With Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Brothers comfortable with their plans for the next several years, the other studios are desperately trying to figure out how to capitalize on their own superhero properties. Thanks to the successes of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Fox saw new life breathed into the lungs of the franchise that kicked off this entire genre back in 2000 and began production on several spin-offs (please don’t ruin Deadpool). Sony is in complete panic mode over what to do with The Amazing Spider-Man with the latest rumor being an Aunt May prequel (please let this happen). But the greatest outlier of them all is coming to us next year – Fox’s The Fantastic Four.
Set for release on August 7, 2015, The Fantastic Four is the third big screen attempt at one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s earliest creations. First published in 1961 (a year before Spider-Man swung into our lives), this was Marvel’s first team and its first major post-war superhero property (the company was actually called Atlas Comics until that year). Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards, Sue “The Invisible Woman” Storm, Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm, and Ben “The Thing” Grimm easily became some of the most iconic players in the Silver Age of Comic Books, as well as legends in the entire comics universe. A quasi-throwback to alien-strewn B-sci-fi movies and books of the 1950’s and earlier, the title was about the love of exploration, the wonder of the cosmos, and the joy of invention, all with a family dynamic among the four that gave them their humanity.
The first live action attempt at the gang was the Roger Corman-produced film from 1994. Never released in theaters, it achieved legendary status as a rare film that was only available from bootlegers (and a particular holy grail for nerds in the days before streaming and torrents). In 2005, Tim Story directed the disappointing Fantastic Four (plus its even more disappointing sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer two years later), which starred Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis as the Four with Julian McMahon as Dr. Doom. Next year it’ll be Chronicle director Josh Trank’s turn to try his hand. And from the information we have, somehow it seems like Corman will still be the one that got it most right, and that we’ll look back on cloud-Galactus with acceptance.
Less than a year from release, there is precious little data about this latest film. We know the above-the-line crew and the controversial “younger” cast (Miles Teller, Kata Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell as the Four with Toby Kebbell as Dr. Doom), but we haven’t gotten any official pictures, posters, teasers, or even a basic plot description. While normally I’d say don’t panic, and trust in the filmmaker, the little we do know about The Fantastic Four has raised eyebrows in the most negative ways possible, and it gets worse with every new statement.
All that we can base our opinions on comes from interviews with the writers and stars, and they all seem to be telling a similar story. They key words are “grounded, realistic, dramatic” says writer Simon Kinberg (along with some of the actors). The Four are people overcoming disabilities. Costumes are containment suits. And they’re “making them real people [because] people wanted it to be taken more seriously.” Which all sounds great until you realize this is supposed to be a movie about a man who can stretch his body like rubber and a boy whose ability to set his own body on fire allows him to fly. Why would we want realism? I mean the word “fantastic” is right there in the title.
While the common rallying cry of “respect the source material” is certainly one that should be listened to, it’s the specifics (or rather the vagueness) about the movie that should be cause for far greater concern than not following the books exactly. The bullet point details have the reek of a studio interjecting what they mistakenly think the audience thinks would be “cool” rather than letting someone with a passion for the material capture why it has been relevant for over half a century.
The specific adjectives they are using are particularly notable. After The Dark Knight, “dark,” “gritty,” “grounded,” “realistic,” and all these other Batman buzzwords became the catch of the day when trying to sell an action movie. While it worked for some franchises (e.g. Skyfall, although the roots there are more closely tied to the success of the Bourne franchise), it failed miserably for others (see: The Amazing Spider-Man). Latching onto what’s popular without realizing why it became popular or why it worked in one instance often leads to a film at odds with itself.
You can’t just adjust any property into a tonal template, and films that shove themselves into an inappropriate mold often feel like they don’t have a voice of their own. They know the checklist – broody stares, some tragic backstory that only serves to pad the running time, an overwhelming feeling of moroseness, and the belief that even the faintest inkling of levity is something to be avoided at all costs – but never fully develop their own souls. These are films that believe that emphasizing just how super seriously they take themselves makes for a more respectable picture, but fail to remember that even The Dark Knight saga and Skyfall both had a good amount of humor and humanity; they weren’t merely sullen experiences that happened to be taking place exclusively at night.
