Josh Trank’s Faux-tastic Four: Clarifying Fan Reaction

We all know how it works. A film tanks and the executives scramble to blame the fans, the public, or some aspect of the production which represents a misguided but reasonable choice. Basically, they will blame anything that doesn’t mean that they themselves screwed up or just plain made a bad movie. In the case of Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot helmed by director Josh Trank, the jury is still out on its quality as it has yet to actually be completed and released, but it’s shaping up to be one of the most contentious and controversial comic book adaptations of all time. That has me concerned for reasons other than not wanting this to be a bad movie.

Before we go into this, I want to make one thing absolutely and perfectly clear: I do NOT want this movie to fail. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that I’ve been hearing about Trank’s Fantastic Four that has made me skeptical, annoyed, and even infuriated. Still, I don’t root for other people to fail. Doing so would simply be mean-spirited. I fully acknowledge that while this may not (and seemingly likely will not) be the Fantastic Four that I know and love on screen, this may be a good or even great film in its own right.

That being said, if fans and the public can’t get behind this film, I’d like to point out some reported aspects of this production that will likely be to blame and some (well, one really) which hopefully will not. I’ll go into a bit of detail on each point and give my own personal thoughts. Points will either be dismissed or I’ll explain why they constitute more than simple “fanboy bellyaching.” To start with, let’s tackle one point that I would like to dismiss fairly handily…

The Non-Issue: A Black Human Torch

It concerns me that what I perceive to be a very vocal minority has made a big deal (certainly a bigger deal than is warranted) about Michael B. Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm. In the event that Fantastic Four underperforms, I would hate for this race-swap in the casting to be blamed and for all fans of the property to be tarred with the same racist brush. Let me just make this clear for anyone following this film and for any movie executive who I’m sure if pouring over my words right now: changing Johnny Storm to be African American rather than white will not make or break this film.

Admittedly, I had my initial reservations about seeing Michael B. Jordan cast in this role. For the record, on some level I’d like the Fantastic Four that I see on screen to look like the same Fantastic Four I’ve been reading all these years. It bothered me that Michael Chiklis played a bald Ben Grimm in Fox’s previous crack at a franchise with this property, so it would only be natural that casting an actor with a different skin color in the role of another member of the team would make me raise an eyebrow even considering skin color at its most superficial as being simply an aspect of personal appearance.

Still, everything I heard about Michael B. Jordan won me over to his side. Everything people were telling me suggested that his work in Friday Night Lights proved he could get Johnny’s character down, Chronicle suggested much the same as well as his chemistry with Trank, and the praise for Fruitvale Station sealed the deal for me as it was enough to convince me that Jordan has the acting chops to carry the more serious moments. In my mind, I decided that I would judge Jordan not by the color of his skin but by how well he portrays the character. To that end, I’ve reevaluated my understanding of Johnny’s character in the comics and hope to see a cocky, young hothead but one who is also intensely loyal to his family and capable of being a serious, intense presence when the moment calls for it.

To close this point, another item that helped to quell my concerns about this casting and which casts doubt on viewing Jordan as a make-or-break for this film was the OTHER reaction online. For just about every knee-jerk reaction condemning this his selection, I saw another praising it or at least expressing interest/intrigue. It’s hard to deny that there is a lack of especially prominent black or African American comic book characters, particularly on film, and now that this choice has been made I can see why some might be excited to see a prominent member of one of the premier super teams being made to more closely resemble an underrepresented portion of the viewing audience.

In short, if this movie underperforms I don’t see Michael B. Jordan’s casting as being the reason. Is it an arguably bold step? Yes. Will it alienate some small-minded fans? Sure. Do these fans constitute a majority of the viewing audience? I certainly hope not. I also hope that Jordan performs the role well and if he does that, he will have won at least my own personal seal of approval.

The Age Change

This is where we start to get into the actual problems with this movie. Ever since the casting for Reed Richards and Ben Grimm started being speculated on, I became intensely skeptical of this movie. Seeing that all members of the team are going to be roughly the same age is a real problem to me and certainly more than a superficial issue. At the core of the Fantastic Four, there is this idea of them as a family with a family dynamic. There is a reason that they are called the First Family of Comics and why The Incredibles is still widely regarded as the best Fantastic Four movie ever made.

