LESSON THREE: GRIT AND DARK FOR THE SAKE OF IT IS NOT THE ANSWER
To go back to Chris Nolan’s Batman movies: As mentioned, those movies worked, despite some deviations from the source material, because the director had the confidence to tell a particular kind of movie, and also had the skill to tell it well. Trank had the confidence, but he lacked the skill. It didn’t help that Warner Bros. was supportive of Nolan while Fox undercut Trank at every opportunity, but still, the F4 director did not have the skill to make this very un-Fantastic Four-like movie rise above its deviations from the original property. That much is clear in just watching the opening two acts (the part the studio altered the least). You can see clearly the kind of movie the director is going for, but that doesn’t change the fact that the movie itself is slow, meandering, thin in character development and more.
Fantastic Four is Marvel’s most upbeat and light-hearted property. It’s a true “family” of heroes, that wear their emotions on their sleeves, have huge interstellar adventures, but also ride around in something called a “Fantasticar.” It’s goofy, silly, even campy. But it is what it is and its fans appreciate it. Now you can argue that its campy nature makes it a hard sell to a wider cinematic audience, and if that’s the case then you can always approach an adaptation through the lens of its very somber villain. Not every F4 story is “Batman ’66.” There is depth to it, but that darkness is always offered as a clear contrast to the preferred light-hearted nature of the property.
Fox wanted a “Fox comic book movie” sort of movie. They weren’t interested in telling a “dark Dr. Doom story” as a movie. They just wanted “grit” and “shadows” and “dark” and “brooding” because they still belong to that old 1990’s mentality that doesn’t respect comic properties at face value. Fox looked at X-Men (a franchise that is wildly different in tone) and thought “Let’s just do that, but with different heroes.” The studio’s latest foolhardy idea of combining X-Men and F4’s cinematic universes into one shared universe is further proof that they have no idea what they’re doing. Those two properties rarely mixed in the comics because they have such vastly different tones. Fox is putting them together solely based on the fact that they have the rights to both, and that “shared universes are in!” It goes back to that desire to copy the latest trend.
When Trank pitched F4 as he would do it, I’m sure he mentioned how dark and brooding it was, and I’m sure that made the studio very happy (“After all, X-Men is a big hit and it’s dark and brooding!”), as though all comic book properties are the same, and all comic book fans want the same things from all comic books. What Fox and Trank failed to understand was, they didn’t create the F4 franchise. They were adapting it. If your franchise is light, the adaptation needs to be light. If it is big in scope, the adaptation needs to be big in scope.
Don’t try to shoehorn a franchise into an unrelated look or a style. Adapt the material…
LESSON FOUR: PEOPLE WANT THE SOURCE MATERIAL
The biggest complaint about the Fantastic Four movie that I have seen, and which I echo, has nothing to do with the rushed third act or the thin characterizations, or the poor editing. It’s the fact that the movie never felt like a Fantastic Four movie. It didn’t look like one, sound like one, act like one, or even—seemingly—desire to be one. It was a movie that seemed embarrassed that it had to attach itself to a comic property. Actors were told not to read the comics to find inspiration for their characters. One actor also mocked the look and feel of the comics and lauded their superior (gritty and dark) suits as opposed to the bright and cheerful blue and white suits so famous on the colored page.
In 2015, in this golden age of comic book adaptations, that’s a foolish and backwards sort of viewpoint for a movie to take. You can argue that a blue jumpsuit-wearing Mr. Fantastic would look silly in a modern movie. You can argue it. But you’d be wrong.
Very very wrong.
What I would argue is that a grim and gritty take on Mr. Fantastic is what is silly. Seeing this guy
Stretch his arms around while (barely) fighting Dr. Doom…THAT’S silly. It didn’t work because it was too jarring. He’s all serious and stern in his black space suit, and then suddenly he’s Stretch Armstrong swinging around like Bionic Commando. It didn’t work. The tone betrayed the story. Fantastic Four, on the page, has the tone that is does because it’s silly and goofy and campy. It’s characters are “stretchy man” “invisible woman” “on fire guy” and “giant rock dude.” They fight a metal-faced green robed sorcerer. This isn’t Schindler’s List!
People rejected this movie outright for a lot of reasons, never even bothering to show up. But some people did show up…and then never went back…and told their friends to stay away. Those were the ones who saw a movie that looked nothing like what they grew up reading, so they didn’t bother giving it more than one (miserable) screening. They saw a movie that seemed insulted to wear the name, so the fans were insulted that they had to pay for it.
If you don’t have respect for what you are adapting, there’s no sense even adapting it.
It’s funny: In the wake of F4’s epic failure, another Fox comic book movie has flown under the radar, and it just happens to be one of the most faithful (at least at first glance) adaptations to a comic property ever:
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…and that was the PG-13 version of the trailer. The R-rated version promises that the foul-mouthed, ultra-violent, wise-cracking anti-hero will be exactly as he is presented on the pages of Marvel’s comic books. The same studio that seems to have nailed Deadpool, seems to have no idea what to do with Fantastic Four. Why?
The reason is two fold: Cost and concern. Deadpool is probably going to cost half what F4’s budget ran (before the massive reshoots and such), likewise because the cost is low the studio simply isn’t as invested in its success or failure. A low budget means the movie can appeal to the hardcore audience, make its money back in theaters and then make a nice profit on home video. With Fantastic Four, the cost was higher, so the studio was compelled to be more hands on. They had more of an investment in the success of the film. That’s ironic, because the more hands-on a studio gets in these movies, the worse the usually turn out to be…
Sony insisted that Sam Raimi add Venom to Spider-Man 3. The result was a shoe-horned in character than didn’t get the proper respect such a beloved villain deserved. The movie suffered critically for it, and ended up killing the franchise (for a time).
Warners insisted that Joel Schumacher think about merchandise, toy business and the kiddie market when making Batman and Robin. The result was a movie considered—depending on your thoughts on Fantastic Four—the worst comic book movie of all time. It ended up killing the franchise (for a time).
Sony (again) insisted that Marc Webb add more and more villains (again) to his Amazing Spider-Man 2, because the studio was thinking of expanding the franchise to include a villains-only movie. The result was a bloated, CGI-heavy film that took an okay concept from the first movie and went in the opposite direction. It ended up killing the franchise (again…for a time).
Even Marvel has been known as a hands-on sort of studio, most famously in the case of Ant-Man, but also with their fight with Joss Whedon regarding the final cut of Age of Ultron. But in Marvel’s case, they follow the older Hollywood model where the executive producer is really the brains behind the film (or in this case, the universe of films) and the directors come and go as needed to suit the larger picture.
There are exceptions to all of this. Warners wisely stepped in and stopped Burton’s Superman Lives becuase it was too out there for the franchise. Later they gave Bryan Singer whatever he wanted in making Superman Returns. They didn‘t interfere and the movie was released to a tepid response. In addition Fox has largely been hands off with Singer and the X-Men movies, allowing him to do things his way and rake in the money those films bring in. Fox also ruined Planet of the Apes with the early 2000’s reboot of the franchise, only to redeem themselves with the recent films that (gasp) approached the franchise with respect for the material.
The lesson that needs to be learned is that a comic book movie is not going to sell itself. You need a studio willing to adapt the material appropriately, by hiring a director with the desire to do just that. Then, get out of his way and let him.
Fox failed on all fronts and thus, so did their movie.