Lo! There Shall Come A Slating!
Where, oh where, is one to start when it comes to Josh Trank's new adaptation of Marvel's venerable Fantastic Four? The first and perhaps most obvious thing to say is that this movie is currently experiencing the doomsday scenario when it comes to media coverage; the story is not the fact that the film has been made, the story is the fact that the film has been made and is a creative disaster. There is a definite note of gleefulness in the recounting of the various travails of the production, now it is officially awful, and critics of all stripes seem to be competing to put the boot into it in the most extravagant way possible.
As ever, when this happens, you might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that this is a film without any redeeming features whatsoever. Of course, that isn't the case, but it would be a real stretch (no pun intended) to describe this film as being actually entertaining to watch.
The comic origins of the Four date back to 1961 and are so tied up with then-contemporary concerns like the Cold War and the Space Race that they are virtually impossible to plausibly update (as the makers of the 2005 film discovered), and so the new film draws more on the retooled story from Marvel's Ultimate imprint. So we get to meet brilliant but dweeby science prodigy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his rough-diamond best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who together manage to invent a dimensional teleporter for their school science project.
This gets them into the Baxter Institute, a hothouse for young genii, where Reed is put to work on a full-size version of the same device, working alongside fellow young scientist Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and her brother Johnny (Michael B Jordan) – somewhat to the chagrin of the project's initiator, older student Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).
Needless to say they all get the thing built, and needless to say their first trip in it does not go according to plan – their visit to ‘Planet Zero', as the place in the other dimension is christened, sees them bombarded with strange energies. Doom gets left behind and the others return to Earth mutated in a variety of horrible ways. Luckily the caring folks of the US Army are there to look after them, weaponise them, and restart work on the dimensional travel project, because there's no possible way Doom could have survived and been transformed into a genocidal supervillain…
The new Fantastic Four movie does one absolutely astonishing thing, something I would've said was virtually impossible – it manages to make the 2005 and 2007 films about the quartet look like masterpieces of authenticity and faithfulness when it comes to this particular comic. There is a case to be made that Fantastic Four #1 marks the point at which modern superhero comic-books came into existence, its success paving the way for all Stan Lee's subsequent riffs on the idea of troubled superhumans: the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, all of them followed the Fantastic Four.
And yet the book has been singularly ill-served in its cinematic adaptations – there was the 1994 version, produced as the movie equivalent of an ashcan copy and never intended for release, and the 2005 and 2007 films, which were hamstrung by a number of problems, not least a fatal uncertainty of tone. I have a feeling that following this latest fantastic farrago, it will be declared that the Fantastic Four is inherently unadaptable for the big screen. Personally I don't think so – ten years ago you could have said the same thing about Captain America, considering the lousy films based on that character up to that point – but, for good or ill, I don't run a major studio.
Unfortunately, in this case the tail seems to be wagging the dog as there is a suggestion that the troubles of the film may be partly responsible for the FF's comic being cancelled earlier this year. Putting it very simply, this is again to do with the complicated legal status of many of Marvel's best-known characters when it comes to screen adaptations: Marvel Studios has the film rights to the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and so on, but the rights to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and a few others were sold off long ago, which is why these movies don't cross over with the others (and why there was great excitement in fannish circles when it was announced that Sony were effectively leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, following the underperformance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2).
There was a suggestion that Marvel actually wanted Fantastic Four to fail, in order to leverage their buying back the rights here as well, and that the comic's cancellation was part of this. Personally I doubt this was the only cause, as – for whatever reason – the book was selling very low numbers anyway. But, if Marvel wanted a failure, they certainly seem to have got one, as this movie is apparently bombing.
This is not really surprising, given that – in an impressive display of the belt-and-braces principle in action – Fantastic Four manages to be terrible in two completely different ways. First of all, the movie is sub-competent in terms of its basic film-making and story-telling: it's poorly scripted, sluggishly paced, with some extremely variable special effects work. There seem to be three or four different stories fighting for supremacy, resulting in a distinctly odd narrative structure and some weird shifts in tone across the movie. It starts off, for instance, looking like the friendship between Reed and Ben is going to be one of the key elements of the story – but then Jamie Bell vanishes out of the film for quite a long time, and while later scenes make reference to the guys' relationship, you never really feel it.
But what really kills the film is the seemingly-deliberate way it sets out to actively avoid providing anything you might expect from a Fantastic Four movie. The comic, at its best, is bright and funny and wildly imaginative – Stan Lee's gift for knowing comedy and Jack Kirby's penchant for cosmic grandeur never found a better outlet, but on the other hand ‘cool', ‘dark' and ‘edgy' are never words you could use to describe it. Trying to make it any of those things is doomed from the start. (A friend of mine casually said that he never cared for the Fantastic Four, but he was excited about the profane, cynical, and graphically-violent adaptation of Deadpool coming next year.)
And yet we end up with a film with a predominantly grey and metallic colour palette, and a mid-section which treats the Four's powers as the stuff of Cronenbergian body-horror rather than superhero fantasy. Any sense of joy and fun is ruthlessly hunted down and crushed, and there's barely any sense of the characters even liking each other, let alone being a team, or a family. And some of the creative decisions are virtually incomprehensible: the character set out on the journey that will give them their super powers for reasons which are entirely self-centred and rather petty (not to mention that they're drunk at the time). The Invisible Woman doesn't even get invited along for the trip. (It's hard to think of a moment when Sue and Ben even talk to one another, to be honest.) Most jaw-dropping is the choice to reveal that Ben's catch-phrase (‘It's clobbering time!') is what his abusive elder brother used to say before beating him as a small child.
And, of course, the film gets Dr Doom as spectacularly wrong as the previous version, once again crowbarring him into the team's origin story and completely reinventing the character. (He's only referred to as Dr Doom once, and that's meant to be ironic.) I suppose that Dr Doom represents everything that makes the Fantastic Four ‘difficult' to adapt for the cinema. Quite apart from the fact that he was the proto-Darth Vader, he's an operatic, grandiose, OTT villain of the purest kind, perfectly at home in an operatic, grandiose, OTT book. Just as this film bears no meaningful connection to the book, so its version of Doom bears no meaningful resemblance to one of comics' greatest bad guys.
You can kind of see why the studio wanted Josh Trank, director of the really-quite-good Chronicle, in charge of this project, but looking back on it now it's easy to pick out the signs of things going horribly amiss: Trank telling the cast not to bother reading any of the comics, as this had nothing in common with them, being the one that immediately leaps to mind. As if his career wasn't in enough trouble right now, Trank has probably not won many friends by taking to Twitter and blaming the studio for ruining his film. This does look like a film which has been badly messed about, but there's very little evidence that there was ever much to get excited about going on here.
Never mind audiences, the source material deserved better. As it is, I suspect the only chance for the Four now is for the crashing flop of this movie to persuade Fox to cut their losses and sell the rights back to Marvel – and even then I suspect the toxic aura of the last three movies may dissuade even them from making another attempt for the foreseeable future. Looking at the big-screen versions of this comic, I'm reminded of what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: he said it would be a good idea. What do I think of the film adaptation of Fantastic Four? I think it would be terrific if somebody actually had a go at it, because this film doesn't even make the attempt.