Studio interference has plagued the cinema since its earliest days. From MGM chopping Greed down to a fraction of its original length, to RKO mutilating The Magnificent Ambersons, to Harvey Weinstein’s re-editing antics (which Snowpiercer avoided at the cost of anything like a proper release), many films have been tweaked, meddled, and monkeyed with. Such is the case with Fantastic Four, whose own director bitterly claimed that the film being shown in theaters was a different–and inferior–film than the one he made.
But that’s when damage is done to a finished film. Other times, a film is compromised before it’s even shot–like Ant-Man, which lost its original director just before it was to begin filming. When the finished film managed not to be a disaster, it got surprisingly solid reviews and made decent (if not impressive) money. Fantastic Four, however, was shredded by critics and made less money than almost any superhero film since Iron Man kicked off the current wave of comic-book cinema.
For me, if Ant-Man isn’t quite as good as many have made it out to be, then Fantastic Four isn’t quite as bad. The former is far from a bad film and the latter far from a good one, but I’m most interested in examining them through the prism of the compromises made to get them onto the screen.
Spoilers: TW mental illness, ethnic stereotypes, etc.
Both films are fairly standard origin stories; Ant-Man deals with burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who’s tricked into working for scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who wants Scott to foil Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s former protégé who has appropriated a technology developed by Pym which can shrink people to the size of…well, an ant. Scott must shrink in order to save the day. Fantastic Four deals with Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), and Victor Domashev/Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who discover a means of teleporting to an alternate dimension, but an expedition gone wrong seemingly kills Victor and mutates the others. Another expedition a year later reveals Victor alive…and vengeful.
While admitting that tentpole blockbusters are not really shining examples of the auteur theory, so much about why these films fall short of their potential can traced back to their directors. In the case of Ant-Man, Edgar Wright was the original director, but he left shortly before shooting began due to “creative differences”, and was replaced by Peyton Reed. Now, Wright is a hell of a director; Hot Fuzz is one of my favorite comedies, and Scott Pilgrim is wonderfully inventive. Both show his skill for combining wild comedy and action spectacle.
But Reed’s directorial ingenuity probably reached its height with Down with Love, an homage to the Hudson-Day comedies of the 60s. His style doesn’t completely jibe with Wright’s sensibility, and the best comic scenes in Ant-Man are those where he seems to trust Wright’s script, like the moments when Luis (Michael Peña) is relating a story in his roundabout fashion, and we see within the flashbacks the characters lip-syncing to Luis’ rambling narration. It’s a funny touch which makes these expository moments far more entertaining.
And yet other comic elements don’t work so well–like the overall character of Luis. While I wouldn’t call Wright politically incorrect, he’s never been overly concerned with political correctness, and it’s possible Luis wouldn’t have worked much better with him at the helm. Certainly, he’s a problematic character in the film as is, being a rather hamfisted Hispanic stereotype–for God’s sake, he drives a van and the horn blares “La Cucaracha” (that said, Peña does give a spirited performance–also, here’s an article criticizing the character, but the comments section has some interesting defenses).
The action scenes themselves are well-enough done, the use of microphotography and special effects being fairly impeccable; I imagine Wright would’ve given them a little more verve, but that’s harder to prove. As it is, they’re fairly inventive and prove the film’s most genuinely unique aspect. So if Reed’s direction is generally adequate but ultimately unremarkable, it makes sense that the finished film can be described in the same terms.
And then there’s Josh Trank and Fantastic Four. Trank came to prominence with Chronicle (which I’ve never seen but have heard good things about), and went straight into big-budget filmmaking, but not without a few hiccups. And while initially it seemed as if Trank got a raw deal from the studio, subsequent revelations suggest as many of the film’s issues came from Trank’s behavior on set (apparently, he was on particularly bad terms with Kate Mara), as came from Fox’s decision to order reshoots and heavy re-editing, the result being that the film’s heavily criticized third act was nothing like Trank’s original design.
