Four Hollywood Truisms Not to Take Away From the Fantastic Four
The reviews are in, and Fantastic Four is not good.
It’s not bad, necessarily, but when the comic book movie bar has been set so high, the consensus seems to be that anything less than perfect should have never been made. Worse, people look at movies like this, which offer non-typical Hollywood representation, and decide that because it will get bad reviews and fail to make the studio money, it should never be attempted again. While sometimes that’s fair, in this particular instance, they’re wrong.
In this review, I look at four truisms that people will apply to Fantastic Four:
- Black superheroes don’t make money.
- Female superheroes have to be sexy.
- You can’t have multiple leads.
- If a movie is bad, it’s always the director’s fault.
To apply these to Fantastic Four would be as fallacious as the logic used to argue that because three superhero movies led by women didn’t make the money the studio wanted, it would be bad business to try again. This is a real thing that happened. So, preemptively, allow me to explain why these Hollywood truisms don’t apply when it comes to Fantastic Four.
1. Black superheroes don’t make money.
The first rebuttal to this is obvious—there are plenty of movies with white heroes that completely and totally bomb. For every Iron Man, there’s not only a Daredevil, there’s also a Green Lantern, Green Hornet, and Batman & Robin. But there are considerations other than the financial that deserve being addressed.
The importance of black superheroes should not even be a subject of debate and neither should the racebent casting of them. I defer here to the words of Michael B. Jordan himself from his eloquent post earlier this year:
“It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. I can see everybody’s perspective, and I know I can’t ask the audience to forget 50 years of comic books. But the world is a little more diverse in 2015 than when the Fantastic Four comic first came out in 1961. Plus, if Stan Lee writes an email to my director saying, “You’re good. I’m okay with this,” who am I to go against that?”
This discussion was obviously prior to the movie’s release, but now that we have seen Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, it’s clear that his portrayal and this casting was such a good decision. If another white man had been cast in this role, his character arc wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful.
Michael B. Jordan is perfection as Johnny Storm, and what is praiseworthy about his performance has very little to do with the words being said and everything to do with how he says them. In addition, the lack of changes to Johnny’s characterization compared with his white comics counterpart, as well as the acknowledgement that some character traits differ when the actor is of a different race, demonstrates how racebent casting should look like. The fact that Johnny is a guy who is the son of a leading scientist, reluctant to take on his father’s mantle—even though he’s more than capable—and who channels his intelligence and engineering skills into street racing makes Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal particularly poignant. Johnny’s story can be read as indicative of the increasing visibility of black nerd culture and increasing discussions regarding what that means in terms of both nerdiness and black masculinity.
The scenes between Johnny and Franklin Storm (played by Reg E. Cathey) are some of the best written, and unsurprisingly, some of the best acted. There’s a sense of legacy, potential, and the struggle for identity when that pressure is not simply familial, but cultural. Theirs is a universal story of the complex relationship between fathers and sons, but it will resonate with many people who feel the pressure of being a minority in areas typically dominated by white men. And while there is some diversity shown both in the makeup of the Baxter Institute, and the government, it is still dominated by white men.
2. Female superheroes have to be sexy.
I was skeptical of Kate Mara as Sue Storm going in, because in the trailer, she seems far from the confident woman I’m used to seeing her portrayed as. It’s also why now, having seen the film, she is not only my favorite onscreen Sue Storm, she might also be my favorite onscreen adaptation of any female superhero I’ve ever seen! Not only am I thankful for her representation of a strong woman who nonetheless shows weakness, but also, I am thankful for how she was visually shot throughout the film, especially in the first half of the film.
Let me acknowledge that there are just as many bad wigs here as worn by Jessica Alba in her two Fantastic Four films. It’s easy to tell what was re-shot based on the blondness of Mara’s wig and how artfully her mussed ponytail is arranged, which is such a ridiculous contrast to the ashy blond bob that she sports during the first half of the movie.
Although I’m not sure, I hope that I have Trank to thank for the fact that for the first part of the movie, the male gaze is all but absent. Yes, Reed (and Victor) will stare longingly at Sue, but the camera doesn’t linger in a male-gazey way, because she is more than just a body to be admired. The narrative offers us glimpses of who she is and what she struggles with and will eventually overcome. Sue is also more than just a love interest. She’s complex, and her particular skills are as valuable to the plot as Reed’s. While a portion of the narrative focuses on a hunt for Reed—believing that they would be unable to complete the project without him—it’s only through Sue’s agreement to use her gift for pattern recognition that they are able to find him. Impressive, considering that the movie wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel test (although it would, if the woman with whom Sue has a brief conversation with about science had been named).
[pullquote]The way Sue’s powers are portrayed is also significant. They are unquestionably badass, a far cry from their sexualized portrayal in the first movies, which relied heavily on the premise that they required nudity, a premise which had been abandoned in the comics decades ago.[/pullquote]The way Sue’s powers are portrayed is also significant. They are unquestionably badass, a far cry from their sexualized portrayal in the first movies, which relied heavily on the premise that they required nudity, a premise which had been abandoned in the comics decades ago. Her abilities are also shown to be both offensive and defensive and equal in value to the military as those of her male teammates. Make no mistake: the government is an equal opportunity exploiter, and although her powers do not have the same body horror factor as those of Reed, Ben, and even Johnny, it’s made clear that they are a physical strain.
While the triangulation of desire between Sue, Victor, and Reed is distractingly bad and completely unnecessary in terms of character motivation or narrative resolution, what I found unacceptable was the fact that Sue wasn’t part of the drunken first trip to the other dimension. (For people who say that there are only four compartments, please allow me to point out that there could easily have been five and that the second version of the module has one central room rather than individual modules anyway.) To exclude Sue from this part of the narrative was a mistake in terms of showing team cohesion prior to their trauma, but it also would have added another dimension to her personal arc. To include Sue on this trip would have demonstrated how she is vulnerable to pressure, not only from her father and people in positions of power, but from her peers. And it would have added depth to her characterization as someone who takes part in actions she might not agree with in order to avoid conflict, whether that conflict is getting drunk and deciding to go to another dimension or colluding with the government.
3. You can’t have multiple leads.
The real tragedy of Fantastic Four is that you catch glimpses of the film that it could have been. Had Fantastic Four successfully accomplished what it seemed to want to do, it could have been amazing. The arcs of the four leads revolve around how this trauma—and this team—help them overcome their individual struggles—with the exceptions of Reed and Victor, which is why the narrative falls flat overall. It’s not a good movie, much less a team movie, when your main protagonist has the least interesting story arc. What this mishandling of an ensemble cast proves is not that this model is doomed to fail, but that the traditional single protagonist model doesn’t work for the Fantastic Four.
From what we’re left with in the final cut, we can infer the story arcs that should have been obvious, but now require subtextual reading. I include Victor as a lead in this reading, because I suspect he was before this movie was so badly recut. There are tantalizing, but underdeveloped hints at some kind of backstory involving Victor and Dr. Allen—played by Tim Blake Nelson—and references to Victor’s complicated feelings about the government, hinging on betrayal. But more importantly, Doom’s story offers the counterexample of what happens when you don’t overcome your personal issues and decide to throw a tantrum and try to destroy the world instead.
I’ve already mentioned how Johnny’s struggle can be read as a struggle between father, son, and the pressure of legacy, but also a struggle for identity and what it means to be a black nerd. Johnny has struggled against the fact that he enjoys doing science and has channeled his love into the more socially acceptable hobby of building street racers. He’s struggled against his desire to do good in the world, like his father has done, which is why he embraces the opportunity to distinguish himself when he’s working with the government and training to be a military operative. The resolution of his arc—while it goes unremarked—can be felt in the closing scenes when the team views their new lab space for the first time, and Johnny whoops and calls dibs on a particular section of the lab. Johnny has decided that it doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to his identity, that it can in fact be both/and. He can pursue science and his legacy on his own terms thanks to the support of his teammates. We also see that he’s made peace with his relationship to his father—and what it means for him to be part of his father’s legacy—when he suggests naming their new endeavor after his father.
[pullquote]This kind of parent-sibling-adopted sibling relationship is not prevalent in mainstream media, which makes this portrayal all the more important.[/pullquote]For Sue, I’ve alluded to how she struggles with following orders too easily, despite her own personal misgivings. There are also hints in the narrative that alludes to this as a kind of sibling-struggle that resonated with me. Many siblings, I think, can relate to the struggle for identity when there’s a conflict, or even a confluence, between a parent and another sibling. If one sibling is one way, the other sibling can struggle with their own identity and purposefully try to be the opposite, either to try to please or appease their parents or simply to seek to create a separate identity for themselves. Both Johnny and Sue struggle with this, and we see that in their relationships with their father and with each other. This kind of parent-sibling-adopted sibling relationship is not prevalent in mainstream media, which makes this portrayal all the more important. The tipping point of this struggle is when Sue chooses to track down Reed, as her father asks, in order to protect Johnny, but the final resolution is seen in the closing of the movie when it’s Sue who lays down their terms with the government.
Ben’s story is that of a kid who—the audience is meant to infer—was regularly abused by his larger, older brother who says, “It’s clobbering time,” right before smacking the crap out of him. Ben is different from his loud, abusive family and seems to want to aspire to more than the life he was born into, while being acutely aware the likelihood of escaping it. He’s a working class kid whose family owns a junkyard and is shown to be aware at a young age of the class-based expectations that fall on him because of it. Then young Ben finds young Reed trespassing in the junkyard to steal a power converter, and Reed offers to show Ben his invention if Ben will help him. Later, Reed asks Ben if his family owns the junkyard, and while I don’t remember the exact wording of this conversation, Ben’s wary reply indicates that he’s used to his family’s junkyard being held against him and even used to insult him. Reed, however, thinks this is the coolest thing ever and that appreciation for what other people would dismiss as junk, both in terms of people and of things, is the cornerstone of their friendship.
[pullquote]When he later becomes the military’s most powerful weapon, it hurts, and we see Ben’s hurt. We see his struggle for identity—which is pretty amazing, considering that all we see are Jamie Bell’s eyes inside a CGI rock body. [/pullquote]Reed and Ben’s relationship is important in terms of Ben’s growth, but more important is the way in which Ben—who was born into this culture of physical dominance and had firsthand experience of abuse—becomes someone who relies on the physical and who is asked to be the blunt force instrument, and it’s hinted he’d always feared he would be nothing more than that. Prior to his transformation, we never see Ben throw a punch or be physically violent towards others. Not once. When he later becomes the military’s most powerful weapon, it hurts, and we see Ben’s hurt. We see his struggle for identity—which is pretty amazing, considering that all we see are Jamie Bell’s eyes inside a CGI rock body. The climax of this internal struggle is badly handled, but if you look at it outside the context of a badly written and choreographed action sequence, it is undeniably powerful. Ben using his abuser’s catchphrase during the final confrontation between the Four and Doom is a kind of psychological catharsis for Ben’s struggle with what it means to have strength and use it.
And this is what the story of the Fantastic Four should be. It should be the story of four individuals who have been thrown together by circumstances beyond their control and become a not only a team, but a family. This is why the Fantastic Four are so different from the other Marvel teams out there. They’re not just a team—they’re a family, by blood (Johnny and Sue), by marriage (Sue and Reed), and by choice (Reed and Ben). And the real tragedy of this movie is not Sue’s hair, the bad CGI, or even the questionable narrative choices. The real tragedy is seeing what this movie could have been, what it seems the director and screenwriter intended it to be.
4. If a movie is bad, it’s always the director’s fault.
It’s the new trend in Hollywood for directors to blame the studios for ruining their movies. Whedon did it when Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, and now Josh Trank has too in a tweet that has since been deleted.
This can be seen as a way of shifting blame, but I think that it’s also indicative of increased frustration with the film industry and especially with the studio model of movie making. Under this model, directors can have as little creative control as the actors and that can be seen in Fantastic Four in a narrative and visual sense.
The reason the movie is getting disastrously bad reviews—worse even than the visual excrement that is Pixels—is because instead of a sensitive, intelligent, and powerfully-acted film, there is a sensitive, intelligent, and powerfully-acted film intercut with trite, cliched superhero garbage.
[pullquote]And the real tragedy of this movie is not Sue’s hair, the bad CGI, or even the questionable narrative choices. The real tragedy is seeing the what this movie could have been, what it seems the director and screenwriter intended it to be.[/pullquote]The major flaw is that this cut of the movie frames Reed as the main protagonist, but his storyline is the least satisfying—even including Victor’s badly truncated cautionary tale. While things happen to Reed, he demonstrates no personal growth beyond spouting increasingly badly written lines. His relationship with Ben is the central relationship in this movie, far more important than his relationships with Sue, Victor, Johnny, Franklin Storm, or his unseen parents. But that relationship is dropped in the final act in favor of action and likely in the interest of time. While we have to assume from the ending that some kind of resolution to their shattered relationship happens, we never see it. Reed utterly fails to be compelling as a main protagonist, and I will always wonder if that was on purpose or a result of bad studio decisions.
Whether the movie was set up to fail from the beginning—as this Daily Beast article indicates—is up for dispute, but what can’t be disputed is that this is not the movie that Trank wanted to make. It’s not the movie the actors signed up to act. And it’s not just a pity that this is the Fantastic Four we’re left with. It’s a tragedy.