In a horrible dystopia where America has succumbed to its worst impulses, a group of heroes resists and tries to restore sanity to a nation. But enough about current events…
Miles and Tom return for Please Sir, I Want Some More Season 2 with their first threequel: The Purge – Election Year! Join Tom and Miles as they navigate the potential and failure of a great premise as Frank Grillo tries to keep Juliet-from-LOST alive long enough for her to become president and end The Purge once and for all.
Seven Siblings’ Titus Andronicus
Puppets? In a Shakespeare play? Madness.
Titus is actually the most requested Shakey-Shake play (usually by people at bars, but often by 30-somethings after seeing a show at Fringe), so naturally I was curious when Seven Siblings announced their Titus featuring puppets. My Entertainment World pretty accurately reflects my feelings about the show on the whole, but here I want to focus on the main reason to see this production, if you’re at all thinking about using puppets in a production: there is a lot at work with the application and execution (literal and figurative) and it makes an interesting case study for how puppets are applied in theatre.
So, why see this play? The individual elements can be quite good: the Saturninus puppet, in particular, is very engaging – three puppeteers operate it in a vaguely bunraku way, using their individual voices and speaking chorally to create a great, otherworldly effect. There are even some physical surprises built in that only come about in the final fight and shows that even on an indie budget incredible puppets are possible. All the puppets look fantastic and the puppeteers generally do very well with them (particularly the criminally underused Sarah Thorpe and Jeff Dingle). Puppets are capable of great and exciting things, particularly on this scale: it’s hard not to feel intimidated when you see a seven-foot-tall puppet backed by three puppeteers looming over an actor or fold out General Grievous-style with two swords to take up most of the stage. The epic scale, despite the depth of the stage at The Citadel – creates instant status and interest and on a scale I rarely see on indie stages. Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for examples of new ways to integrate puppets on stage.
However, despite the engaging nature of the puppets, their application to this particular script and production doesn’t entirely work.
In this Titus, the puppets are gods that helped the Romans to conquer the Gauls and inhabit the bunker that the play is set in. The gods are sustained through blood-feeding tubes by corpses, creating an ‘in-continuity’ reason for puppeteers to be present on stage. This is a novel approach and solution to the problem of puppeteers that speaks to the cinematic qualities of the production; while we acknowledge that puppeteers must be present in a stage production, in film would seem out of place and thus every effort is taken to obscure them. It would seem to me that the choice to incorporate the puppeteers in this way speaks to a more of a film understanding and less of a stage understanding, but it’s interesting food for thought. However, it does raise more questions than it answers – if the gods require human host bodies, what did they do before the Romans moved in? How did they speak to the Romans and explain that they need blood feeding tubes? It’s a problem which cannot be answered or addressed without adding text. This, ultimately, is the largest problem with the amount of concept being layered onto the play: without adding any lines, the audience is left to infer on their own and go off of directors’ notes. While I fully believe audiences are generally a lot smarter than they’re given credit for and can be asked to fill in the blanks, this asks a lot of an audience already following an Elizabethan play. It also begs the question: what does it add to the story? Visually, it’s a treat and stylistically very interesting. Saturninus in particular is very engaging and enjoyable to watch, but the puppetness doesn’t increase my understanding of the character. This is particularly true when other puppets are introduced: I can understand the royalty being puppets, but why the nurse? Did someone really look at the bumbling messenger mole with his pigeons and say ‘Yes, hook a body up to that guy!’ Obviously I have no issue with puppets and Shakespeare, but the puppet logic here is muddy.
So, my recommendation is this: if you’re interested in puppet technique or application, pay attention to the technical work on display – how the puppets move, how they affect scenes, how they alter status through physicality. Observe how the blood tubes both add and detract from the piece (great for the death of the wolf/nurse puppet, awkward for the death of Saturninus). If you’re thinking of using puppets, consider very honestly the why: is it because they’re cool? Does the script suggest them? Do they help tell the story? In this productions’ case, they certainly add visual interest, but they also complicate the play world. While their method of speaking is engaging, the puppets themselves can’t emote the same way as humans; how does that affect your understanding of Shakespeare’s admittedly archaic text? Do they make it clearer through movement or harder to understand due to their inability to emote? Also, observe which characters are puppets and why – how does this choice affect how we view these characters and their place in the world? Because of the wide variety and application of puppets, Titus is a fascinating case study for how the integration of puppets works and for how it doesn’t. Definitely worth a view if these are questions you’re wrestling with in your own production.
