There are a lot of reasons why a movie doesn’t work. Maybe it’s the wrong cast, or the wrong director or whatever. For most instances of a film premiering and promptly shitting the bed, the blame can be laid at the feet of the story. If the story is good, it should take the audience on an adventure while giving them characters that they care about. Between these characters and the plot in a good movie a particular kind of alchemical reaction happens and as the audience we become deeply invested in the stakes presented. If it doesn’t do this, it ends up on the Takedown. But sometimes, a movie is almost good. Maybe if it had the opportunity and the good fortune to get another pass at editing it could be passable, really good even.
Which is the case with the 2015 Fantastic 4. It’s a film that does so many things right that I find it impossible to dismiss it as garbage. It is failure of a movie, don’t get me wrong, but it seems like a noble one. But I’m not here to play armchair screenwriter and fashion a film from whole, luxurious, cloth. That’s not how you edit. Instead I want to look at the movie as it is, not as a critic but as a writer and editor. I’m interested in trying to figure out what Fantastic 4 was trying to do, and work out how to do that with the pieces that are presented. Because at the end of the day, Fantastic 4 could be just another edit away from actually being fantastic. This is the Re-Write.
As usual, I’ll try to make this quick but I make no promises. Fantastic 4 starts with young Reed Richards and his friend Ben Grimm working on a project in Reed’s garage to teleport objects. After a few missteps that involve blowing out power on the entire eastern seaboard, they finally get their machine to work. Since Reed is the smarter looking one, he is recruited into the Baxter Foundation to build his machine, which will be bigger and less likely to cause a space time distortion. It turns out that Reed and Ben’s device doesn’t actually teleport anything, but actually sends crap to another dimension where the lighting is all weird. At the Baxter Foundation he meets biologist Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and Victor Von Doom. After a couple of speeches and a sweet montage the intrepid crew manages to build the device in large scale. But once they are finished they are informed that even though they are super scientists, they are also still pubescent teenagers, and they don’t get to travel using the machine.
Since in this continuity Dr. Doom (which he is actually called derisively once) is the cool older dude, he drinks and gets the rest of the crew to drink too. Soon the combination of Schlitz Tall Boys and 17 year old foresight convinces the team that they should steal the machine and be the first through to the other dimension. In a drunken haze, Reed has the great idea to call up Ben Grimm and invite him along. After all he was involved in the creation of the machine in the first place, which is how he, Reed, Johnny and Doom wind up strapped into their machine and traveling through time and space. Sue skipped the drinking shenanigans and stayed home because she is both a good girl and a real bore at keggers.
Once on the other side the Fantastic 3 + Doom discover a cool dimension full of weird green stuff that promptly tries to kill them. Sue manages to get the machine back online, but Doom is lost in a big green CGI thing and presumed dead. While the machine is coming back, the green energy interacts with it, so the explorers are altered by the return trip and Sue is affected by her proximity to the device.
After an indeterminate amount of time, Reed awakens in a secret military base and finds that he can stretch his body is very abnormal ways, but can’t control it. He escapes and discovers that Johnny is constantly burning, Sue shifts in and out of the visible spectrum, and his friend Ben has been transformed into a hideous rock monster. He does what any good friend would do, and he runs off into the woods.
A year passes for some reason, and the Baxter Foundation is busy trying to track Reed down. For his part Reed has been trying to discover a way to reverse the processes that changed his friends and has built a suit to control his own powers/disability. But it’s not long before he is captured and brought back to the plot. In his absence Ben has become enlisted by the military as an indestructible face smasher and Johnny has learned to control his powers enough that he too is looking to enroll. This of course horrifies Reed and Sue, so Reed offers to rebuild the machine and hopefully find a cure in the other dimension.
They zip over to other plane, and discover Doom isn’t actually dead. Instead the isolation has given him telekinetic powers and a murderous rage. It’s a little known fact, but that was the original ending for Cast Away. Anyway, since haters gonna hate and Doom is a Doctor, he hates hard. He hates with telekinesis and wanders the military facility popping heads like overripe grapes in what is simultaneously the silliest and coolest sequence in the film. Then I guess he gets tired of all of the head popping and takes the device back to the other dimension.
But Dr. Doom isn’t quite done yet. For reasons that are as baffling as they are poorly explained, he opens a massive portal to the Earth that starts slurping up all kinds of crap, including the Fantastic 4. They quickly realize that Doom is being the biggest dick in an entire dimension, and that they should shut down the portal before it, like, destroys the world. The four discover that, gasp, if they work together they can stop Doom, which is what they do. At the end they dub themselves the Fantastic 4 and decide to use their powers to help people because sure.
Okay so there’s a lot to unpack here. So let’s start with the things that are working in the film. The biggest thing that is right where it needs to be is the body horror stuff that happens at the start of Act 2. The powers that the Fantastic 4 pick up are shown to be kind of awful. These aren’t cool powers that they pick up, but debilitating afflictions. Sue Storm can’t even stay visible without wearing a custom designed suit. Johnny burns constantly, which means that he could never live a normal life, which could explain why he’s so interested in joining the military as a secret weapon. Then poor Ben is turned into the Thing. Basically, Fantastic 4 does something rather clever with superpowers since it is able to present them as being terrible burdens. It’s an interesting angle that’s really only ever explored in movies like The Incredible Hulk.
