The following contains spoilers for Fantastic Four. You have been warned.
Tyler: Well Erik, here we are with Fantastic Four. Based on our experiences working together on these discussions – like Ant-Man – I think it’s safe to assume that you are more familiar with the franchise than I am. I never saw the previous two Fantastic Four movies and my only experience with them is in reruns of the 1960’s animated series. So I have to ask, as a fan, what was your overall impression of the film?
Erik: I have read some Fantastic Four comics, but those were all from the original bright and colorful silver age (including their debut and origin story), so this was quite a shift in tone. That said I understand that this new film was more based on the FF comics from Marvel’s Ultimate Line – which I hear has a darker tone. This movie was bad, but I don’t know how much of it I can attribute to the tone. Though, I don’t think as a general rule if changing tone across mediums is inherently a bad thing. And I was initially willing to go along with it (for basically the first act), then everything fell apart.
Tyler: I want to touch on that first act because it was one of the many problems I had with the movie. Going in, I was excited that the movie was only an hour and 40 minutes, however I was very disappointed when I checked my watch when the team finally got their powers nearly an hour into the movie and even longer before they started using them. Given my lack of Fantastic Four knowledge, it’s safe to assume that “Joe Moviegoer” knows even less. With news that the upcoming Spider-Man will not have an origin story in the traditional sense, and a lot of people stating their fatigue with having to spend time finding out how superheroes got their powers, I was surprised to see the film dedicate so much time to them “pre-power.”
Erik: I think the long build to a superhero becoming super can work, but to that you have to make the “pre-power” story pretty damn interesting (I think Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins pulled it off fairly well). I even see how the same overall plot of this film could have worked, but it needed to spend that first hour really making us care about the normal, un-powered heroes. Which it kind of failed at. Otherwise, you need to quickly spend the time after they get their powers making us care. Which it really failed at. I found myself just not feeling much when Reed Richards (Miles Teller) was crawling through the rubble looking for his best friend Ben (Jamie Bell).
Tyler: If they were going to “start young,” so to speak, they had to pick either the Reed and Ben friendship or the Storms. It’s easy to say this in hindsight but I would have much rather seen more of the Storms. I understand that they had to insert an adoption storyline for Sue Storm (Kate Mara) since Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, but I was much more interested in learning more about their backgrounds beyond just that Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) is a scientist so they are also good at science and engineering. I want to get your thoughts on the performances from the four leads as well as how they were characterized because, for me, the cast was the main selling point for this movie even though I liked director Trank’s previous movie, Chronicle. I was very disappointed with what we got from the leads. Assuming you agree with me on that, do you think this was a case of poor performances or poor writing?
Erik: I’m really not sure who’s to blame on this point. I couldn’t form an emotional connection to any of the characters. It’s strange because like you, I was excited for this cast. Yeah, I was one of those comic nerds who heard they were doing a young Fantastic Four and was all like, “No! That’s not how it is in the comics, whine, whine, whine.” Then I found out who was playing them and was like, “I was completely wrong. This is a great idea!” But no one here stood out. Miles Teller and Kate Mara looked like they just didn’t care and had no real chemistry. Every quip Michael B. Jordan made fell flat. Jamie Bell…was kind of just alright (and was at least given a little more to work with after transforming into the Thing). And Toby Kebbell…I didn’t think I’d see a villain with less personality and motivation than Yellowjacket (from Ant-Man), but my god was he wasted. Doctor Doom is supposed to be one of the most menacing villains in all of comic-bookdom, and here he was just a sad guy who got dumped by his girlfriend, listened to a bunch of Nine Inch Nails, binge watched The X-Files and turned into a glowy tin man who wants to blow up the world. So I don’t know, maybe it was the writing, maybe it was the direction, maybe the apparent interference from Fox had something to do with it, but something went terribly wrong because I’ve seen these actors do better.
Tyler: There’s a lot of shorthand characterization here. We know Johnny is a rebel because he street races but he will magically work with anyone who doesn’t condescend to him. Victor Von Doom (Kebbell) is a hacker who plays video games and hates the world because it didn’t work out with him and Sue. Reed Richards is a nerd who lacks social confidence but then gets that “Miles Teller Swagger” after he has a few drinks of alcohol. Ben is Richard’s friend. Sue doesn’t change because she’s living the life her father wants for her. For a film that spends so much time on it’s character’s origin stories, the film takes a lot of shortcuts. I want to believe these actors (at least the main four), but they would have done better with better material. This goes especially for Jordan who we know can play charmingly cocky, which is what made him perfect for his role.
