4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Please don’t blow up!” — Fantastic Four (2015)

After 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer disappointed mightily at the box office, 20th Century Fox found themselves going back to the drawing board. While they did so, Marvel Studios started their inexorable rise to the top of the box-office charts, and Sony found themselves rebooting Spider-Man following their own 2007 release.

Fox decided to go Sony’s route and reboot Marvel’s first family with a movie that arrived with a thud in 2015.

The number of people involved in making this film between its announcement in 2009 and its release in 2015 are legion. Akiva Goldsman was originally to produce, though he was gone by the time the movie was made, and Michael Green (Smallville, Heroes), Jeremy Slater, Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz (X-Men: First Class, Thor), and Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) were all hired to write scripts. Once Josh Trank was hired to direct, he wrote his own script, though enough of Slater’s was used to give him co-writer credit. Simon Kinberg, having already settled in as one of the guiding forces of the X-Men films at Fox, was brought in to work with Trank on a screenplay rewrite, and X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn replaced Goldsman as one of the producers along with Kinberg and others.

Where both the unreleased 1994 disaster and the 2005 and 2007 theatrical releases were mostly based on the original 1960s comics, Trank decided to use the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic for inspiration.

Of all the Marvel characters who were reinterpreted for the “Ultimate” line in 2000, probably the one that strayed farthest from its source material was Ultimate Fantastic Four. Instead of being an older scientist, Reed Richards is a child prodigy, with Ben Grimm as his childhood friend instead of his college buddy. Richards is recruited to a scientific foundation with the father of Susan and Johnny Storm, who also both work for the foundation, along with Victor van Damme, their version of Dr. Doom. The five of them travel to another dimension, where they are infused with their familiar powers, with van Damme going bad and the other four becoming a super-team. As a precocious youth, Richards is not the leader, but simply the big brain—Susan takes on the leader role.

Trank pretty much lifted that entire setup, with one change being that both the elder Storm (given the first name Franklin, which is the name of Reed and Susan Richards’s first child in the comics) and Johnny are African-American, with Susan being adopted as an infant from Eastern Europe by Storm (and presumably his wife—there’s no mention or sign of the mother). There were, of course, idiotic racist objections to this, as if there’s anything in the Human Torch’s character that requires him to be white. If anything, I think they should’ve gone farther and made Susan black as well, as there’s no reason why Reed and Susan can’t be an interracial couple. (Not that the romance actually happens in this movie.) Besides which, the roles of Franklin and Johnny Storm were played by, respectively, Reg E. Cathey and Michael B. Jordan, two of the finest actors drawing breath. (Like the last guy to play the Human Torch, Jordan’s next Marvel role will be in a much better Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, in his case as Erik Killmonger in 2018’s Black Panther, which we should be getting to in early November.)

Miles Teller was cast as Richards, with Kate Mara as Susan, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbell as a role that was originally Victor Domashev in the script, but was changed during reshoots to the more familiar Victor von Doom. In addition, Tim Blake Nelson (last seen in this rewatch as Samuel Sterns in The Incredible Hulk) plays Harvey Allen, the head of the Baxter Foundation, and Homer Simpson his own self, Dan Castellanetta, plays Richards and Grimm’s grammar-school teacher Mr. Kenny.

Fox was displeased with the original cut of the movie, and recut it without Trank’s participation. There were also reshoots, in which Kebbell did not participate (since von Doom was in CGI armor at that point, it was easy enough to use someone else for the motion-capture), and for which Mara had to wear a blonde wig, as she had changed her hair for another role. (At least nobody grew a mustache that had to be CGI’d out…) Trank himself trashed the movie online (though he quickly deleted the posts in question).

The movie itself tanked like a big giant tanking thing, not even making its budget back, with a 9% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was granted three Golden Raspberry Awards, while nominated for two other Razzies. While the movie was set up for a sequel, absolutely no forward movement was made on that.

With Disney having bought Fox, it was announced at San Diego Comic-Con this year that the fabulous foursome would be made part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let’s hope the fourth time really will be the charm (which would be appropriate…).

 

 

“I just want my work to make a difference”

Fantastic Four
Written by Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg & Josh Trank
Directed by Josh Trank
Produced by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, Hutch Parker, Robert Kulzer, and Gregory Goodman
Original release date: August 4, 2015

Screenshot: Twentieth Century Fox

The kids in Mr. Kenny’s grammar-school class are doing presentations about what they want to be when they grow up. After one kid discusses his aspirations to be the quarterback for the New York Giants, Reed Richards gets up and explains that he wants to create human teleportation. When Kenny snidely asks when he’s going to do this, Richards says he already has, in his garage.

