Tis the season of the confused blockbuster. I wrote an article back when Jurassic World came out about how that film felt like it was at war with itself. I didn’t bother writing about it because Greg Carpenter had already accurately assessed it for the site, but I saw Antman when it came out and had similar feelings about it. I thought writing about Fantastic Four and Antman would make an interesting article, as I think they, along with Jurassic World, represent a sort of holy trinity of disappointing summer blockbusters this year.
Antman’s troubled production is already common knowledge, and while the final product isn’t nearly as atrocious as Jurassic World it still feels like it suffers from similar problems. There are plenty of glimmers of a better movie scattered across Antman, especially in the fight scenes (with the broad strokes held over from Edgar Wright’s planning but directed poorly in the end), but overall the scene to scene writing is just quietly unassumingly and inoffensively bland.
Here’s an excerpt from an article on Birth.Movies.Death wherein Paul Rudd sums up some of the creative struggles Antman went though:
“The bones of this story and the foundation of it was there,” says Rudd. The final credits on the movie have the story by Wright and Cornish, with an additional screenplay credit to them as well. “I mean, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright did such a great job. So we certainly added things, enhanced some story lines, changed some things, added some scenes. And it was a pretty fairly sizable rewrite, but the story is there.
“It was obviously never part of a plan, you know, when Edgar and Marvel parted ways. There had been a rewrite that was kind of a different take, but there wasn’t a different take on the [basic] story. Obviously Adam and I have a pretty good relationship. And so it just came about [that they started working together on another draft], it was never anything that I think either one of us had planned on. But it was really more of just an issue of ‘This movie is going to start and the script needs to get to a place that Marvel wants to take it,’ and so we just spent some time working on it together.”
That’s a pretty politically correct take on an event that rather shook fans’ faith in Marvel. Edgar Wright left because he didn’t agree with the directions Marvel wanted to take the movie in. With his departure the studio cannibalized his action scenes and, one could reasonably assume, the context behind them, then went off and did their own thing. Adam McKay or no, the orders were coming from above the writing room, that was the whole problem, and it shows all over Antman.
There are moments when you can feel the personality deficient direction of Peyton Reed trying as hard as it can to fill Edgar Wright’s shoes. The most glaring deficiency has already been a little expounded upon. There are two scenes where a character narrates a flashback and the people in the flashback move their mouths in time to the narration. All of this has a kind of liquid panning camera action to it too, making it feel doubly like an imitation of Edgar Wright. It’s fun and interjects a little something into the proceedings, but it hardly elevates the film. Personally I found the action most indicative of the directorial step down that Peyton Reed constitutes.
I’ve harped on the generic awfulness of Marvel’s prevised action many times before, and I’ll do it again. When you’ve got a bunch of non-directors and non-cinematographers and non-editors sculpting an action scene frame by frame for months you get messy, clumsily presented action scenes that lack pacing and geography. Now Antman, which you’ll recall used the scenes planned by Edgar Wright, has some of Marvel’s best action yet. It’s small stakes, normally no more than two characters, and it’s interspersed with interesting visuals and events. Simply put there was visual stuff worked out on the page that helped to make yet another scene involving one guy firing energy beams at a different guy unique. These unique ideas are, however, presented without character and pacing.
Edgar Wright has proven several times now that he can direct a kick-ass action scene, and all of his visual flair is completely missed in Antman. Sure, there’s not too much that’s glaringly wrong about the movie. Like I said the action, while bland, is still a whole lot less bland than Marvel’s other entries. The characters aren’t always well written, their arcs are weirdly paced, and their voices change, but generally in pretty understated ways. Some of the jokes are kind of funny, even if it feels weird that Marvel would make a movie in 2015 with exclusively goofy ethnic characters (excepting a few appearances from Wood Harris). It’s all part of the “nothing explosively bad” label. Nothing in this movie makes you reel, or laugh at moments the movie thought would be cool, but nothing about it is particularly excellent either, just varying degrees of blandly bad.
(Digressive side note: I’ve been watching a lot of kaiju films lately, as you may have noticed, and I could imagine these movies eventually functioning weirdly like that. A few excellent entries, some very talented components, but pretty wildly fluctuating in quality.)
But speaking of explosively bad it’s time to talk about Fantastic Four.
I think just about everyone I talked to leading up to the release of the Fantastic Four misunderstood the tone of the original characters. Eventually I came up with what I still think is an effective shorthand for conveying what a Fantastic Four movie should strive for. “They’re basically like Spider-Man.” Which might seem simplistic, but if you think about it the Fantastic Four really are a lot like Spider-Man. They’re a blend of pulp and humour and melodrama. They’re just older than Spider-Man and lean towards a dysfunctional family dynamic.
