This thought piece includes a review of the Fantastic Four (2015) film so be warned that there are massive spoilers.
I saw Fantastic Four with my lovely wife this evening who knows nothing of comic books and superheroes but likes a good adventure yarn in general. I think I learned a little something about how our expectations work in viewing a superhero film. Nothing momentous. But it did make something a bit clearer for me.
I won't bore the reader with all the specific ups and downs I went through with this film prior to the release (at least not here at the beginning). But as the trailers came out, and as I learned more about the film (e.g., that it was based on the ultimate Fantastic Four), and engaged in discussion about it, I experienced a mild sort of a roller-coaster ride. Even so, just prior to seeing it today, suffice it to say that I entered the theater rooting for the film despite the almost unanimously poor reviews its received from the critics; but also expecting it to likely be bad.
I will first address the films shortcomings--which for me are actually few, and not at all deal-breakers for enjoying the film overall.
Rushed Final Battle
When we finally get to the action of the film--which is the final battle with Dr. Doom--it is all very oddly compressed and is over far too quickly. In fact, in comparison with how dotingly developed the rest of the film's storytelling is, it feels vaguely jarring! To me this screams of last minute panic editing. I will hardly be surprised if the producers got cold feet and had this film butchered in the editing room because they felt the film was too long and offbeat. (And if so, let's hope an eventual director's cut gives us a fuller story.)
A number of scenes featured in the trailers are inexplicably missing from the film. How bizarre! Similarly, I read an interview with Miles Teller (Reed Richards) and Kate Mara (Sue Storm) in which they describe an important scene between them that was cut from the theater release, and they had not a clue why.
Again, if there was an editing frenzy at the eleventh hour (or whenever it may have been), let's hope that we one day get to see the full version when it is released on blu-ray and DVD.
Dr. Doom is Undeveloped
I do not mind the slightest bit that they changed Victor Von Doom from the traditional comic book figure. In fact I liked how it seemed they were developing him in this film. But when Victor is revealed as fully transformed into his mutated form he remains a complete enigma.
Or at least that is the standard complaint. But I would say this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because it creates an air of mystery about him. We certainly are left wanting to know more details of what happened to him--which I hope will be developed and continued in the next film (assuming that there will still be one).
Doom's powers do seem rather impressive once he unleashes them. I know some fans didn't care for the way he looks, but I think it's actually pretty neat. His environment suit fused into his flesh, and he is filled now with a green plasma sort of energy that I think it is a fair bet is very intelligent. The other dimension gives Doom power and it apparently wishes to consume ours--and it seems to be using Victor to try to accomplish that. There's still much left to understand here, but I'm looking at this film as the first half of an eventual two-parter.
The Military Seeks to Weaponize the Fantastic Four's Powers
I agree that this plot device of the military industrial complex trying to weaponize meta-human or mutant powers is by now hopelessly overused. But for some reason this trope--which is used over and over, again and again in many a superhero and science fiction films--is suddenly getting flack in this film when it actually makes great sense story-wise. We've tolerated it in many other films, and frankly I don't see why not in this one. (Okay, I guess we just won't watch the X-Men series, Captain America films, the Avengers films, Hellboy, Jurassic World, the Aliens films, et al., either.) Again, for this story the trope actually makes perfect sense.
CGI is Subpar
To my eye, the CGI was actually nowhere near as bad as I was reading it would be. I guess nowadays we expect to be utterly blown away by it. The CGI in this picture is not of exquisite, jaw-dropping caliber, no. But there is nevertheless a primaeval and surreal feel to the alternate dimension in this film. It had a rather dream-like feel that actually worked fairly well for me. It could have been a little better executed. But it hardly ruined the film. I'll say this: it is no worse than in several slightly older films that I still enjoy tremendously.
On the plus side, the powers of the Fantastic Four are actually very well realized via CGI. Their powers all look cool.
Johnny Storm Isn't Cocky Enough
One of the best things about the two FF films from the 00s was Chris Evans' and Michael Chiklis' respective portrayals of the Human Torch and the Thing, and how Johnny was a rogue that loved celebrity and teased Ben a lot. This film plays it somewhat differently, but then again it adopts a different take on all the characters to begin with.
I don't even know what to say to the complaint the Johnny isn't exactly like an earlier version of the character. I really liked Michael B. Jordan in this role. He is glib, self-confident, and rebellious--but in some ways it was refreshing to see Johnny a little toned down and slightly more down-to-earth as well. I liked that he was a skilled member of the team able to build things with his hands. I don't fault this film for not exactly replicating the same type of character as Chris Evans' version. I would hope however in the next film that some of the more fun aspects of his friendship with Ben will be developed.
Alright, now for the good stuff.
For me there were far many more positives to this film than negatives.
I'll make this simple to begin with. First, I never expect a film to be perfect--like people, all films have their strengths and flaws. But I use three very simple rules of thumb to determine whether I enjoy a film overall.
The first is: do I care about the characters and what happens to them? In this Fantastic Four reboot I absolutely did--very much so.
Second, does the unfolding of the story engage me, draw me in, and keep me interested? Check. In this film the story kept me fully engaged. It did so despite the fact that I was dissatisfied with the inexplicably truncated battle with Doom. However that is not really a story problem per se, but rather an editing problem.
