Friday, August 07, 2015

My thesaurus lists "ordinary," "usual" and "unimaginative" as antonyms for "Fantastic"

Is this really too much to ask?
I honestly wasn't planning on writing about the new Fantastic Four movie here, certainly not in a post devoted to it and it alone (as opposed to one of those super-long "Everything Else" posts I do every once in a while). Hell, I wasn't even sure I was going to see it, as the trailers for it didn't look...what's the word...interesting! They didn't look the least bit interesting, and usually a good trailer is all it will take to make me see a film. Like, I knew for a fact that Transformers: Age of Extinction would be pretty terrible, based on the fact that the three live-action films that preceded it in the franchise were pretty terrible, but dammit, that trailer put an image of a robot that can turn into a truck that I grew up with holding a sword and riding a giant, fire-breathing robot dinosaur, and how am I not going to see that on the big screen?

Fantastic Four, on the other hand, didn't have anything remotely interesting in its trailers. I guess I just gave the studio and filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that was because whoever was in charge of marketing the film was trying to do some sort of low-key campaign, thinking (wrongly) that the target demographic would be tiring of superhero movies, and/or superhero movies based on Marvel Comics characters, seeing how this was going to be the third such film of the summer. I certainly didn't think it was simply a matter of there not being enough interesting imagery in the entire film to cobble together enough for a minute or two's worth of trailer.

I did go see the movie today though, and I did decide to write about it, but mostly just to get this weird feeling of irritated frustration and confusion out of my system, a feeling no doubt fed through some sort of negative feedback loop created by urgent whispers and then loud conversation with my lady friend who saw it with me, who was so incensed about a particular choice made during the pivotal scene of the film that she almost walked out after it happened (and probably would have, if I weren't closer to the aisle in our row).

It's actually kind of, well, fantastical to imagine that someone could make a bad Fantastic Four movie in the year 2015. I mean, not just a weak film, or a rough-around-the-edges film, or an uneven film, but just a wholly, actively, aggressively bad film that has so little resemblance to the source material that it is a complete failure of an adaptation (and, I should note, the film is a much worse adaptation than it is a film unto itself). The franchise is the Marvel franchise, the foundation of the entire Marvel Universe and character catalog...and the foundation of much of the comics industry and the shape and form of the superhero from the Silver Age moving forward. It's initial run was by maybe the greatest creative collaboration in comics history, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, both in their respective creative peaks. The studio, its producers, script writers Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater and writer/director Josh Trank had access to 55 years worth of comic books, four animated television shows and two-to-three other live-action films to mine for inspiration, characters and plot points. You couldn't ask for more fertile ground for a comic book-based movie, this side of Superman and Batman.

I know that Marvel Comics has had some trouble selling the FF in recent years, and their one time first family has dropped from being the prime Marvel Comics franchises to one of their struggling ones, to the point that Marvel's not even publishing an FF comic at the time, but then, it's not like the filmmakers need to regularly trick 25,000 or more people into spending $4 a month on 20-pages of comics; they only need to sell about two hours of a live-action adaptation to an audience that has proven more than willing to buy tickets to see live-action films based on Marvel Comics characters as un-loved as Ant-Man (whose never even had his own monthly title that's lasted 12 issues) or as obscure as The Guardians of The Galaxy, a who's who team of footnote characters.

Seriously, how do you fuck up the Fantastic Four? You could probably narrow down the top 25 FF storylines of all time, pick one out of a hat, and film it with slightly polished dialogue, and you'd be golden.

They didn't do that. Instead, they seemed to borrow a little bit from the early issues of Ultimate Fantastic Four (the title characters being young, Sue Storm being a genius rather than just Reed Richards' love interest, the involvment of her and Johnny's father, inter-dimensional exploration replacing space-exploration), but then otherwise focus on a mostly-original take on an extended Fantastic Four origin story, making it as realistic, character-driven, dark and dour as possible–right down to the dim lighting. The silverest of Silver Age Marvel is awfully goddam gloomy.

This is the story of child-super genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller), who at age 12 or so invents a semi-operational teleportation device in his garage with the help of his little friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), a poor kid from a bad home. He's recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and Storm's daughter Sue (Kate Mara), an expert in pattern recognition, to join them at the Baxter Foundation. Together with anti-government bad boy super scientist Victor Von Doom (Toby B. Kebbel) and Storm's son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), a brilliant engineer who would rather hand-build cars for street-racing, they develop a means for traveling to another dimension, referred to as "Earth 0" (not, I don't know, The Negative Zone).

Once they've perfected it and proved organic matter can travel to and from, poor Tim Blake Nelson (who sadly never got to play The Leader in The Incredible Hulk 2) wants to bring the U.S. government in. Victor fears losing his chance for glory (everyone knows the names of the guys who walked on the moon, but no one knows who built the rockets, he convincingly argues in one of the genuinely good bits of the script), and further fears if the government takes over, they'll find away to weaponize the technology.

