I didn’t hate Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, though it offers up so many reasons to do so. In its final form it’s certainly a flawed work, awkwardly-constructed with a self-conscious script, shoddy plotting, a small cast and a sparsely-populated world that combines to give the film the feeling of an Amazon Original Series pilot instead of a blockbuster comic book movie. While I can’t recommend watching it, I’m still interested in how a large part of its failure comes from ignoring the last 15 years of comic book cinema.
If you go back to the year 2000, back when Hugh Jackman’s body wasn’t just a birds nest of bulging veins, there was a strong sense of embarrassment about comic book source material that demanded, in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, a cheerless focus on realism, with subdued, functional costumes and everyday names. Remember Patrick Stewart struggling through “This is Aurora Monroe, also known as Storm, and Scott Summers, also called Cyclops” with a fixed smile and a dead-eyed stare? The grey tone of X-Men is understandable in context, coming so soon after the poorly-received, high-camp Batman & Robin that killed careers (remember Alicia Silverstone and Chris O’Donnell?) and threatened to kill the genre, but we’ve moved on since then, with comic book sensibilities, character, story and design all normalised in the minds of cinema-goers, largely thanks to Marvel’s unashamed adaptations but also Sam Raimi’s brightly-coloured Spider-Man series and the more recent X-Men films that introduced a welcome sense of fun to proceedings.
Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, on the other hand, plays as if it’s a response to Batman & Robin from someone who hasn’t seen any films since 1997. Position the film in the year 2000 and it would still be a bad film, but at least the sombre tone would make sense; the X-Men gloom is all over Fantastic Four and it’s like watching a story play out in an angsty-teenager’s bedroom.
Starting off dark with sibling violence and distant parents, the tone gets darker still during the four’s catastrophic transformation, which sees Reed Richards pinned and stretched under smouldering ruins while Johnny Storm’s lifeless body lies engulfed in flame and Ben Grimm cries out for help under a pile of rubble. This transformation is perhaps the most violent ‘heroes gain their powers’ sequence I’ve seen on film, and it continues into Cronenbergian body-horror as Reed is restrained for investigation and experimentation while his limbs and neck are stretched, crying out for his friends while Johnny uncontrollably burns and Ben struggles to detach his stone body from the rocks he was buried under. That these transformations are painful and traumatic is underscored by another parallel with X-Men: “Does it hurt?” asks Reed of Ben’s rock body later in the film. “I got used to it” is the stoic response, an exchange that echoes Rogue’s first meeting with Wolverine. “Does it hurt?” asks Rogue of Wolverine’s claws cutting through his flesh. “Every time.” One manfully bears the pain.
Turn of the century misery aside, that the film fails even by its own standards is a consequence of the film obviously being released unfinished, with the first and third acts welded awkwardly together to cover up a missing second. You can read an exhaustive list of elements that featured in the trailers but not in the film here and here.
The result is a film that feels like the roughest of rough cuts. Much in the way of character development was apparently jettisoned, leaving everybody feeling two-dimensional and lacking in understandable motivation. The film’s treatment of Sue Storm, relegating her to the role of the group’s tailor and denying her a place on the team’s initial expedition in favour of parachuting in Ben, is the worst example of this. Ben’s presence on the mission — the childhood friend of Reed who nobody else has ever met — is ludicrously contrived, the most implausible plot point in a film featuring inter-dimensional travel and transformative, element-based superpowers, and pretty insulting not just to the character but to the actor Kate Mara as well, who deserves far better.
Where the blame for all of this lies is hard to place, with all involved parties coming out afterwards to point fingers at each other, but my best reading is that neither the studio nor Trank were prepared, willing or able to work on producing each other’s vision of the film, and that the studio wanted to release something — anything — just so the film rights to the characters wouldn’t revert back to Marvel, the same situation that resulted in Roger Corman’s infamously ultra-low-budget 1994 adaptation that never saw release.
There may be a decent Fantastic Four film somewhere in all of this, with Trank previously mentioning a 140 minute cut of the film that the studio balked at, but I doubt we’ll ever see it. Even if the film’s many narrative and character holes can be patched over, the result is still likely to feel tonally dated and faintly begrudging of its own source material. The critical and popular failure of this adaptation means we’re unlikely to see another attempt for quite a while; this is probably ok.