‘Fantastic Four’: In Defense of Josh Trank

     August 11, 2015

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Fantastic Four is not a good movie and there’s absolutely no denying that, but does Josh Trank really deserve all this flak and backlash? He’s the director so he certainly needs to be held accountable to a degree, but it also wouldn’t be fair for Fantastic Four to ruin his career and after all that’s transpired over the past year, I fear that’s where things are heading.

HOW DID THINGS GET SO BAD?

When news broke that Trank scored the Fantastic Four gig, I was absolutely thrilled. Not only had he just wowed the world with a quality first feature that hit it big with critics and at the box office, but that first feature just happened to be a low budget superhero movie. Why wouldn’t Fox want him to helm a Fantastic Four reboot? As screenwriter Max Landis pointed out in tweets regarding the whole Fantastic Four debacle, the stars aligned for Chronicle, which rarely ever happens, but even if everything coming together was a total fluke, the movie still proved that Trank knows exactly how to deliver a thoughtful, riveting and highly unique narrative in an especially engaging manner.

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Image via 20th Century Fox


After Fox locked Trank, the writer rotation began. First we got Jeremy Slater, then about seven months later, Seth Grahame-Smith was brought in to polish the script and, at some point, Michael Green and T.S. Nowlin were involved as well. Then in October 2013 things imploded because that’s when news broke that Fox brought in Simon Kinberg to do a “significant” rewrite. Right then and there it became increasingly evident that things weren’t going particularly well and it didn’t seem like it had anything to do with Trank.

Even when the film went into production, the script wasn’t 100%. While shooting, Michael B. Jordan revealed that the script was still evolving. Is that a bad sign? Not necessarily. Look at how things came together for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie admitted he was writing scenes mere days before he had to shoot them and he still wound up with a stellar finished feature.

A pretty significant red flag popped up merely a week after Jordan’s comments when Fox opted out of bringing Fantastic Four to Comic-Con 2014. Yes, perhaps they made the decision to skip SDCC due to scheduling issues, but based on Jordan’s comments, it seemed more likely that the studio might not have known how to present the movie just yet. Things got even more worrisome when Fox uprooted the movie from its original June 16th release date and gave it the August 7th slot instead. Guardians of the Galaxy did hit it big in August just one year prior, but the month is still widely considered a dumping ground, so when you give a problem project an August debut date, it doesn’t bode well for the full feature.

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Image via Kate Mara


It was also pretty alarming when January 2015 rolled around and we still didn’t have a single promotional item for the film. No image, no teaser, nothing. No matter what reason the studio had for doing so, it came across as though they were hiding the movie from the public and, naturally, that stirred even more negativity. Fox smoothed things over a bit with a decent first trailer, but after that, the marketing campaign devolved into a lifeless repetition – the same footage being packaged and re-packaged in different formats. Making matters even worse, amidst all this uncertainty, news broke that Trank left the Star Wars anthology film. Whether Trank exited because he truly wanted to pursue original creative opportunities or not, when you pair everything that had been going down with Fantastic Four with that news, it’s hard not to connect the dots and just assume Trank got the boot.

After so many months of bad press and bad buzz, things only got worse for Fantastic Four and for Trank when the movie actually came out. Not only does Fantastic Four have an abysmal 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, but Trank essentially put another nail in the coffin by tweeting that he once had “a fantastic version” of the movie a year ago. Let’s say Trank really did lose the Star Wars gig because of his rumored bad behavior and the quality of Fantastic Four. If that was the case, odds are, he’d have a tough time securing another studio job for a while. But, I wouldn’t say landing another big project would have been impossible. However, by posting that tweet, Trank essentially turned his back on the film and Fox. How could any studio trust him after doing something like that?

THE MOVIE ITSELF

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Image via Empire


I was hoping to make this section of the article strictly about the quality of the final product, but with all the “he said, she said” rumors floating around, it’s become nearly impossible to know what parts of the project are purely Trank’s, what came from the studio and what parts are a mix of the two, so bear with me.

It’s pretty clear that Trank was always intent on making a grounded superhero movie that focused less on the heroes using their powers and more on their need to come to terms with having them. I think that’s a brilliant idea, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t executed well. Had Trank picked up the pace a bit in the first half of the movie and created stronger personal relationships between the main players, I bet there would have been enough dramatic tension for viewers to feel connected and care. Trouble is, all we get are surface level relationships and wooden performances so the whole first half of the film is just flat out boring. I’ve spoken to a ton of friends who caught Fantastic Four over the weekend and the large majority complained that it didn’t deliver what they’d expect from a superhero movie – folks getting powers and then putting them to use in riveting battle sequences. It’s a very valid point, but I’d like to bet that no one would be complaining had Trank managed to make the shuttle-building portion of the film more rousing.

