Oh that Tweet. The cinema world’s version of the inebriated/angry text, e-mail, or letter that we’ve all written and hopefully never sent. Yet Josh Trank’s faux pas the day before his big movie was set to come out encapsulates everything connected to this catastrophe of a film. But would his version from one year ago have truly been “fantastic?” Let’s take a stab at this alternate reality.
From almost the start, the latest incarnation of Fantastic Four has been plagued with difficulties and doubters. Trank’s claim that it would be dark, gritty, realistic and all those other post-The Dark Knight buzzwords seemed to fly in the face of everything the foursome stood for. Allegations of behind-the-scenes infighting, Trank’s horrible on-set behavior, and the need to bring in other directors to finish the work also didn’t bode well for his “innovative” take on the property. (This video provides a pretty comprehensive overview of the rumors surrounding the movie’s production/post-production. It doesn’t even go into what’s been happening since the release with more and more articles coming out almost daily further detailing the myriad of problems that gave birth to this mess.)
Having seen the movie, its biggest issues weren’t the edits, reshoots, or bad wigs. It’s that Trank’s Fantastic Four was almost certainly a losing proposition from launch. Despite some interesting concepts and ideas, it is at least somewhat clear from what made it on screen that Trank’s reach far exceeded his grasp.
To begin, I want to give Trank credit for specific elements that differentiates his movie from its superhero brothers and sisters. Namely, the appreciation for science and body horror. There’s a short segment in the middle of the movie right after the gang return from Planet Zero (the unimaginative looking alternate dimension that is one of the three settings featured in this movie) when the Four are first acclimating to their powers. It’s atmospheric, creepy, and unsettling. Strangely enough, it’s also the closest thing to the Fantastic Four‘s history that this movie adopts. It’s a remarkable combination of the worst fears of 1950s/1960s scientific exploration (which inspired the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby book) plus 1980’s horror, and is quite effective. The Four willingly working in concert with the military also has troubling implications, but ones that make sense in a Dr. Manhattan-ian way.
Disappointingly, beyond that (and there’s precious little of that to be sure), there’s little else that makes you feel that this movie could have been something better. Even with all the changes and cuts, you don’t get the impression of a man whose vision was totally corrupted by the studio. You get the sense of a person who probably sold a unique version of a movie but wasn’t able to successfully execute his pitch.
A major reason behind the disconnect probably comes from Trank’s apparent relationship with the comic books. Admittedly, I don’t feel that filmmakers need to treat source material with complete reverence. It often helps (especially with comic book movies) to remain true, but part of the appeal of adaptations is seeing a unique spin on a story we know. If we treated the original work as gospel, we would have never have gotten Blade Runner or Total Recall. I even personally liked The Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3. However, there probably should be some level of respect towards origins, especially in this genre.
With Fantastic Four, we see a filmmaker that seemingly has a level of resentment towards the source material (think you’re too good for a Stan Lee cameo, Trank?). While Zack Snyder went drastically off-book with Man of Steel, I never got the sense that he “hated” Superman. His attempt to put an alternative spin on the Blue Boy Scout ended up being a misfire, but one that came from a respectable place. Moreover, its story could only be told with Superman.
Fantastic Four is not the same situation. If Trank’s goal was to do a deconstructionist superhero movie, he failed. A successful work of deconstruction, Watchmen being the definitive example, requires an understanding of the tropes and characters in the larger genre. There is nothing in this film evincing that Trank tried to utilize the elements of either comic books or superhero movies in a clever or unique way – it was more a sci-fi/horror film that adopted a well-known brand name. (And unlike Man of Steel, there was nothing particularly “Fantastic Four” about Fantastic Four.)
So what was Trank aiming for? Apparently, angst. Nothing but angst. But like most angst, it’s rebelling for the sake of rebelling. Characters who are miserable just for the sake of being miserable. It doesn’t even feel that Trank’s upset with superhero movies as a whole; he appears to be fighting against nothing and no one. Yet we know that there’s a lot of fodder to be mined with taking a more serious (NOTE: more serious does not mean “overly serious”) look at the men and women behind the masks. The Marvel Cinematic Universe did it successfully with Netflix’s Daredevil, Christopher Nolan pulled it off with his Dark Knight Trilogy, and even X-Men: Days of Future Past played with this concept by focusing primarily on the relationships between Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast.