But tonal concerns are just a small piece of the story. After all, maybe Trank and crew found subtext within the Fantastic Four that has been more-or-less unexplored but is nevertheless valid and true to the characters. With rare exception (such as Watchmen), I wouldn’t want comic book movies to be panel-by-panel recreations of their graphic novel origins; they should be their own stories with their own insights. Maybe there is an overwhelming darkness in the ongoing battles between four celebrity super-humans and the power mad dictator of Latveria named Victor Von “Doctor” Doom. Or, as he will apparently be next year, an anti-social computer programmer/hacker named Victor Domashev.
Ever since Hollywood realized that the Internet is a thing, it has always seemed to enjoy making an evil computer guy the villain. And they’ve moved up in the world, from being the lackey in Die Hard to being the main bad guy in Live Free or Die Hard. “Hollywood Hacking” is often hilarious, and has become so hackneyed as to become a parody of itself. But instead of the studio realizing how lazy this is, we can all-too-easily visualize the out-of-touch executives operating under the mindset of, “Kids today like the computers and the reddits and the 4chans and those nude celebrity photos and the Occupy, so now this movie is topical and relevant.” At least we can start the drinking game with, “Drink every time the Deep Web is mentioned.”
The computer-genius-as-a-bad-guy model also tends to grow too close to representing the uncomfortable relationship between filmmakers and online “haters,” a battle any franchise director must know all too well. We want directors to make personal movies, but we want the personal connections to come in theme and emotion, not in vicarious one-upsmanship at the expense of a beloved character. I’m sure there is a sense of smug satisfaction in implicitly shaming Disqus users in a larger-than-life format, but when you get to play with live action Mr. Fantastic for more money than any of us will ever make in a lifetime, you’ve already won.
The Doctor Doom change also indicates another major problem that is increasingly apparent with the franchise: shame. Is Victor Von Doom a silly name? Of course. But when taking on a property like this, one of the most important things is “owning” it. Changing the name of one of the most iconic characters in comics history, a character who was a main inspiration for Darth Vader, because he’s kind of goofy is the equivalent of hiding your face in embarrassment after being caught reading a comic book, and that approach turns off the people whom you most want on your side. All of these stories have silly and ridiculous elements, but that’s why we love them. Elements of the source material can definitely be adjusted and altered to suit one’s vision (Bane’s backstory in The Dark Knight Rises come to mind), but the changes need to have some narrative or thematic purpose other than bastardizing “what’s hip” in the world today (or yesterday).
And shame is the overarching vibe I’m getting from this movie. Obviously we don’t want to know everything before actually seeing the film, but hiding so much for so long definitely puts the online community on the offensive. Whedon, Gunn, Snyder, Abrams, and others (even TASM‘s Marc Webb) have all posted set photos and videos of their franchise films. They’ve taken to Twitter and Instagram to connect with fans and at least present themselves as having a camaraderie with their audience. Trank and crew have mostly been silent about what’s been going on, responding to questions with the same buzzwords, and otherwise keeping everyone in the dark about what to expect.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think filmmakers need to cater to fans, but with movies like this you tend to notice patterns. The lack of information combined with the repetitive comments about what the film is plus the rumored changes they made have put The Fantastic Four on the losing edge of this public relations battle. Could putting an official image or teaser out there, or giving some indication that there will be something Fantastic Four about The Fantastic Four win back fans? Maybe. At the very least it’s better than doing nothing. Then again, maybe the studio decided to chalk this up to a loss when they realized trying to figure out the physics of a Rock Monster and expressing his SO MUCH INTERNAL PAIN has given way to a tree dancing in a pot.