07 August 2015

Road to a Blockbuster: A Gift from Fant4stic Shit

We're almost approaching the end of our great journey to catalog the critical, cultural, and commercial potential of every big film that's premiered this summer. It's August now, which is usually an underrated month. Studios tend to dump films here that they don't feel have a ton of chance to succeed, but usually that means it's full of some really great and weird films. There's usually a late-breaking comedy like Superbad (2007) or an undercover action flick like Scott Pilgrm vs. The World (2010). It's really Michael Cera's month, I guess.

Anyway, we've got four movies getting big releases, two of which are really insignificant, one of which is just as insignificant, but is pretty interesting and getting good reviews, and the last one is a huge blow-out Superhero event. So let's take a gander in that order:
You know, British people really do love sheep.

First we have Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), which is something that no one has ever heard of. Shaun the Sheep is a fairly popular TV show in the UK, a spin-off of the equally quirky Wallace and Gromit line of claymation cartoons. What it's doing in the United States I don't know, but it's by all means a solid film. I'm not sure how they will connect with modern kids, but I guess if some dumb wieners like sheep, that's all they really need. In many ways this is the polar opposite of something like Minions (2015), lacking the rapidity and flashiness of American CGI, but that doesn't necessarily doom Shaun the Sheep Movie. Adults will probably like it more, and the more mellow kids who don't want nebulous yellow dildos screaming in their face might be on board as well. This summer's been pretty successful with kids movies, and this is really coming right on the heels of a big one. It's not the worst choice for a lazy Summer Afternoon, but I can't see this tearing up the bank.

Next we have Ricki and the Flash (2015), which is another film I just found out existed. Nothing about this seems appealing to me, although the participation of actress Meryl Streep, writer Diablo Cody, and director Jonathan Demme are all in themselves fascinating. It's hard to think that you could mix those three in a pot and it would come out shitty, but less has been done in Hollywood with more talent. This will get points from the adult crowd who is so over things blowing up, but there's no way this catches on with anyone else. Having said that, adult crowds sometimes push August through pretty well, so it could have a little momentum. Plus, Streep will probably get an Oscar nomination out of this.

Moving on to more mainstream films, we have The Gift (2015), which is the latest in an extremely long list of movies called The Gift. This is also somehow doing really well by the critics, which ought to be the final push for anyone on the fence. Everything about this movie is bizarre, actually. It's kind of dropped out of no where with an odd yet suspenseful marketing campaign. It is also coming from the head of writer/director/star Joel Edgerton, who is an actor I've always kind of liked but never taken seriously. Maybe he actually has some solid talent, subtly playing against type here as well as directing the hell out of this movie.

The Gift also features Jason Bateman, who seems odd here and Rebecca Hall, who seems to have more settled into this as her element. Hall weirdly feels like she's been in everything lately, although her most high profile roles, in Iron Man 3 (2013) and Transcendence (2014) have been mostly wasted, the former from giving her nothing to do and the latter from just being a terrible movie. I actually like Transcendence more than 90% of the Internet, mostly for the big ideas it brings up, although it's bogged down by a lot of the character turns just didn't make any damn sense.

I actually really don't know what The Gift is about - I guess Edgerton plays a weirdo from Bateman's High School who stalks him up years later and maybe kidnaps his Rebecca Hall wife for some reason? I dunno. Early reviews painting Bateman as a Michael Bluth-set-in-the-real-world-ish bully who tormented Edgerton is an interesting play. Who cares, it's apparently an outside-the-box thriller, which you really don't see...ever. My guess is we'll remember this in ten years as The Gift that didn't show Katie Holmes' titties and was sort of good.

So, after all this, we have Fant4stic (2015). Or Fantastic Four, because that stylized version is going to be terrible to spell from here on out. Here's where I'm at with this - early reviews apparently indicate that this thing is terrible, and I really couldn't care one way or another. I don't think many people do. There is such a tremendous undercurrent of apathy towards this thing that it truly doesn't matter if this succeeds or not. Nobody is plugging away for the Fox-led "X-Men / Fantastic Four" shared universe. No one gives a shit about that!

The issue here is simply the seeming unviability of the Fantastic Four as a team on the big screen, which makes no sense because they're really Marvel's mainstay. Or at least, they were for about the first fifty years of their existence, until recently when Marvel canned their title and started excluding the characters from their biggest crossover events. It's hard not to see this as a dig at Fox in favor of the characters they still control cinematically, especially when they've started favoring the much shittier Inhumans over the X-Men as well.
Will we finally get to see
The Thing's rock-hard dong?!