His classmate Ben Grimm sees what Richards is writing in his notebook on the way to give his presentation. Later that night, after narrowly avoiding being beaten by his older brother at the family salvage yard, Grimm sees Richards prowling around the yard, needing a part for his teleporter. Grimm helps him carry it home, and Richards does a test run. He makes an item disappear but doesn’t bring it back because his experiment blows out the power grid in the entire town.

Seven years later, Richards and Grimm enter a working teleporter in the high school science fair. It actually works this time, but Kenny assumes it’s a magic trick and not real science. However, Dr. Franklin Storm of the Baxter Foundation, a government think-tank for brilliant young people, and his adopted daughter Susan are impressed, and recruit Richards for the foundation.

It turns out that Baxter has been trying to perfect a quantum gate that would open a gateway to another dimension, and they think that Richards’ teleporter has the key to finally cracking it.

Richards’ presence allows Storm to bring back the prodigal son: Victor von Doom, who first conceived the quantum gate, but was unable to make it work and finally quit in a huff. Storm finds him holed up in a darkened house with massive security, as von Doom is more than a little paranoid, but Storm convinces him to return now that Richards is on board.

Storm’s biological son Johnny, an engineer and mechanic, gets injured during a drag race, and Storm forces him to work for the foundation to make back the money it’ll cost to fix the car.

Richards and von Doom work on the gate, with Johnny building the equipment and Susan designing and building the environmental suits they’ll need to wear in the other dimension.

They test it by sending a chimp. It’s a success, as the capsule has gone to what looks like another world, which they dub Planet Zero. Then, to their chagrin, they are told by Harvey Allen, Storm’s boss, that they’ll be turning this over to NASA for further exploration of Planet Zero. Richards, von Doom, and Johnny are disappointed, as Storm had promised that they would get to do the exploring. As they drown their sorrows in booze, von Doom points out that nobody remembers any of the scientists who built the Apollo spaceships, but everyone knows Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. (Of course, that very example is why they never should have expected to do the exploring themselves in the first place.)

They decide to go ahead and use the gate that night. Richards drunk-calls Grimm and says that he stood by Richards’s side all throughout their childhood, and he wants his best friend by his side now for the big moment.

They put on their suits, and the four of them activate the gate. They wind up on Planet Zero where there’s a weird green energy beneath the surface. The landscape starts to shift, and von Doom falls down a chasm, seemingly to his death. The other three run back to the capsule to try to get home, but they have trouble closing the doors even as the world around them starts exploding and going crazy. A bunch of rocks go flying into Grimm’s compartment, and the window to Johnny’s shatters from fire.

Back on Earth, Susan discovers their little escapade and helps them get the capsule back through. However, there’s an explosion when it does so, and Susan is caught in it.

The four of them are taken to Area 57 at an undisclosed location. Grimm has been transformed into a creature made out of rock, Richards’ body can stretch like taffy, Susan keeps turning invisible randomly, and Johnny keeps catching fire but never being actually burned.

Richards manages to escape and, not trusting the government to cure them, runs away.

A year later, Grimm has been employed as a covert government operative (as covert as a big orange super-strong rock creature can be, anyhow), and both Johnny and Susan have been learning how to use their powers. (Susan can also create force fields, and Johnny can also fly.) Richards has been working on his own in Central America, using his powers to disguise himself from surveillance and his brains to make money to live on, er, somehow. (How he obtained a passport when he was on the run from the government is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

Susan, whose specialty is finding patterns, figures out where Richards is and they send a bunch of soldiers and also Grimm to bring him in. The soldiers don’t stand a chance—Richards has used the last year to learn how to use his powers as well—but Grimm knocks him out. Grimm is also seriously pissed at Richards, since he’s become a monster because Richards insisted on taking him on his drunken trip to Planet Zero.

They needs Richards because the government wants to go back to the other dimension, but with the prototype destroyed, and without von Doom or Richards, they haven’t been able to re-create it. Richards does it, and a group of soldiers are sent through to the other dimension, where they find von Doom, who has been fused with his environment suit, and is also wearing a cloak, er, somehow. He is taken back to Earth, but he quickly reveals that he let them do that, as he kills most of the people in Area 57—including Storm—and then goes back to Planet Zero. Richards, Grimm, Susan, and Johnny follow, since he’s created a singularity bridge between Earth and Planet Zero which will destroy Earth, and since von Doom left the four of them alive for no reason the script can be bothered to explain. (He killed Allen, Storm, and the rest of the people in Area 57 just by telekinetically blowing up their brains.)

The foursome are initially driven back by von Doom, but when they fight as a team, they’re able to defeat him, especially since von Doom has apparently forgotten that he has the ability to make their brains explode with a thought.

Earth is saved. Out of a combination of gratitude and fear, the U.S. government gives the four of them use of a secret scientific facility called “Central City.” Grimm thinks this is all fantastic, which gives Richards an idea for their team name…

 

“I stopped believing your bullshit a long time ago”

Screenshot: Twentieth Century Fox

This movie isn’t quite as bad as its reputation. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means good, but reading about this movie in 2015 you’d think it was the love child of Glen or Glenda and Ishtar.