However, the biggest difference is that all those properties utilized interesting and/or well-established characters. Getting beaten up by one’s older brother, not being respected as a boy genius, and having father issues might be workable base characteristics, but they’re not the be all-end all for depth. Having a tragic background does not part and parcel make one interesting, it’s how the character is portrayed and used throughout the film. Trank seems to feel that having a bad upbringing or a chip on one’s shoulder constitutes fully developed characters, but this approach comes across more as a desperate plea that Fantastic Four isn’t a traditional superhero movie rather than defining what the movie actually is.
To be fair, maybe Trank’s version did give them more to do. I’m sure his original 140 minute running time had more character moments (though how much time could we have spent with Reed on the run?), but would that have been enough? I personally doubt it. The characters just never seem appropriately rich for what Trank wants to accomplish; in all likelihood, we would have gotten more pain and suffering from the leads without greater characterization.
The simple fact is that Fantastic Four was probably the wrong property for what Trank wanted to accomplish. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of superhero properties that could be ripe for a re-imagining in this fashion. Taking an obscure-ish character and putting one’s own darker spin on it would probably not be as hard or face as much fan outrage as doing the same to one of the most iconic brands in comic history – and poorly at that.
One of the most telling examples surfaced when it was announced that he changed the name of legendary villain Victor Von Doom to Victor Domachev (which was thankfully changed back to Victor Von Doom during reshoots). Is Domachev a more realistic name than Von Doom? Sure, but giving him a less silly name won’t make a giant rock monster or a stretchy man any less silly. There is something inherently comical about the Fantastic Four that makes it difficult to convert them into a dark, gritty, and realistic film. Could it be done? Anything is possible. But it needs to be guided by someone who understands the team and what makes them tick. You can’t rebuild something without understanding its inner workings, and Trank never seemed to get, or care to get, a handle on the property beforehand.
Nevertheless, one can- and I think has to- appreciate Trank’s desire to do something different. (With the exception of the X-Men franchise, Marvel now has a virtual monopoly on superhero movies, and the Marvel formula is pretty much well ingrained in us at this point and in danger of growing stale. Our last hope is DC, which has its own problems starting off on a sour note and having to play catch up with the home of Iron Man.) It’s not impossible to do what Trank wanted to do, other properties have achieved the balance between drama and superhero tentpole, but he probably had a better idea than he was capable of pulling off, with or without studio interference. Maybe this could have been better suited with a “Story By Josh Trank” “Screenplay By Anyone Else.”
Personally, I’d love to see Trank’s version of his movie. I’m genuinely curious to see what he thought was so fantastic and would have been beloved, as well as what frightened 20th Century Fox so much that they had to intervene. More of his nightmarish body horror would have only been a plus, and at the very least I want to learn what his third act would have been, rather than the out-of-left-field re-emergence/disappearance of Doctor Doom for 10 minutes. Maybe Trank was right and his film would have gotten great reviews, but it’s more likely that it would have done at best slightly better (if only by virtue of consistency), but still be plagued by the same dour tonal problems and poor characterizations that harmed this film. (UPDATE: In very recently released B-roll, apparently there actually was the Fantasticar in Trank’s version! Maybe my initial impression is a bit premature.)
Why not release both? It’s not unprecedented; Warner Brothers had a similar controversy with its ill-fated Exorcist prequel, by booting off the first filmmaker (Paul Shraeder), refilming it under Renny Harlin, and eventually releasing both – though that certainly wasn’t a rights-retaining tentpole of a film like Fantastic Four. Nevertheless, this film is a legendary screw up; one way to cut some losses might be by utilizing it as an experiment and showing us what could have been. It’s certainly one way to get people to buy the Blu-Ray.
As for the franchise? Well, it almost needs to die, doesn’t it? Despite the series having a pretty decent cast (who were misused), this present incarnation of the series has too much baggage for audiences to accept a sequel and another reboot so soon would almost repel moviegoers. However, if Fantastic Four (and the myriad of alien species that come with it) goes back to Marvel, then the X-Men franchise would be the last remaining lone wolf operating free from the constraining necessities of The Avengers mega-franchise. Yet if the rumors are true, and they’re hedging that entire universe on Channing Tatum as Gambit…we’ll be seeing Wolverine and Captain America before we know it. At any rate, we are never going to be done with these damn things.