Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). With this whirl around the Rack, we’ll be doing some post-mortem detective work as we look into one of the most troubled productions Hollywood has churned out in decades: the 2015 reboot Fant4stic!
The storied production of 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot is a bitter cautionary tale of studio interference, unprofessional filmmakers, and endless recriminations.
It all started because Fox did NOT want to lose the film rights to Marvel’s First Family. Constantin Films’ option on the IP—obtained back in 1986 for the ludicrously low price of $250,000—had always been contingent on the production company putting out a new film within a certain time frame, lest the rights revert back to Marvel Comics; the unreleased low-budget 1994 Fantastic Four film had been produced explicitly as a Hail Mary pass to hold onto those rights, even though the producers had never intended an audience to lay eyes on it. So Constantin and Fox were under pressure to keep a steady stream of Fantastic Four films in production, however they could—and following the dismal critical and box-office performance of 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, they rushed to announce that the franchise would be getting a reboot only a couple of years later.
The studio worked through a handful of writers before settling on Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect, Death Note) to pen the screenplay. Slater’s draft was tonally inspired by The Avengers, which the writer had been a big fan of; his script featured MASSIVE action set-pieces, and included the characters of Annihilus, the Mole Man, H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot, and even Galactus himself (in addition to Doctor Doom, who would serve as a primary antagonist and a herald to the big purple planet-eater). The film sketched out by Slater was intended to be colorful, bombastic, and fun—a comic book thrill-ride from top to bottom, set in a world that was heightened and… well, fantastic!
… Ooooh, but that wasn’t what director Josh Trank wanted to do at all.
Trank, fresh off the success of his sleeper-hit debut Chronicle, seemed poised to become Hollywood’s newest golden boy. The youngest director ever to open a film at #1 at the box office, Trank was fielding offers from all over Hollywood—attaching his name to a few projects, including a Shadow of the Colossus adaptation and Disney’s then-gestating Boba Fett solo film. Fatefully, however, Trank chose the Fantastic Four reboot to be his sophomore effort, and started working with Jeremy Slater on the script. And that’s when it all started to go wrong.
From the outset, Trank HATED Slater’s approach to the material. Rather than rooting the film in a colorful comic-book world, Trank wanted to steer the film towards a darker, grittier cinematic “reality”1; he cited David Cronenberg as an inspiration for his approach, with a visual style that would recall the grounded sci-fi horror of Scanners and The Fly. Dissatisfied with Slater’s script, Trank began to exclude Slater from creative meetings and limit his contact with the studio, until inevitably Slater walked off the project. Trank then re-wrote the script himself. In filmmaking circles, this is what’s known as a “dick move”.
Now, mind you, a lot of what follows is heresay and unconfirmed rumor. But while Trank’s version of the film seemed to click with the studio and the producers… little red flags started to pop up. Script and casting approvals were being drawn out to the last minute. Studio notes were constant. And then, with only a few weeks to go until shooting, a bombshell dropped: Fox was cutting the film’s budget by tens of millions of dollars, and forcing Trank to remove three major action setpieces from the script at the last second.
Trank was apoplectic. Now stuck making a significantly diminished version of the film he’d wanted to, under a studio that was becoming more and more controlling with each passing day, Trank showed up to the set with… well, let’s say not the cheeriest disposition. The director proved sullen and uncommunicative to cast, crew, and producers throughout the shoot; reportedly he would show up late to set frequently, and was high during much of the filming. He mistreated crew members. He nearly got into a fistfight with star Miles Teller. Most famously, he allowed his two small pet dogs to do $100,000 worth of damage to his rental home—so egregious, that (allegedly) the head of the studio HIMSELF drove down to Louisiana to apologize to the home’s owner personally.