And he's right! Outside of the saintly Dr. Storm, no one is more right more often than Doctor Doom in this movie. I think he's supposed to be the hero of it...?

The three boys get drunk and decide to get to the new dimension first, taking Ben along...because....because...just because? Sue, in the film's most perplexing creative choice, does not join the boys on their trip. She doesn't decline; she's just not even asked to go along.

Reed's decision to essentially hijack the device without permission from the government mirrors the comic book origin in that it features Reed going rogue and stealing the rocket ship to be first in space; the cost of his recklessness being that he bathes his friends in cosmic rays, which at least one of them resents him for.

In the first film they simply added Von Doom, so there were five of them. Different than the comics, sure, but it also ties the villain to the heroes' origin, something pretty damn common in superhero movies, if only because it streamlines them so much more (see The Kingpin killing Daredevil's dad in the Daredevil film, for example, or Jack Napier killing Bruce Wayne's parents before going on to become The Joker in Batman '89).

I can't think of any reason why they would subtract Sue and replace her with Doom in this film. Why would they choose to have 1/4th of the Fantastic Four left out of the Fantastic Four's origin story? And the fact that it is the female one who is is left out will probably be particularly galling to a lot of viewers, as so many superhero fans and film fans so scrutinize the various studios' general reluctance to use female characters in their films...including not having one headline a solo movie yet.

Instead, Sue gets her powers when the shuttle device returns in an explosion; she simply gets caught in the backlash of the explosion. This is the point where my friend became flabbergasted, and never quite recovered from her flabbergastation. (On the other hand, she never gets saddled with the moniker "Invisible Girl," but that's only because no one gets codenames; Johnny Storm refers to himself as the Human Torch and ben as "a thing" only at the end of the film, and then only joking so; likewise "Doctor Doom" is a comment Sue makes derisively of Victor when he's being negative, and he only refers to himself as Doom once).

Doom was, as I said, completely right, and the highe-ups do immediately try to weaponize the four, something that Ben and Johnny seem totally cool with, while only Reed and Sue have reservations...the former so much that he escapes the dark, military prison they're all being kept in. Then a year passes.

It's not until about the last 20 minutes of the film that any conflict actually arises, and that we see the four title characters using their powers, or even sharing scenes with one another. A return trip to "Earth 0" results in the discovery of a presumed dead Von Doom, who is unhappy with being "rescued," and decides to return to the other dimension, destroying the world in the process. Again, it's hard to argue with much of his logic–the United States military industrial complex are already using the disturbingly naked, oddly-voiced Grimm as a killing machine, and are about to send Johnny into the field to do the same. Their long-term plan is to figure out how to send more and more soldiers into the new dimension, where they too can be bathed in its strange energies and return with super-powers.

I went to the bathroom during one of the two action scenes in the film, one that was so brief that I apparently missed the entire thing in the time it took me to take a quick piss. I was there for the entirety of the latter one, where the film finally becomes a superhero movie, with the title characters fighting Doom to the death.

So what we have is a dark film that seemingly includes a few elements of the comics only very reluctantly. There's a "It's a clobbering time!" used once, and a "Flame on;" the latter quietly, embarrassedly spoken. There are super-powers, but only near the end of an interminably long origin story. No costumes. No codenames.

There's a nod toward teamwork in there at the end, but the characters' relationships, like their familiar characterizations, are non-existent. Reed and Sue flirt for about a minute of the film's entire run-time, and that's the extent of their romantic relationship. Johnny teases Ben once, in the last seconds of the film, and it's more of an insult than the kind of brotherly bickering the two usually engage in. Reed feels guilty for what he did to Ben, and Ben's not happy about having been turned into a rock monster with no genitals, but they never seem to resolve their issues.

They also lack their typical characterization. Ben never emerges from quiet, brooding self-loathing to be the fun, funny character making the best of the bad hand he's dealt. Johnny has a chip on his shoulder regarding his father, but he doesn't seem particularly cocky, or funny, or likable. He doesn't even seem to have a relationship with his own sister.

Mostly, everyone's just pissy. Doom is the sole character to emerge with a personality, motivation and definable relationships with other characters. But, you know, he's the villain, the guy we're supposed to root against and be happy when we see him die.

Most unusual of all though, for a movie of any kind, is that there is no real conflict at all. I can't remember the last time I saw a film that was so much event without conflict. There's nothing driving the film, it just moves on from scene to scene with no real reason.

It's a very long, very tedious origin story for a group of characters that don't really need an origin–bathed by cosmic rays during a reckless bit of scientific exploration, super-genius Reed Richards and his friends are imbued with fantastic powers. The end. Bring on the bad guys. Instead, what should be the first act is all three acts, with a tacked-on superhero movie climax.

You know what I personally want from a Fantastic Four movie?