Which leads me to the third measure: how well constructed is the film in terms of its cinematic craftsmanship, i.e., how well orchestrated are all the elements, and how and seamlessly are they brought together (cinematography, casting, acting, script, musical score, editing, pacing of the action, direction, and so forth)?
In terms of craftsmanship, in my opinion this film does a very fine job with the exception of the weirdly truncated battle scene in the alternate dimension. Otherwise, at least for me, this is really a very good film in most every other way. As noted, the CGI could have been better. But it is not so bad as to spoil the film, in my humble opinion.
I particularly enjoyed that this is first and foremost a human story about relationships, a science fiction story second, and a "comic book" story third. It takes its good time in developing relationships... and is that supposed to be a bad thing? I was never bored for a moment. Which quite honestly is more than I can say for a number of more successful superhero films. (cough *AgeofUltron!* cough)
Miles Teller (Reed Richards), Kate Mara (Sue Storm) , Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm/The Human Torch), Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm/The Thing), Reg E. Cathay (Dr. Franklin Storm), and Toby Kebbell (Victor Von Doom) all give very fine performances in their respective roles. The script is actually quite good. The story itself is entertaining. I appreciated the relatively strong emphasis on science fiction in this picture. It is well filmed. I didn't feel there was a pacing problem with about 95% of the film--just as mentioned that they did some inexplicably crazy-ass editing of the battle with Doom, and the events just preceding it.
I have read critics complain about the groundwork of character development earlier in the film being "wasted" by the rushed ending. I don't see it that way. Regardless of the problems with big battle scene, overall this remains a very engaging and well told story. The ridiculous over-editing of the battle with Doom in the alternate dimension is undoubtedly a failure for that important part of the film. But to say that it ruins the film is akin to asserting that a fundamental flaw in a person you know renders them a complete failure (and then someone who isn't worth spending time with).
The Role of Expectations
I mentioned that this film taught me a lesson, and it was mainly that it helped me see more clearly than ever how the internal 'scripts' or narratives that we have running in our own head shape our experience of a film. For example, I suspect that people that see this movie who are offended that the characters were changed so greatly from their traditional versions will easily find reasons to truly despise it. And I'm sure they genuinely will or do experience it as an odious film. People who tend toward rigidity in their views, when they encounter something that opposes that view typically become all the more entrenched. By the same token, I think this is the sort of film that for people who perhaps tend to be more flexible and creative in how they are able to look at things in general, they will likely find much to enjoy in this film.
If you have a strongly fixed template in your head of how Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm are "supposed" to be, then that will probably be reason enough for many to be put off from film right out of the gate. This film will defy those mental expectations.
If you are someone who gravitates towards outside-of-the-box or creative approaches, and/or tends to root for the underdog in any given situation (interestingly, Reed Richards' character in the film is an exemplar of this!), then perhaps you'll go into this film wanting to like it, and probably will.
I think also that this film is very much reflective of the power of group-think, and jumping on the bandwagon. Almost scarily so. My God. Based on Rotten Tomatoes you could think this is one of the worst films ever made in any genre. It's a shame that many people probably won't even consider seeing this film because of that.
I actually liked this film--I liked it a lot. I loved the approach the director took in telling a very human story, and emphasizing the science fiction more than earlier versions. I liked this young team and their story--at the end of the day I cared about them.
I give the Fantastic Four a grade of a solid B. It would have been a solid A, except for the big battle scene which knocks it down by a letter grade. (I initially gave it a B- but my wife actually convinced me it is more of solid B.) If we one day get a director's cut that restores missing scenes and footage that could very well bump this film to an A.
Another reason I'm emphasizing expectations is because this film took me all over the place in that regard:
As the trailers were progressively rolled out, and with all the discussion that this film generated prior to its release, it was a bit of a roller-coaster for me. The first teaser made it pretty lackluster, and just flat feeling. I thought at the time, "Ugh, this thing looks terrible!" Then as the subsequent trailers came out it began looking better and better to me. Importantly, the trailers showed more action--and the action scenes looked pretty good. I started to get pretty stoked to see this film.
I admit that my enthusiasm was partly due to the controversy the film generated. How the characters and origin story were changed from the traditional version of the Fantastic Four was polarizing among the fanbase. Admittedly, I kind of admired that the film was taking risks in that way. I fell onto the supporter side of the debate.
I'm mainly a fan of good storytelling through the medium of cinema. I don't feel that a movie must remain strictly bound to the source material in order to succeed as a good story. In fact, a rigid adherence to the comic book source is actually not what I want as a viewer. To my mind, comic books are pretty damn weird, frankly. Good goofy fun, yes--but when you get down to it, they are still basically bizarre to me. Comics are wildly fantastic, exaggerated visually, and melodramatic in terms of story content. Now, I can appreciate all that within its own medium. But personally its not what I want to see in a film. And I enjoy the film adaptations of superhero films very much. I just understand that they are adaptations from one medium to another. I enjoy that them as adaptations.
So when I heard that this version of Fantastic Four was based the Ultimate Fantastic Four, I researched the Ultimate FF and I kind of dug the reinterpretation of their story as such. So I found myself rooting even more for this movie to be good. My optimism grew. And I maintained this sense of hopefulness when the first fan Twitter reviews from early screenings were quite positive.
And then the reviews hit. Holy crap! Could this film really be that bad? Or actually the real question was: will my experience of the film as be as bad as the critics are saying? I went in expecting to see a film that sucked!
And after all that, I ended up seeing a film that I really enjoyed. Go figure.