Another thing that works is the relationships. The “core” relationship of Reed and Ben really carries the opening of the movie. We can see what they see in each other and why they are friends. Hell, misguided as it is, because of the relationship established it is understandable that Reed would invite Ben to travel to another dimension with him. The relationship of the Storm family with Johnny, Sue and their dad Franklin is well developed too for the limited amount of time it has on screen. Johnny’s need to follow his whims is a great contrast to the adopted sister who actually shares his father’s worldview. There’s a feeling that Johnny wants his father’s approval but at the same time doesn’t want to be like his sister. Unpacking that relationship could be an entire film by itself. This is without going into whatever the briefly mentioned Sue + Doom (“Soom” would be the Entertainment Weekly portmanteau) relationship.
Finally, the humor in the early acts really sticks. It’s super dry, slightly goofy, and works for me. Something to remember with these characters is that they are all social outcasts for the most part. They live in a tower in downtown Manhattan and work on super science. Oh, and they’re all late teens to early twenties. Making quips and shitty jokes is what they would do. So when Franklin Storm is about to talk and Sue and Victor say:
“Is he about to make the speech again?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Here it comes.”
That just does what those lines should be doing. We’re getting a quip, we’re developing the characterizations (and seeing that there is still chemistry between Sue and Victor), and we’re lamp-shading the “big speech” that Franklin is trying to give about whatever.
Of course none of that really matters once the 2nd Act starts and Fantastic 4 goes off the rails faster than a discount roller coaster but with more casualties. There are so many things wrong with this movie it’s hard to pick out just a couple. But the core issues all stem from the fact that this film has no 2nd Act and because Dr. Doom’s late characterization is thinner than prison toilet paper.
Let’s start with the 2nd Act. Generally speaking if in the 1st Act you’ve put your protagonist up in a tree, in the 2nd Act you throw rocks at them. Put into practice, the 2nd Act is supposed to raise the stakes and set up the context for whatever is about to happen in the conclusion. But all that happens in the 2nd Act of Fantastic 4 is that Reed escapes from the facility, and is captured because the plot wants him back like an ex-boyfriend. Then there’s a short sequence where he builds a new machine. Then it’s time for Act 3; that’s it.
The failure of Act 2 really means that Act 3 never stood a goddamn chance. This is what happens when an entire act is built around “1 year later.” The things we don’t see are the 4 coming to terms with their powers. Nor do we see how Ben Grimm became a weapon for the military, nor how their suits were developed.
Of course the biggest disappointment that comes falling out of the festering hole that is Act 2 is poor Dr. Doom. He vanishes at the end of Act 1 and then returns at the start of Act 3 but with powers and some sort of angry superiority complex. He’s shown as being a bit arrogant, but character wise he’s not too far from how Sue is presented. They’re both cold and analytical people who are supremely focused on their work. So when he appears like a random encounter in some 3rd rate JRPG, it’s confusing. Getting angry and killing a bunch of scientists and Franklin, sure I get that. He was left for over a year in the one place worse than Jacksonville, and nobody came to find him. If I was in his shoes I’d probably pop me some heads too. But wanting to blow up the Earth is really, really, really stupid, and worse – there’s no character based reason for it.
What to Do
Okay, with those as the givens, let’s make a difference. The big change that needs to happen is that they need to fill in the missing year. Let’s assume that we can get rid of Reed to simplify the screenplay, he can stay gone without losing much and that’s fine. Actually without Reed we can focus the story on the other 3 members of the Fantastic 4 and give them story arcs. Also in a weird way, subtracting Reed lets us understand his importance to the team via his absence.
So in building out Act 2 it would help to lean into the body horror elements. Give me more of that. Show the audience how the team needs to overcome their disabilities to get back to being functional people. Then we can explore the reasons behind why the team acts the way that they do. If Ben feels like all he can be is a weapon (or has people prey on those fears) that gives a reason why he does it and Johnny wants to. Then when Reed returns he isn’t just bringing a cure, but the hope that together they can be more than just weapons for the military.
But where Act 2 needs to focus is Doom. From a structure standpoint he can be the contra-focus of the core team. So while they’re learning to use their abilities, so could he. This opens up space to show us what it’s like to be abandoned with almost no hope of rescue. We can see what that sort of isolation and helplessness does to a person as sure of himself as Doom is. But he is a super scientist working in another dimension, so it would be easy to give him the character beat that accompanies every stranded narrative – give him the tools to come home. Then in the 3rd Act we have a character based conflict. Doom could be trying to get home using a device that has unknown properties in our world, which would put him in direct conflict with the Fantastic 4.
Once there the rest of the conclusion can play out more or less the same way with giant light shows and a declaration of “Clobberin’ Time.” To bring the weapon vs. hero concept into sharp relief have Doom speak about “Becoming the weapon I needed to be” during the climax and force Ben and Johnny to understand their predicament. Then to tie off these plot threads Reed needs to talk about realizing that he made a mistake to abandon his friends and how they are more than what other people want them to be. In effect, they need to make some kind of declaration that they won’t be used as weapons and have self determination. Then, denouement and credits.
Like I said way up top, the things that Fantastic 4 are doing right are really good, but the rest of the movie takes the day off and sinks the whole ship 20,000 leagues under. But if the film could just understand that the characters that they are working with are well developed and that, yes, a 2nd Act is important, maybe it could be more than just a Fantastic 4 of out 10.
And that, is the Re-write.
If you think that there is no saving this litter fire of a movie and that they ruined the Fantastic 4 forever and always, go ahead and let me know in all caps in the comments. If you think that my edits and others could have prevented this superpowered disaster, feel free to defend my critiques with razor sharp machetes and/ or wit.
Until next time.