Certainly, Fantastic Four is clearly a profoundly compromised work, and it’s the scenes which actually work which make the compromises all the more obvious. Take the scene where Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Victor first visit the alternate dimension (here named “Zero”). It’s a rather lovely scene, well-designed and gracefully scored, and reminiscent of 50s science fiction. Or the scenes immediately after, where a disoriented Reed tries to rescue Ben from the rubble of the laboratory, discovering his mutation in the process, and how the team discovers their various mutations. It may not achieve the body-horror vibe that may have been intended, but it still does a solid job of establishing their conditions. And the treatment of Ben Grimm-as-The-Thing, emphasizing his frustration and bitterness at becoming a rock-man, hints at a more emotionally complex film that may have existed at some point.
Even the widely condemned third act isn’t without its merits. Despite Victor’s (now Dr. Doom’s) rather thin motivations and perfunctory arc, his means of killing those around him with sheer mind power is quietly brutal, and during the climactic battle, Reed states (or rather screams) the obvious in a way which echoes the aforementioned vintage sci-fi.
But the moments which work, which show some kind of vision behind the camera, are mixed in with a great many which are generic, indistinct, overwrought, or clearly just meant to smooth over the manifest meddlings. Characters and their connections are half-baked; Jamie Bell, who’s quickly becoming a favorite actor of mine (he was in both Nymphomaniac and Snowpiercer last year, and was especially excellent in the former), has distressingly little to do as Ben and is buried beneath visual and sound effects as The Thing, while Michael B. Jordan, who got a Best Actor nomination from me for his moving work in Fruitvale Station, is stuck with a generic “rebellious youth” role as Johnny, being introduced with a street race which has nothing to do with anything. Even a small moment where he and Sue playfully jostle each other comes off as contrived, because the finished film is too worked-over to allow for spontaneity.
The acting in each film is a decent reflection of their respective geneses. Ant-Man is actually fairly well performed, from Rudd’s affably amusing presence, to Douglas’ wry paternalism and Stoll’s obsessive determination (though, more on that in a moment). Even Evangeline Lilly, as Pym’s daughter Hope, does a pretty good job (I wonder if they were going for something with that Louise Brooks bob), despite being kept out of the action for rather tired and predictable reasons (and having a strange, last-minute shipping with Scott which just isn’t set up well at all). Bobby Cannavale has been popping up a lot lately, and while I’d say he was better in Spy, he affirms his reliability here, though Judy Greer is yet again stuck with a tiny role than only serves to remind you how underused she is.
On the other hand, Fantastic Four‘s acting is something of a mixed bag. Owen Judge’s performance as the young Reed bothered me initially, but the point was advanced that Reed was being portrayed as autistic (which he is in the comics), and Judge’s performance was an accurate portrayal. It’s unclear, however, if Teller was trying to play the character accurately and the nuances were lost in the meddling, or if the turmoil on the set kept him from honing his portrayal. As it is, the apparently bitter fight that Trank won with the studio over his casting seems like a wasted effort. I’m not sure Teller was really the best choice to begin with, but under the circumstances, it’s hard to tell.
Mara, being the target of Trank’s abuse, makes little impression and tends to fade into the background; Jordan, however, does bring Johnny’s insouciant arrogance to life as much as he is able. Bell, as noted, is very much wasted, but there are glimmers of what could have been. Kebbell’s performance is hampered a bit by Victor’s vague characterization (he has possessive feelings towards Sue, but they’re barely dealt with, so that when he mentions his infatuation with her near the end, it feels like yet another vestige of whatever this film used to be), but he’s got enough grotesque charisma to balance it out.
The only other performance worth mention, sadly, is the worst, and indeed at times one of the worst of the year: Reg E. Cathey’s take on Dr. Frederick Storm. Maybe his overwrought, portentous delivery was meant as another aspect of Trank’s nostalgic homages, but he’s often painful to watch.
