A serious attempt to understand what the new Fantastic Four movie was supposed to be

Warning: This essay obviously includes major spoilers about the Fantastic Four, which opens in theaters today.

Fantastic Four, though. Yeesh. The director’s not happy. The cast spent this week clarifying their perspective on greatness vis a vis dickishness. The critics are angrily befuddled. Box office predictions for the reboot currently track lower than the Fantastic Four movie that came out 10 years ago and starred Michael Chiklis as an orange renegade muppet.

Fair to say: This wasn’t the plan. Three years ago, Fox greenlit the Fantastic Four reboot. 2012 was a new pinnacle for superhero movies. Avengers proved that people yearned for spinoff crossover superteams and cinematic universes. The Amazing Spider-Man proved that people would pay to see a relatively recent franchise get rebooted downwards into moody youth. The Dark Knight Rises ended the greatest comic book trilogy in movie history — and proved that people would watch a long superhero movie that only occasionally features its own superhero.

Avengers is very different from Amazing Spider-Man, which is very different from The Dark Knight RisesAvengers is bright, animated, a workplace sitcom intercut with slam-bang action setpieces. Amazing Spider-Man is a solo film shot with dreamy car-commercial soft focus: Let’s be generous and call its drama “internal.” The Dark Knight Rises builds a world out of real streets and monochrome colors and people without superpowers punching each other.

And yet, if you want to understand Fantastic Four, I think you have to understand that this new movie is weirdly trying to be all three of those films at once. Trank’s film begins with an extended prologue set in the younger days of Reed Richards and Ben Grimm: Shades of Amazing Spider-Man, which looks backwards to Peter’s own outer-borough youth. (He’s in Queens; Reed’s in Oyster Bay; presumably they met at the same regional four-eye milquetoast science fair.)

Like The Amazing Spider-Man and Avengers, this new Fantastic Four derives its plot and general vibe from the Ultimate phase of Marvel Comics: The early 2000s reboot-verse that made the most iconic Marvel superheroes into teenagers and douchebags. Like The Amazing Spider-ManFantastic Four tries hard to retcon the outdated gender politics of the long-ago ’60s source material. Gwen Stacy’s a science intern now! And Susan Storm talks a lot about pattern recognition! But like The Amazing Spider-ManFantastic Four winds up weirdly reinforcing new-wave outdated gender politics: Good luck finding a scene in these movies where Emma Stone or Kate Mara talks to another human female.

There’s a key intention in Trank’s movie that is also a core value in pretty much every superhero movie not made by Guillermo Del Toro: A desperate urge to make things feel real, emotional, as normal as possible. Young Reed is a local-boy science nerd who builds a teleporter in his garage. (His lab equipment includes a Nintendo 64 controller.) Yes, he’s making a wacky sci-fi thing — but Trank’s presentation is down-to-earth. Like, in the 2005 Fantastic Four movie, it took about 12 minutes minutes for the entire main cast to head up to an orbiting space shuttle — which had gravity! where Doctor Doom proposed to the Invisible Woman! — and about 25 minutes for everyone to start showing off their powers.

Ten years later, this new movie has less in common with Alba-era Fantastic Four than that same summer’s Batman Begins. So the problem here is a simple misunderstanding. People care about Batman’s origin; I’m not convinced anyone really cares about how the Fantastic Four became the Fantastic Four. The most interesting idea Trank had was turning the team’s origin into an exercise in body horror. Trank has cited David Cronenberg as a key influence — and as goofy as that sounds in the context of a PG-13 kids-amok blockbuster, the best part of the movie is the Cronenberg part. Mister Fantastic’s long limbs snap tendons backwards with Rick Baker authenticity, and the Human Torch looks like a full-color magazine photograph of a self-immolating protester, and the Thing is a big pile of rocks with Gollum eyes, and, well, Kate Mara looks kinda bummed.

It reminds me a little bit of my favorite superhero movie of last year, The Winter Soldier. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo talked a lot about how they were influenced by the paranoid thrillers of the ’70s. This only goes so far — making a truly paranoid Marvel movie would require someone to acknowledge that SHIELD is pretty nefarious even when it’s not run by HYDRA — but that vibe is there. And, importantly: You can layer a big dumb blockbuster movie with elements of paranoid thrillers without completely transforming the arc of the film.

But imagine Trank showing an early screening of Fantastic Four to studio heads and explaining that the middle part of the movie is supposed to be a gross and depressing bummer. This movie is a bummer, really: There’s no getting around it. I think that was the intention: When our Tim Stack was on the set, Mara compared the Fantastic Four to the victims of a car accident.

But somewhere along the way, someone badly wanted this movie to be just a little bit more like Avengers. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the film’s final act, which rapidly reintroduces Doctor Doom. When we see him, he’s been wandering through a cosmic wasteland that has granted him new powers, and his entire character motivation is that he wants to have his own planet. I just described Loki in Avengers. But Loki never walks down a corridor blowing people’s brainblood out of their skulls.

I kind of groove to the dissonance of Fantastic Four. A lot of people are taking Trank to task for his unsteady special-effects work — and every scene on Planet Zero is a complete wash — but that Doom scene is flat-out great, despite/because of how much it comes out of nowhere.

But then what? The Fantastic Four decide to become the Fantastic Four and save the world: The last 20 minutes feel stapled on from some other film. After all the time spent with sage mentor-father Richard Storm, he gets dispatched almost as an aside. He’s Uncle Ben — and even Uncle Ben usually dies off before the 90 minute mark.

There’s a too-many-cooks quality to this movie, unmistakable from the credits. Trank and producer-writer Simon Kinberg and producer Matthew Vaughn — not to mention the studio, which already has a sequel scheduled. Yeesh, the film has two composers: Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass, who have very distinct styles, and who somehow came up with a score that sounds like a Hans Zimmer trashcan draft. And the film tries to layer in a whole assortment of Nolan-approved ideas — there’s the military-industrial complex, but there’s also some Interstellar-ish space-age nostalgia.

So what was this movie supposed to be? A dark, sad, weird story about humans ruined by science? A movie about misfits who learn to get along? A photo essay about corridors? In the end, I think the biggest problem with Fantastic Four is how uninterested it is in the Fantastic Four. We’re in this weird phase where some superhero movies walk around their own core mythology: Clark Kent doesn’t put on glasses until the end of Man of Steel; Thor might talk about the Nine Realms, but he mostly hangs out in film-tax havens.

You watch this new movie, and you find yourself badly wishing for the Guardians of the Galaxy version of the Fantastic Four. I don’t mean like a more colorful Fantastic Four, or a more cosmic Fantastic Four: I mean a Fantastic Four where the lead characters actually sit in a room and talk to each other. (Does Ben Grimm ever say anything to Susan Storm?)

But there are pleasures in the film’s radical incoherence. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’d like to see the unmitigated Trank cut: Two hours of people with scar-tissue superpowers walking through shadowy corridors. The biggest bummer about Fantastic Four is that it’s not the bummer it so badly wants to be.


Thoughts on the new movie? Want to just talk about your favorite FF comics? Email me at darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.