I recently saw Fantastic Four (2015), or “Fant4stic” as it’s come to be called, to differentiate it from the 2005 film of the same name. It was bad, for a lot of the same reasons that other recent superhero movies have been bad. I don’t doubt that the story had potential, and director Josh Trank’s original cut might have even been good, before 20th Century Fox started meddling with it. But the potential good version of this movie never made it to theaters, and as the director himself said, we’ll probably never see it. What we do have is a cut of the movie that’s shoddily made–and worse, poorly written. Hard as it tried, the movie just isn’t very good, and I’m ready to talk about why.
(Here’s a hint: It’s not Michael B. Jordan’s fault.)
The biggest problem with Fantastic Four (2015) is that it has no story arc and no character arcs. The characters experience changes in circumstance over the course of the movie, but none of them change internally, and no greater point or theme is examined. This makes the story totally unengaging and dull.
(Let me pause here to say that there is no one thing wrong with this movie. I’m going to focus on the writing, since that’s the area I’m most qualified to talk about and the biggest problem I found, but this film is rife with problems. It seems to be attempting a darker, grittier tone, but has nothing of substance backing that up. It has the same terrible color grading that Batman v. Superman had. The visual design is incredibly poor, making things that should be cool and interesting look boring. The editing, although mostly serviceable, doesn’t hit the story beats that it should and can’t hide certain bad shot compositions. When I said this movie was shoddily made, I meant it.)
There are five main characters in Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm, and Victor Von Doom. Victor, of course, becomes the villain of the story once he gains powers, while the other four become the superhero team bent on taking him down. The problem, as I stated before, is that none of these people have any real personality. Reed and Sue get the worst of it: all that can really be said about them is that Reed is a genius and Sue is good at reading people. Neither of them have an arc or even change much at all over the course of the story, despite supposedly being the male and female leads.
This is especially frustrating because Reed Richards is a flawed character. He’s repeatedly portrayed as selfish and too focused on science for science’s sake. It wouldn’t have taken much to show him changing, realizing that being part of a team means being there for your teammates. The movie even has the perfect opportunity to set this up: there’s a scene near the beginning where Sue point-blank tells Reed that he wants fame, and that he’s only out for himself. Reed rejects this; his actions later on indicate that he might be motivated by fame, but then the movie skips to a year later and that plot thread is cut off. That original conversation between Sue and Reed could’ve been the perfect opportunity to set up an actual conflict, where Reed is selfish and fame-seeking and Sue deliberately distances herself from him and everyone else so she doesn’t have to deal with their repetitive nonsense. But it doesn’t; neither character goes anywhere, and by the end we’re still not sure what they’re like as people.
Johnny Storm is the same character he’s always been: hot-headed, impulsive, and careless. He’s smart too, and good at building things, but doesn’t see the value in working in a lab. After the movie’s one-year time skip, Johnny seems the least bothered by his powers and new living situation; he’s just as impulsive as ever, jumping into a career with the military with barely a thought. And then the climax happens, and by the end of the movie Johnny is the same as he ever was. He’s arguably better off than Sue or Reed, since he as least has an identifiable personality; but he’s still a static character. He has no change, or growth, or arc. And the supposed sibling relationship between him and Sue is barely there.
Victor Von Doom is the villain of this movie. If you couldn’t figure that out from his name, you probably could from his constant abrasiveness and the anti-establishment remarks he makes every few minutes. In this version of the origin story Victor gets lost in
the negative zone Planet Zero, and emerges a year later with metal skin, telekinetic powers, and a thirst for the destruction of Earth. He’s a cynical anti-government protester given the ability to finally tear it all down. It’s… a halfway-decent motivation for a villain, better than nothing, but there’s nothing to make Victor sympathetic to the viewer, and again, there could have been. Victor’s anger at the world could have been understandable. His anger at the team and especially Reed could have been justifiable–they did sort of abandon him on Planet Zero, after all. His inevitable turn to the dark side could’ve been less inevitable–it could’ve been a direct result of Reed’s selfishness, or Victor’s own determination to be disillusioned.
None of that happened. The villain tries to blow up the world with a beam of energy in the sky, and the heroes stop him. And the whole mess of a climax is poorly lit, to boot.