The writing in both films is problematic. Ant-Man has taken a lot of heat for keeping Hope on the sidelines, and certainly, Pym’s reasoning that “it’s too dangerous” and “I can’t lose you” feels like a pretty tired dodge, even as a mid-credits scene reveals that Hope will indeed get to participate in future adventures. But–maybe because I was prepared for it–this didn’t bother me as much as, say, the writing for Luis. Also criticized (most notably by a close friend of mine) is the depiction of Cross’ mounting mental illness, the result of exposure to the chemicals which drive the miniaturization process. It’s haphazardly handled and seems driven more by needs of a given scene than by any desire to create a coherent character. Cross, spurned by his mentor, has plenty of motivation to become a villain. The mental illness angle merely makes things more complicated, and very unnecessarily so.
And the attempts at universe-building didn’t work much for me. Scott asks Pym why he doesn’t ask the Avengers to help him, and later Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) makes an extended appearance, trying to foil Scott’s heist of an Avengers facility. Howard Stark also appears in a 1989-set prologue where Pym refuses to share the “Pym particle”, which is necessary to power the Ant-Man suit. All of this feels ham-handed to me, and even though it’s nice to see Mackie, I can’t think of any real justification for his appearance besides his being underused in Age of Ultron. How much of the script was Wright’s original design and how much was Marvel-mandated is unclear, but the serious scenes definitely lack the spark of the funny ones.
Fantastic Four’s script is harder to judge. The editing and re-editing is clearly the bigger issue here, and while the script has its issues (the hazy characterizations can’t be entirely blamed on the meddling), I don’t recall any actual dialogue that was notably bad…the delivery was the bigger issue. Certainly the story is nothing original, and the third act is obviously truncated, but who bears the blame for that is less and less clear as the whole ugly story is slowly told. (I will say, though, having The Thing’s “It’s clobberin’ time” catchphrase coined by his abusive older brother is an abominably wrong-headed touch.)
Technically, Ant-Man is just dandy and Fantastic Four isn’t too bad (aside from some obvious overdubbing–and Kate Mara’s wig, which I never really noticed but which has been the most criticized piece of production design since American Sniper‘s fake baby), but…
You know, I’ll be honest with you, this has been an incredibly hard review to write. These aren’t thematically rich films which allow for digging and interpretation, and they aren’t disasters which command detailed mockery. One is a film which managed not to suck, but doesn’t really rock, although it’s pretty much watchable. The other is a film which was sent out into the world like some kind of mangled Brundle-film, though not like the end-stage Brundle-telepod-kill-me-now stage…more like the I-can-only-eat-what-I-spit-acid-on stage, where it’s pathetic and sad and off-putting, but not so much so that it actually breaks your heart. It’s more laughable than Brundle, to be sure.
I’m reminded of Ebert’s review of The Master, where he praised the acting but said, “but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air”. But where Ebert found fault with that film’s vagueness, I find it the ideal tone for conveying the mindset of poor Freddie Quell, who’s so continuously drunk (on concoctions which have probably caused far more brain damage than normal booze) that his life has become a sodden daydream, with moments which stand out sharply and moments which drift into half-reality or whole fantasy.
The more I try to reach for Fantastic Four, the more my own hand closes on air. Maybe it’s because I see so many movies anymore that my memory is overtaxed, maybe it’s because I don’t get enough sleep, maybe it’s because the film was processed into a barely releasable form, where a few strong moments stand out, but the rest becomes a vague blur of generic science fiction and half-formed characterizations. The best possible review would be a blow-by-blow account, but what’s the point? It’s got too much going for it–or was at least too much marred–to be condemned as a great disaster, and while some will doubtless pick out and praise the moments which really work, the moments which show what might have been, I suggest just watching some of the films Trank was trying to homage instead.
I don’t know if this review came out the way I wanted to or not. How do you write about mediocrity? The great and the terrible I can write about. But this…this is just–
Score: Ant-Man: 68/100; Fantastic Four: 55/100 (I had it as 56, but I’ll drop it the extra point)