The point is that the Fantastic Four have been at the heart of some really...fantastic stories. The characters link up with each other so well, each having an incredibly distinctive personality, Sue Storm a bastion for those who rail against the lack of good female superhero leads (side note - Marvel has a ridiculous amount of strong female characters...they're just all X-Men), and really cool iconography, such as the simple fact that each of their powers lines up with a classical element. Why hasn't this worked in a movie yet?

Well, the first movie did. Say what you want about it, but Fantastic Four (2005) completely nailed the corny tone of the comics and largely got the characters right as well. The casting is spot-on for everyone except for Alba and it mostly succeeds as an innocuous, family friendly, hungover early Sunday afternoon movie. I can't even tell you how many times I've mindlessly had Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) on in the background while I struggled to find a reason to keep living after a wild kegger. I'm always curious about why people think movies suck, and these are great examples. So let's talk about that a little bit.

Some of the backlash against Fantastic Four has to be due to the fact that 2005 also saw the release of Batman Begins, and wasn't that far removed from Spider-Man 2 (2004). Both these films treated their subjects realistically, with emotional density and serious-minded storytelling. Spider-Man 2 did a spectacular job of blending in just the right level of goofiness that should come with superhero films, and although a realistic treatment of a guy who dresses up like a bat is still laughable to me, and it's irritating that Batman Begins started this trend of forcing supposedly organic derivations for all kinds of random wacky cultural iconography, it's still a great piece of cinema. Its sequels survive largely on iconic character work, clever writing, and stunningly good direction. None of that is present in both earlier Fantastic Four films, which are content to be goofy and silly without a ton of reason for more mature movie lovers to take them seriously.

Now, I didn't like Fantastic Four when it first came out, and I don't think I even saw the sequel until years later, probably on F/X or something, and neither really holds up. More often things happen because they're funny or because they help plot, and there's little if any motivation for Doom to do any of the things he does in either. That brings me to my next point - how has the best villain in Marvel history never had a good presence on screen?

Julian McMahon was an inspired choice in balancing swagger, jealousy, and intellect, but it really loses you when you see his face. In fifty years of comics, adult Doom's face has never been shown, but in his first major movie they went ahead and plastered it all over for the first 70 minutes? What the hell? It's not like I am a purist for comics, but when you have a great character lying in front of you, and so much of that character is summed up in the shame he feels towards his face, why change it? I was pumped to see the Mandarin re-jiggered in Iron Man 3 and even the hugely simplified Thor origin, and I totally don't care about Black Johnny Storm. Michael B. Jordan is easily the black version of Chris Evans, and probably better for that role. All of these were improvements. Making Doom into a whiny corporate stooge is...awful.

I don't know why both films found it necessary to weave Dr. Doom into the Fantastic Four's origin. I read ahead about the new film, so I guess you ought to skip the next couple paragraphs if you're really invested, but this new flick follows the same stupid path. It merely substitutes another dimension for cosmic rays. I don't understand why a film is made explicitly to re-imagine an origin of a superhero team that really only commits to tonal shifts (away from...being fun) and keeps the same general structure. Doom here isn't a business guy but a hacker, played by Toby "Agenor" Kebbell, which doesn't seem spot on at all. This brief scene actually makes me a little pumped up, which if you click it, you'll see that it's been taken down. That's really emblematic of the marketing for this movie. The one thing that I saw that actually made me want to see the film and share with others has been taken down. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

Anyway, the scene was basically a skinny, weird looking Dr. Doom walking through some kind of base, and people were shooting at him, which he was deflecting with a green energy shield (MAGIC?!) and he was then just killing people, presumably with his mind or something. See, Doom has a pretty sweet origin in the comics that has always been ignored on screen, possibly because it's long and complicated. It wouldn't be truly terrible to just skip all this, though, and simply introduce this sheer badassery. The iconography is so strong that you know he's a villain, and his simple jealous rivalry with Richards wouldn't be hard to explore in an active way rather than through flashbacks or exposition.

To sum up this extensive long complaint about the Fantastic Four, it's a true shame that no one has been able to get this to work on screen, because while the original comic is mostly fluff, which the 2005 film was true to, it was never going to land with audiences in a meaningful way. A hardcore, gritty reboot isn't going to truly connect, either, because unlike Batman, or Daredevil, or even Man of Steel (2013), there's nothing remotely realistic about the Fantastic Four. They specialize in goofy, interdimensional, intergalactic science and super weird pulp shit. More than any other property they need the touch that only Marvel itself has achieved in cinema. Something actually like Ant-Man (2015)'s tone would actually be perfect. Maybe we'll get one in 2025.

That wouldn't be too soon because when chugging at full speed, Fantastic Four fixes Marvel's two most serious character concerns right now - lack of strong villains and lack of strong female characters. It's an eternally frustrating property because it's so close to getting everything right but in the end it just whiffs and gets everything wrong.

So that's that. Which of these four shitty movies will you see this weekend?

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