Saturday, August 8, 2015

Summer Movie Season: A Superhero Movie that's Embarrassed to be a Superhero Movie

I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies in my life. I love superhero movies. The truth is, we all love superhero movies in some way. Sure, they may not dress up in tights or the newest trend of dressing up in cooler looking pleather. They may not all have cool code names, or carry magic hammers. But we admire people that can do extraordinary things, even if we don’t affix the title of “Superhero” to them. Even Generic Buddy Cop Movie 7 would be boring if they spent all their time filling out paperwork. The Fast and the Furious Movies would get old if Dom wasn’t an expert driver or bank robber or whatever wacky situation he gets himself in and then makes himself an expert. So, yeah, I like Superhero movies, just like everyone else. And when it’s billed as a superhero movie, that’s even more incredible, it means we’re going to get a double dose of superhero antics. But what happens when you try to make a superhero movie but then don’t actually allow the superheroes to show up?

The newest version of Fantastic Four is essentially that: a superheroless superhero movie. And it fails. Miserably. 

(Spoilers, I guess? I feel this whole thing has been discussed and super discussed. I’m not going to ruin anything for you.) 

Fantastic Four tells the story that the previous for attempts at making a movie about the Fantastic Four tells: Four scientists build something extraordinary, get zapped with some dubious science sounding stuff, then turn into a superhero team known as the Fantastic Four. The stretchy Reed Richards (Miles Teller); The Invisible Woman Sue Storm (Kata Mara); The Thing Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell); The Human Torch Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan). Sometimes Victor Von Doom comes along. In this version he does. 

This version pull from Marvel’s Ultimate line, so instead of going into space and being zapped with cosmic rays (that would just be silly) they go to another dimension and get their powers via magic (I mean sciencey) green ooze.

The movie starts with an extended prologue, because when you’re doing a superhero movie the thing everyone wants is an extended prologue that stops us from getting to the action, where a young Reed Richards is mocked by his teacher and classmates in 2007 for wanting to build a device to teleport himself, because that’s what happened in 2007 when people wanted to dream big and the big news story (that he references) was that transporters were within reach. So naturally, he builds one, because a sixth grader that can do that will fly under the radar. He also makes friends with Ben Grimm, who lives in a junkyard. 

Quick note: this scene also reveals that The Thing’s catchphrase was first said by his “abusive brother who beats him while yelling it.” This is part of this summer’s apparent need to find controversy in everything. Yes. He yells it. No. He’s his brother who beats him up. The mere fact that someone says “this is abuse!” while Vacation featured the running gag of one of his brothers trying to kill the other (hilarious!) makes me wonder about the future of movies in general. 

Anyway, we fast forward another 7 years to another science fair when Ben and Reed are still building the teleporter, and they get it to work. Of course, no one believes them, except… Franklin Storm, and his daughter Sue who wants Reed to work on the real thing. I would say at this point that finally we’re getting there, but we also have to watch as Franklin recruits Victor Von Doom and his shaky accent to help finish the machine, and his son Johnny who was busy drag racing, complete with little Mario Fire plant decoration in his car, which caught on fire during the race, just in case you need to be reminded that one day he will be the Human Torch.

Several extended conversations and montages where they build the machine later (I’m getting bored typing this) it’s time to go into the other dimension. Of course they’re not allowed to go, so Reed concocts a plan for them to sneak into it late at night, along with his best friend who is not a scientist, and use the machine to go into the alternate dimension. Because that’s a great idea, right?

Look, I could get this buildup if this were a science fiction movie exploring the dangers of science and ego, which it does a great job of setting up during this time. But this isn’t a science fiction movie. It’s the Fantastic Four. The only recognizable part we’ve really seen is a dude yelling “It’s clobbering time” while beating up his younger brother, and that’s dubious at best. 

So, yes, Reed, Von Doom, Johnny, and Ben all go into the other world, Von Doom is lost to the green goo, and everyone who went was magically scientifically changed to their respected superpowers with an extended sequence that shows Ben getting hit with rocks, Johnny being set on fire, and Susan, who did not go on the trip, getting hit with the returning portal thingy and getting her powers of forcefield. 

What follows is a horror show of powers: Reed screams as he’s being pulled in all directions, Susan fading in and out, Ben begging for his life, and Johnny… well he’s sort of quite. It’s pretty clear out of cast members, Michael B. Jordan is probably Josh Trank’s favorite. 

To point out: We have had almost an hour and fifteen minutes of exposition, a trip to another world and everything sucks. That’s an hour and fifteen minutes where there’s a setup to a group getting their powers when just about everyone in the theater knows they’re going to get their powers. It’s not a secret or a surprise. It’s in the title, on all the marketing. Why do we have to wait so long to see it?

Then there’s another time jump of a year: Ben’s being used as a weapon by the military, Johnny and Sue are being trained to be weapons, and Reed is in hiding trying to find a cure. You might think that this would lead to some cool action sequences where Ben is fighting, maybe has some moral quandaries about it. Maybe a training montage with Sue and Johnny. Don’t worry, the director spares you from that and just has some grainy footage of Ben fighting and a few minutes of Sue and Johnny doing… stuff… so we can get to the real action: Reed and his deep emotional turmoil while wearing a goofy suit that can expand with him. 

I could keep going. Yes, they eventually fight Von Doom, finding him in the other world, in a mishmash end sequence that features Reed  giving an inspirational speech, and the least convincing “Hey, what should we call ourselves” moment that would be even worse had Avengers 2: Age of Ultron hadn’t pulled the EXACT SAME JOKE earlier this year. 

For all it’s faults, let’s face it: Man of Steel at least got Superman in that costume with as little set up as possible, and let him run out and do stuff. Even lauded superhero show that tried to pretend it wasn’t a superhero show Daredevil still got Matt Murdock into a costume soon, even if it wasn’t the familiar red costume. This movie actively avoids setting these people up as heroes for as long as possible, and even when it does it takes the literal destruction of the Earth to start to get them to try to do anything about it. Even then they’re not a team so much as a group of scientists doing science stuff for science. 

This movie suffers the similar problems of the Hulk movies, (and why he subsequently worked with the Avengers) is because most of the focus is on the curse of being the Hulk. You know that cheering that happened when Mark Ruffalo turned into the Hulk and then smashed the giant lizard thing in the Avengers? Yeah, that’s because we don’t want a tortured Bruce Banner for two hours, we want The Hulk, smashing. We don’t want an hour of setup to a team getting their powers, then all wanting to be rid of them because they’re some kind of curse. Really the only one who should be mad is Ben (and he is, until he isn’t.) But instead everyone (except Johnny) is mopey about it. 

There’s a lot of talk about behind the scenes turmoil, particularly with Josh Trank has disavowed it and blames the studio, the studio blames him… it’s all a mess. I don’t really know who’s telling the truth, and quite frankly, I don’t care. Trank claims “This isn’t his vision.” And? Other than complaining at every step of the process, we haven’t seen his vision. The thing is, this isn’t anyone’s vision of the Fantastic Four. It’s a science fiction movie, and not even a good one at that. It’s a long, slow, slog through a superhero origin story and a vision on how not to make a movie, period.  It’s a superhero movie that’s embarrassed to be a superhero movie. The Fantastic Four deserves better than this. By the second lab montage or the second inexplicable time jump, someone needed to point out that this isn’t a Fantastic Four movie. 

4 out of 10. 

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