Before seeing the new Fantastic Four movie, I remember hearing someone – who shall remain nameless because he’s kind of a self-important, hipster douchebag – I remember hearing someone say that watching Fantastic Four is like watching two different movies. As it turns out, he was right.
He’s still kind of a self-important, hipster douchebag, but he was right.
From what I’ve gathered, this happened because the studio people at Fox took over the third act of the film, yanking it out of the hands of director Josh Trank and, according to some, including Trank, ruining what could’ve been a good film. Trank even went as far as throwing Fox under the bus before the movie was released, saying that we’ll never see the “fantastic version” of the movie that he had planned. And of course, pundits are taking Trank’s side against the evil film studio. But after seeing this movie, I just can’t do that. What makes this film so bad isn’t simply the allegedly terrible third act, its problems run deep throughout the movie.
One of the biggest problems with Fantastic Four is the lack of character development. Whereas Chronicle – a film by the same director, Trank, which happened to also be about young people gaining powers – did a wonderful job of moving the story along and building up and consistently showing the changes in attitude the kids were undergoing following receiving their powers, Fantastic Four really does none of this.
After the initial introduction of Reed and Ben as kids, which was a great start to the film, and gave me the feeling that this could be a really good movie, it then falls into scene after scene of things just happening with no real reaction to them. Nobody reacts to anything. It’s just… this happens. Okay. Now that happens. Okay. Sue is introduced. She fits right in. Okay. Johnny is introduced. He fits right in. Okay. Doom is a dick. No one cares. Okay.
This makes the characters seem flat, like the writer had a checklist of events that needed to occur to tell the origin story of the Fantastic Four and simply checked off each item as he went along while forgetting that what makes us care about characters isn’t simply what happens to them, it’s how they react to what happens to them.
What’s that saying? Ten percent of life is what happens to you; ninety percent of life is how you react to what happens to you. It’s the same with storytelling. If characters don’t care what’s happening to them, then why should the audience?
That ninety percent really seems to be missing here in this film. Reed is scared at first that he’s all stretched out, but once he pulls himself together he doesn’t go through any type of questioning phase; how you might expect a scientist to react. Sue never even bats an eyelash about being invisible or throwing out force fields. Johnny takes to his flames quickly even though he seemed to be suffering when he was first affected. And Ben just takes his new rock-hard body like a champ.
It’s like the most interesting story aspects of gaining powers, the process of having to become accustomed to them, to not be afraid of them, to not be afraid of yourself, to begin to accept them and yourself as normal even though, to the rest of humanity, you are not normal anymore, that’s all just skipped over with a simple “1 Year Later” line.
And the part of humanity that is aware of these people with powers, the military, also doesn’t have a reaction to the fact that these people have strange powers, only an interest in using these people as weapons in military operations. So nobody really reacts to anything. It all just seems like a checklist of things that have to happen to tell the origin story.
Another huge problem with the film is its identity. There is so much time spent on the building of a machine that can transport people into another dimension, that there’s a shortage of the amount of time needed to show what it’s like to suddenly have a strange ability that no one else has and the consequences of that. The writer and director apparently wanted to make a movie called Fantastic Machine rather than a movie called Fantastic Four. If I was a script doctor and I saw page after page devoted to building this machine, I would’ve said, “Wait. What is this movie about? Is it about four people who gain amazing powers or is it about a dimension-crossing machine?”
I think the writer might’ve gotten lost in a potentially clever idea that the machine itself should be positioned as a villain, with a slow build to this as Reed, Sue, Doom, and Johnny bond while constructing the machine, unaware of the horrors it’ll bring. My guess is that the writer wanted to show the dangers of technology and rushing into another dimension that we know nothing about. It’s not a bad concept, but it’s not well-executed for a Fantastic Four movie in which the people and their powers should be what we’re centered on. Plus, this approach completely leaves Ben out of the bonding moments.
If I was to suggest a way to fix this, I would have the machine basically completed at the outset, except for a key element that only Reed can offer. They rush into the other dimension, get their powers, and then the four of them can bond over them now having these powers that no one else has, this thing that suddenly separates them from everyone else. That way more time is spent on the people and the powers and how their similar experience brings them together and brings them to care about one another since they would now essentially be isolated and would feel like they could only rely on each other.
It’s like the difference between being around someone who understands you versus being around someone who doesn’t understand you, and that difference is weighted by the fact that there are now only three other people in this world who can really understand you.
And the military’s role, I feel, could’ve boosted this lack of trust by having these four people wondering what the military really wants with them. Does the military want to control them and use them in military operations? Does the military want to study them to figure out how it is that they have powers? Does the military want to send more people to the other dimension in an attempt to create a whole army with powers? Does the military see these four people as a threat to humanity and simply want to dispose of them? Or is there a mix of intentions from different people within the military?
One of those things does happen, but there’s no feeling of a lack of trust. Things just happen and everyone goes along with it. Again, it’s like there’s a checklist and once that box is ticked off, everything is okay and we’re moving on to the next item. This goes on right up to the third act of the film. And believe me; you’ll know when you’re in the third act of the film.
Going into the third act, for me, felt like I was waking up from Fantastic Machine to see a movie called Fantastic Four. The sluggishness of the first two acts was finally gone in favor of a much quicker pace and I found myself actually enjoying the movie even though Doom did have a totally cheesy look to him. Perhaps the people at Fox saw how the movie just dragged on and on and said, ‘Okay, we’re picking up the pace in the third act.’ Perhaps that’s why the Fox people took it over.
The fact that there were so many scenes centering around building the machine captured on film shows that this movie was not well-scripted in the first place. I really doubt that director Josh Trank had a “fantastic version” of this movie that Fox came in and screwed up.
If there’s any glaring mistake Fox made with this Fantastic Four movie, it’s that they approved the idea that Trank had of focusing so heavily on the dimension-crossing machine. And I think that once the studio people saw the film that came off the page and got a real feel of how much that concept didn’t mesh with the essence of what a Fantastic Four movie should be, they jumped in and tried to fix it as best they could.
Unfortunately, there are times when something that’s messed up just can’t be fixed. Sorry, Ben, you’re stuck like that.