The 2015 Fantastic Four film was about as disastrous as it gets, with a bomb at the box office, scathing reviews from critics, and worst of all, almost total disinterest from the comic book contingent. It is also a film with a reputation that precedes it. As a reboot that nobody was clamoring for and which seemed to come out of nowhere after two lackluster FF films in the mid-2000s, it represented a shameless cash-in on the superhero phenomenon, and studio cynicism at its zenith. Young director Josh Trank reportedly bungled the whole thing due to immaturity and erratic behavior on set, and he publicly dissed the film on twitter the day before its widespread release. To top it all off, its sheer awfulness is the unofficial reason why Marvel decided to end the FF’s historic comic book run so as to distance themselves from the poorly-received Fox production.
The Fantastic Four got me into comics when I was in middle school, and I’ve paid particularly close attention when they make their way into the public spotlight. The FF are important to me, so I feel I have some skin in the game. This can make me more critical than the average viewer, but it can also make me more forgiving. Let’s see how it all shakes out.
From a purely cinematic perspective, the film is bad. The pacing is a total wreck, the effects are super cheesy, and it’s loaded with inexplicable fan-service snippets that make you cringe. It’s also one of those movies that just feels constructed, like you can picture the editors actually piecing together the bits of film which make the movie (I understand that what I just said is anachronistic). There’s this moment where the team succeeds at transporting organic tissue, and it’s supposed to be thrilling, but then we get a close-up of Sue Storm with this goofy-ass look on her face that comes totally out of nowhere, and it was one of the weirdest, most jarring edits I’ve ever seen. It was bizarre.
And much of how the Fantastic Four are represented is off the mark. There’s an eager attempt at realism here that just doesn’t work. More than any other comic that’s been recently adapted to the screen, the FF storylines are off-the-wall bonkers, and the ethos is melodramatic to the extreme. It’s also just crazy fun—an important point that apparently wasn’t considered during the making of this movie. Trank infamously stated that the film was Cronenbergian, and while I think this is actually a fair assessment in some respects, the FF as body-horror subgenre is a total miss.
However, there is one fundamental aspect of the FF that movie gets right—or at least makes an admirable attempt at getting right—and that is the importance of family as the prime motivator of the characters. While superhero teams like The Avengers are formed when individual heroes with their own backstories decide to come together, the Fantastic Four were inextricably linked before they ever got their powers. Sue (Invisible Woman) and Johnny (The Human Torch) are sister and brother, and Ben (The Thing) and Reed (Mr. Fantastic) are lifelong friends. In the comics, Sue and Reed eventually get married, and they have a son, Franklin. Throughout the long-running comic series, family connections and dynamics proved to be at least as dramatic as a planet-eating demi god and other wacky, dimension-spanning adventures. And in typical FF fashion, they were treated with the same melodramatic flourish as well.
The essential tension that drives the Fantastic Four is how to live and love and be with family, especially when this seems utterly impossible. Johnny is a hothead whose ego compels him to hurt those he loves, Reed is an anti-social genius who has trouble living in the now and caring for those he shares his life with, Sue struggles with feeling respected and having a place in a male-dominated familial and social structure, and Ben’s fate is that of a tortured outcast who loves deeply and without compromise, but never feels that depth of love in return because he doesn’t think he deserves it. Of course, all of these struggles are allegorized in their powers that make them the FF, so these family dynamics and internal pressures are the FF in a figurative sense. Without them, we lose the beating heart of the characters and what makes them who they are. That’s why for all the ways the Fantastic Four (2015) film was a bust, it is at least a genuine representation of the FF, because it did this one thing pretty well.
Here are some of the ways that the movie gets the deep inner tensions/family dynamics of the characters right:
- Ben and Reed are lifelong friends, and they both rescued each other from social isolation at a pivotal time in their lives. Reed is chastised or flat-out ignored by everyone in his life except Ben, and Reed is the only one who treats Ben with dignity. When they both change, Ben piteously calls out to Reed to help him, and when Reed flees, Ben’s pain at being abandoned becomes the primary driver of the plot.
- Johnny is clearly the family reprobate, and he struggles with not being accepted for who he is, as opposed to what others think he should be. This makes his eagerness to use his powers for war purposes more understandable—finally an authority figure (the U.S. government) is giving him free reign to let loose his base impulses and desires on the world.
- Sue is the dedicated worker bee. She does what she’s told and she does it more than proficiently. She’s also the glue that holds everything together. And yet, when the rest of the crew go against orders and test the machine which ultimately gives them their powers, it’s a straight-up sausage fest, and Sue is a noticeable absence.
- Franklin Storm serves as the father figure for all of the FF, as well as the Dr. Doom character. He’s put his faith in them, and even when his powers as a father are overwhelmed by larger forces, he is still working in their favor. Even to the very end, he believes in these kids.
These points illustrate that the movie understands the core motivations and tensions of the FF. Too bad they couldn’t have been part of a good film.