I want to see scientist, wizard and dictator Doctor Doom wearing a Man In The Iron Mask-style mask and suit of armor with a cape and hood (mini-dress optional), lounging in a medieval castle, drinking wine from an ornate chalice, attended to by Doombots and saying "Bah!" and calling himself "Doom" constantly.

I want to see mostly-naked, dripping wet weirdo hunk Namor trying to seduce Sue while sea monsters and whales with arms and legs ravage New York City.*

I want Mole Man and his army of giant underground monsters. I want a downright apocolyptic version of the Galactus story, with the sky on fire, a Watcher, the Surfer and a giant planning to eat the word. I want a motherfucking Fansticar. And Skrulls! Oh, how I want Skrulls! And I want catch-phrases galore: Flame on, flame off, declarations of clobbering time, I want to hear "Ever-lovin'" and "Aunt Petunia" and "blue-eyed boy."

Instead I got a gloomy sci-fi film adapting the first half of the first story arc of Ultimate Fantastic Four.

I guess they'll try re-rebooting in a few years, and maybe that time they'll get it right, and we'll finally be able to move ahead and get to the good stuff of The Fantastic Four, the stuff that makes the Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four.

Positives? There are a few. This Doom is better than last Doom, and I think the special effects on The Human Torch and Thing are both improved. The same goes for those regarding Mister Fantastic, at least when he's naked. Seeing his arms and legs stretch out, without stretchy material hiding the skin and musculature from the viewer, is really fucking freaky. The bit in the film where our heroes find themselves thrown back to Earth transformed, with Johnny seemingly nothing but a burning corpse and Ben thinking he's buried in rocks, was pretty damn scary.

And...um...wait...huh. Yeah, I can't think of anything else. The logo? I liked the logo. The actors are all fine, and the ones who seem most miscast–Teller as Reed Richards, Bell as Ben Grimm–fit the movie just fine, they just don't at all seem like the characters in any other iteration.

But then, isn't the point of film adaptations of other source material to transplant those stories and those characters into the medium? There have certainly been worse films based on superhero comics before, but it's difficult to think of worse adaptations.


*Yeah, yeah, yeah; I know. A different studio owns the rights to Namor at the moment.

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As the film ends with the team struggling to think of a name for itself, I like to imagine this is what happens next.

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I also like to imagine that this is what precisely went wrong behind the scenes:
Tom Spurgeon tweeted that image a while back. I haven't read that particular story, but the idea that perhaps an old foe financed and produced this new Fantastic Four film as a way to embarrass and discredit the Fantastic Four out of pure spite certainly makes more sense than the fact that the filmmakers just made this movie the way they did on purpose.

5 comments:

SallyP said...

I actually rather liked the last Fantastic Four movie, mainly because I think Ioan Gryffud is the ginchiest...but I sure am glad that You...and not I...saw this movie.

Jer said...

Well I saw Ant-man today.

If I had a time machine and could travel back to 1985 - when my 11 year old self was immersed in comics - and tell my young self that in just 30 years there would be a Fantastic Four movie and an Ant-man movie released within one week of each other and that the Ant-man movie would be the good one, I'm sure my younger self would say "Wait - you have a TIME MACHINE?" And probably demand that I travel back further and bring forward a mint run of early Superman comics.

Anyway - my point is a Fantastic Four movie should easily be as good as an Ant-man movie. Next time they go for a reboot (assuming that anyone is ever interested in FF as a movie "franchise" again), I hope they either leave Doom out of it or skip the origin story. Tying Doom to their origin just doesn't work, but having the movie be an origin movie and not having Doom tied to their origins would violate so many rules of good film scriptwriting that I doubt anyone could make a good movie out of it.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

It sounds like this movie has the exact same problems as the old FF movie. The FF don't come together as a team until near the end, and they don't do much heroic stuff. If I was in charge of the next reboot I'd probably issue the following commandments:

-The FF should get their powers and come together as a functional team in the first half-hour of the film.
-The combined length of the action sequences should be at least equal to those in "Avengers."
-Doctor Doom should not be the main villain. At most he should be a shadowy character in the background who is helping the main villain execute their plan.
-Reed should not spend more than 8 minutes attempting to find a cure for Ben.

CBrown said...

I haven't and won't see the current FF movie, but one thing that struck me from the trailers is how visually uninspired it looks. I had the same reaction to the previous two Fantastic Four movies. They just look really generic. And I can't help but think ... I mean, I don't want Jack Kirby to get ripped off any more than he already has been, but ... Production Designers of the next FF movie: Rip off Jack Kirby! Just shamelessly rip off his designs of all that crazy, goofy tech, and figure out some way to literally translate the Kirby Crackle into movie fx, and you will have a movie that at least looks like no other, and you will get an Oscar nomination for design and effects. Jack Kirby already did your work for you!

Joe Crawford (artlung) said...

The Incredibles has everything we need in a Fantastic Four movie.

I cannot fathom how this keeps getting messed up.