My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
There’s bad buzz and then there’s toxic buzz. Bad buzz can sabotage a movie, but truly toxic buzz can follow a film for years, even decades. When a movie goes wildly over budget and looks like a fiasco in the making, we tend to resurrect the ghoulish specters of toxic buzz magnets past like Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Waterworld, Bonfire Of The Vanities, and 1941.
Toxic buzz doesn’t begin to do justice to the massive tidal wave of negative press and bad publicity that greeted the cursed production of Chronicle director Josh Trank’s reboot of beloved Marvel fixtures Fantastic Four. In hindsight, the ferocity of the bad buzz feels disproportionate. Fantastic Four wasn’t received as an interesting if unsuccessful attempt to do something different with a superhero origin story. Instead, it was seen as an astonishing embarrassment to Fox and Marvel alike, a flop for the ages from a talented but untested director who went upriver and took an enormously promising franchise with him. Fantastic Four wasn’t critiqued so much as it was tarred and feathered with words.
Much of the negative press centered on director Josh Trank’s rocky relationship with his bosses over at Fox. The film’s IMDB trivia section helpfully acts as a sadistic museum of bad buzz, preserving for posterity gossip like the following:
Kate Mara noted that she hadn’t seen the movie a month after its release, and has been very unwilling to watch it due to the intensely negative reception.
During production of the film, director Josh Trank displayed “erratic” and “very isolated” behavior on set. This lead to clashes between Trank and producers over the direction of the film, since Trank didn’t offer a clear one.
During production, Josh Trank had several small dogs, who were left in a rented house in New Orleans while the film was shooting there. The dogs caused as much as $100,000 damage to the property.
This last one about the damage ostensibly wrought by Trank’s dog captures the vindictive, weirdly personal nature of the coverage of the film. The condition of Trank’s rental house in New Orleans has no bearing on Fantastic Four’s quality as a movie. Yet it was nevertheless offered as a damning illustration of the director’s untrustworthiness.
Fantastic Four consequently limped into over 4,000 theaters domestically a wounded beast. Critics were happy to stab it in the heart and put it out of its misery. A film that was envisioned as a huge tentpole became the lowest-grossing movie ever to play more than 4,000 theaters. Plans for a sequel were dashed and Trank was taken off a Star Wars movie he was to direct.
Watching Trank’s take on one of Marvel’s trickiest properties, it’s easy to understand why it failed commercially and even critically. But it’s just as easy to appreciate what Trank was attempting, and what he actually achieved. In many ways, Fantastic Four feels like an answer, antidote, and response to Tim Story’s amiably idiotic Fantastic Four movies from about a decade prior in the same way Batman Begins was seemingly conceived as an answer, antidote, and response to Joel Schumacher’s Batman And Robin, which extravagantly destroyed the franchise in a haze of camp, neon, and Bat-nipples.
Batman Begins and Trank’s Fantastic Four both take beloved entities that had devolved into silly, broad comic-book nonsense and tried to remake them as serious films. Tim Story’s Fantastic Four took the perspective of, “Isn’t this all just too goofy? I mean, a rock-monster man, an invisible girl-woman, a super-bendy scientist man, and a dude who runs real fast and is also on fire? And this all happened when they went to space? Whoa. What were the guys who came up with that smoking and where can I get some?”
Trank’s take on the material, in sharp contrast, is dead serious, albeit in a way that allows for a surprising amount of wry, deadpan humor so understated it can be easily overlooked or missed altogether. Trank and cinematographer Matthew Jensen give the film a dark, sleek, slick look full of gunmetal blues and grays. The filmmakers also bequeath to the proceedings an ominous tone rich in portent. The film opens with protagonist Reed Richards (who will grow up to be Miles Teller) as a child blessed with a scientific mind that would be the pride of most Ivy League science departments. While other kids are trading baseball cards, Reed is building a teleportation device with his best friend Ben Grimm, who will grow up to be Jamie Bell.
These early scenes of Reed as an unusually precocious child have a bit of a Steven Spielberg-by-way-of-Unbreakable quality to them. Trank delights in juxtaposing wholesome Americana with elements of the fantastical, in mixing the mundane with the supernatural. We then rocket forward in time and Reed and Ben are now freakishly smart high schoolers somewhat improbably taking their teleportation device public at their school science fair.
The film’s fundamental seriousness makes some of its more cartoonish aspects stand out more, and having a motherfucking teleporter appear in a high school science fair undercuts the film’s aspirations to somber melodrama ever so slightly. Reed and Ben’s teleportation gizmo does not impress the science-fair judges (why would it, when there are potato clocks also competing?) but it does attract the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a brilliant scientist who recruits these prodigies for the Baxter Foundation, a government research institute for brilliant young people.
At the Baxter Foundation, the young men are joined by Storm’s children, his biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara), as well as Victor Von Doom (Tobey Kebbell), a disturbed computer genius who grudgingly acquiesces to joining the team out of romantic feelings for Sue.