Post-production soon became its own nightmare. An early cut was met by disdain from the Fox executives—one of whom lamented that it seemed too much like “a sequel to Chronicle”2. Extensive reshoots were then scheduled; Trank was present for the majority of these (a process he described as “like being castrated”), but creatively, they were driven by producer Simon Kinberg (writer of X-Men: The Last Stand, and writer/director of Dark Phoenix—so you know we’re in good hands, har har!). Kinberg rewrote the entire final act of the film and even directed a chunk of the reshoots himself, with the aim of steering the project more towards being a conventional superhero action extravaganza. The resulting Frankenstein’s monster bore its patchwork of stitches more openly than any Hollywood hatchet job before it3: the trailer included a plethora of shots and sequences that didn’t appear in the final film (including a spectacular shot of the Thing being dropped out of a plane), and audiences quickly keyed in on Kate Mara’s hideous blond wig (thrown on to hide the fact that she’d changed her hair color since the end of principle photography) as the signpost for a switchover to reshot footage.
Ultimately it was Trank himself who put the final nail in the coffin of Fant4stic’s reputation. A mere day before the film’s world premiere, Trank logged on to Twitter and vented his frustration with a petulant, melancholy tweet disowning the final cut of the film. The tweet was the capstone to a run of bad press that had seen Trank’s antics leaked by studio insiders and Disney drop the reportedly-difficult director from the Boba Fett movie. Fant4stic would land with a resounding thud at the box office, burying the continued franchise hopes for the Fantastic Four and killing Josh Trank’s career… for about five years4.
But all of that is just context, y’know? It’s just the “why”. It is, admittedly, a LOT of “why”. So what was the ultimate product of all this madness? Did Fant4stic bring anything interesting to the table, even in its compromised form? Was it doomed to be a miserable failure, regardless of the studio’s intervention? Hell, is the damn thing even watchable?
IN THIS ISSUE: A subdued, character-driven sci-fi horror movie that tries to twist around into a generic superhero flick at the last second and rips itself in half.
From the outset, a major hurdle to clear is with Trank’s approach to the material. Because on every level, this is not a traditional Fantastic Four story. The script draws its inspiration from the Grant Morrison/Mark Millar Ultimate Fantastic Four comics—in which Reed Richards, Sue Storm, and Victor Van Damme5 are all child prodigy supergeniuses working for government funded think-tank the Baxter Foundation, and (along with Sue’s brother Johnny and Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm) gain their superpowers from an interdimensional teleportation experiment gone wrong. The film sticks with this set-up—so rather than a family dynamic with an older, patriarchal Reed and a younger, immature Johnny, they’re all peers, and they’re all brilliant in their given fields (except for Ben, who’s just a blue-collar kid from Brooklyn). Essentially, it’s a circle of high school buddies, all under the tutelage of Dr. Franklin Storm (who’s not so much a patriarch as a supportive college professor).
Morrison and Millar’s Baxter Foundation was a sort of super-science Hogwarts, but Trank abandons all whimsicality and pushes hard for a plausible, “realistic” world full of fluorescent-lit laboratories and grounded visual design. The machines have a clumsy utility to then, the science takes time (no developing cosmic-ray machines over a long weekend here), and the mishaps get legitimately ugly; Trank is playing the kitschiest Marvel property as straight as he possibly can. So if you’re coming at this movie with an insurmountable love of the four-color adventures of Marvel’s First Family, and won’t be satisfied by anything less than a faithful translation to the screen… yeah, you’re not going to get anything out of this. Fant4stic is its own animal, and you have to judge it as such.
The first half of the film is deliberately (read: sloooooooooowly) paced—not as an action film, or horror, or even as much of a sci-fi film… but as a character drama. We first meet Reed Richards and Ben Grimm as kids in elementary school6: Reed is a guileless child prodigy whose genius is neither understood nor appreciated by his parents and teachers, while Ben is a stoic, sensitive kid stuck in a toxic and abusive blue-collar purgatory (infamously, the first time we hear the Thing’s iconic catchphrase “it’s clobberin’ time” is when Ben’s teenage brother starts beating on him after school). We see the beginnings of a bond between the two—Ben fascinated by Reed’s super-smarts, while Reed’s clearly happy to have someone to talk to—and then leap forward to the two of them in high school as inseparable best buds, now played by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell7. This relationship is established so strongly that even when Reed gets admitted into the Baxter Institute and Ben disappears for a while, you can STILL feel that friendship between them (as Reed excitedly texts Ben pics of his work).