In the traditional conception of the Fantastic Four, there is chemistry between the characters that draws in part from their different ages. Reed Richards is older, more mature, and the leader, the father of the team if you will. Susan Storm is Reed’s girlfriend (later wife) and the mother of the team often needing to curb Johnny and Ben’s antics and providing emotional understanding. Johnny is the youngest and the kid of the team, used to being mothered by his older sister Sue and now being fathered in a sense by Reed. Ben is an interesting case as he vacillates between an older world-weariness and an almost infantile sensibility. This means that he at times functions as another child and sibling to Johnny or a leader/father-like figure in his own right alongside Reed.

I worry that making all of the characters the same age will throw this core aspect of the team into disarray. This isn’t nitpicking continuity; this is getting to the core of who these characters are and how they relate to each other. Beyond the issue of family is dynamics, all people relate to those of different ages differently on a very basic level. One isn’t friendly with older people in the same way as their peers and elders generally warrant a certain amount of respect and deference. One doesn’t always show their flaws to younger individuals or let their full personality show as unreservedly.

Differences between characters are important as difference can lead to conflict. People of different ages do not look at the world in the same way and it strikes me as odd that a rich source of conflict and meaningful character interaction is being cast aside in favor of putting together what has been jokingly described as the CW’s version of the Fantastic Four.

Losing the Name and the Costumes

It was rather annoying to hear that the Fantastic Four would likely not call themselves that in Fox’s reboot and that they likely will not wear their traditional costumes or a variation thereof. Superficially, this is annoying because it will further distance these characters from their comic book counterparts. On a deeper level, this is more problematic. Another core aspect of the Fantastic Four is their status as celebrities and public figures. The Fantastic Four is not only a team; they are an image, public figures. Comics regularly suggest that they license their appearances and identities. The Fantastic Four have a movie produced about them within the first ten issues of their comic book series and Johnny Storm is regularly portrayed as a heartthrob surrounded by fans, occasionally pursuing an acting or singing career.

Going deeper into FF lore, the name and costumes are even given a logical and compelling reason to exist. In a somewhat recent issue (at least since Valeria’s birth), Reed sits with Valeria and talking to himself as much as to her, he asks why he would give his friends fantastic names, costumes, and a public life like the one they’ve enjoyed. Why would he, a somewhat staid scientific man, take a silly name like Mister Fantastic? His explanation is that he inadvertently took away the normal lives of his family and dearest friends. In an attempt at recompense, he reinvented them as celebrities rather than freaks. This is an interesting and compelling aspect of Reed’s character that is worthy of exploration.

More generally, the costumes and the name are inherently comic book-y. People sometimes ask why fans can be so hard on movies when comics themselves have proved themselves perfectly capable of mischaracterizing, mistreating, and generally ruining the characters and properties they attempt to depict. My response is that at least comics generally screw up while embracing the medium and its often inherent grandiosity and various other conventions. On the other hand, movies foul up while appearing to be ashamed of the source material and taking efforts to distance themselves from it. The choice to discard the costumes and names smacks of this and it is frankly annoying.

Losing the Fantastical

Perhaps even more troubling are some of the words being used to describe this adaptation.

“Grounded,” “gritty,” “realistic,” and “dramatic” have been thrown around and if the film is embracing these terms as a sort of mission statement, then I think that is a misstep. For one thing, this is arguably just another example of the film adaptation distancing itself from the comic book-iness of the source material. From another perspective, this might be symptomatic of the Batman-ification/Nolan-izing that seems to increasingly be happening as comic book properties make the transition from comic books to other media.

Let me get this straight: the Fantastic Four are not Batman. They are not mopey kids living in a dark, gray world. Another recent quote makes me nervous about this as well. Michael B. Jordan recently described the characters as, “a bunch of kids that had an accident and we have disabilities now that we have to cope with, and try to find a life afterwards – try to be as normal as we can.” This makes me think that their abilities across the board are taken as negatives and they only want to be rid of them or minimize their impact on their lives.

Now don’t get me wrong, Ben Grimm is a tragic figure. His particular story should be told with all of the pathos and drama that can be heaped on a character. Ben’s status as a reluctant hero cursed by his powers to suffer with an inhuman appearance is what set him apart from other heroes of the time and his teammates. If his story is treated with more gravitas than in the Fantastic Four’s previous film outings where he basically hand-waved away for no good reason the prospect of being human again at the end of the first film after just experiencing a machine that was able to make him human, then I will be thrilled.