These brilliant young people, who really should be out binge-drinking and exploring the wonders of casual sex, build a quantum gate to another dimension. They then travel through this gate to an alternate dimension known as Planet Zero, but when they are pulled back they discover that their interaction with this other dimension has profoundly altered them on a physical level. Reed, Ben, Victor, Johnny, and Sue all become mutants with powers they do not understand and sometimes are not able to control. Reed’s skin can now stretch and contort like a blob of Silly Putty. Sue Storm is sometimes invisible. Ben Grimm becomes The Thing, a superpowered bruiser with a brick-like exterior, while Johnny Storm becomes The Human Torch, a super-fast athlete who habitually bursts into flame. And Victor becomes Doom, a supervillain out to destroy our world in order to protect his new home on Planet Zero.
Trank plays the transformation of the Fantastic Four from plucky kids to mutants blessed but mostly cursed with superhuman powers from another dimension as Cronenbergian body horror. Fantastic Four asks what it would be like to have your body suddenly be composed not of blood, bones, and muscles but some manner of brick-like substance that gives you the appearance of a construction-site Golem, a brick wall with fists, a social security number, and a soul. It puts us in the shoes of someone who discovers that the laws of gravity no longer apply to him and that his body can twist and contort in ways he never imagined possible.
The characters in Story’s Fantastic Four couldn’t have been more broadly drawn but the hokiness of their characterization at least made it easy to tell them apart. Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) was a blandly handsome super-bendy Eisenhower-era suburban dad type. The Invisible Woman/Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) was a similarly maternal all-American lass. Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael Chiklis) was a gravel-voiced angry brick wall of a working-class bruiser, while Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (Chris Evans) was all goofy energy and boyish testosterone overload.
The moody, downbeat nature of Trank’s film mutes the differences between the characters. Here, the future Mr. Fantastic is a brooding, glowering brilliant scientist. Susan Storm is also a brooding, glowering egghead scientist, The Human Torch is a brooding, glowering super-fast fire dude while, finally, The Thing is a brooding, glowering rock-monster. Fantastic Four has such a downbeat tone that when The Thing finally Things up and utters his beloved phrase “It’s clobberin’ time!” it almost feels out of character. People in comic books, and also Donald Trump, tend to speak in short, declarative sentences liberally punctuated with exclamation points, the lazy comic-book writer’s best friend. But the people in Fantastic Four do not talk like people in comic books, or in a comic-book movie, and the notable dearth of actual clobberin’ onscreen similarly gives the line a bit of a weird edge. If The Thing had said, “It’s reflectin’ on the strange, surreal, and in many ways tragic and unfortunate nature of our current physiological and existential condition time,” that would feel in character.
Story’s Fantastic Four aspired only to dumb fun but happily settled for merely being dumb. Trank’s Fantastic Four goes so far in the opposite direction that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in being “fun.” From a critical standpoint, that’s an interesting strategy: to purposefully deny audiences a lot of the cheap kicks endemic in superhero movies for the sake of something a little more moody and cerebral. But from a commercial perspective, it’s easy to see why the film failed.
For a big-budget tentpole featuring such iconic characters and multiple planets and dimensions, Fantastic Four is strangely insular and hermetic. For a superhero movie, Fantastic Four is curiously light on super heroics and for an action movie, it’s oddly short of action. Part of the problem is that Reed Richards’ super-stretchy powers of supreme bendiosity are pretty damn silly for a film that takes itself so seriously. A superhero with very similar powers, DC’s Plastic Man, is generally a figure of fun and not an Olympic-grade brooder like Reed Richards here. But Teller gives the character an intriguing prickliness all the same, playing a man so brilliant, he’s more than a little bit crazy. These aren’t normal kids turned into superpowered gods; they’re a little removed from society and the rest of the world to begin with, particularly Victor Von Doom.
Some of the film’s early bad buzz revolved around reports that Von Doom would be an antisocial blogger. People were worried that he’d be some portly, Cheetos-chomping Kevin Smith type, or possibly even Smith himself, in a strange bid to unite the film’s universe with the View Askewniverse. Thankfully, there’s little of that in the film itself. Tobey Kebbel’s take on the character smartly gives Doom a fiercely focussed relentlessness that at times calls to mind Robert Patrick’s shape-shifting assassin from T2. The team’s experiences on Planet Zero deprived everyone of some important measure of their humanity, but it transformed Doom into a monster of wrathful vengeance.
Fantastic Four is the rare superhero movie that might actually be overly focused. The film’s trim running time ensures that it never wears out its welcome or drags too hard, but it also deprives audience of a lot of what they come to superhero movies for. It feels as if there are at least a couple of scenes missing, including some big set pieces that might have opened up the film’s world beyond Planet Zero, the Fantastic Four, their dad (or at least Johnny and Sue’s dad) and Doom.
In its current incarnation, Fantastic Four feels incomplete and unfinished. It was clearly designed as the first in a series of films but its historic box-office failure ensured that it is a one-off. Hell, even Story’s phenomenally shitty movie got a sequel. But Trank’s Fantastic Four is a surprisingly engaging, offbeat entry in an increasingly exhausted genre. I suspect that the future will be kinder to Fantastic Four than the present is, bringing overdue appreciation for this strange movie and its oddball charms, in part because it would be difficult for it to be much crueler.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success