The Storms, meanwhile, come with plenty of their own drama. Dr. Franklin Storm, the head of the Baxter Institute (played by Reg E. Cathey), has to thread the needle of encouraging the kids under his care to grow and innovate, while catering to military/political backers who are only interested in exploitable results. His adoptive daughter, Sue (Kate Mara), is basically his second-in-command; she’s initially aloof and detached, tuning out the world with music8 and insisting that humans are predictable and boring to distance herself from others. And then there’s Johnny: Dr. Storm’s rebellious, street-racing son, played by the human personification of charisma that is Michael B. Jordan9. Johnny resents his father’s focus on the Institute over his family, and though he’s a brilliant mechanical engineer, he refuses to join the group until his father takes his car away. But when the siblings come together with Reed to create the interdimensional teleporter (which they call a “Quantum Gate™”), we see them all grow closer and happier: a surrogate family of young misfits who’ve finally found a place to belong. Reed, Sue, Johnny…
… and Victor.
We’ll get to Victor.
So with a half-hour of relationship-building and character development behind it, the film finally gets to the sci-fi: an expedition to Planet Zero, a primordial alien world in a parallel dimension10. After a successful test transport with a chimp (who thankfully doesn’t end up like the baboon in The Fly…), the four are shocked—SHOCKED—to learn that the government bigwigs are bringing in trained astronauts to make the first trip across dimensions, rather than letting the kids go themselves. Angry and feeling betrayed, the boys get sloshed off of Victor’s proffered flask… and like countless inebriated youths stretching back across the span of history, they decide that the solution to their problem is to do something reckless, dangerous, and incredibly stupid11. So Reed calls in Ben (because he refuses to go without his best bud—which: awwwww…), and the four hijack the Quantum Gate™ by themselves and zap over to Planet Zero!
At first, it all seems to go pretty well! The foursome find an arid, rocky world filled with glowing green ooze—lifeless, and seemingly safe. The group decides to rappel down a sheer cliff face and look around because, well, why not? Nothing dangerous here! And finally, they come to a giant green lake of the glowing slime, and Victor bends down and dips his hand in it—because HEY, it’s just a large body of electromagnetically-reactive, iridescent alien ooze, no biggie, what’s the WORST that could…?
OH, SWEET JESUS!!!!!!
Yes, because Victor has the survival instincts of that biologist from Prometheus who tried to pet an angry alien snake, the planet starts violently erupting all around them—seemingly killing Vic and bombarding the others with fire and rocks and rubber bands and such (Sue, who manages to teleport them home, gets blasted with interdimensional energy feedback from the device itself). The aftermath is a straight horror show: amidst the demolished and flaming remnants of the lab, Reed finds his arms and legs distending uncontrollably, Johnny is laid out unconscious and on fire, Sue fades in and out of sight, and Ben is buried under a mound of rocks… one which he slowly, arduously pries himself out of, only to find that he IS the rocks. It’s shocking and extreme and an utterly unique approach to a superhero origin (at least, in a mainstream studio comic-book movie); it’s less a power fantasy and more a surrealist nightmare.
So the four get carted off to a secret government facility, located in that snowy Canadian wilderness Fox loves to shoot all its action movies in. Reed manages to make a break for it, promising to Ben that he’ll “fix this” and that he’ll come back before rushing off into the woods and escaping. But alas, the slimy government spook running the place (Tim Blake Nelson) immediately hears opportunity knocking and offers poor, abandoned Ben a job working for his Uncle Sam.
And then… we skip ahead a year.
