Digging Deeper: Fantastic Four

The story of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four is going to live on in the pop culture world much longer than the movie itself will. A hasty reboot necessitated more by a studio’s desire to keep the rights the characters from reverting back to Marvel/Disney, Fox brought on Trank to put his own twist on the story of Marvel’s First Family. Trank was a hot commodity coming off of Chronicle, the found footage superhero movie that cared much more about its characters and how they coped with the changes to their bodies than making things explode. Trank would be trading in screenwriter Max Landis for Simon Kinberg (a red flag thanks to credits like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper and X-Men: The Last Stand, among others) and relative unknown Jeremy Slater as he makes the leap to the world of big budgets, big stakes and big studios. After two underwhelming attempts at adapting the Fantastic Four for the screen from Tim Story last decade, the fans would be champing at the bit for another look at some of their favorite characters.

And that, friends, is where everything started to go wrong.

I have long been a proponent for the fluidity of adaptation from other properties into film. It is easy to understand why fans of the original media, be it a novel, comic book, television show, video game, board game (looking at you, Battleship), etc. These are often formative experiences that set in stone our understanding of how these characters should look, sound or act either in our mind’s eye (in the case of a non-visual medium) or our eye’s eye (in the case of comics/TV shows/remakes), and it can be difficult to cast that aside to allow for someone to take a different tack. I’ve written about adaptations before, probably too many times, really, and still content that all that matters at the end of the day is the quality of the product in front of you taken on its own terms. Not its accuracy in relation to what it’s coming from, not what it’s changed/added/left out. It’s a pure value judgment.

The more slavishly devoted an adaptation is to its original source material, the more likely it is to feel overstuffed or choppily paced (these movies are, more often than not, compressed mightily to fit the expectations of modern film run times). In my mind, one needn’t look further than comparing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (entries 3 and 4 in the series for those not in the know). Azkaban was a huge change in direction after Chris Columbus’ safe, turgid and overly slavish adaptations of the first two Potter books, with Warner Bros. bringing in a pre-Gravity (pre-Children of Men even) Alfonso Cuaron to shake things up. He focused on making a good movie, one that hits the main story beats of the story and works within its own internal logic, not requiring outside book knowledge to connect the dots. Azkaban is by far the best of the Potter films, the first that really captured the wonder of the place without it seeming drab, but the fans of the book revolted, haranguing about what was left out and how it didn’t do Rowling’s book justice. So the studio tried to course correct to please the fans with Goblet of Fire, only managing to churn out the worst film of the series by trying to be overly devoted to an 800 plus page book. Goblet of Fire is a cinematic checklist, hitting the story notes beat by beat, not even trying to forge that connective tissue between scenes. It’s horrendously paced and lifeless, the product of what happens when all you care about is pleasing fans of a completely different thing.

Prisoner of Azkaban is how adaptations should be made, but that doesn’t stop everyone from expecting Goblet of Fire.

I mean, I’ve been guilty of this sort of pre-judgment in the past, oddly enough with another Fantastic Four property. When Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was being made, I read the stories about how they were turning Galactus into a cloud, and was outraged. Galactus was and is my favorite comic book character (back when I was more devoted to reading comics, I had the dream of reading every single comic that featured a Galactus appearance, no matter how insignificant), and while I don’t think any of us really believed Tim Story would put the giant purple blender-hatted visage of the comics on the screen, none of us were expecting a cloud. Tim Story’s movie wasn’t conforming to my ideas of what my character should be (all stemming from a misplaced sense of ownership, really), so I took it as a personal insult. Without having read the script or having seen a single frame of the movie. And here’s the thing. A long time later, predominantly thanks to morbid curiosity more than anything, I watched Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and you know what? Galactus as designed in that movie, in the scope of that movie and the story it's telling, totally works. There is actual menace felt as this roiling, crackling storm cloud of energy descends on the Earth, slowly enveloping it to sap it of its energy. Rise of the Silver Surfer isn’t a great movie, but it’s not not a great movie because they screwed up Galactus by not giving us the blender hat. I was reminded that day that judging something sight unseen is not only a fool’s errand, but it’s insulting to the creative process of those behind the product in question.

This new Fantastic Four has had multiple cloud Galactus controversies. People were pretty jazzed when Trank was announced as director, but things took a turn when the principals were revealed, specifically in regards to the decision to cast Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm. Jordan is a magnetic screen presence and also a veteran of Chronicle, and anyone who’s seen his work would know instinctively that he’s a pretty great choice for a brash, cocky guy who can also set himself on fire. But, you see, the Johnny Storm of the comics is white, and Michael B. Jordan is black. On the cosmic scale of Fantastic Four controversies, this probably measured the least, as it was more of a case of that well trodden inherent racism in the modern world than anything else (which doesn’t make it any less depressing, not does it make some of the tone deaf interview questions Jordan and Kate Mara had to endure during press junkets any less outrageous).

Blogger Doom, on the other hand, was a much bigger deal.

Dr. Doom is a beloved character in the Marvel Universe, one of the great villains of that world with 50 years of stories building him up. The charismatic, fiercely intelligent and megalomaniacal ruler of the fictional land of Latveria is the greatest foil of the Fantastic Four. Tim Story’s movies didn’t do him a whole lot of justice, and when word broke that the Doom of Trank’s version would be Victor Domashev, an anti-government hacker who uses the pseudonym Doom on websites. It’s safe to say (thanks to articles like this and its subsequent comments) that the community reacted negatively to the concept. Again, this is purely based on an off-the-cuff and out of context comment from actor Toby Kebbel without anyone having read a single page of the script or seen a frame of the movie. But that was enough to denounce the whole prospect because it didn’t jive with their expectations of what Doom should be, regardless of whether this iteration would be an interesting, or even good, take on the character.