Making matters even worse, I suspect all of this talk of Fox cutting main action sequences and hijacking the edit bay from Trank are true because a good deal of plot points make absolutely no sense and you can really feel the absence of what could have been especially interesting portions of the film. The biggest problem for me was the one-year jump between the four being rushed into Area 57 and Reed’s return. That right there could and should have been the meat of the movie.

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Image via 20th Century Fox


Why did Reed even leave the facility? Sure, he may have been terrified, but up until that point, everything he did made him come across as a loyal person who would never abandon his friends. I want to know what made him think that leaving the facility was the right choice, I want to know exactly how he planned to fix the issue, and perhaps most important of all, I want to see the inner struggle. And the same goes for Ben, too. I don’t want to hear him verbally abuse Reed over and over again for leaving. I want to see him coming to terms with the fact that Reed is really gone and see how he uses his new government assignments to fill the void.

I read the Fantastic Four press notes before seeing the film to prep for the press day the other week and was shocked by how much was discussed in the notes that wasn’t reflected in the final cut of the film. So much of the notes are about how a primary goal was to convey that the transformation isn’t a “great gift” but rather, “a loss of control of their bodies.” We do see hints of that in the second half of the film, but it’s also fairly evident that that idea might have been pushed aside. In the notes, producer Hutch Parker highlighted, “For example, Johnny is suffering through the fear of thinking he’s being consumed by fire.” We see him burning uncontrollably at one point, but I most certainly did not get the impression that that sparked some sort of phobia that he had to overcome.

It’s fun to see someone acquire superpowers and then hit the town using them for good, but when you think about it, can you imagine if that happened to a real person? Maybe someone with Johnny’s powers really would have to overcome a fear that he or she is being consumed by fire. The press notes also include this quote from Kate Mara regarding Sue’s powers: “Josh wanted it to be clear that what Sue can do with her powers does not come easily. It’s exhausting, mentally and physically … Having powers she can’t control is terrifying at first and completely isolating.” That’s a really relatable, interesting concept, but the movie barely scratches the surface of it.

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Image via 20th Century Fox


Of course this is only speculation based on the reports released exposing Fox and Trank’s tumultuous collaboration, but I get the feeling that the movie described in the notes was the movie Trank set out to make and that eventually, Fox balked, perhaps way too late in the game, and pressured/forced him to make changes. Obviously I can’t say that Fantastic Four definitely would have been a great movie had the studio let Trank do his thing, but based on how he’s described it over the years and the details we get in the press notes, it does seem like he had the more interesting story.

To be fair, regardless of how much Fox might have meddled, there are still telltale signs that Trank might not have been delivering his best work, and I’m not even referring to his rumored poor behavior. Look at the performances in the movie. We’ve got Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara and Jamie Bell, all incredibly talented actors, but it almost feels as though they’re delivering the same stilted performance. Perhaps attitudes on set were so sour that they all just shut down in a way, but I walked out of my screening looking at it as though Trank took the idea of a grounded, realistic superhero movie too far and directed them that way.

DOES TRANK HAVE A FUTURE?

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Image via Fox


No matter who deserves most of the blame, the thought that Fantastic Four could completely ruin a very promising filmmaker’s career is extremely upsetting. Again, I’ve got no clue what really went on behind closed doors and am just forming my own opinion based on all the information that’s surfaced over the past few weeks, but I get the feeling that Fox freaked out last minute and that that, in turn, drove Trank to his breaking point.

It’s disappointing because look at what Trank accomplished with Chronicle. He took a very familiar genre and storytelling tactic – the superhero genre and the found footage format – took some big risks and wound up with a film that honored what we love about both of those things but while giving them enough authorial expressivity to make them feel uniquely his. He moves from the fun-loving power discovery portion to the darker material with ease and rocks a shot selection that isn’t just coverage but something that truly enhances the build from scene to scene. In a time when studios are spending $100 million+ to make superheroes fly, in comes Trank and Landis with a mere $12 million, but also with a tight script and a rock solid plan to bring it to life.

When Fox first hired Trank, I was psyched to see his version of Fantastic Four but now I wish he had passed and perhaps done one more small scale film before jumping into something that was bound to have far more cooks in the kitchen. Instead, now Trank has just one claim to fame and that might not be enough of a calling card anymore with such a huge blemish on his resume. Despite the quality of Fantastic Four and the tweet that could and should make any producer apprehensive about working with him, I still believe Trank is a talented director with unique visions and that he deserves the opportunity to bring them to screen. I have a feeling I won’t be writing up any Trank-related hiring news anytime soon, but hopefully he can get a small, independent project off the ground in the near future and re-prove that he’s capable of leading a fruitful shoot and delivering strong content.

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