See, despite its clever and subversive approach to introducing its lead characters’ superpowers, this isn’t a movie about a group of horrifically mutated kids learning to cope with massively destructive medical conditions. The film still needs to make them into somewhat-proper “superheroes”—so it cheats, taking a leap forward in time to reveal that Johnny and Sue both have fancy new containment suits to help them control their powers, and that Ben has become the U.S.’s number-one pantsless covert military operative12 (with Johnny being groomed for the #2 spot). Predictably, the government is turning them into weapons; Ben is confirmed to have killed 42 enemy combatants on his last mission alone (a fact which weighs heavily on the big guy). And Reed? He’s still on the loose—we see him holed up in Central America, wearing a cobbled-together suit of springs and coils and working on a one-man transporter back to Planet Zero (presumably so he can study the phenomena that created their powers and reverse it)13. The film hopscotches past the striking Cronenberg body-horror stuff and plops us down into a bland YA novel set-up.
But when the military sends Ben in to haul Reed back to the government base, a spark of dramatic energy returns to the film. Reed and Ben, childhood buddies, are now torn asunder; Ben despises Reed, both for turning him into a monster (literal and figurative), and—perhaps moreso—for abandoning him when he needed him the most. Reed, meanwhile, is ashamed of what he’s done, and desperate to fix it… but he knows he can’t. The hurt between the two is palpable, even if Jamie Bell has been replaced by a giant blob of C.G.I. rocks (with disturbingly expressive human eyes). This relationship is the heart of the film, and it’s at its lowest point—it’s practically BEGGING for an emotional, cathartic resolution.
So of course… it doesn’t get one!
Now THIS is where the studio-mandated rejiggering really starts to dig in to the film—because all of a sudden, it stops trying to be about characters and starts trying to be about a plot. Y’see, the government schmucks have built their OWN Quantum Gate™14, and they send over a second expedition to Planet Zero… where they discover Victor, who has somehow SURVIVED his deep-dive into the plasma pool, and now has his melted environment suit fused onto his body. Naturally, the G-men cart Vic back across dimensions to the home base to study him—and naturally, this proves to be a terrible, terrible mistake. Because once Victor confirms that the government is running the show now, and that Tim Blake Nelson and his goon squad plan to strip mine Planet Zero for resources… well, he decides to go all Scanners on the entire base and use his disturbingly strong telekinetic powers to start popping people’s heads like pimples.
And then… FINALLY… the movie collapses in on itself.
Victor kills Franklin Storm and jaunts the Quantum Gate™ back over to Planet Zero, where he sets it to overload—which will create a singularity that will consume the Earth behind him. This, SOMEHOW, results in a patented Hollywood Blockbuster Sky-Beam™©® lancing up from Planet Zero, then down onto Earth15, and sucking up everything it comes into contact with. Immediately, our heroes get magically whisked between dimensions (Sue creates a bubble around herself, Reed, and Ben, but Johnny just flies through the dimensional wormhole unprotected), and when they land, Reed concludes that the Sky-Beam is somehow coming from VICTOR, and that the only way to stop it is to take him out (i.e. “Beat the main boss, and everything shuts down automatically!”).
The finale is a big, trite superhero fight with Victor—in which Victor elects NOT to burst our heroes’ brains like ripe watermelons, and instead uses his terrifying mental abilities to throw rocks at them. (But, like, a LOT of rocks.) The Four attack individually, and get their asses handed to them; so Reed gives his big football-coach inspirational speech (“He’s stronger than any of us!” “Yeah, he is… but he’s not stronger than ALL of us!”), and they work together, as a team, to punch Victor in the face repeatedly until he dies. (Johnny also flies THROUGH three giant stone pylons to stop the Sky-Beam, DEMOLISHING them… because apparently being on fire makes you completely invulnerable to high-velocity impacts?)
Then they get sucked back through the magic Sky-Beam teleporter and arrive safely back on Earth, to survey the ENORMOUS CRATER that’s left where the military base used to be. The Four all look horrified, dumb-struck… yet the score plays an upbeat and triumphant cue that insists, in no uncertain terms, that “the HEROES have WON!”