We’ll never know that, however, because blogger Doom isn’t in Fantastic Four. Kebbel’s first scene, ensconced in a bunker of sorts surrounded by computer monitors, certainly seems to be heading in that direction, but after that scene any hint of that character is nowhere to be found. It’s no wonder that Kebbel is so often paired opposite Kate Mara’s hideous wig that is the clarion call of studio controlled, Josh Trank-less reshoots; it’s clear that his character had to be reconstructed from scratch in order to fit closer to the paradigm of what the fans expected. And his character suffers mightily for it. So the studio tries to kowtow to fan outrage and ends up with nothing to show for it. It’s possible that blogger Doom was a bad idea. It’s also possible that it would have been great. We’ll literally never know. But what we do know is that what we got is underwhelming at best. Thanks a lot, guys.

It wasn’t long after the Doom controversy hit that the studio started to leak rumors about Trank being problematic on set. Erratic behavior, drug use, supposedly trashing the house that was rented for him, all of it bubbled out of industry backchannels, all of it setting the stage for the studio taking over, shoving him out of the process and claiming the editing room for themselves, which is exactly what happened. It’s another case of he said she said, with Trank stuck in the middle, a whipping boy still supposedly in control of a runaway train about to be set on fire. Once Trank was dropped from directing one of the new Star Wars spinoffs, things have gotten worse for the young director. He announced that he left the project due to fatigue from working in the studio system (this would have been right in the middle of Fox tearing his movie to shreds with reshoots), while others claimed he was fired as fallout for what happened during the production of Fantastic Four. Simon Kinberg produced both projects, so it’s possible their professional relationship went to seed.

The scary thing about this is how much of the world seems to be taking what has been said about Trank at face value. I’ve read stories (specifically an entirely and limitlessly repugnant Maxim article so odious that it doesn’t even deserve to be published, let alone linked here) and comments (and yes, internet comments are the dregs of society, but they are read by studios and have consequences [see also: Blogger Doom paragraph]) from people rejoicing that he left the Star Wars project, hoping he’ll never work again. And we’re barely three years removed from Chronicle, which is a film that has been embraced by the same community. The sentiment (beyond all of the seedy character assassination gossip from a studio trying to save face with comic fans) is that Trank should have never taken on the job if he weren’t interested in respecting the Fantastic Four and their ancillary characters. But that’s not on Trank. That’s on the studio choosing to hire him for the job based on his treatment for the story. A job they didn’t even let him finish when the public sentiment turned.

I was really excited for Fantastic Four. I think Chronicle is a great movie, even if the found footage conceit is unnecessary. The cast is great, almost uniformly so. Trank (mostly before the nasty stuff started going down) gave interviews talking about how he was influenced by David Cronenberg and wanted to approach the event that gave them their powers with more of a body horror flair. There’s a little of that in the comics but not much, and it’s the perfect sort of angle that can spice up an adaptation. Fox tried the bright and cheery FF before with the Tim Story films, and those weren’t great, so why not try something different? Some of the body horror elements are there, and they make for the two best scenes of the film. They’re also summarily kicked to the curb (along with the majority of Trank’s involvement in the vision of the film) when the story jumps forward one year, skipping all that silly character development Trank had been fostering in the first half to drive right to an unsatisfying conclusion (there is one more body horror scene late in the movie, wherein Doom shows off his powers by popping some heads Scanners style that is also quite effective). This was clearly a case of Fox trying to “save” the movie by pushing it toward a more classic superhero vibe (complete with the climactic menacing beam of blue light that is part of whatever doomsday device is going to rip the world asunder), but the tone is so different, the dialogue so different, Kate Mara’s hair so different that they never had a chance.

It’s a wonder anyone wants to direct these superhero movies anymore. There’s an ever-lengthening list of directors who have been turned off of the whole process. Trank is the most recent addition to a list that includes Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright, Alan Taylor and Patty Jenkins (the last two both involved in the cinematic disaster that was Thor: The Dark World, which is 100% a worse movie than Fantastic Four), who have groused at the overbearing approach studios have to projects like this. It is a worrying trend (where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there’s been a lot of smoke), one that points to the complete and utter lack of cinematic ambition that plagues these projects (keep in mind that a lack of ambition does not preclude many of these movies from being good, but almost always precludes them from being great). There does seem to be a change in the air, with Ava DuVernay choosing to turn down Black Panther instead of dealing with all the drama. This was a joyous moment for me, one that showed directors with real vision and talent have realized that their vision and talent mean much less to the big studios than their ability to meet a budget and production schedule, as well as making sure to set the table for the next four years of movies. The pressure must be unconscionable. It must be exhausting. And that’s before the fans even get a chance to overreact about the slightest change and hyperbolically grouse about how their childhood is being destroyed (or, since it’s the internet, “raped”).

I hope this whole debacle doesn’t end Josh Trank’s career. He’s too good a director to have it end this way. A couple of silly movies about people in spandex with special powers aren’t worth it. I’m sure everyone is at fault for varying aspects of Fantastic Four. I’m sure Trank had his problems on the set, likely the result of the immense pressure on his shoulders. I’m sure Fox was more than a little disingenuous with the way they threw Trank so thoroughly under the bus, the sort of backstabby politicking that comes up far too often this day and age. Regardless, like Trank said in his deleted tweet just as the movie was being released, we’ll never see the true scope of his vision for the film. And we won’t know whether it was better or worse than what we got, but it at least would have felt consistent, not the Frankenstein’s monster that was released into theaters last Friday. But for Fox, keeping the rights to these characters from reverting back to Marvel was much more important than the quality of the film they released, or even the less than meager box office receipts it generated.

Maybe this mess will make them change their tune. I doubt it.