What It Is
In 1993, Martin premiered Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a hypothetical and fantastical meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein on the eve of their greatest works being released. The men share a sense of the future, excitement, and optimism about the twentieth century (though both will know tragedy in it). The action of the play follows the comic and philosophical interactions Einstein has first with Picasso’s admirers and the proprietors of the bar and then Picasso himself as they spar over the difference between art and science before coming to a mutual understanding that though they work in different fields they work toward the same purpose: the realization of the future. The play has a great sense of mischief and glee, such as you would expect from Martin’s performances; there’s a sly wink and a smile to the interaction of the characters, most notably a delusional inventor named Schmendiman who insists his incredibly fragile, flammable building material will secure his place in history.
Martin is a smart guy and expertly weaves the philosophical together with the comical (though the script does lean a bit heavily on the philosophy) building to the arrival of the time-travelling ‘Visitor’ (Elvis) and a toast to the arrival of the twentieth century.
Seven Siblings’ production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, playing now at ROUND Venue in Kensington Market is a collision of two interesting factors: the humour of Steve Martin’s wit and intelligence, and the Michael Chekhov acting technique as practiced and advocated for by Seven Siblings Theatre. The show is fun, with lively performances, the venue is wonderful, and the subject matter is certainly fertile, but the intersection of these two styles (Martin’s and Chekhov’s) isn’t always successful. Nevertheless, the show is a great way to spend an evening and a fascinating look into two things we often don’t see on Toronto stages: Chekhov method and Martin’s plays.
Why You Should See It
If you’re a fan of Martin’s stand-up or writing (his Born Standing Up memoir about stand-up comedy and why he took a break from it was so addictive I read it in a single sitting), Picasso offers a neat window into how an actor who has made a career of playing fun characters translates that experience into populating a play. You can see Martin’s sly sneer in all of these characters, though they evoke the many variations we’ve seen Martin play over the years (with the foppish inventor Schmendiman recalling Martin’s broader comedy in films like The Three Amigos, whereas the cranky bar patron Gaston shares DNA with Martin’s more snarky, self aware characters). Martin is also a lover of art and his passion for the ideas and feeling behind the creation of art and inspiration are evident here, though occasionally the debate surrounding these ideas carries on too long. Martin creates a fun world and Seven Siblings, with their clever choice of venue and lively cast, realize it beautifully. It’s easy to imagine yourself in the technicolor world of optimism and inspiration that the characters live in and certainly a nice way escape the grey doldrums of February.
Also, as evident in Erika’s responses below, this is a play for actors looking to find new entry points into their craft. Chekhov has something of a cult following amongst actors seeking to free themselves from the constraints of naturalism and The Method (wherein actors become the characters; think Daniel Day Lewis’ insistence on being referred to as Lincoln etc when playing the part). Chekhov -from my layman’s understanding- uses movement and archetypes amongst other exercises to offer actors an alternate way of approaching and finding characters. Erika and Seven Siblings Theatre are keen on bringing their experience with Chekhov to Toronto and Picasso is a neat way to see their methodology on display in a practical format. From an audience perspective, it would seem that their exploration of archetypes has created some very approachable and recognizable characters; I’m reminded of Commedia del arte characters, who –despite a variety of plots and lines- are immediately recognizable and familiar. We are very quickly able to place who each of these people are, what is important to them, and what function they are to serve in the proceedings, which is lovely. Where the show suffers a bit is in the text work, where characters often seem to be reciting lines rather than speaking honestly their thoughts and feelings. Interestingly, the characterizations are still very clear and the characters feel real (likely due to their exploration of and execution of archetypes) despite the lines not always reading true. This also causes the pace to suffer, which unfortunately highlights the issues inherent in the script (which occasionally gets bogged down in its own philosophical leanings). Nevertheless, if you’re looking for something new and exciting to help you find character truth, then check out what Seven Siblings are doing! It’s certainly refreshing to see a methodology on display practically rather than just in a classroom setting.
For the theatre producers of the world, I’d also recommend going to enjoy and scout out a new space. The ROUND often hosts music and is usually not configured for theatre, but Seven Siblings saw the potential and thus have unearthed a great space with tonnes of personality and a great beer list. Although the bar itself is, unfortunately, at a bad angle for the audience (hence the production’s decision to create a secondary bar with tables onstage), the space exudes personality and has a great vibe (which Picasso uses to great effect in creating the show’s atmosphere).
So, without further adieu, my interview with the lovely Erika Downie, who has an aura of positive, infectious energy about her that can’t help but put you in a better mood. Below, we discuss her background, the company, and take a deep dive into some of the issues that I always consider both as a theatre creator and audience member. Enjoy!
For those unfamiliar with you and your work, can you give me a brief summary of your background as an artist, your directing style, and how you approached the work?
I am a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Arts graduate from the University of Windsor. I have studied the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique and received a teaching certificate in the technique from Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium under the guidance of master teachers Lionel Walsh, Catherine Albers, Lavinia Hart and Mark Monday. This training has been the foundation of my approach to acting as well as directing. I approach each production with the foundation of the Michael Chekhov technique bringing the Four Brothers (ease, form, beauty and the whole) into each rehearsal process.