What I won’t be thrilled about is if his tragic status is co-opted by every other member of the team as well. Johnny Storm in particular treats his powers as a lark and should be thrilled to have abilities beyond those of mortal men (to paraphrase Superman’s intro text). To hear the actor playing Johnny voicing these ideas in particular is troubling.

Aside from the characters, the situations that the Fantastic Four generally find themselves in are the antithesis of “gritty” and “grounded.” This is the team that:

  • Fight a giant, planet-eating alien wearing a purple bucket on his head (and we saw what happens when you try to make Galactus into something “serious”).
  • Travel to an alternate dimension called the Negative Zone.
  • Fight a clone of Hitler calling himself the Hate Monger.
  • Travel to the infinitesimally small realm of Sub-Atomica in a shrinking-powered Reducta-Craft.
  • Are sent back in time where one of their members becomes the historical Blackbeard.
  • Fight a race of giant multicolored, supremely powerful beings called the Celestials.
  • Regularly get advice from a giant-headed alien whose job is to watch things.

“Gritty” and “grounded” should be removed from the production’s vocabulary. We are after all talking about the team whose first official vehicle was essentially a flying bathtub.

Also, what is the point of giving this movie a found footage feel? At what point did that move from being a stupid gimmick to being a pseudo-genre of film? I saw Chronicle and that film wasn’t bad, but I certainly wouldn’t try to translate that look and feel to an adaptation of a comic series that already has its own visual aesthetics and style of storytelling.

The Director Telling the Cast Not to Read the Comics

Kate Mara’s recent statements about Josh Trank telling the cast not to bother reading the comics are problematic. Coincidentally, her clarification that he said this because the film would not be based on any on particular story as opposed to not being based on anything from them does not help things in my book. If the movie has anything at all to do with the comics, then the cast should be reading them in order to get a sense of their characters and help fill in whatever backstory and character quirks aren’t being addressed by the script they are working with.

Just to give you some idea of where I’m coming from, I happen to be a trained actor. I have an undergraduate degree in acting and have had tons of non-professional experience on the stage. When you act, you want to understand your character. In order to do that, you are often only given the script and whatever stage directions and background the author or previous stage managers have inserted into the text. This generally entails a lot of close textual analysis and sometimes making up backstory that isn’t provided in the text but can inform the words and actions that a character is communicating to the audience. Sometimes you write your character’s biography prior to the events you are acting out based on clues from the text and your own interpretations which you then review with the director. In acting terms, you are trying to establish your “given circumstances,” in other words everything that came before the events that you are acting out which inform why you are saying and doing everything as well as how you would do it.

In this case, the actors have more than the text of the script to work with. They have 50-plus years of comic book storyline and continuity that they can draw from. This is a valuable resource and one which should not be discarded. As one actor to another (and to the director), I would urge everyone involved in the Fantastic Four reboot to read as many Fantastic Four-related comics as they can starting with the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run. Even if none of the concrete events depicted in those comics occur on-screen, they will still have a better understanding of their characters as a result.

The only reason that I can imagine a director urging his cast not to read the comics is if they intend to alter the characters in some fundamental way and reading the comics themselves would only confuse the issue. If that is the case, then this movie has big problems ahead.

Moving Forward

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The latest thing to come out of the Fantastic Four production is word from writer/producer Simon Kinberg that the movie will honor the source material. He also claims that he and Josh Trank are “humongous fans” of the Fantastic Four. My question is why, if that is the case, does it feel like he and Trank are playing Fantastic Four Jenga? It seems as though they are removing element after element of what made the Fantastic Four unique and beloved by fans to see how far they can go before the whole premise collapses under its own weight. It doesn’t bother me if a Fantastic Four film takes liberties with the details and it doesn’t bother me if it tries to be its own thing. The frustrating thing is when it feels like core aspects of the property are being discarded. When it comes down to it, I don’t want Trank’s Fantastic Four to honor the comic, I want it to adapt the comic and it doesn’t feel like that is happening.

All of that being said, none of this is actually indicative of what the final quality of this film might be. While this almost certainly will not be my (and a lot of people’s) Fantastic Four on screen, this still has the potential to be a legitimately good film on its own terms. I harbor no animosity toward it and I plan to view it on opening weekend if only to satisfy my own curiosity.

Still, if other comic fans plan to sit home and if word of mouth kills this movie before it has a chance to be evaluated on its own terms, I think I’ve done my job in explaining why that will have been the case.