Superhero movies have tried hard to leave behind some of their Silver Age comic-book trappings in the past decade. We’ve seen darker, grimmer versions of Superman and other heroes—but the new Fantastic Four reboot goes beyond darkness, into actual self-loathing. It’s kind of bizarre.
Fantastic Four seems honestly mortified to exist. This movie’s central storyline is less a plot, and more a shame spiral.
For the handful of people who don’t know the storyline already, The Fantastic Four is about a group of scientists who get exposed to an alien energy and gain strange powers. Reed Richards gets the ability to stretch his body. Ben Grimm becomes super-strong and invulnerable, along with a rocky skin. Sue Storm can turn invisible, and her brother Johnny can light on fire and fly around. They fight an evil science wizard named Victor von Doom.
To the extent that director Josh Trank’s new film has a comfort zone, it’s as a story about weird science and an experiment gone wrong, which turns its main characters into monsters. The first half of the film drags pretty badly, but it’s only once we start getting into the core of the material—about how these four people decide to use their strange powers to be heroes and save the world—that it becomes mired in remorse.
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, Trank’s debut film, Chronicle (which we loved) was all about what can go wrong when young, unprepared people get superpowers. This new film is, ostensibly, about what can go right in that same scenario. Based on Chronicle, you might be better off hiring Trank to direct a film called The Fatalistic Four.
But for whatever reason, Trank appears unable to change gears from the “realism” of Chronicle to something that contains more elements of heightened reality. In fact, applying realism to a story about unlikely heroes who gain abilities like bursting into flame, turning invisible and stretching their bodies into crazy shapes, and use these abilities to fight a guy named Doctor Doom, might seem like a weird choice in any case.
So when I say that Fantastic Four is a “self-loathing” movie, I mean two different things: First of all, this movie delivers all of its superhero elements in an apologetic fashion, as if it honestly doesn’t know how it could have foisted something so idiotic onto you, the discerning consumer. There’s a certain “farted in public” aura clinging to anything comic-booky, to the extent that I can only imagine how the makers of this film would have handled the Fantasticar if they’d made a sequel.
And second of all, the characters themselves seem to have a high degree of revulsion, which goes beyond the standard superhero-movie angst. In most versions of the Fantastic Four storyline, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) struggles with his appearance and feels like a monster, and this is sort of a sad undertone against which the comic notes are played—it’s a tough balance to strike. But in this film, all of the characters seem resentful and depressed, even before they are afflicted with superpowers. Even Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) seems more angry than happy-go-lucky. (There are a lot of daddy issues in this film, too. Which, you know, is a welcome change from all the daddy issues we’ve been having lately in pop culture.)
Even as we go through all the motions of a normal plot, the film’s undercurrent of nihilism suggests that with great power comes moderate ennui. After a while, you wonder why these people aren’t forming a shoe-gazer band instead of exploring the Negative Zone. (Although it’s not called the Negative Zone for some reason—here, it’s called Planet Zero, as if it’s the place where Coke Zero comes from.)
A side note: If any one creator can take credit for a lot of the grimness and “realism” in superhero media, it would be Alan Moore, who gave us Watchmen, Swamp Thing and The Killing Joke in the 1980s. And when Moore wanted to back down off the ledge he’d helped lead superhero comics onto, he did so with a series of tributes to Silver Age joyfulness, the 1963 universe.
(Seriously, instead of seeing this movie, get hold of those Moore/Veitch/Bissette comics and spend your evening reading them—there’s no collected edition of them, but you can buy all six original issues online for less than the cost of a movie ticket and popcorn. Or just read the original Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four issues, if you haven’t already—and if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?)
And not surprisingly, a big centerpiece of those 1963 comics is Moore’s tribute to the Fantastic Four, Mystery Incorporated. Because few heroes are as emblematic of the Silver Age, with all its pop-art optimism, as the Fantastic Four. They’re icons of scientific progress (even with all its pitfalls), good humor, friendship, family and Kirby-esque weirdness. Few Kirby creations are as Kirby-esque as the Fantastic Four, in fact.
We at io9 have sometimes poked fun at the more stylized, cartoony elements of superhero films. But the truth is, a lot of superheroes depend on a certain amount of light-hearted, unrealistic oddness in order to work. The Fantastic Four are Exhibit A for that idea, starting with the quintessential mad scientist Reed Richards and ending with the ultimate comic-book supervillain, Doctor Doom.
It would be hard to translate the loopy fun of the FF comics to the screen in a smart, non-ironic fashion. But there are ways to bring something fun and cartoony to live action without dumbing it down—just check out last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
As it is, every single creative choice that was made in adapting this material for the big screen was the wrong choice. Every one. Without venturing into spoiler territory, the only good ideas in this film are the ones which came with the source material.
Stan Lee has no cameo in this movie, perhaps because his mere presence would cause it to curl up in a fetal position with pure shame.
In Trank’s first film, Chronicle, he used the “found footage” format in a smart way, creating a kind of intimacy that comes from having one character holding the camera, filming his friends. The film really felt, in some sense, like a personal statement, and its matter-of-fact portrayal of CG superpowers (often happening in the background, or on the edge of the frame) felt like a revelation.
This time around, Trank doesn’t have the found-footage viewpoint to lean on, and a lot of the camerawork feels more generic, full of smooth pans and zooms. We get lots of tight shots of one or two characters, but the camera seems as uninterested as the people in the film as they seem to be in the story. The camera seems to come to life, though, whenever it’s caressing machines and buildings. Trank’s lens is fascinated by scientific equipment and big industrial structures—as if the “weird science” aspect is the major draw of the film.
The camera does wake up and shows interest in the characters when the film veers into body horror, however, right after the FF first get their powers. In early interviews, Trank said he wanted this movie to have the feel of an old-school David Cronenberg film, and a bit of the middle section retains that idea, sandwiched awkwardly between a series of other tropes (like “the government wants to use their powers for quasi-evil.”)
Other than that, this film just feels washed out, serotonin-starved. A lot of scenes are tinged blue and gray, the traditional colors of “gritty, realistic” superhero storytelling. Even when we visit an alternate dimension, it looks kind of like the parking lot of a mall in Fresno, at dusk.
And I can’t vent too much about this film’s treatment of Sue Storm, without veering into spoiler territory. Luckily, Fox released a clip, for promotional purposes, that contains my number one complaint about how this movie handles Sue:
And meanwhile, people often say that a heroic narrative is only as good as its villain—and if that’s true, then this movie is in serious trouble. Because Toby Kebbell’s version of Doctor Doom makes Julian McMahon’s 2005 version look like Darth Vader.
People will draw lessons from the mortifying failure of Fantastic Four. Some of them will consist of judgments about Josh Trank—but knowing nothing about Trank beyond admiring his previous work, I’m sure this was just a mismatch between director and source material. Trank could very well have created a decent non-franchise movie about science gone wrong.
But if there’s one thing that I’d love to tell everyone after gazing upon the wreckage of Fantastic Four, it’s this: Go read Alan Moore’s 1963 instead. And remember that he wrote this (and Rick Veitch and Steve Bissette drew it) after Moore had already done Watchmen and V for Vendetta. And that fun, colorful adventures can also be a form of evolution—and dark grimness doesn’t have to be the last word.