What is Seven Siblings all about? Who is the audience you are trying to reach and what experience are you aiming to provide to them?
Will King, Madryn McCabe and I created Seven Siblings Theatre after our first year at Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium. We formed the company because we discovered as actors the technique held value in our own work and we believe that it can give new opportunity for other actors within their creative process. Our audiences benefit from this technique as well as we aim to create a world where they are characters too. The audiences that we try to reach are our contemporaries, young artists who are looking for new theatre experiences. Audiences that are excited to be challenged, educated, entertained and live with us within the realm of the fantastic.
I read about the rather serendipitous way the choosing of the play came about over on Theatre Reader, but I’m curious about the why of it: why this play, why now, and why in Toronto? What value does it bring to your audience?
Steve Martin is brilliant artist and his writing is rhythmic and dynamic and lives in the realm of the fantastic which is why we chose to produce it, it fit within our mandate and values as a company. Making this our first production of our season would allow us to reach out to new audiences and would allow us to step further into the independent theatre scene with a fantastic piece of theatre; it’s also the first production that I was available to do, just finishing my degree, within the company. We are all currently based in Toronto and we believe that this is the best place to begin introducing the Michael Chekhov technique to actors, as well as produce theatre that hasn’t been widely produced which follows the fantastic.
On The Play
What dimensions has this specific bar brought to the performance? Was the choice of The ROUND deliberate for this specific show, or was it an available, suitable space (ie. that it was in a bar was the most important feature, not that it was The ROUND specifically)?
For Picasso, we sought out a venue that was sight specific and that would add to the atmosphere and aesthetic of the play. ROUND Venue allowed us to really focus on the action and movement of the play because we were give the perfect space to play in. We really wanted to make this play sight specific because it adds to the atmosphere, it invites the audience to become something other than an audience.
What was your and the casts’ approach to playing historical figures? What challenges and discoveries did you make in the development and portrayal of these famous people?
Playing historical character takes a great deal of research and study because you want to remain true to who that man or woman was in history, but in their simplest form these characters are archetypes. The challenge became finding the archetype within Picasso and Einstein while continuing to have the historical portrait that many people have with regards to Picasso and Einstein. This is why we use the Chekhov technique; we work through an exercise called Archetypes and find the ones that best fit our interpretation of these men. This approach to character allows for us to build a fully functioning three, maybe even four, dimensional character.
Einstein has been back in the news a lot lately with the confirmation of gravity waves, but both he and Picasso are often known generally by their most famous works and little personally. What does your production have to say about these two historical figures as people and what new insight do you hope an audience gains?
Well this production really focuses on the relationship that these men have with their work, with each other and with other people. It takes place in their youth, which is something we don’t see, because we generally know these men for their later personality. It’s a journey within the “moment before” their lives change and that’s what makes it so exciting. We get to witness the changing of a century and experience how these men brought their work and who they are forward. I can only hope that it inspires the audience to examine what their “moment before” could be and how they may change the world.
On a similar note, what is a play written in 1993 trying to say about these figures compared to what you are trying to say in your 2016 production?
This play is timeless, and these men are timeless. We revere them because of their contributions to art and science, but in this production I tried to focus on who they were before these men became how we know them today. In 1993, just like today, we are still developing art and science, because like decade, in both of these fields respectively, its about how we perceive the world and our function within it. Science and art are ever evolving, just like humanity, and I believe Picasso and Einstein understood this, and worked within this, constantly trying to evolve and therefore solidifying their place in time as being timeless.
On Steve Martin
In your interview with the Theatre Reader, you spoke to the style of Martin’s comedy; known primarily (now, anyway) for his acting rather than his stand-up, can you speak to the style of humor and how it relates to the Steve Martin-style we recognize from film?
His own personal style is very absurd, but in a funny-guy-next-door kind of way. He has a rhythm to his comedy and it is very present within this production. His writing is more like his music rather than his acting, there are brilliant repetitions and cadences within the play that follow a musical quality, just as comedy should, but you can absolutely see this in some of his own work as an actor, especially as a young actor.
I notice in your advertising you are using the classic image of Martin with the arrow through his head, how important is Steve Martin to the marketing of the play?
Steve Martin is very important in the marketing of this play. Not many people realized he was a writer on top of the many other talents he practices. As an artist, he, in my mind, is a renaissance man, and he has been very kind to our company by giving us a leg up on marketing our show after he tweeted us.
