Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fantastic Four

Short version: Much better than I expected. Admittedly, I was expecting something along the lines of Ang Lee's Hulk, so that's not a high bar to clear. It was still not a *good* movie, but it wasn't a bad movie, either. It's a fun way to pass a couple of hours, but it's not something that anyone involved will brag about.

So, Sony was under the gun to produce a new FF movie or give up the license. Looking at this result, that was obvious. The script is tired and formulaic. It lacks humor, pathos, surprises, or a love of source material. It does do a few things right, though. Ninety percent of this movie is setting up the franchise. The world-building is interesting, and the techno-babble is satisfying. Also, a lot of the reactions and motivations feel genuine, if shallow. Doom is suitably arrogant, Johnny is a reckless speed demon. Reed is caught up in the "can I" with little thought for "should I". It's little wonder that having those three driving the project there would be an accident.

The one thing that really saves the script is its focus on relationships. The bond between Reed and Ben. The father-son tension between Johnny and Franklin. The unrequited crush Victor has on Sue. The rivalry between Reed and Victor. The clash of visions between Franklin and Harvey Allen (the suit who provides the money and interfaces with the military). None of it is magical, but it crafts a fabric that holds the story together. The plot continues to move forward because the actions of one person can't help but motivate the others.

Unfortunately, it's hard to care about them. Each of the characters is largely one-dimensional. The young Reed Richards is a misunderstood boy genius (though he reminds me much more of the boy who built a nuclear reactor in his garden shed than, say, Tesla). Victor von Doom is also a misunderstood boy genius, but he favors brooding in the darkness, acting out, and blaming authority for his problems. Sue is brilliant, and "sees patterns everywhere", which seems to be how screenwriters think smart people work. Other than trying to please her father, she, um, likes music. Because patterns. Johnny Storm is young, rebellious, and obsessed with speed. Ben Grimm is a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks who likes being near people who are doing important things. And those aren't just thumbnail sketches. For each of them, that describes pretty much their entire character "arc". There are no quirks. There is no growth. With the exception of one crazy night, none of them even really demonstrate agency.

One of the really interesting choices the film makes is to spend a LOT of time establishing the characters, both before and after the event that gives them their powers. Enough that the final battle is very anti-climactic. It almost literally goes like this: We must stop him! Punch and fail, punch and fail, punch and fail. Guys, we have to work as a team! Team punch wins! It was more like what I'd expect from Power Rangers than a big budget superhero movie. Especially as only a couple of the tactics were even remotely clever or interesting.

Let's see, feminism. Well, it fails the Bechdel Test in the most spectacular way possible. I honestly think that the only female character other than Sue who even gets a line is Ben Grimm's mom. And it fails the Mako Mori Test because nobody in the film actually gets a character arc. Sue is not a bad character, as such things go. She is an equal partner of the team building the quantum gate. No one ever even remotely suggests that she can't pull her weight because of her gender. Her outfits are not sexualized (and she doesn't end up with surprise nakedness, so that's one up on FF2). In the big fight, there is a suggestion that she may actually have the strongest powers of the group. She certainly pulls off a couple impressive and clever tricks. I'd give it a passing grade, but just barely.

One of the nice bits, particularly from a feminist point of view, is that Sue and Reed don't inevitably fall together. They flirt, and there are obvious seeds of their future romance. But she does not fall into his arms as a prize for his heroism. She is not inexorably drawn to him because of his overwhelming aura of Protagonist Man. There is not a lot of ridiculous competition between Reed and Victor with Sue as the trophy with fluttering eyelashes. So that bit's good.

Of course, one of the big stories leading into the movie was the decision to make Johnny Storm black. It has almost zero effect on the film, other than a throwaway line to explain why Sue is a Storm but not black. (And no, they don't simply say that she has to be white or she couldn't marry Reed, because that would be racist.) It's nice to see people of color included. And it's kind of nice for it to be a non-issue, and not have it be a whole sub-plot. But for as much flak as they took when they announced the casting decision, you'd have thought it would have been some kind of plot point.

The final weird element for me was that I never saw Stan Lee. And I don't see him listed on IMDB. Did I miss a news story where he's not doing cameos in non-Disney Marvel movies? Also, there is no final scene after the credits. What's up with that? This is a Marvel movie, isn't it? Weird.

My final recommendation is to see it if you want to have fun. It is definitely in that category of "good movie to enjoy, but you aren't missing anything if you skip it". Better than most of the X-titles, not as good as most of the MCU, pretty much at the level of the Spiderman movies. Which does make it better than the first FF movie, admittedly.

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