The Fun-tastic Four: The Importance of Tone in Superhero Films
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.