Opulence, cultural intolerance, and Liza Minnelli: this week Tom and Miles are joined by special guest stars Julia Nish-Lapidus and James Wallis (Shakespeare BASH’d) on a Boxing Day trip to hell in an expensive handbag, as we watch a beloved television show’s horrific follow-up. This is a neat first for our show, as this is our first episode that deals with a TV-show follow-up film and delves into how Sex and the City 2 serves as both a sequel to the previous film AND to the legacy of the HBO show that spawned it.
Also, you can get tickets for our guests’ awesome upcoming production of Hamlet (featuring James and Julia as Hamlet and Ophelia and Miles as Rosencrantz) here! Hamlet runs at the Monarch Tavern in Toronto, ON Canada from February 2-7th.
Well, a funny thing happened on my way to the forum, today. I had intended on writing about Batman v Superman and the dangers of over-stuffing films, but with the new Suicide Squad trailer and Wonder Woman footage that dropped last night, I wanted to take this week instead to discuss trailers and -following up from last post- tone.
One of the biggest problems I’ve had (as indicated last week with regards to Fantastic Four) with the DC Cinematic Universe has been it’s Grimdark Aesthetic (grimdark, for the uninitiated, refers to an overly gritty, grim tone).
“Who’s your favorite superhero, Jimmy?”
“I like the one that tells the other one he’s going to make him bleed!”
When Suicide Squad was announced, everyone was a little surprised…introducing DC villains and the Joker in a film without Batman? Unheard of! (Though we later learned that Batman IS in the film both through the trailer and through living in Toronto) We were also shocked when Will ‘Holy Shit, Seriously? Will Smith?!’ Smith was announced as Deadshot. With A-Listers Smith and Margo Robbie (Harley Quinn) in place, producers pulled another coup by courting Oprah for Amanda Waller (the role eventually went to the eminently talented Viola Davis; a much better choice). Already there was something different and neat about this film. Writer/Director David Ayer kept talking about fun, but our confidence was shaken considerably with the reveal of Juggalo Joker (albeit with the caveat that Heath Ledger’s casting was also met with anger and guffaws. Granted, he didn’t have a fucking grill, but that’s neither here nor there…)
Fucking magnets…how do they work?!?!
In spite of this, the first trailer looked vaguely promising…just having Will Smith as a DC villain is already interesting enough to warrant attention, as is the first cinematic appearance of fan favorite Harley Quinn (with extremely promising casting of the yet untested Margo Robbie) and Jared Leto -continuing to prove that he’s a goddamn wizard when the camera is on- proved his Joker, despite the questionable design, was still going to be worth the price of admission. It was necessarily expository (Waller sets up the premise in voice over), gives glimpses of the main cast and essentially builds to a reveal of the Joker.
But it didn’t read as fun. It read the same way the other DC Cinematic trailers had: gritty, dark, IMPORTANT. ACTION-Y. Complete with unnecessarily dark cover of a classic song by a tragic-sounding children’s choir. FOR EMPHASIS AND IMPORTANCE. Here it is for reference:
So, some neat stuff, but worth being excited about? Meh.
But all that changed about two days ago, with the release of some new images, followed promptly by a new trailer.
In today’s post, I’ll be taking a look at how the tone and narrative surrounding Suicide Squad had changed and why: in addition to getting me genuinely excited for the film, this shift also signals hope for the DC universe and how -yet again- a grimdark overlay can set films up for failure.
One Look? One Look? I’ll Show You One Look!
Here’s the first image of the cast that was released:
But which one is Keyser Soze?!?! Smart money is on Margo Robbie.
The image gave fans lots to mull over: it was our first look at how far they were going to go with Killer Croc’s look (hint: exactly far enough!) We got further confirmation that Will Smith was actually in the film (which still seems pretty unreal), and the direction they would go with Harley Quinn (I’ll cover the many looks of Harley Quinn in a future post, but to whet your appetite, here is the range of costumes and looks the film had to choose from…mercifully they found decent mid-ground):
…As you can see, things have kinda been going downhill since her original look from the 90’s.
We also got final confirmation about who would comprise the Squad (the roster in the comics has changed a lot over the years.) The characters from left to right: Slipknot (a master of knots and ropes/50 Shades of Grey Aficionado/Expert Arctic Air pilot), Boomerang (think Green Arrow, but with trick boomerangs instead of trick arrows. Played by Jai ‘Oh, for god’s sake stop being in things’ Courtney of A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator: Genisys ‘fame’), Enchantress (the one standing, she is a magic user possessed by a witch), Katana (crouching, wields a sword called Soultaker that captures and draws power from the souls of those she kills with it), Rick Flag (an elite soldier; was supposed to be played by Tom Hardy, but he was too busy playing ‘get the Oscar nom!’ in the woods with Leo), Harley Quinn (Formerly obsessed with the Joker), Deadshot (The Fresh Prince; super skilled sniper), Killer Croc (a Batman villain with a genetic condition that gives him reptilian looks…in some versions, like this one, he eats people), and El Diablo (a gangster with pyrotechnic powers). They looked fine, but also at home with the tone of the Superman and Batman photos we’d seen so far: gritty, dark, grim.