But look. When it comes to the wonky inconsistencies, both tonal and stylistic, that stemmed from the bizarre creative tug-of-war between Trank and the studio, you don’t need to pick the whole film apart frame-by-frame to see the process in action. Because we have a Patient Zero—an epicenter, a single character who represents everything Trank was trying to do differently, and all the half-assed ways Fox tried to walk the approach back.
And yes, that character is Victor Van Damme Domashev Von Doom.
Once more, Dr. Doom has been slotted in to a Hollywood Fantastic Four film as a fifth member of the catastrophic voyage… and once more, this means that we get a Doom that is nothing at all like his comic-book counterpart16. But while Tim Story’s Doom was a generic Norman Osborn knock-off, Trank’s Victor is a far more grounded take on the character: bitter, isolated, socially maladjusted, and petulant—prone to quietly internalizing his insecurities and allowing his anger and self-loathing to curdle into nihilism before turning it outward against the world. He first shows up as a disheveled, sallow-faced gamer playing FPS-es in a dark warehouse. He has an obvious infatuation with Sue17, but he’s incapable of talking to her on a personal level—of letting down his mask of superiority long enough to foster a human connection. This is a Victor who’s constantly retreating into a “shell” WELL before he gets stuck in any kind of armor. He’s a loner, he’s an incel, and eventually he becomes a monster… but a thoroughly HUMAN one created by a deeply-rooted sense of inadequacy, isolation, and a lack of empathy.
… But he’s still saddled with the name “Von Doom”, because the studio panicked about an online fan backlash to the name “Domashev”.
Now, “Victor Von Doom” is one of the best supervillain names EVER, because it’s completely, unapologetically ridiculous. It’s arch, theatrical… it’s a Bond villain name. But it doesn’t make any sense to attach it to this character, who’s shaded with as much nuance as the writer/director could manage. It’s like renaming Michael Corleone “Snidely Whiplash”; of course he was going to go bad with a name like that!18
This weird incongruity carries over into the final battle with the assembled Fantastic Four. Because up to the climactic showdown, Victor has been a monster straight out of a horror movie: his body horrifically melted together with his environmental suit, using his telekinetic powers to massacre his way back to the Quantum Gate™ by popping open craniums like Gushers. No one can touch him, and he can kill you with little more than a glance—he’s a scary, seemingly insurmountable foe!
Then for the climax, the heroes beat him in a fistfight.
It’s impossible to say for certain how Trank’s original ending might have gone19, but apparently it didn’t feature enough of the bad guy getting his FACE caved in—so in the reshot finale, Doom conspicuously uses his powers in the most non-lethal ways he can manage. This allows Reed and co. to get in their licks, survive, regroup (he doesn’t even bother to attack them while Reed is giving his inspirational speech?), and ultimately knock him into his own Sky-Beam and make him explode. Because seeing him defeated isn’t satisfying unless they literally beat him, apparently.
The ending treats this Victor like he’s a stock generic supervillain. But he’s really not. Hell, he’s not even the main villain of the movie.
Believe it or not, the military/industrial complex is the closest thing this film has to an actual antagonist. Embodied by Tim Blake Nelson’s Dr. Harvey Allen, the government spends the entire film attempting to exploit Reed and the others—taking control of their work and using it for whatever military application they can manage. Planet Zero is seen as both a possible strategic outpost and a wellspring of resources for the U.S. to claim for itself. The Quantum Gate™ technology is taken away from Reed and the team the moment it’s finished—which is what drives them to sneak a trip to Planet Zero and causes the disaster in the FIRST place. Then the Four, upon receiving powers, are immediately conscripted and trained to be weapons to bolster American military might. The film is all about the system chewing these people up and spitting ‘em out, using them for its own ends… and so, naturally, the big resolution of the film (after the Doom slug-fest) is the Four negotiating with Washington to take total control of their work. Sure, they still want government funding and lab space, but they insist that they should be in charge of their own projects, and own whatever they make. Which is… admittedly odd. 20
Of all the people at the Baxter Institute, though, Victor sees through Dr. Allen and the government’s bullsh*t the soonest. He shows up at the very beginning with a decided “f%$# the Man” attitude, and it only gets worse as they repeatedly prove him right. Finally, his cynicism about society (we live in one, you know) and the military shifts into full-fledged extremism, and he tries to destroy the world to save Planet Zero—and that, y’know, steps over the line a bit. But even though Victor is a whiny, entitled, emotionally-stunted psycho, he IS right about this one, big thing: YOU CAN’T TRUST THE SYSTEM!