The other thing I would do is rant about why I’d hate the movie if it changed Doctor Doom. Doctor Doom is, quite simply, the perfect comic book villain. He’s a dictator who views himself as benevolent, which gives him agency, resources, and context. He’s striking and iconic, and he has equal access to mad science and dark magic. All this basically means that Doctor Doom can exist in literally any kind of story. Grim and realistic? Perfect, Doom is basically Marvel’s Kim Jong-un. Campy and more like the Marvel Universe films? Perfect, Doom is a vengeful ex-colleague in a metal suit. He works everywhere without alteration.
So OF COURSE the movie fucks him up completely.
But of course the movie pretty much fucks up everything.
The movie makes a few interesting, unexpectedly artistic choices though. For one thing it takes an almost Kubrickian route with the performances, casting a bunch of talented actors and then asking them to seem as bland and uncharismatic as possible. Because surely they weren’t just all depressed by the sheer weight of mediocrity around them? The lack of any life or character to the performances in this film is remarkable. The whole film’s best joke is an entirely execution dependent Borat reference. Seriously. I legitimately was convinced the jokes in the trailer couldn’t be as unfunny as they seemed, that had to be a contextual thing. But no, this movie’s attempts at humour are painfully pitiful.
Not as pitiful as its approach to structure though. I’ve personally always favoured a structural heavy approach to writing things, and I tend to like a movie that seems as if it’s thought through what will happen when. Fantastic Four is a rambling mess. It starts with Reed Richards as a kid for a surprisingly long time, then cuts to him as a teenager. He goes to The Baxter Institute and starts working on inter-dimensional travel. There’s an overlong portion of the movie devoted to getting all these characters together and getting them across dimensions. Like it must be at least a solid hour, hour-plus into the movie. Then they all get powers, black out, and wake up in a military facility. Then there’s five minutes of body horror that culminates in Reed escaping. I was confused by the tonal shift, but I was willing to stick with it because it felt well executed. Then the movie cut to a title card and leapt a year into the future.
Then everyone gets back together at the government institute, pops open the dimensional portal again, and bring back Doom (lost on the first trip). He’s gone crazy (giving us some of the sloppiest character writing the movie can manage) and starts blowing up heads and trying to…sigh…convert the world to energy. Then the movie suddenly climaxes and ends.
Which is perhaps the biggest problem with the film. It’s a movie called Fantastic Four that keeps its four characters apart until literally the last fight of the movie. They’re seriously not ever all in one place before that, let alone all in one place with powers. It’s a Fantastic Four movie that never lets the titular team function until the movie’s over. Instead it’s all prequel, all origin, all boring. The problem with that is the Fantastic Four’s origin is purely an origin. It gets them their powers and some internal character dynamics. It doesn’t connect well with exterior conflict and plot, and it doesn’t make a compelling narrative. I truly think a good Fantastic Four movie would take place at least a month after their accident. If you really felt committed to depicting the origin then it could work as a pre-credits race, like Hellboy’s origin in Hellboy or Starlord’s origin in Guardians of the Galaxy.
And then there’s the movie’s bastardized version of Doom. He has mysterious physics powers. He can make extras’ heads explode (not the Fantastic Four obviously) and levitate and move objects at will. He can sculpt the surface of…sigh…Planet Zero, the other dimension they can go to. He can suck all of Earth’s matter from Earth through a portal to Planet Zero, piece by piece. So he starts with some rubble and planes and stuff, but will presumably eventually scour most of the Earth’s crust. All this matter is being sucked through a giant disc of light Doom made out of pillars of rock made from Planet Zero. The matter is getting passed through the disc and converted to energy that Doom will use for things. If that sounds confusing, dumb, and like it would make for a boring fight scene you’re right on all accounts. Not only is a Doom with cosmic powers painfully dumb, the powers themselves are of that vague Parallax variety that are completely lacking in any drama.
It’s frankly an abhorrent mess of a movie. With director Josh Trank turning on the movie (probably just smart if he wants to salvage any of his reputation), it’s looking like Fantastic Four belongs to the same camp as Antman and Jurassic World. There are a flurry of rumours surrounding Trank and the film. He’s been accused of being abusive and problematic on set, and of clashing with some of the studio heads. In the wake of this, sources say he was dropped from the Star Wars directorial slate. Trank didn’t get along with the cast, especially the members the studio cast. The movie wasn’t finished properly until very near to the release. However many say that the fights between Trank and the studio weren’t about the studio’s vision, but were instead about Trank’s struggle to get, roughly, this movie to theatres (though there are a few obvious reshoots). It’s all a vague mess of tossed around accusations.
All that’s really clear to me is that the last two comic-book movies I saw in theatres were disposable for one reason or another, as was the last blockbuster I saw. It’s been a sorry run of clumsy, compromised movies lately. Screw them all and go see The Gift or something.