Here’s what we got two days ago:
Each of these images has its own breakout poster focusing on the individual characters: they’re funky, interesting, colorful: these suggest a much different film than both the first image and the first trailer. Usually, these are the kinds of posters that fans make (like the spectacular Mondo posters) but here we are with an official series of posters that are a far cry from anything else we’ve seen from the DC Cinematic Universe so far.
This was followed by another poster:
“The difference is stark. Everything’s so muted. The characters look either mildly concerned, or outright bored. All the personality and vibrancy these characters should have—Batman! Superman! Wonder Woman! The World’s Finest!—is just drained, replaced by an endless malaise.”
Suddenly, Suicide Squad was looking much different from the rest of the DC Universe, but that could just be savvy marketing…after all, the discount bins of the world are full of garbage made to look desirable by great ad campaigns…
But the fact remained that regardless of the posters, the trailer still felt tonally incorrect.
Until this dropped yesterday:
And with that, shit got real (interesting)
Tonally New Trailer and Friends
Tone wise, this trailer is much more alive: we get to know the characters, see them in action, the film seems fun and snarky, rather than gritty and grim. Even the use of Bohemian Rhapsody (as sung by Queen, not the Glee Club of the Damned) gives the film a more fun and distinctive vibe. Suddenly, I know what this film wants to be and happily it’s not another grimdark DC flick.
But it is a little familiar…remind you of anything?
If you’re like me, you greeted the announcement of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie with a resounding ‘What the fuck?’ but this trailer completely turned me around. It was so unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had a sense of fun and play that none of the other films had (being familiar with James Gunn also helped in this case). But really, above all else, two things stand out in this trailer: the humour and the music.
When I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) at Boomerang sneaking a beer in a combat zone, I realized Suicide Squad had hooked me in a similar way. So, why the sudden turn-around? Guardians, already being a long-standing success, can’t be the reason for the recent shift in marketing focus (though you can be damn sure it’s success as a fringe property helped this -and the ill-fated Sinister Six film that I’ll be talking about in my next post- green-lit). While it’s entirely possible that we’re just getting too close to the film to continue to pretend it is tonally similar to Batman V Superman (hell, even Ben Affleck describes Suicide Squad as having ‘a cool cousin’), I think the final push that caused this shift lies in the spandex-clad hands of another hero altogether: Deadpool.
The story of how the Deadpool movie came to be is a fascinating one that I’ll be delving into close to the film’s release date, but in the meantime: Deadpool is a smart-cracking, meta-character (that is aware he’s in a comic) and often engages in hyper-violence and the eating of chimichangas. After a long campaign led by Reynolds himself (and some conveniently leaked test footage), Deadpool was green-lit and has engaged in one of the most brilliant campaigns of fan service I’ve ever seen. From the first trailer (which featured a joke about not putting him in a costume that was neither ‘animated or green’ -burning the much maligned Green Lantern film), to a delightfully violent fake-out announcement that the film would be getting a PG-13 rating (fans were furious) followed by Deadpool murdering the announcer and declaring the R-rating, to the recent campaign of parody posters, and finally, the above trailer. This is a film that by all conventional super hero film logic should not be possible (hard R, sex jokes, swearing, hyper violence…all the fun things studios can’t stand being anywhere near their super hero films; particularly as the rating limits their audience intake. This was a huge issue on Watchmen and even Live Free or Die Hard, which famously censored John McClane’s ‘Yippie Kai Yay, Motherfucker’ and continues to be an issue with Deadpool, even spawning a campaign led by an eight-year-old to get a PG-13 version released) but despite this, Deadpool has become more hyped that even the new X-Men film. In large part, this is because of how fully the film has embraced its tone: it knows it’s a different beast and it’s reveling in it. Consequently, we know what we’re in for, we know whether we’ll be excited or not, and this weird movie can just let its freak-flag fly.
While there may not be a link between the three marketing campaigns, the parallel sends a clear message: regardless of the cinematic universe your film exists in, the tone of the film -not the universe- needs to be front and centre. By allowing us to see the film as director David Ayer has been describing it for the first time, Suicide Squad has gone from being a curio to a project of genuine interest. If, however, the marketing had continued to depict the grim, en sepia world of Batman v Superman, we might have no idea why this film was interesting until it was too late. Now, good or bad, Suicide Squad can stand on it’s own.
I’m now quite unexpectedly eager to be there on opening night to find out.
Hollywood keeps making sequels, so we figured it was time to get back to analyzing them! Please Sir, I Want Some More returns bi-weekly with new episodes and exciting guest stars!
