Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fantastic Four (20th Century-Fox, Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a movie I’d recently bought on DVD: Fantastic Four, the recent (2015) reboot of Marvel Comics’ first set of classic characters, introduced in a comic book from 1962 (and incorporating the Human Torch, who’d been a solo character in one of their predecessor company Timely Comics’ 1940’s series — the Torch and Captain America were the only characters from Marvel’s Timely days to reappear in the run of comic books from their great period in the 1960’s and 1970’s). At one point Marvel was just another comic-book company selling the rights to their stories and characters to whichever movie studio they could get interested — superhero movies were pretty much a backwater in the industry until the spectacular blockbuster success of the 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeve starring and Richard Donner directing, 40 years after the first Action Comics loosed Superman on the world and launched superhero comics generally, changed everything and made superhero characters some of the most lucrative in the entertainment business — and they had made a surprisingly disadvantageous deal on their hottest 1960’s property, Spider-Man, which they had to buy their way out of. For a while Marvel was parceling out their characters to various studios — Spider-Man ultimately ended up at Columbia, Iron Man at Paramount and the Fantastic Four and X-Men at 20th Century-Fox — until Marvel decided to create their own movie production company and partner with various studios, and eventually they were acquired by Disney, which seems to suck up just about every other purveyor of fantasy entertainment much the way Galactus (an unimaginably huge space monster that lives by eating entire planets and is part of the Marvel Universe) or Darth Vader’s Death Star gobbles up other worlds. Anyway, 20th Century-Fox won the rights to the Fantastic Four comics and all the characters therein, and from they made two quite good movies in the 2000’s, Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), which were relatively unpretentious fun-fests that avoided the strained seriousness of some of the other superhero cycles of the decade, Christopher Nolan’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films in particular. Those films’ director, Tim Story, and his writers (Mark Frost and Michael France on the first one, Frost, Don Payne and John Turman on Silver Surfer), understood that the superhero genre is supposed to be mindless entertainment and not some great meditation on the human condition, and they gave us two of the most enjoyable comic book-based movies in recent years.

Flash-forward to 2014, when 20th Century-Fox is about to lose the rights to Fantastic Four — their contract with Marvel said they had to produce a new Fantastic Four film no more than seven years after the last one — and Disney, the new owners of Marvel, are so anxious to get the rights back to Fantastic Four that they offer Fox an extension on their option for another Marvel property, Daredevil, if the studio will allow the Fantastic Four rights to revert to Marvel so Disney can make the next Fantastic Four movie. Instead Fox, which has been dithering around the property since 2009, when they briefly planned and then rejected a version with David Yates directing, Adrien Brody as Reed Richards (a.k.a. the infinitely pliable Mr. Fantastic), Alice Eve as his fiancée Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman), and either Bruce Willis or Kiefer Sutherland as The Thing, but that project fell through. So with the Marvel deadline for keeping the rights to the property, the “suits” at Fox decided to throw another Fantastic Four movie together at the last minute. Instead of doing the obvious thing and just making a third film in the Tim Story series — with Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic (and one of the bonus items on the Fantastic Four DVD paid tribute to Gruffudd’s skills as an actor by showing him at a press conference talking about the film — and it was amazing how Gruffudd managed to lose completely his real-life thick Welsh accent and deliver Mr. Fantastic’s lines in perfect American-accented English), Jessica Alba as the Invisible Woman, Chris Evans (later Captain America in a pair of Disney-produced films based on the Marvel character) as the Human Torch and Michael Chiklis (who, much to his credit, refused to do CGI and motion-capture and instead insisted on wearing a monster costume) as The Thing, who for the benefit of the non-cognoscenti reading this is Reed Richards’ old college roommate and football star Ben Grimm, until the same forces that give the other Fantastics their super-powers turns him into a giant beast that looks like a pile of animate rocks, which comes in handy whenever the Fantastics are faced with a situation that requires brute strength for them to escape or triumph — they decided to make an all-new “reboot” with a new director, writers, cast and “take” on the material.

The Fantastic Four film that eventually got made by 20th Century-Fox was the product of the same mentality that had given the directorship of the most recent Godzilla remake to Gareth Edwards on the strength of a surprisingly successful low-budget indie called Monsters. In this case, the director of choice was Josh Trank (his last name is the German word for “drink”), who was coming off a low-budgeter called Chronicle, made in 2012, which I haven’t seen but whose synopsis reads, “Whilst attending a party, three high school friends gain superpowers after making an incredible discovery underground. Soon, though, they find their lives spinning out of control and their bond tested as they embrace their darker sides.” (The artwork for Chronicle on its page shows a bunch of urban skyscrapers leaning leftward under a grey and stormy-looking sky; we know it’s in Seattle because one of the leaning towers is the Space Needle.) In the all-too-common round-robin system by which most movies — especially big effects-driven blockbusters which the studios who produce them hope will be mega-hits and cash cows for the rest of their slate — are written these days, Jeremy Slater wrote the original screenplay and then Simon Kinberg and director Trank came in and rewrote it. What they came up with was a film whose first half is quite charming and fun, but whose second half sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. The original Fantastic Four origin story in both the comic books and the Tim Story films was that Reed Richards was a well-to-do man who was also a scientific genius, and he self-financed a rocket project that would make him and his girlfriend, her brother and his old college roommate the first humans in space — only the spaceship passed through a belt of cosmic rays and fried not only the future Fantastics but also their great nemesis, Victor Von Doom of the (fictional) country of Latveria, who in the first Story film had taken advantage of Richards’ financial reverses to buy an 80 percent interest in the rocket project and also to move in on his girlfriend Sue. Anyway, the cosmic rays gave the Fantastics the powers that would make them superheroes, while it fried Von Doom’s appearance and forced him to wear a medieval-looking metal mask to hide his new-found ugliness. It also turned him from a creepy but not altogether evil character into an all-out villain, for which he took the name Dr. Doom.

