Opinion: The Fantastic Four and Gritty Superhero Movies
Hello, folks, and welcome to Outright Geekery! As we come to a close on the summer of 2015, it’s been a pretty great summer for movies, especially for nerds; between Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and Mad Max: Fury Road, we’ve had a pretty great time at the theater in recent months with all the superhero and genre movies. Sadly, though, it looks like a summer of good super hero movies is ending on a down note. As those of you who have been paying attention to the world of super hero movies already know, the general consensus about Fox’s new Fantastic Four movie is that it’s awful; perhaps not offensive or belligerent, but boring, tedious, and a chore to slog through. But I’m not writing today join the chorus of people shouting down the new film, though I’m certainly not going to defend it either. Rather, today I’m going to try to look at a particular aspect of the film that felt completely off to me: the tone. At some point early in the creative process, it seems that they decided to make the new Fantastic Four a gritty movie in the same vain as the Nolan Dark Knight movies. But in my opinion they shouldn’t have tried to ape The Dark Knight; they should have ripped off Guardians of the Galaxy instead.
Not to sound too arrogant or anything, but several of the other Outright Geeks and I (and indeed an awful lot people across the web) kind of saw this coming for a while now. Several months back when the teaser trailer first, we had an animated discussion in our local comic shop about how the trailer felt…off. The tone was oppressively dark and dire, and if not for the title card, one could hardly guess that it was even a movie about the Fantastic Four at all. Now, whenever there’s a brouhaha on the internet, or involving nerds in general, it’s usually best to take it with a grain of salt, as the high level of nitpicking involved tends to make mountains out molehills. In this case though, our initial impressions ended up being completely justified: the dark, gloomy feel of the trailer translated to a dark, gloomy feel for the movie.
No one is saying, of course, that superhero movies can’t be dark, contemplative, or gritty. An example of superhero movies that works great gritty and realistic, and the likely inspiration for the tone Fantastic Four took, was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But in the effort to make a movie in this style, Fox and the film’s writers seemed to have overlook a very important detail: The Dark Knight worked as a grim, harsh movie because Batman is a grim, harsh character. The members of the FF are not.
That isn’t to say that they aren’t complex or realistic; ever since their debut, the team has been defined by their foibles and dilemmas. This was a team the was far from perfect as they bickered with each other and, especially in the case of the Thing, had to deal with some pretty major downsides to their amazing powers. These are characters that have more than their fair share of somber moments, BUT (and this is important) this does not make them “dark” characters. The adventures of the Fantastic Four have always been colorful and outlandish, relishing in their fantastical nature. Ben Grimm is certainly a character with more than his fair share of problems, but they don’t stop him from being a good man who never thinks twice about doing the right thing. So while he’s a troubled character, he is not a dark one, nor are any of his compatriots.
And yet, in the early phases of this most recent movie, the powers that be decided that “dark” was exactly what they were going to be, making them a part of a recent trend of upbeat characters like Superman being saddled with gritty depictions like Man of Steel. I’m not trying to see that all superhero movies need to be popcorn flicks, or that gritty superhero movies need to go away entirely. But it would be nice to see them give these characters the tone that they need have rather than try to pigeonhole them into whatever tone they think is in vogue.
In the particular case of the Fantastic Four film, they would have been better served emulating the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, which used a template with a surprising amount of applicability to the FF’s strengths. Guardians featured a colorful cast of characters that didn’t quite fit the definition of traditional superheros, yet who still find themselves in a position to step up and do the right thing. They are far from perfect, and bicker among themselves quite a bit, but ultimately they all do the wall for each other the stakes are at their highest. Their adventures take them to some amazing locales, giving us plenty of opportunity to relish in the exotic nature of it all. But perhaps most importantly, the movie and characters have an edge to them while still being FUN.
In my opinion, this is the sort of thing an FF film should strive to be. You don’t want to make a traditional superhero film? That’s fine: There’s plenty of precedent for the team operating outside of that role (just look at Mark Waid’s run on the book). But one thing you should take liberty with is the tone. We did not need the new FF to be monotonous and angsty.
Moving forward with superhero movies continuing to expand and grow, there should be plenty of room for a number of different tones. But we need to make sure that the right characters are matched with the proper atmosphere. For characters like Batman or the Punisher, a dark, gritty tone is entirely appropriate. For characters like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, it’s completely off. Hopefully we’ll learn a valuable lesson from this recent misstep, and can look forward to more great movies in the future.