The Fantastic Four Takes On Its Biggest Challenge Yet: Audience Expectations

You have to give credit to Fantastic Four director Josh Trank for trying new things in the over-saturated, over-ripe and over-the-hill superhero genre.

Imagine being 27 years old and growing up on Spielberg and Lucas-era films and suddenly making it big in Hollywood with the launch of your debut retooling of the modern superhero genre in Chronicle. Now you’re suddenly the new hotshot in town: everybody wants a piece of you and every studio in Hollywood is offering you the next big comic book property.

So what do you do? Remake another superhero film? What about a comic book title that only made its last cinematic outing in 2007? Would you be up to the challenge?

It’s high stakes, high-risk filmmaking to be sure, because you just know that the legions of online critics and pitch-fork carrying fanboys will attack and critique your comic book revisionism from a myriad of angles. Worse, you will be dismissed a one-shot hack. And since you really don’t want to mess up, because hey, you’re now 31, and four years have passed since your last shot in the clouds and you’d prefer not to be sent off to Hollywood director Jail for the next decade while you’re fondly remembered for your comic book shit storm.

But oh what a beautiful shit storm it is.

So, let’s not dice words – good for Trank: the director should absolutely be encouraged for trying something different. Given, I’m no comic book geek or fanboy apologist, I didn’t have the same trouble with this film as other reviewers have shown.

The film isn’t perfect. It doesn’t try to be — it’s not going to be The Dark Knight. Yes, it’s uneven, it skirts multiple genres and doesn’t always nail each of them and so the writing sinks a little, though the actors, particularly Miles Teller (brilliant in 2014’s Whiplash) is a charismatic and very likeable lead in Richards. Michael B. Jordan does his usual Michael B. Jordan thing playing the main comic relief, but it suits the gruff rebelliousness of Johnny Storm.

His adopted sister, Sue Storm shares a slightly unconvincing backstory, but when played by House Of Cards‘ Kate Mara, is impressive in depicting a person you actually buy as a brilliant up and coming scientist. Compare that with Jessica Alba in the same role circa 2005 and the film is already doing its best to repair Tim Story’s disastrous Fantastic Four films. Those early two films sank the superhero team’s chances cinematically in the same way Shumacher’s burned Batman and Robin by giving the Batsuit nipples. Anything with a grain of creativity was always going to be a giant leap forward from the Fantastic Four’s early cinematic stink bombs.

To give you an idea of Trank’s revisionist, genre-splitting tone, it’s probably easier to quote the director himself. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly earlier this year, Trank described his re-interpretation of the Fantastic Four as a cross between Steven Spielberg’s ‘dark Amblin’ years and Tim Burton. Just try to wrap your brains around that for a moment – the epic visual palette of Spielberg meets the edgy Gothic darkness of Burton. With Phillip Glass co-scoring his first superhero theme!

If you know anything about musical minimalism, you will likely know that Glass is a god. Seriously, go listen to his stuff on YouTube if still haven’t heard much of his work. But getting Glass to co-score a superhero film is one of the bright spots of this uneven film. No more Hans Zimmer scores please: we have enough of those melodic background-fillers already. It’s nice to hear a film unafraid to be bold in its musical choices, calling upon the earlier superhero themes from the likes of John Williams, James Horner and Danny Elfman.

The film starts off in in 2007, with a pre-teen Reed Richards being lambasted by his science teacher over his grandiose designs for a teleportation device. This is well-tapped Spielberg territory, in the vein of Joe Dante’s 1985 Explorers, and I really liked this prologue: I was wishing we spent more time with the young Reed, watching him fool around in his garage with a young Ben Grimm, ensuring cool stuff explodes. It was exactly as Trank intended it to be, in that mythic, Amblin ’80s style and I wanted more.

Soon, however, the film quickly morphs into the young adult adventures of the Fantastic Four and for what seems like the entire film, the audience must earn the reveal of the team’s title, in much the same way Casino Royale revealed Bond’s origins, or as Batman Begins establishes the mythos of Bruce Wayne’s Batman by the closing credits. If by some measure of quality, the idea of watching teen superheroes annoys you, and you prefer your superheroes aged and grizzled with a bit of experience on their side, then this film will likely belt you over the head with its youthful approach.

The film is unafraid to be a modern cautionary tale of brash youth, skirting the line between the darkness of DC’s comic properties and the lightness of Marvel’s Avengers: this retooling of the Fantastic Four is punchy, and features dramatic storytelling — but at times it sinks beneath the weight of its own grandiose expectations, trying too hard to be pitch a flag in both camps. The film tries a little too hard to explain that these characters can exist in our world with the over-aching sense that we need to really believe that their powers are firstly possible and secondly a dark curse of sorts that has to be earned and appreciated. Sound familiar? It should, because it sums up most of the superhero films released today. The real danger of trying to satisfy both camps is that its easy to dilute the narrative at the expense of plot consistency and logic.

However, bonus points must go to the film’s writers for not allowing another big American city to be destroyed or more aliens descending in CGI-spaceships. Have we not seen enough of that already?

Instead, most of the big action pieces takes place in an another CGI-enhanced dimension, a world that suspiciously looks just like Mars and the writing appears to be more interested in exploring the concept of inter-dimensional travel, as it is about establishing a comic book arc that brings our four friends together to take on a common enemy in the guise of Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel). Fortunately, the writers aren’t afraid to point out the ridiculousness of Victor’s comic book origin, a giant billboard for superhero clichés, with a last name about as subtle as a quick slap to the face.

When a portal to earth opens up and tries to swallow everything in a black hole of destruction, the team are finally able to put things in order via a nicely choreographed fight sequence that features each individuals powers at their finest, in scenes that will likely please comic book fans. Using their powers together, Earth does pretty well out of this cosmic calamity and only loses a few highways — nothing too serious right? I’m looking at you Man Of Steel.

And because so much of the film plays as a carefully constructed attempt to be both science-fiction and superhero film, this marriage of genres arrives fresh and energetic, saving the best for last and rewarding audiences, and teasing of bigger things to come in the expected sequel.

However, given that Trank was kicked off one of the standalone Star Wars films now in production (according to various online reports), because he apparently wanted to concentrate on something smaller due to his problems making this film, this Fantastic Four re-birth might not survive childhood and depending on its box office, may not even see a sequel under Trank’s continuing direction.

That’s a disappointing thought because Trank has what it takes to be a great filmmaker and is still finding his way through the superhero genre. There’s a great Fantastic Four story waiting to be told with this excellent young cast, but the question remains whether audiences will even care enough to turn up to this film, let alone a sequel.

What isn’t so fantastic, are people’s expectations of what the next story should look like, given that all directors and writers must now learn to navigate online story leaks, amid the howls of fanboys eager to tear shreds off anything that challenges comic book lore and in the process any film that dares to be a little different. Instead, filmmakers have learnt to keep their chin up and say nothing too revealing, perhaps because they are are forced to play it safe again and again until the genre effectively sucks itself and hapless audiences into its own cinematic black hole, where no superhero powers will be able to rescue it.