Saturday, March 12, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological*

Since this film's disastrous opening in the summer of 2015, I've put off seeing it. Though the original Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR remains one of the key comic books of the Silver Age, as well as well as being the comic that propelled Marvel to its first major success, the comic book series was something of a "perfect storm" of the many factors that made it appealing-- fascinating visuals, sharp writing, and a combination of humor and tragic melodrama unknown to serial comics up to that point, with the exception of Will Eisner's SPIRIT feature.

Certainly one would not have thought the cinematic version had any further to descend. The two previous live-actions outings from 2005 and 2007, both directed by Tim Story and co-scripted by Mark Frost, were pedestrian, predictable affairs, lacking any of the "sense of wonder" so important to the original conception. However, for all the failings of the Story-Frost collaborations, at least they did emphasize the chemistry of the FF-team.

In one respect writer-director Josh Trank outdoes Story and Frost in his take on the fantastic franchise. Almost any modern-day iteration of FANTASTIC FOUR is likely to dump the naive "spontaneous moon-flight" aspect of the comic-book's origin. The first Story-Frost film borrows from a charmless "Ultimates" comic-version of the feature, in which the four principals and their eventual adversary Victor Von Doom work together on a space station. Trank still decides to stick all five characters together in the same origin, but he does devise an improvement on the space-flight theme.

Back in high school young Reed Richards becomes fascinated with the possibility of harnessing instantaneous teleportation for the advancement of humankind. In this he's abetted by a young Ben Grimm. Fast-forward to his college years: despite some initial problems, Reed is taken under the wing of a forward-thinking Afro-American scientist, Franklin Storm, who shares Reed's passion for technology. Franklin's adopted Caucasian daughter Sue works alongside him in his endeavors, though Franklin's natural son Johnny Storm only cares about "burning rubber" in illegal drag-races.

Unfortunately, there are two flies in Franklin's ointment, though he's responsible for bringing into the project the saturnine Victor Von Doom. The other insect-- a government handler so smarmy that he might as wear a "hate me" sign on his forehead-- provides Franklin's funding, as well as the audience's suspicions that the project is not going to remain noble and idealistic.

The base idea of having the nascent FF gain their powers in an otherworldly dimension, rather than from cosmic space-radiation, could have worked. What Trank wasn't able to pull off was achieving a balance of five characters who will become intensely involved in one another's lives.

I saw some attempts at chemistry. Ben, despite having no technological abilities, is brought onto the project as Reed's "good luck charm," as Von Doom puts it. Johnny openly dislikes Von Doom and deliberately makes remarks about his nationality. Von Doom may have had some romantic interest in Sue, and Reed may be on the verge of such interest.

But Trank never allows the chemical reactions to complete themselves, apparently because he's in a hurry to give four of them an excuse to venture into an alien dimension sans governmental oversight; a loose parallel to the illegal moon-flight of FANTASTIC FOUR #1. Yet for some peculiar reason, Sue Storm is not one of the four who braves the dimensional otherworld. Maybe the scripter had some notion that Sue was too sensible to take on a foolhardy mission, which all the guys would do so just-- because they're guys.

The four adventurers get themselves teleported into the other-verse, where they encounter a mutagenic goop that has the basic effect of cosmic rays. Von Doom appears to perish and so is left behind, and when the three adventurers come back, they manage to transmit the mutagen to Sue.

I don't imagine that most modern filmgoers cared as much as I did as to whether Sue went on the fateful voyage or not-- but I feel sure they were bored, rather than sympathetic, as the government proceeds to examine the fantastic freaks. The four victims all want to be cured, but it's soon clear that the government wants their services as super-powered shock troops. Reed alone escapes Big Brother's ministrations for a time, but this ends up having no real impact on the plot, since eventually he's corralled by his own super-powered colleagues. Another teleport-mission commences, motivated by the government's desire to weaponize super-powers-- and guess who's still alive in the Almost-Negative Zone? Further, guess who's formed a massive grudge about being left behind, and has decided to wipe out all of humanity for its offenses?

The Story-Frost films were mediocre, but I'll give them credit for at least trying to give each member of the fantastic quartet his or her own emotional arc. Trank's only passion, like that of Reed Richards, is for the idea of dimensional travel, and all of the character motivations are niggling matters at best. Interestingly, Trank's one major success, 2012's CHRONICLE, may have showed his limitations in that his co-authored story for that film confined its dramatic arc to two characters. As it happens, only Reed and Johnny are given any real attention, while characterizations for Sue, Ben, Von Doom and mentor Franklin are all superficial and tedious.

FX, too, are stunningly dull, and the Story-Frost films also look much better in comparison with this film. Actor Michael B. Jordan turns in the most affecting performance, but the FX-makers' design for the new Human Torch is abominable, and the other heroes are not much better.

There's only one positive aspect of this film's genesis. Now that the studio has made two bad, under-performing movies that tried to formulate new origins for the Fantastic Four, the studio heads may finally realize that doing new origins is not in their best interest. Rumors abound that the next Spider-Man film won't trouble to relate the web-spinner's origin again, and this would seem to be the only way to approach the Fantastic Four for current moviegoers. The next director of an FF-project might find it advisable to just jump into the action feet-first, as Lee and Kirby so memorably did, and forget about noodling over details about the heroes' psychology and their government funding-- and try to actually have some fun with the characters.

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