… Huh. Speaking of Victor… a young, “brilliant” mind, recruited by a wealthy and powerful organization to create something creative and unique… but whose work is co-opted and debased by the people who hired him, driving him to throw a world-class temper tantrum that ruins everything for both parties and leaves the young man a disgraced pariah. Why does that sound so familiar to me…?
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Oy… That’s a tough question. From the outset, if the “gritty, realistic” angle simply doesn’t appeal to you, then it’s a definite “NO”. And even if you like what Trank was going for, the film is a depressing watch (because it’s so thoroughly ruined by the third act). But there’s just enough of a clever sci-fi/horror reimagining here to keep you engaged… even if it doesn’t ultimately satisfy.
Just don’t go in expecting a superhero flick.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.75
- The Aftermath: As intense as the “origin story” sequence is, its immediate aftermath is what sticks in your mind: a horrific tableau of wreckage and fire, with Reed crawling along the ground with a shattered, scorched helmet as he hears Ben calling out desperately for help. It’s unsettling and dream-like—in particular the moment when Reed glances over at Johnny to see that he’s been consumed by flames—and it firmly establishes the gravity of the catastrophe that created them. The moment when Reed looks back to discover that his legs are still pinned under the wreckage on the other side of the room is genuinely nightmarish!
- SCIENCE!!!: Okay, I gotta admit, the reshoots of Fant4stic include one of my favorite nonsense bits of science dialogue ever. As they’re carrying Victor back from Planet Zero through the Quantum Gate™, one of the scientists in the background throws out the line:
“His biochemistry’s off the charts!”
… What the hell does that mean? What charts? How do you measure biochemistry?! It’s like saying “his psychology’s off the charts!”
- Drinking Buddies: In a movie about the burgeoning bonds of friendship, one of the bond-iest scenes comes when Victor pulls Reed and Johnny aside to drown their sorrows with a flask. Reed, initially a holdout (“Ethanol kills braincells”), ends up getting sloshed and giggly, while Victor opens up about his fears that no one will recognize his brilliance. It’s just a bunch of guys commiserating over a drink, a small scene that makes clear what the characters care about and leads to a big (stupid) decision21. And drunk Reed is just charming!
- Reed Undercover: While Reed is on the lam in Central America, we get a scene where he’s buying parts for his personal Quantum Gate™/Fantasticar, haggling with a clerk. For these scenes, Reed is played by an older, weather-beaten actor… and when he leaves the store, we see Reed contort and re-form his face back into Miles Teller. Using his powers as a tool of disguise is a cool touch, and it helps explain how he could stay a step ahead of the government forces tracking him. It’s a little thing, but I liked it!
- Doctor Doom’s Terror Strut: There are really only two sequences in the film that tilt into full horror: the origin-story accident… and Victor’s superpowered slaughter of all the government agents in Area 5722. Striding purposefully through the halls, Doom makes short work of everyone he sees, blowing up heads and deflecting a hail of bullets almost as an afterthought. It’s violent and intimidating, but also so casual that it becomes horrific; Victor doesn’t even have to exert himself to cut a bloody swath through the military base. All he has to do is strut his stuff.
NEXT ISSUE: We’re gonna be looking at something a little different this time: a television pilot, produced in 2011, which was so odious, so bizarre, and so wrongheaded that it never even made it to air. That’s right… I’m talking about David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman!