you’d want from a reboot.
But apparently not. You see, the biggest complaint from reviewers of this film was that it didn’t have the lightness, joy and humor that the comic was known for. Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but viewers got that in the previous two films…which led us to the reboot we’re reviewing now. So which one is it? You didn’t want the light and humorous back in 2005 and 2007, but you want it now in 2015? Personally I always felt that the biggest failings of the two previous movies fell exactly in that category: Johnny at the X Games, Reed’s bachelor party, the constant celebrity culture issues in both movies. I welcomed this new, more realistic interpretation. While this movie is certainly darker than previous films, it’s certainly not humorless…the first example that comes to mind is the interplay between Johnny and Victor. Given the nature of this film and what it chooses to explore, it almost HAS to be dark. And since the team forms only at the very end of the film, who’s to say that lightness wouldn’t come later? This movie actually shares a fair amount of unjust criticism with 2013’s Man of Steel. In that film, we weren’t dealing with Superman as we know him, we were dealing with a Clark Kent that only this past week learned his Kryptonian name was Kal-El, got his suit and learned to fly before he had to take out General Zod on the streets of Metropolis. It’s the same thing here. The actual Fantastic Four don’t appear in this movie until, at best, the last 5 minutes of this movie. The other 85 or so minutes? They are Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben learning to be a team to take down their former colleague Victor. But, the FF, more than likely just like Superman (since what was going to be Man of Steel 2 has become Batman Batman Batman with special appearances from Superman and Wonder Woman), aren’t going to get the sequel they deserve in order to show off what they’ve learned from their respective origin stories.
What about my own nit-picks? Sure, I’ve got them…as this is by no means a perfect film. First up…Planet Zero. Seriously? Sure, this might be minor, but it’s been the Negative Zone for a very long time in the comics, why the hell change it? And, if you are going to change it, why on earth make it sound like a location in a 40s Flash Gordon serial? That one’s minor. Next up, moving on to more of a moderate nit-pick, is Doom. While the movie gets it right that Doom is all about power, it’s what he aims to do with that power is where the movie fumbles. Doom, at his core, feels that with the power he craves, he is uniquely qualified to rule the world, given his vast intelligence. The last thing he’d want to do? Destroy it. Put simply, then there’d be no one left to bask in his greatness. Trank’s Doom’s motivation, however, is to destroy our world in favor of his new one, the aforementioned Planet Zero. To call it what it is might reveal which FF villain might have served this story better: a denizen of the Negative Zone hell bent on destroying our reality. Sounds more like Annihilus, doesn’t it? And who knows, maybe there are pieces or scenes from Trank’s ‘ne’er to be seen by anyone’ version that links these two villains, but as the movie stands now, as I said, it’s a medium-sized nit-pick. The biggie is Sue. You see, Sue isn’t in on the visit to the Negative Zone (I’m not calling it Planet Zero anymore). She gets her exposure from the energy wave that ushers the return of the vessel carrying Johnny, Reed, Victor and Ben. And why’s Ben there? The movie makes it very clear that he’s not the brains, he’s Reed’s brawn. Simple, Reed drunk-dialed him. So…let me get this straight, one of the scientists that actually worked on the device doesn’t get to go on the maiden voyage…but the best friend of one (who didn’t have much…if any…input/knowledge) does? That’s fucked up. I mean, sure, I see where Ben deserves a ride, he’d been with Reed from the beginning and believed in him every step of the way. Sure, that merits seeing the culmination of his friend’s work. Totally. But you know who else deserves to go? Someone that actually worked on the damn thing. Instead, Sue almost serves as a tattle-tail, she notices the device is gone, calls her father and then proceeds to bring the team back. It just really doesn’t do her any justice. This, coupled with the treatment of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper, and yeah, even my estrogen-challenged ass can see why women in general might have a problem with the way they’re depicted by Marvel.
To sum up, this movie deserves a lot more credit than what it got. It’s a fresh new take on the Fantastic Four and is certainly worth a look. Yes, it does have its problems, but I would ask you what first entry in a series doesn’t? First watching it in the theater and then again on home video, I was surprised to find my feelings on this film were exactly the same each time I watched it. This was a good, solid foundation for a potential franchise and I was very interested in what the next film would be. And it’s kind of a shame that second film will never be.