Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A (Tepid) Defense of "Fantastic Four"


I’m not here to defend Fantastic Four as being a great movie, nor will I attempt to even defend it as an especially good one either. In reality, it’s a deeply flawed movie, marred by the scars of studio interference and as a result unable to make up its mind about what type of superhero movie it wants to be. That being said, we live in an age where a Rotten Tomatoes score can carry an enormous amount of weight (it appears to have had a devastating impact on the film’s box office). In this particular case though, I think the low RT score (currently at 9%) isn’t a strong representation of the more nuanced problems at the heart of the film.

Much of the conversation around the film’s negative reception has centered on it’s notoriously troubled production history, much of which has already been discussed ad nauseam. There was a large chunk of reshooting done on the film, resulting in the heavily reworked (and studio approved) ending that has been the main target of critical pans (and deservedly so). Though the reasons this production was troubled are numerous, a big factor was trepidation on the part of the studio regarding writer/director Josh Trank’s take on the source material. In interviews, Trank suggested his take on the characters was darker than previous iterations, skewing more towards hard science fiction with elements of David Cronenberg body horror also in the mix. Though darker takes on inherently corny superheroes can go horribly wrong (just look at Man of Steel), I think Trank’s take on this material could have resulted in a very interesting (though likely polarizing) film. Unfortunately, his vision is greatly compromised by the studio reshoots in the final product, resulting in a film that falls uncomfortably between Trank’s darker take and the more traditionally corny iteration of these characters. There is still evidence in the final cut of what Trank was initially going for, and I think that material makes Fantastic Four a more interesting watch than it’s RT score would suggest.

Unlike Man of Steel, which failed to understand how a darker take on that character betrayed the fundamentals of who he was, Trank’s body horror vision actually suits the origin story of these characters quite well. Though the origin story here is altered slightly, the Fantastic Four traditionally gain their powers as the result of a science experiment/space expedition gone horribly awry (as was the case in the more traditional 2005 “Fantastic Four” movie). This follows in the vein of the body horror genre, particularly Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even John Carpenter’s The Thing shares its title with one of the Fantastic Four, and the particular circumstances of that characters’ transformation make for an inherently interesting study in body horror. Where other iterations of the Fantastic Four only slightly address the effect that these type of physical mutations would have on these characters, it seems as though Trank was aiming to take these issues head on in the film. As someone with no attachment to these characters at all, I think this darker take on the material is an intelligent and refreshing way to add a level of depth to these characters and eschew the traditionally corny tone of the series, which has failed to connect on the big screen.

Unfortunately, we will never get to see how the original version Trank envisioned, unmarred by a skeptical studio, would have played. I suspect that the film still would have had its issues, as the studio interference can only partially be blamed for the problems with Fantastic Four. Regardless, I imagine that film would have faired much better with critics, and, while it would have had some setbacks appealing to a wide, mainstream audience, I can’t imagine the box office would’ve been any worse than it ended up being. 

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