I'm not saying Josh Trank is Orson Welles, but history seems to be repeating itself all the same. After the surprise success of his 2012 movie Chronicle, Trank became Hollywood's latest wunderkind, which led to the latest big screen adaptation of Fantastic Four, which famously just bombed. Word is he was hard to work with, and this reputation cost him a shot at directing a Star Wars movie.
Now, my defending Trank at all, or the would-be merits of Fantastic Four, would seem to be true-to-form (my own sister told me today I can find a way to like anything), which is to say, if it's considered bad I'm probably the guy who will argue that it's good. I mean, I'm the guy who likes the most infamous superhero movie bomb, 1997's Batman and Robin.
So let me just say upfront that I have seen Fantastic Four and can say, it's not great, but it's hardly terrible. If anything, it's a revelation. It's something to build on. And in terms of the Marvel template it actually pushes the narrative forward, something that's seemed impossible ever since the release of 2000's X-Men, which immediately set the classic Marvel tone of underdog superheroes overcoming ludicrous odds through sheer scrappiness and ignoring what weirdo misfits they always are. In a lot of ways, Marvel took this template from Edison's long overshadowed rival, Tesla, and somehow found a way, repeatedly, to change the narrative, to unparalleled success. I mean, every single time, unorthodox science saves the day! From Peter Parker to Bruce Banner to Tony Stark, and even the mutants of evolution, these are people making the impossible an everyday feel-good story, even when they're monsters.
The Fantastic Four, by the way, started the Marvel phenomenon, and as the first big successes at creating modern monsters. Look no further than Invisible Woman herself, Sue Storm, aping one of the classics quite blatantly. Of course, her brother Johnny, the Human Torch, always did it more spectacularly (he was the breakout and indeed only crowd favorite from the two previous movies in this franchise), and his own template was a Marvel original. And the Thing, well, he's a sideshow freak that only the modern era could dream up, and with all the popularity to show for it.
Standing at the center, though, is Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic. Trank's movie puts him squarely in the center, a science geek who has an incredible breakthrough that proves irresistible (eventually). His predecessors (or successors) in Parker and Stark have nothing on him. But this gift comes as a curse. You could say that this is what Trank's movie is all about.
And in turn, you could say that the movie is incredibly meta. Because no one emerges unscathed from the attempt to dramatize Reed's struggle for recognition. At one point, Sue tells him that his goal was to become famous. Reed counters that what he wanted was to be taken seriously. By the end of the movie, he's taken his place among the rest of the team. And by all accounts, this was a movie whose production was very much the product of a, er, team effort, whether Trank liked it or not. (Although I'd love to see his version, some day. You can see the seams that were ripped apart to create this one.)
There seems, at any rate, a restlessness at the heart of what we have now. Trank has no better luck with child actors than the old adage that used to promote them as hard to work with as animals (or maybe that was babies, or directors like Welles), and that's a drag at the beginning of the movie, and the obligatory fight at the end feels rushed (I'd have waited, personally, to reach a climax with Doom later, in a sequel or two, but I'm a Star Wars baby).
No, where you see Trank's hand is in the character of Ben Grimm, the Thing, who's a childhood friend of Reed's, whose part pre-transformation is minimalist, but once rock-sized can barely wait to take up the screen. Only Johnny Storm, as usual, can compete visually (and they absolutely nail that visual). Grimm is like Trank's stand-in throughout the movie, the lurker, who is absolutely essential but can be misinterpreted if you're not paying attention.
Watching Reed go where no Marvel scientist has gone before, beyond the dreams of superheroes, is not only ripped straight from the comics but a step in the right direct for movies fifteen years in the spotlight that have rarely taken risks. There's a formula they tend to follow, and that formula has proven incredibly popular, in the original Spider-Man trilogy, the Avengers cycle, obviously, and to a lesser but sustained extent, the X-Men saga, the one that has tried the hardest to make a statement and keep moving along its original trajectory of social allegory. There have been misfires, too, and smaller triumphs (everyone tends to forget the original Marvel breakthrough, Blade), but suffice to say, Marvel has emerged as a formidable force at the movies, challenging if not supplanting DC's traditional dominance with the one-two punch of Superman and Batman.
DC's big guns have endured reinvention a number of times at this point. What Trank manages above all else is to help begin that process over at Marvel. I will always be a supporter of Marc Webb's nuanced take on Spider-Man, but what Trank does is something perhaps more remarkable. He goes a step further than refining an approach. He attempts a new one. Actually, he nails that much. As far as I'm concerned, as an origin alone, Trank's movie has set the new bar for the Fantastic Four. If Trank himself can't build on it, I hope at the very least it won't be forgotten. It's a touchstone. In an era of movies where scientists are unquestionably heroes, and space movies adore disaster, if Fantastic Four had been anything else, I think it would have found a more appreciable audience.
I mean, it was a tall order to begin with, for Trank. I don't even think Christopher Nolan nailed his first time out with superheroes. I was and am again a huge fan of his prior to 2005's Batman Begins. And I don't think anyone thought he nailed it with that one, except in changing the message from Batman and Robin. It wasn't until The Dark Knight that Nolan became a true household name, and a blockbuster machine in his own right.
Fantastic Four began to look like it was going to become another Interstellar, and in a way it did. Interstellar was Nolan's latest movie, a space disaster movie. For every Gravity there is a Prometheus. (We'll see how The Martian does.) This was the one that broke the bubble Nolan had created around himself. He pushed a little too far, for both critics and audiences.
Moviegoers wanted something a little more simple, a little more rousing, than what Trank delivered. Never mind anything you know about how the movie was created. Famously, Titanic was supposed to be as disastrous as, well, the Titanic's maiden voyage. Don't pay attention to a reputation. A reputation only means something until the message changes. I mean, Citizen Kane ruined Welles' career. Great art tends to do that. But today, a masterpiece.
Fantastic Four isn't great art. But it didn't have to be. Trank aspired to greatness. The evidence is there. And it's something that can be used as a foundation. History should be so kind.