First up the sequel that proves the name: The Neverending Story Part II: The Next Chapter!
Mourn your dead horses and mount your luck dragons as Miles and Tom crack open the sequel to the childhood classic The Neverending Story. Join us as Tom romps through Miles’ beloved childhood film as our hosts debate the bizarre main character shift from Arteyu to Bastien, the cost of wishes, authorial intent, and invariably end up yelling Atreyu and Falcor. Apologies in advance for putting the theme song in your head again.
The Fun-tastic Four
Dark. Gritty. Bleak.
I’m pretty sure if you ask anyone who has ever read, seen or thought about ‘Marvel’s First Family’ The Fantastic Four to describe them, I highly doubt they’d use these terms. These are, after all, the super heroes who fly around in a vehicle called ‘The Fantasti-car’
I dream only of death.
And so, it’s rather unfortunate that Jonathan Trank’s now infamous Fantastic Four embraced this aesthetic so completely. It’s understandable, given the larger trend in superhero films toward the dark, gritty aesthetic (summed up by Christian Bale’s inability to say more than two lines through his rasp in Dark Knight Rises) that the reboot-response to the fun but toothless 200x Fantastic Four films would be something darker and edgier (particularly given Fox’s success with the darker aesthetic for their X-Men franchise).
I *cough choke* came *cough choke* to stop *cough choke, deep breath* you. *dies*
The dark and gritty approach is good, which is easy to forget given how dominant it has become, however it cannot be applied successfully across the board: it is vital to analyse the franchise that this aesthetic is being applied to. In the case of The Fantastic Four, this is a critical misstep based on the tone of the characters: these are adventurer scientists. They’re more Star Trek than Watchmen. Their abilities all complement each other, their family bond is strong, and together they solve problems and save the day. In fact, the best Fantastic Four movie today, in my opinion, was Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, which pretty much sums up the kind of dynamic and tone that permiates the Fantastic Four characters and adventures.
Hey, looks like Disney owns the rights to the Fantastic Four after all…
So, what went wrong?
Well, pants, for starters.
There are a number of really good resources about the many behind the scenes hijinks that hurt this film here and here but the short answer is: wigs.
Frank Underwood does like blondes…
The long answer is a complex mix of artistic differences, inexperienced directors, nosey studios, pretty much everything that could go wrong did.
But I’m going to focus on something else: the fundamental mistake of applying the grit filter to The Fantastic Four and how the older films, though rife with their own issues, come closer to feel of the franchise. With the new, grim-across-the-board flavour of the DC movie universe, this filter is about to be applied to a lot of franchises and in this post I’m going to flag why this could be problematic.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into Trank’s Fantastic Dour.
You read that correctly. I’ll see myself out.
Part One: What Trank Got Right
First, a confession: I enjoyed Trank’s Fantastic Four a lot more than I thought I would.
I went in like this. “Fantastic Four? More like Fantastic One…star!” OH-HO-HO-HO!
When the movie is working, it works pretty well. The opening which establishes the friendship between Ben Grimm and Reed Richards is really nice. Whiplash and Billy Elliot have great chemistry together and the nature of their friendship (Reed’s aloof brilliance, Grimm’s practical resourcefulness) make a lot of sense as to why the super nerd and the moody Bronx junk yard kid become best friends. Despite an incredibly bizarre decision to give the origin of Grimm’s signature “It’s clobberin’ time!” catchphrase to his older brother who yells it before beating up Ben…
“Hey kid! I AM BATMAN! Cool catchphrase, huh? You can have it.”
…the opening has a neat, grounded, two kids tinkering with science vibe that would be at home in a Spielberg film. Think Hey, Arnold, if they eventually became super heroes.
Football Head Man and Other Guy! (Please note: Helga is given more value and status in this photo than Sue Storm in the entire film.)
It’s when they are enlisted by the Storm family that things start going bad, really, really fast. I know it isn’t much, but that opening bit is really nice. According to most reports, that’s mostly what remains of the original script. So, uh, yeah. High five. While it would be nice to imagine the rest of that script was as good as the opening, it’s hard to imagine the team coming together the way these two friends did. It’s an intimate, grounded set of scenes and that tone can’t quite carry on into a super hero epic…
…and it didn’t.
Part Two: The Rest in a Nutshell (aka The Bad)
Here’s a quick summary to bring up you up to speed before we get to it:
Reed gets into the Storm program to help make a transdimensional teleporter. Franklin Storm has been working on it with a team including his daughter Zoe Barnes (Sue Storm) and a genius counter-culture hacker named Victor von Doom who is moodily playing pre-release Assassin’s Creed Syndicate with his mind while also being pissed off about THE MAN.