It commences as a fun little movie about a bunch of smart kids. Miles Teller starts out nice as the single-minded, slightly befuddled boy genius who has no support from any of the adults in his life, but he never really gets out of that mode, even though the script kind of wants him to. (It’s left to Grimm to tell the audience that Richards is finally home at the Baxter Foundation because Teller isn’t really capable of showing it to us.)

Unfortunately, as soon as the kids take their drunken trip to Planet Zero, the movie goes into the toilet, which is kind of a problem, as that’s when the actual FF movie starts.

The biggest problem is that this is not really a Fantastic Four movie. At best, it’s an Ultimate Fantastic Four movie, but that ignores the fact that the Ultimate version of the FF was really terrible. It gave us “Victor van Damme” and “Gah Lak Tus,” a collection of drones that destroy planets, both of which are significantly less interesting than their mainline counterparts. The latter was already used to bad effect the last time the FF were in a movie, and at least we were spared renaming Marvel’s greatest super-villain after an over-the-hill kickboxer. But still, so many of the changes to the characters are bad ones. Turning Reed Richards into a kid is mind-boggling, and changing von Doom into a paranoid dudebro is just idiotic.

Worst, though, is that they make Ben Grimm boring. Seriously, there’s nothing there. The Grimm of the comics is one of Marvel’s greatest characters, a tragic hero, a spectacular wiseass, and the college buddy of Richards who is also a class-A pilot. Oh, and he was raised on the lower east side, just like his co-creator Jack Kirby.

This movie gets rid of all of that, making him Richards’ dumb-but-loyal sidekick for his science projects, and not even part of the Baxter Foundation.

It’s funny, one of the reasons for the wholesale changes to the FF’s origin is because a lot of the origin from 1961 is dumber than a box of hammers. Richards and Grimm taking the space flight made sense, but Susan’s insistence on going along just because she’s dating Richards is specious at best, and Johnny’s reasoning is literally, “And I’m taggin’ along with sis—so it’s settled.” And yet, while they gave Johnny and Susan actual reasons to be part of the science project that gives them powers, they fail to manage it with Grimm, as turning it into a capsule that travels dimensions removes the need for a pilot.

Instead, Grimm comes along because Richards wants him there, which is no better than “And I’m taggin’ along with sis—so it’s settled.”

To make matters worse, Grimm’s pathos is touched on for maybe half a second, and then ignored. Grimm and Richards have maybe two moments of Grimm’s anger at Richards for turning him into a monster—and unlike the comics version (where Grimm volunteered and knew there would be risks), it is 100% Richards’s fault, as he drunkenly dragged Grimm along on his little joyride. For that matter, we see that Grimm has a miserable home life, but nothing’s really done with that, either.

And then by the end of the movie, Richards and Grimm are back to being best friends again with no explanation or justification. In fact, Grimm, of all people, is the one to first use the adjective “fantastic,” even though Richards is no closer to finding a cure and even though he’s still a big orange rock monster.

Oh, and also a killer. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but at one point we see a video file on Grimm’s ops for the government, which includes the notation “43 confirmed kills.” How does Grimm even feel about that? The government has turned him into a killer, and it isn’t even talked about. It also doesn’t help that Jamie Bell imbues Grimm with precisely no personality whatsoever. (His delivery of the Thing’s signature line, “It’s clobberin’ time” is delivered with all the verve of a kid reading off a cue card.)

At least the movie does right by the Storm family. Reg E. Cathey is his usual superb self as the mentor to the kids, and his love and support of his extended family of geniuses is palpable. Kate Mara’s Susan is fascinating—I really like her love of patterns—and Michael B. Jordan is having a great time as Johnny.

Still, this takes the most high-adventure of Marvel’s heroes and turns it into a dark, dank movie about stupid young people who get their powers due to being drunk and stupid, with a big dollop of government paranoia and conspiracies, and then concludes with a lifeless action sequence that makes absolutely no sense. Seriously, von Doom is established right off as being able to blow up brains with just a thought, so he should be completely unstoppable. At no point is any reason given why he doesn’t just blow up the brains of the FF like he did everyone else.

 

In 2017, Marvel decided to do a theatrical release of the first two episodes of their Inhumans TV series, so we’ll take a look at that next week.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is one of the author guests at Dragon Con this weekend in Atlanta. His full—and, frankly, insane—schedule, which includes several autographings, a reading, a practical self-defense workshop, and panels on the American Sci-Fi Classics, Horror, Military Sci-Fi Media, Star Trek, Urban Fantasy, Writers, and Young Adult Literature Tracks, can be found here.

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