The new film follows something of the same outline but it begins in 2003, with Reed Richards and Ben Grimm as boys (Owen Judge and Evan Hannemann, respectively — and this Ben Grimm is not heavy-set pre-transformation like his predecessors in the comics and the Story films) working on an early prototype of a teleportation machine with which they expect to beam to other planets and back. Since they’re just fifth-graders, all they manage to accomplish is to break a lot of glass, cause power blackouts and end up with a residue of odd-looking sand; their entry is thrown out of the fifth-grade science fair but attracts the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who’s running a program, funded by the Baxter Foundation, to find young geniuses, educate them and give them the money to make exciting new discoveries from which the world will benefit and so will the shareholders of Baxter’s parent company. By 2013 Reed Richards has grown up to be played by Miles Teller, with Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and he’s encountered the other principals: Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, Kate Mara as his sister Sue and Toby Kebbell as the future Dr. Doom. With the Baxter Foundation’s money — and despite the predictable quibbling of board members who don’t think all the dough Franklin Storm is expending on his youthful charges is ever going to amount to a marketable product they can, in the current term, “monetize” —Richards has scaled up his initial invention to a machine that can send people literally out of this world and (hopefully) bring them back. They try it first with a chimpanzee (ironically the chimp being led into the gizmo and then taken out of it on its return evokes memories of the stock footage of similar chimps being sent into space during test runs of both the U.S. and Soviet space programs in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s before both countries launched spacecraft with people inside) and then they decide to sneak into the lab and do a secret test run with themselves — aside from Sue, who for some reason gains a superpower even though she doesn’t go on the initial run. Richards has realized that the machine hasn’t sent them to another world but to another dimension, to a place he calls “Planet Zero” that appears to be that other dimension’s analogue of Earth, and when he and his motley crew go there and try to plant a U.S. flag on its soil, the planet rebels and starts breaking up its own surface, forming cracks under which the planet’s material glows green and shows the existence of a hitherto unknown and potentially unlimited energy source.

The Four end up with super-powers — and are clapped into custody by the U.S. military at the super-secret “Area 57” (even six numerals more secret than Area 51!), where the only one who ever gets let out is The Thing, and only because special-forces units in America’s multifarious wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or wherever can certainly use a guy who’s not only super-strong (able to literally rip apart a tank with his bare hands) but invulnerable to ordinary weaponry. Only Victor Von Doom (ya remember Victor Von Doom?) has remained stuck on Planet Zero, and his bitterness over having his body cooked to the consistency of metal has led him, like a number of other super-characters lately (including “The Centre” in the feature-length animated DVD Justice League: The Final Frontier and even Noah — yes, the one from the Bible — in Darren Aronofsky’s recent film), to become a deep ecologist, someone who thinks human beings have become a pestilence that threatens the very survival of Earth and everything on it and therefore need either to be allowed to kill themselves off or actively eliminated. Only Doom is planning something even more sinister than annihilating the human race: he plans to use Planet Zero’s energy to create a black hole that will suck up everything on Earth and send it all flying willy-nilly into space (though, as one “Goofs” contributor pointed out, Doom’s force field pulls up a lot of inanimate objects and other life forms but doesn’t seem to affect any people). The first half of the 2015 Fantastic Four — Josh Trank completed his director’s cut by the end-of-2014 deadline but Fox decided to demand reshoots that delayed the movie’s release until August 2015 (and cost them the chance to release it in 3-D — the money they had budgeted for a 3-D conversion went instead to cover the cost of the reshoots) — is actually quite engaging, but once the principals do their journey into another dimension the film turns bleak and heavy, complete with action sequences that seem to exist more so the filmmakers can show off their command of CGI than to give the audience honest-to-goodness thrills.

Director Trank put up a short-lived tweet in August 2015 protesting the studio’s retakes and recuts, saying, ““A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” Trank also said his version would have run between 120 and 140 minutes, whereas the final release version was 100 minutes (and about 13 minutes of that was an extended closing credit roll in which, unusually for a Marvel movie, there aren’t any “teaser” sequences.) According to various posts, though, Trank was enough of a prima donna on set that it’s hard to work up much sympathy for him — as a put-upon director screwed over by the front office he’s hardly in the same league as Stroheim or Welles — apparently he resented having to use Kate Mara as the Invisible Woman instead of his choice, Allison Williams, and he responded by giving both her and Miles Teller a hard time on the set, at one point almost getting into a fistfight with Teller. He also apparently rented a house for his dogs to stay in while he was shooting — and the beasts reportedly caused $100,000 worth of damage to the property, which 20th Century-Fox had to pay. And frankly I’m fine with Fantastic Four at its current length: I suspect the longer Trank cuts would just be too much of a mediocre thing. Director Trank deserves at least a small shout-out for nontraditional casting; we see the Black Dr. Franklin Storm with a Black son, Michael B. Jordan, and a white daughter, Kate Mara — and though it’s later explained that Dr. Storm adopted his daughter Sue as a refugee rescue from Kosovo, it’s still an unusual twist for a movie in 2015. Nonetheless — and despite the page listing a 2017 Fantastic Four 2 as “in preparation” — this version of Fantastic Four grossed just $56,114,221 in the U.S. as of October 16, 2015 on an estimated budget of $120 million, and it’s considered so insignificant and forgettable in the Marvel Universe that Marvel’s official Web site doesn’t list it.