Last in the list of main characters is Ben Grimm, the Thing. Ben is Reed’s childhood best friend, despite the two of them not really having much in common. When Reed gets the science internship of his dreams, he and Ben part ways, and Ben completely drops out of the story–until Reed drunk-dials him and talks him into coming along on the trip to Planet Zero, because… well, they’ve always been friends.
To put it another way: whoever wrote this story, or whoever edited it, had no idea how to work Ben Grimm into the narrative, and had to rely on the flimsiest of excuses to have him go to
the negative zone Planet Zero and gain powers.
(I don’t know why they bothered; Sue Storm didn’t ever visit Planet Zero and she still got powers, and that’s never explained. The segment where the whole crew gets superpowers is just incredibly weak.)
Again, this is frustrating because there are a lot of ways that Ben’s characterization could have gone. He’s depicted in this adaptation as a latchkey kid with a family that’s unsupportive at best and abusive at worst; did he latch onto Reed because Reed was the first person he ever met that made him feel wanted? Ben isn’t a man of science and clearly doesn’t completely understand what he and Reed are doing–but he still spent seven or eight years hanging out with Reed despite “not getting it”. He’d have to have some brains for that, or maybe he picked up some baseline knowledge from Reed along the way. That idea could’ve led to a narrative thread where Ben is underestimated, by himself and others, until something galvanizes him into reaching his full potential.
Failing that, there’s still the fact that Reed is a selfish friend, and Ben could’ve been a foil to him, or the one to give him a wake-up call about how hurtful his actions are. This… seems like the storyline the filmmakers might have been attempting, but the lack of real characterization for Reed or Ben and the lack of consistency in the editing makes it fall flat. The only consistent character trait that Ben displays is anger at Reed for abandoning him, which conveniently dissipates after the battle with Doom. Even Ben’s classic rivalry with Johnny Storm is absent except for a one-liner at the tail end of the film.
At this point, you might be wondering why I’ve written so much about every character in this movie. I’ve spent a lot of time just recapping what each character does, and offering suggestions on how their personalities and progressions through the plot could be improved. This sometimes seems like an exercise in futility, even to me, but I keep doing it, because good stories mean a lot to me. I believe that the heart of a good movie is an engaging story.
As computer-generated special effects get better and cheaper, it seems that more and more movies are relying solely on flashy VFX to sell tickets. This is fine in moderation–who doesn’t want to sit back and watch photo-realistic dinosaurs or apes slug it out every so often? But when a film substitutes VFX for a real story, more often than not it falls flat. I am firmly of the belief that no matter how much CGI is in a movie, no matter how many superpowers or robots or dinosaurs factor into the plot, a film will not work unless the underlying story boils down to a simple, human story, with the protagonist learning and changing and arcing as things happen. Without a strong story at its core, a movie will feel empty no matter how good the special effects look.
A good example of this is one of my favorite movies of all time, Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim‘s plot mostly consists of fifteen-story mech robots and lizard-y Godzilla knockoffs trying to punch each other into the ground, all rendered in breathtaking CGI. But that’s not all there is to the story. With the CGI monster fights removed, Pacific Rim is about a veteran recovering from the traumatic death of his brother during wartime. It’s also about a young woman balancing her relationship with her adoptive father and her desire to avenge her dead family. Pacific Rim has very hopeful, very human stories at its core, and this is what makes it good. It’s a fun movie to watch, but it also has an element that stays with you after the last bomb goes off and the alien monsters all blow up.
Fantastic Four lacks this central story. (A lot of mediocre blockbusters do, really, some of the worst offenders being Jurassic World and Batman v. Superman.) And without a meaningful arc for any of the characters, the movie ultimately doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t teach the audience anything; it doesn’t even really make them feel anything. So the audience doesn’t care.
A movie can survive cheesy acting and low-budget special effects. It can even survive shoddy directing or editing if the acting is good, and stale acting can be disguised by inspired editing. But no film can thrive without a story that connects with the audience and then goes somewhere and shows them something. Fantastic Four (2015) had… well, it had a lot of problems, but its biggest failing was that it had no story. And, as box office earnings and critical reviews showed, the movie suffered for it. Let it be a lesson. Let it teach us that beneath whatever gimmicks we come up with, movies must have stories, and characters must have arcs.