Well, the results are in. The latest iteration of Marvel’s iconic “first family”, the Fantastic Four, is officially a critical crapfest. The film, directed by Josh Trank, and starring (among others) Whiplash’s Miles Teller, Chronicle actor Michael B Jordan, and Hollywood stalwart Tim Blake Nelson, has nosedived into negative territory on review aggregation site, Rotten Tomatoes (at the time of writing, the film sits at a deplorable 9%), which puts it into similar territory as Batman & Robin and the execrable Catwoman, something no film wants a comparison to.
The journey to Fantastic Four (also written as Fant4stic) is a long and winding road of creative miscalculation, enduring fanboy hatred, and a natural tendency by 20th Century Fox, the producing studio, to meddle in the final product.
Josh Trank burst onto the scene with his debut feature, the “found footage” thriller Chronicle, which took three ordinary teenagers and turned them into deconstructed superheroes via powers of telekinesis; the film was polarizing for audiences, but most regarded it as a minor hit that showcased a director able to tell a compelling story in a unique and fresh way. Fox, no doubt, looked at that film and felt Trank would be the perfect man to helm their reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise: previously, Marvel’s First Family had found their way onto the big screen in two Tim Story-directed films, in 2005 and 2007 (not to mention the low-low-low budget Roger Corman version in 1994).
Now, it’s a little-guarded secret that Marvel sold off the film rights to the Fantastic Four way back in the day, on the proviso that Fox would continue to make feature films with the property, or the rights would revert back to Marvel once again – the rights also gave exclusive use to Fox of the key villains Galactus (seen as a giant fart-cloud in Rise Of The Silver Surfer), and Dr Doom (the role portrayed by Julian McMahon in the Tim Story films), both crucial Marvel Universe antagonists the now white-hot studio would love to insert into their MCU films at some stage. Fox, known for their conflicting, combative methodology against Marvel, already had the X-Men franchise of characters in their pantheon, and recognized the ubiquitous Comic Book Movie had vast opportunities to make big bank at the box-office. While the X-Men films had met largely positive fanboy and critical praise (Origins: Wolverine and The Last Stand notwithstanding), the Fantastic Four property had continued to be a thorn in the side of both Fox, and Marvel, who deeply regretted letting their most iconic superhero team into the hands of a competing studio.
Fantastic Four was made to escape the clause in Fox’s contract that would allow the film rights to the characters to revert to Marvel. Much like Bryan Singer’s downbeat Superman Returns, which had to be made lest the Sigel and Shuster families be able to sue Warners for lost earnings on an unmade film (which is an entire article in and of itself!), Fantastic Four became a project of necessity for Fox, who risked losing a potential money-maker if they didn’t get a hurry-on.
Fox doesn’t have a great track-record of leaving auteur filmmakers to their own devices, and have famously meddled with past projects (mostly to negative outcomes, it must be said), including David Fincher’s famous experience on Alien 3, in which he came aboard as a director-for-hire at the last minute, was told what to do at almost every step, and has famously vowed never to work with the studio again following the resulting cinematic bungling. Trank, a director untested in the pressure of studio film-making, was brought on to add (I expect) a sense of youth and energy to the Fantastic Four project, and almost from the outset, fans and industry insiders smelled something very, very wrong at the project’s conception and production.
Given we live in an age of almost instant information access, and nigh-daily knowledge of what’s happening with almost every film project (especially CBM’s, which are huge business these days), fanboys watched on as decision after decision made on the Fantastic Four project gave them cause for concern. Racial lines were drawn over the casting of Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm (in the comics, the character is white, and Sue Storm’s sister, making the casting of the beautifully white Kate Mara as Sue Storm a real head-scratcher in terms of how the two would be related – if at all), while Whiplash and Divergent series star Miles Teller was cast as the Four’s patriarch, Reed Richards. Trank’s inclusion was met with an initial sense of high expectation, to see what he could do with a decent budget and a more traditional film format than he had with Chronicle; however, as details about the plot and character began to leak, the clamor of fanboys hatred began to seethe and rankle.
Indeed, Fantastic Four was in trouble well before the cameras even rolled. The film’s plot was based primarily on the then published “Ultimates” line of comic books, a “modern” reboot version of the original, classic Fantastic Four look, a look which had worked reasonably well in Tim Story’s films but now was probably considered outdated for current cinematic expectations. So Trank was mandated to make a “grim-n-gritty” version of the franchise.
As time rolled on, issues with the production became more and more worrying, including a number of unplanned reshoots and pickup weeks of filming, casting further doubt into people’s minds that the film’s quality was of the level expected in the wake of the MCU and Warner’s Dark Knight trilogy – all CBM’s which had brought in huge box-office and (largely) positive critical examination. The fan outcry over Dr Doom’s name-change (in the script it was Domashev, which was changed in ADR back to Doom) was yet another nail in a coffin of worry and angst by those who would support a quality adaption of the franchise. Things really came to a head when Fox announced Trank as being a director on one of their impending Star Wars anthology films, before reneging on that a day out from Trank’s expected appearance at the San Diego Comic Con this year. The fact that Fox announced that Trank would no longer be directing a Star Wars film was telling in and of itself – the studio was obviously unhappy with either the upcoming Fantastic Four film, or Josh Trank’s behavior surrounding it, and pulled the plug on handing him a prestige project like Star Wars.
Rumors of Trank being a decidedly recalcitrant director (drunk or high on drugs on set, for example, were the common rumor – unsubstantiated, I must add) began to filter out, and with the continued indifference with which Fox marketed and promoted the Fantastic Four film – not to mention review embargoes remaining in place up until the day of release (never a good sign), the film was up against a wall well before it ever made it to screens around the globe.
In the wake of a critical pasting, Josh Trank tweeted this week and implied that his experience making the film was corrupted with studio interference, not all of which was positive.
The above tweet (which has now been deleted on Trank’s Twitter feed) is proof-positive that Trank had a vision in his mind about the property, and blamed the entire failing of it at the feet of executives at Fox. While it’s not normally the done thing to firebomb your bridges on the way out the door, let alone the day after the film opened to the public and the reviews started to flood in, Trank’s tweet is telling in his frustration over what the film ended up being.
First, we can read a number of things into the tweet, some of which are undoubtedly untrue, but still worth considering: that Trank is a dickhead, and that he’s going out scorched-Earth style on the film in the hope of mitigating his promotion for it as something he enjoyed (which he obviously didn’t), or, the other side, that Fox was so concerned they basically ripped the film out of his hands in the hope of salvaging something – anything – from what was a potential train-wreck as they saw it.
My gut tells me it’s a little of column A, a little of column B, and while we’ll probably only ever hear Trank’s version in the years to come, going out publicly like this is not a way to endear yourself to any studio: the film industry is incredibly nepotistic, so it’s unlikely Trank will be handed the keys to any major film project again after this.
Chronicle writer Max Landis made a pertinent point about the differences between a small-budget indie like Chronicle and a major tentpole like Fantastic Four with this statement (in part) on Twitter:
“As a writer, I’ve been lucky to work on many, many projects, and seen how different and how hard each road can be, for five and a half years. Josh didn’t get that chance, and his second major project, after one with total freedom, was one with intense oversight. So I don’t think anyone’s wrong or right, necessarily, and I don’t imagine anyone cares about my opinion. But I do think it’s important to say that if you’re not prepared going in to not FIGHT like hell, but WORK like hell, it’s gonna get ugly.
No one is trying to make a bad movie. This job is only very occasionally romantic. Don’t let it own you, try not to let it hurt you. Because sometimes it’s so much [f@cking] fun. But it’s still a job.”
What this tells us is that Trank, who had unfettered freedom on Chronicle to make the film he wanted, suddenly found himself inside the unswerving studio system where many, many hands were pushing the film in directions he perhaps didn’t want to take it. Joss Whedon’s now famous description of similar problems aboard this year’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is perhaps telling that it’s a rare director indeed who can work well within the studio system, with multiple people all expecting different things from a given film, to achieve anything remotely like the idea they have in their head. Trank, perhaps ignorantly, thought he wouldn’t have to make concessions to the studio, and instead of perhaps working with Fox for the best outcome for the film, fought against them until they had had enough.
The second point in all this is, at the root of it all, that Fox are in the business of making money via films. Film is a creative outlet driven by profit, a contradictory model of commercial intent that, inevitably, has moments of explosive recalibration such as this. Trank’s artistic vision didn’t meet with Fox’s commercial interests, and so when the heads began to but together, everyone’s gonna get a headache.
It’s worth noting that Marvel are also somewhat complicit in the commercial failure of Fantastic Four. As the studio with the most to gain by regaining the rights, Marvel’s comic division subsequently stopped production on any new comics books starring the characters, and refused to promote the film within their purview as torchbearers for the printed IP of the franchise; no doubt, to ensure the film quietly sank and to put added pressure on Fox to release the rights to them for use within the MCU. Perhaps had Fox come to a deal similar to that between Marvel and Sony, which saw Spider-Man able to once more appear in the MCU as well as Sony-backed stand-alone films, things may have worked out: I guess we’ll never know. No doubt Marvel will be looking at the box-office and critical drubbing this film has taken with a small wry smile, but they shouldn’t, really.
The disintegration of Fantastic Four’s train-wreck production and release has meant it’s also unlikely we’ll see another solo film for the property any time soon. This is galling for fans of the property, who have had to sit through a total of four abysmally poor films now without payoff; if the Four do appear in future films, it’s likely to be as supporting characters in other Avengers-style ensemble stories, rather than in their own film outright.
What can we learn from all this?
First, I guess, is that a studio’s desire to make money isn’t necessarily predicated on making a good film. Hell, Wolverine’s Origins film is testament to that, and Fantastic Four is an indicative statement on a studio more concerned with keeping rights at the expense of quality. Why would Fox hire a director of Trank’s unique visual style, only to hamstring him within their commercially mandated expectations? It’s obvious that Trank didn’t get to make the film he thought he should make; it’s also obvious that Fantastic Four wasn’t ever going to be a platform film to launch into a shared universe with Fox’s other Marvel property, the X-Men. So why would they do this? Perhaps Fox weren’t clear on what they expected at the outset, or perhaps Trank’s (apparently) antisocial way of film-making caught the studio off-guard, resulting in an immediately negative working environment.
The second thing we could learn is that, as Max Landis stated above, nobody goes out of their way to make a bad film; sometimes they just happen. Competing interests, varied personalities, and vested commercial expectations all vie for supremacy in making a film – typically with those holding all the money trumping the creative visionary – so film-makers looking at stepping a toe into the pond of Comic Book Movies should be aware of the pitfalls and expectations before they sign on the dotted line. Not too many directors get the chance to run with their “unique” take on a known property; possibly the only exception to that would be Christopher Nolan. And if a noted director and creative exponent as Joss Whedon despairs over how he was handled on Age Of Ultron, you know it’s an immovable, implacable system that – for the most part – works well in making oodles of money. Why try and buck the trend?
Whatever: Trank’s no longer on Star Wars, and Fantastic Four is dying a slow death online and at the box-office.The ultimate losers? Us, the viewing public, who miss out on possibly a good Fantastic Four film, or even worse, the potential for one anytime soon.
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