…the kids like this, right? -Fox exec
Storm re-enlists the help of Doom and his rebel adrenaline junkie son Johnny Storm (who quickly becomes the ‘backstory, what backstory?’ son Johnny Storm) to help Richards. They quickly build the thing before THE MAN (Kimmy Schmidt’s father, I defy you to view him as anything else once you’ve seen him in that part) shuts down the program, because THE MAN REASONS in a scene that is almost verbatim lifted from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (where THE MAN shuts down his Green Goblin program, leading to Norman ‘Holy Shit it’s Willem Dafoe’ Osborne to inject himself with the Goblin formula) and Batman Forever’s Riddler scene (where Ace Ventura offs Stan Sitwell for shutting him down) and seen -yet again- in Ant Man where THE MAN shuts down Peter Russo (and he…shrink goos him…?) So, following the trend, Reed, Johnny, and Doom get drunk and decide to travel through themselves. Reed invites Ben, because they’re BFFs, and no one tells Sue, because her nagging lady-ness will impede their bro-venture.
Above: The Fantastic Three and Doom. Sigh.
So, they take an ill-advised trip to the alternate dimension, Doom touches some evil goo (having clearly seen Prometheus and thinking that this guy was on-point with his ‘taste the evil black goo’ hypothesis)
Alien 5 is on hold for this.
Get blasted by other dimension weirdness (which hits Sue too because she’s nearby. Not on the adventure, but nearby. Near the adventure. As propriety dictates is acceptable for a lady) and make it back, only to wake up in a government facility with powers. Now, THE MAN – having clearly seen X-Men and noting how well the Weapon X program worked out for everyone, decides to militarize the kids.
Just like Vic Hoskins in Jurassic World with the raptors. Right? Remember him? No? Yeah, me either.
THE MAN starts his brilliant process with The Thing (who is EXTRA TORTURED in this one…probably because he is lacking pants. We see his butt. A lot.)
With a tip of the hat to Tina Belcher
THE MAN promises to cure Billy Elliot if he does killin’ work for the military. Reed manages to escape his cell and also promises to help cure The Thing, but needs to escape in order to do so. Thing doesn’t want him to go and believes this to be a massive betrayal because…reasons? Anyway, Reed fucks off (this program is not his tempo) and so, like Doctor Manhattan or Miller’s Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, The Thing gets deployed to war zones and kills a lot of people (entirely off screen).
The Thing of the comics is a lovable mug with a heart of gold, so this brooding murder spree sits a little oddly.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Human Torch, now magically over his daddy issues (never mentioned again) is SUPER EXCITED about being a murder weapon, but Sue (who can now fly and turn invisible, but still isn’t allowed on science adventures) and her dad are really concerned about THE MAN turning Torch into a monster like Thing (despite Torch being the MOST excited about it).
They manage to track down Reed who is now a master of disguise and inexplicably able to change his skin colour as well as stretch his face into new faces.
(Not exactly as shown.)
After capturing him (The Thing is SOOOOO pissed) they bring him back just in time for THE MAN’S team to bring Doom back from the other dimension. His suit is now melted to his face making him look super menacing*
*And by super menacing…I mean like a crash test dummy.
Doom declares that humanity is the worst and starts bursting heads, kills Daddy Storm, opens a portal between dimensions which (unlike every other portal to date) will destroy Earth for some reason. Our heroes pursue him, work together and defeat Doom. Then they decide to name themselves…CUT TO CREDITS!!!
What’s particularly weird about this is the tone shift: we have a film about government overstepping, manipulation, the danger so gaining absolute power without the responsibility right up until Doom returns. Then the film makes an abrupt about-face, about learning to work together as a team. While this is closer in tone tone heart of the characters (in that their greatest strength is working together), this was never presented as the problem beyond Reed’s perceived betrayal of Thing by escaping to find help. The government thing goes away when Doom straight-up murders everyone involved in that plot.
The final line and feeling of ‘look, they’re all pals now!’ doesn’t suit the film that has preceded it. Reed and Sue seem like vaguely cool acquaintances, Thing and Torch seem to genuinely dislike each other, and ultimately they don’t feel like a team let alone Marvel’s First Family at the end of it.
So, now that you have a general overview of this magical dumpster fire of a movie, what about the original?
Part Three: The Fun-tactic Four-gettable First Films
You can be forgiven for not remembering a damn thing about the original Fantastic Four films-
Like the fact that The Human Torch is Captain America…
But in retrospect, the bright and sunny disposition of the original films nails the tone of the characters perfectly. The film accomplishes this by giving all the characters history: Reed and Ben are pals, Ben was Johnny’s commanding officer, Reed and Sue used to date, now she’s with Doom. It immediately establishes the dynamic that in light of the new film we so desperately need: it also jumps right into the action and hooks our characters up with powers very quickly (as opposed to two-thirds of the way tough the film, like Trank’s). Some of this feels rushed, but it gets us to powers and dynamics in a much more reasonable amount of time. The film’s major sin is not knowing what to do with itself after gaining the powers.
