There are so many thinkpieces about Fox’s Arrested Development spin-off movie Fantastic Four that every opinion about what went wrong is represented. It’s the studio’s fault, it’s Josh Trank’s fault, the characters aren’t that interesting to begin with, the ghost of Tom Rothman haunted the halls, there weren’t enough terrible wigs, and so on. You can pick your poison.
Yet regardless of the tone or the origination of certain ideas (Trank, Fox, Mark Millar…), what’s most fascinating about the fourth film adventure with the team (counting bootleg video) is that they decided to go with an origin story.
That makes sense for several reasons:
- It’s only a decently known superhero team that’s had declining comic book sales
- There are two recent movies to contend with
- This is a new group of actors, so
- We need to see them become the heroes, and
- Transitioning from normal to super can be dramatically powerful
Except most of those things don’t make sense anymore. All except the last one. The more I think about it, the more utterly insane it was to make another origin story.
The truth is that “Fantastic Four” is in the cultural landscape, so there’s no need to reintroduce characters. Like knowing that Darth Vader is Luke and Leia’s pops without seeing Empire, the stretchy-led super group is one of those things you just know about, even if you don’t really know much about them. Even in the most extreme cases where a percentage of the global audience for a Fantastic Four movie doesn’t know who they are, the decision to show an origin story is a decision to trade precious cinematic minutes (hours?) to replay information that other movies and books have covered.
What’s worse, characters like the Fantastic Four don’t have a particularly rare origin tale. Science happens, science happens badly, people can now turn invisible or light themselves on fire. Now, if they had a novel origin, something we’d genuinely never seen before (or something that could be shown in an innovative way), that would be a different story, but barring that, there’s baggage. It’s worse when, echoing Marc Webb’s Spidey series, you promise us a totally different version of the characters only to (seemingly) cave midstream to the echo chamber of fans who can’t handle a costume color alteration, let alone a (gasp!) name and occupational change.
The only saving grace would be the narrative power of watching people we can relate to deal with something we can’t. That’s where the decision to craft an origin story makes the most sense. It’s also where engaging the director of Chronicle makes sense, and where his fascination with their evolution makes sense.
It’s also unwieldy to scrap an origin story altogether because you run the risk of making your reboot feel like a sequel to movies that never existed. Or a sequel where all the actors have been replaced. We, as fans, have to recognize the near-impossible position this puts studios in – or, rather, the near-impossible position that studios choose to put themselves in by rehashing the same recognizable figures.
I’m also not saying that these characters are somehow unadaptable, but there’s definitely a difficulty in bringing them to life in film (proven by three recent movies). That might be due to the origin itself. They are reborn as superheroes specifically because they meddle with science, and that can be a tricky starting point for people who ultimately come to fight crime. There’s no immediate, clear link between how they become super and why they fight.
People consider wealth to be Batman’s super power, but his real power comes from a determination to stop people from being killed like his parents were. He fights crime pathologically. Similarly, Spider-Man is battling personal demons of allowing a criminal to kill the father figure in his life. Iron Man has to see that his life’s work is evil by becoming victim to it and choosing to change. Gaining powers does not automatically make people want to use them to stop evildoers. It’s not enough that the world be at stake.
Victor Frankenstein, another man who meddles with science only to gain Godlike power and realize disaster, spends his life trying to track down the monster he created because of his guilt. That’s a compelling force, but it’s hard to spread it over four people. With the Fantastic Four, you end up with a group of individual outcasts who need their own individual motivations for teaming up to battle the bad (see: Guardians of the Galaxy).
Returning to the origin story is a matter of studios simultaneously relishing the importance of existing intellectual property and misunderstanding its scope. Even with as popular and engaging a superhero as Spider-Man, Sony still erred by bogging us down out of the gate with what felt the same, particularly because we’d just seen the character a few years earlier. When studios reboot these properties, they are introducing us to people we’ve already met. That’s a tricky prospect, and it’s clearly easy to get wrong.
Plus, audiences are savvy. We know that these movies are getting made primarily because of the potential money they can earn, so there’s an even greater impetus on filmmakers (including at the studio level) to prove to us why we’re seeing these characters at this time on this adventure. On top of that, it’s hard to understand why studios would bombard us with a dozen different trailers setting us up for a story only to spend half an hour ushering us into it when the house lights go down. In a lot of ways, movie trailers (and endless BTS shots and advertising) have replaced the first act. Not to mention, you know, that everyone already knows how the Fantastic Four becomes the Fantastic Four.
That said, I really hope that the inevitable 2018 reboot The Amazing Fantastic Four is an origin story. I also hope the origin lasts no longer than ten minutes so we can shake hands and get to the point. Either that, or they show us something we truly haven’t seen before. Buck the canon. Entertain us.
The bottom line to this sarcastically-headlined article is this: you know that Fox will make the re-reboot an origin story. Studios seem addicted to them, uninterested in learning the box office lessons of middling results and unconcerned with questioning whether we really need another origin story so soon after the last one simply because new actors are claiming to be old characters. It is a disastrous default position for them.
One of these days a studio is going to promise us something different, and they’ll have the brass buttons to go through with it. When they do, it has the potential to be fantastic.