Erik: Actually, you mentioned the adoption aspect of Johnny and Sue Storm. It’s funny, because during a podcast interview that Kevin Smith (yes, that Kevin Smith) conducted with Trank (who also co-wrote the script), the director mentioned the adoption storyline was something he wanted to explore. He even mentions an emotional scene between them in which Johnny says to Sue, something along the lines of, “You don’t understand, he [their father] chose you.” I was really looking forward to that scene (and the subsequent developments in their relationship). The concept of a blood sibling feeling less loved than an adopted one is something I haven’t seen often in fiction (certainly never in a superhero film). Too bad that scene ain’t in the finished movie. So either Trank was outright lying or this is one of the many cuts Fox made.
Tyler: Given the final film, it’s certainly easy to assume anything that was cut would be better in the movie than out. Assuming that scene in particular was well acted it would have been nice to see it in the movie.
Erik: The thing for me about this movie is, I (in my sad need for explanations) want to know who ultimately is responsible for it. If Trank had gotten to make his “fantastic version” without the studio interference (which, depending on what source you’re following amounted to anything between coming in and editing it themselves and shooting some scenes of their own and breathing down his neck during the course of production and demanding changes and rewrites as the film was being shot) would it have been much better? And if Fox was going to step in and essentially make the movie themselves, why did they want Trank in the first place?
Tyler: I don’t know how much better it would have been. Trank, and now audiences, have the power of hindsight when considering “The Trank Cut” of the film, though I’m not ready to rule him out because I liked Chronicle quite a bit. I think this is the downside of a trend that primarily started with Marvel where studios hire young directors on the cheap to make their first mainstream blockbuster and are willing to play ball with whatever the studio wants. It’s this system that drove Edgar Wright off Ant-Man, Whedon left The Avengers partially because he was overwhelmed having to juggle his vision with studio demands over content in Age of Ultron and Ava Duvernay almost made Black Panther. Even though I wasn’t as high on Jurassic World as many were, it worked well with Colin Trevorrow coming off the loosely sci-fi Safety Not Guaranteed. The same can be said for directors searching for a hit like Jon Faverau with Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh and Thor as well as Shane Black with Iron Man 3. So far it’s worked out more often than not but this was bound to happen eventually.
Erik: So, perhaps the main thing that sunk this film was Fox trying a little too hard to be Marvel. Actually, looking back, I got a sense of that from the movie itself. Aside from a few attempts to set up plot threads for sequels, that place at the end where the team sets up their base was S.H.I.E.L.D. It wasn’t called S.H.I.E.L.D., but that’s what it was.
Tyler: I’m glad you brought that up with the team’s new facility because it instantly brought S.H.E.I.L.D.’s new HQ to mind for me as well. I was surprised though that there wasn’t more blatant set-up for future installments. It felt like anything that could have been laying the groundwork for another film like the scene showing Sue and Reed’s budding relationship was just leftovers from something cut out of this film. If anything, the movie felt more like a “throwback” to the superhero films that were the result of Marvel licensing out their hottest IP’s in the early 2000’s in the way that the story felt very contained while leaving room for a sequel but not necessarily a whole universe. I suppose there’s more to explore with “Planet 0” and the “Fourth Dimension” but I honestly think that Fox and other studios are worried about superhero films moving to space and other dimensions. I know a friend of mine who is a casual Marvel fan in that, she only watches the movies, doesn’t include Guardians of The Galaxy as one of her favorite MCU films as so many others do. She also ignores the space scenes in the first Avengers movie. I’m currently reading the Infinity Gauntlet story arc and while I know Marvel will condense and simplify that, there is a lot of intergalactic travel going on there.
Erik: Planet 0, which is part of something in the comics called the Negative Zones, does actually open up a lot of interesting possibilities for future movies (which probably won’t even happen now, given Fantastic Four’s box office). I don’t know for sure if this was intentional, but when Victor says, sorry whines, that they’ll probably use the planet to store prisoners, they may have been referencing something that happens in the comics: during the “Civil War” storyline, they use the negative zone to imprison super-powered villains and heroes who oppose the government regulations on superhumans. It’s a shame that Fox seems intent on keeping the Fantastic Four and X-Men movies in separate universes, because while they obviously can’t do that “Civil War” stuff in any of their movies, I feel like the whole imprisoning thing could work with mutants. But who knows if they’ll do anything with these characters and concepts now. At least its failure is encouraging Fox to push a Deadpool sequel instead.
Tyler: I think we can all agree that as long as Deadpool is on Fox’s horizon, they aren’t out of the superhero arms race.
Erik: I just want to make it clear that I was not hoping this movie would fail. As much as I like the idea of this bomb creating incentive to make other better movies, and the possibility that Fox will sell the license back to Marvel, if the movie had worked I would have been up for a Fox Fantastic Four franchise with as long a lifespan as X-Men. I am curious to see how the studio will proceed from here. And where Josh Trank’s career takes him – cause he’s not working for Fox again any time soon.
Tyler: Agreed. It’s a shame that a sequel would have likely emphasized the family dynamic of the team that makes the Fantastic Four unique from other superhero teams. I hope Trank hasn’t blacklisted himself this past week because I would love to see what he does next.