We get yet ANOTHER ‘we’re shutting you down’/now I revenge kill you all scene with Doom this time around, but at least this Doom echoes his comics counterpart, donning the iconic mask due to a small blemish on his face (one of the most fascinating elements of the Doom mythology is that he wears the metal mask because he was horribly disfigured; the more exciting take on this is that his vanity is such that a small scar on his handsome features is enough to warrant the mask) but falls flat once he is in costume.
And the film just kind of spins its wheels until the inevitable falling out/coming together finale where they defeat Doom. Where Trank’s is at it’s most plodding when the team is building the dimensional gateway, this one is oddly most boring once they have powers. There’s not really a plot to be found until Doom starts wrecking things, which leads to the film’s entirely forgetable reputation.
But what we do get are generally better characterizations:
Reed Richards and Sue (though Alba remains an odd choice) seem to have a genuine history and (extraordinarily G-rated) love plot of reconciliation; Johnny does very early 2000’s extreme sports, beds lots of ladies, but most importantly teases and pranks The Thing (with whom he shares a genuine begrudging relationship with-thing Gimli and Legolas); and the Thing, though tortured by his appearance, still cares the most about his friends, sacrificing his human form in order to save Reid in the end (a really touching scene-think Samwise to Frodo.)
Maybe I should have just re-watched Fellowship of the Ring…
We also get a bunch of fun stuff from the comics, most notably Thing in a trenchcoat: an iconic, if ridiculous disguise. But dammit, it’s a comic book film so it fits.
Though he somehow looks MORE like a flasher than the other film where he is literally wearing nothing.
With a more substantive and driving plot, this could have been THE Fantastic Four film (though the sequel-which inexplicably has Human Torch becoming Rogue from the X-Men and absorbing people’s powers-reveals the flaws inherent in this lightweight approach. They go from zero to Batman and Robin levels of bonkers bullshit in the blink of an eye). Nevertheless, for all it’s issues, it’s a much more accurate depiction of the characters.
The Future Foundation: What Comes Next
So, where does that leave us? Fox insists that it is moving ahead with a soft reboot, possibly with a different cast (looks like we’re in for a revolving door Hulk film situation), there has been some talk of Marvel reclaiming the rights (seems highly unlikely, but then, so did the Spider-Man deal before the Sony hack and flop of Amazing Spider-Man 2). In the comics, the team has disbanded and the surviving members have joined other teams, but writers like Dan Slott are stoking the flames for an eventual return (he’s read comics before, after all…)
The next film should be tonally somewhere between the X-Men films and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2: playful, big, but with a driving plot. Writers and directors are already chomping at the bit, including Adam McKay (riding high in the wake of his Ant Man rewrite) who seems like he’d be good fit, but I imagine we’ll see Fox focusing on X-Men and Deadpool for a while first (but that’s a story for another night…)
As for Trank’s film, it’s taught us a valuable lesson about the dark and gritty filter: we need to be careful with where we apply it. As we continue to create new versions of our modern myths, we still need to respect the source material. There are fundamental truths about these characters that extend beyond their names and their powers (though, credit where it’s due: race need not be one of them, as evidenced by the perfect casting of Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch) that need to be present or else the film seems like an odd knock-off that just happens to feature characters with the same names.
Anyway, right after watching the Trank film, I was trying to track down the original films. It’s actually damn hard now, as Fox tried to erase them from existence right before the new film’s release (luckily, cable TV still runs it regularly). What I found was this gif, which if nothing else survives the original film, manages to capture the spirit of the team (for context: the team is going stir-crazy while Reed tries to cure them, so Johnny sets about pranking the Thing in classic ‘shaving cream in one hand, then tickling the face’ fashion):
It’s simple, it’s classic, and the joy of Chris Evan’s reaction captures the mood and tone of the team. This is the Fantastic Four. Hopefully next time we see them on screen, they’ll feel more like themselves again.
A heated debate breaks out this week as Tom and Miles dive deep into Genovian politics, Disney Princesses, an evil Gimli/Kirk alliance, and cheap CGI. Join us as we tear up the horrendous majesty of Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (with surprise musical appearance by Julie Andrews and Raven!)
EPISODE 02 He said ‘He’d Be Back’ and man did he deliver! ‘Please Sir’ goes looking for John Connor and admires Robert Patrick’s epic running skills in Terminator 2: Judgement Day! Come re-experience T2 for the first time with Miles who had never seen either film and Tom, who unfortunately saw T3 and Salvation.