Saving FANTASTIC FOUR: Break the Formula

One of the big problems with Hollywood has always been its urge to make it easy for itself.  Why actually take the effort every time to write a good script when you can plug variables into a formula and BANG you have a shootable script people will put their butts in theater seats for?

Put simply: Formulas don’t work.  Not by themsleves.

Sure, they may seem to work for some films, but how likely are those “success stories” to be rewatched?  The key to a crowd-pleasing movie that is also a good movie is to have a formula guide you as a writer, but not to have it dominate your choices.  

FANTASTIC FOUR can be boiled down to an equation.

Young White Male + Problem that Needs to Be Solved + Complications + Implementing the Solution = Climax

Aside from the most basic of backstories given to two of the characters (Ben and Johnny) there is nothing of ANY interest included in this film.

No spoiler alerts for this piece: There is nothing in FANTASTIC FOUR that could be considered a spoiler

2005 > 2015

There simply isn’t anything in this movie that would spoil your enjoyment of it.  Not just because this film really isn’t enjoyable, but because there are no surprises, no twists, no plot points, even.  The things that occur are almost as simple as that formula.  The hero is picked to continue his work, his work reaches a milestone, he and his team get powers.  A threat appears (and it’s Victor Von Doom!) and they deal with him.  Did any of that spoil the movie for you?

Not only is the plot so sparse you could build a condo development on it, the character development is at a bare minimum.

Ben’s dad runs a junk yard, his brother’s a jerk and his mom is a hag.

Johnny rejects his own brilliant genes and intelligence and is an adrenaline junkie, reliving his favorite moments from those FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies in real life.

Reed is trying to build a teleporter and he’s awkward.  That’s it.

Sue is…uh… …into music?  And like the Smart Teen Girl in TOMORROWLAND is just generically smart.  She has no specific identity beyond the role of a token smart white female.

Oh and Von Doom is… attracted to Sue.  It’s probably the closest thing we get to a character dynamic as Sue seems awkward about how he clearly is attracted to him, and he does seem a little creepy about it, but beyond that, he does zero to conflict with anyone.

Something Happens and Then They Get Their Powers

The something is that Reed gets his teleporter to work with the money and facilities provided by the Baxter Foundation.  They get drunk and teleport themselves to “another dimension”.  As a science geek, I have a huge problem with the generic use of that phrase, but I will skip it for now.  Must stay focused.

So, predictably enough, while in this other dimension, they run into trouble and need to escape in a rush.  When they get back, they all have their powers but they had to leave Von Doom behind in the other dimension.  See, cuz, the badguy isn’t all that bad if all he’s doing is creepily, but harmlessly, oggling the only woman in the movie.  I’m not being sarcastic.  He is the least threatening badguy ever which makes his random rants later on seem all the more contrived.

If plot points are utterly unnecessary and forgettable, do they count as plot points?

After they get their powers, there’s some stuff that happens, but ultimately, someone decides that the answer to curing them of their powers lies back in that other dimension (not that they tried anything else).  If only there were some scientists around who could do some science stuff and maybe find a cure.

Sigh.

So, they go back to the other dimension where Von Doom (he survived! WOW! Who saw that coming?!?) is now really angry because… um, not sure.  He decides he is going to destroy Earth and has crazy powers (think Tetsuo from AKIRA) and is basically, unstoppable. Of course, in about five seconds, our heroes manage to stop him.

Please note: I have yet to make a single comparison of FANTASTIC FOUR to the comic book it is based on (and of which, I am a fan)

That’s the really sad thing about FANTASTIC FOUR.  It’s worse than any FANTASTIC FOUR film that has come before it.  In fact, it’s way worse.  The Tim Story films were really fun movies, in general (and are underrated in my opinion), but are downright masterpieces compared to Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR.  Hell, the 1994 FANTASTIC FOUR movie Roger Corman produced was better and that was a bad b-movie that was never released.

Topical, fun, fantastical, Prince Namor, AKA the
Sub-Mariner would make a great badguy for a
FANTASTIC FOUR movie.

How to make a FANTASTIC FOUR movie that doesn’t suck

Make a god damn effort!  Sure, every super-hero film is formulaic.  Hell, every story has some good cliché in it.  But don’t just take Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT formula and leave it alone.  Throw some imagination at it!  Even if you don’t stick to the source material, don’t just poop out a series of weak plot points that you string together ling dingleberries and call it a script!

If I had no loyalty to the source material, I’d actually have a bit of trouble writing this.  See, the source material is strong.  Really strong.  After all, there is a reason FF has been around for over half-a-century.  Part of what gives it that staying power is that it has four basic springboards for truly fantastic storytelling baked right into its premise–its characters.

The reason they are called the “Fantastic Four” isn’t really because they each have these amazing super-powers.  It’s because they’re each brilliant in their chosen fields but together they are fantastic.

However, they aren’t perfect.  Reed is the classic absent-minded professor, Ben is not the brightest bulb in the lamp store, Johnny is a hot head, and Sue is, well, usually underwritten. But come on, it’s not so hard to write a female character. Just pick a discipline of science that would be of use in a story that involves fantastical feats of future-science and don’t let her do anything girly.

On the other hand, Ben is a brilliant pilot, Johnny is a really brave guy, while Sue and Reed have been known to be exploring science that is 20-50 years ahead of where actual science is.

You really have a lot to work with.

Then consider the 50+ years of stories you can pull from. Doctor Doom, Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Skrull (aliens), and one character that would be particularly timely right now, the Sub-Mariner.  What better time to use ol’ Prince Namor? We surface dwellers are poisoning every part of our planet–the most of which is the sea.

In fact, the Sub-Mariner could ultimately have the same goal as Von Doom in FANTASTIC FOUR (destroy the human world before humans destroy his world), only in this story, it would make sense.

OK, Namor having a thing for Sue (and vice versa)
 is a little cliche but, let’s be honest–wouldn’t you?!
Why can’t a married woman be portrayed in a
movie being attracted to another man? Especially,
when that man is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. 

OK, so that’s what I would do for my basic story.  I’d basically do the original story pretty close to how it appeared in the comic with a few minor changes to make it more modern.  Essentially, Namor would scout out the defenses of the human world, in the process meet Sue and fall for her due to her beauty, brilliant mind, and willingness to be outspoken.  Atlantis is still a very sexist culture.  He returns home and is reminded that Atlantians are in no state to wage a war.  Global Warming has caused so many of his people to die off that he must turn to terrorist attacks on the surface world to change things.  The FF is then tasked with finding some way to kill Namor.  Of course, Reed doesn’t want to kill him and neither does Sue.  Thing and Johnny are down with it, and after some fights with Namor and his lackeys, realize that this is not going to end without a mess.  Seeing his people dying at home, he is driven to bring a bomb into Manhattan to blow up, not only the FF, but the entire city.  But since he’s in love with Sue, he tries to kidnap her and in the process she discovers the plot and turns on Namor.    In the end, the FF works together to find the bomb–they can’t shut it down in time, they dump it out, in the ocean where it explodes, killing even more sea life.  Reed pledges the FF to coming up with scientific solutions to Global Warming and to helping save those that still live in Atlantis.

Yep, that’s right–I did not mention anything about an origin story. Why? Well, read my piece from last week on how NOT to write a pilot (http://petesaves.nichollspete.com/2015/08/the-problem-with-pilots-and-how-solving.html) for a detailed explanation, but the nutshell version is this: you don’t need one. If you really think your audience is too thick to follow a story without knowing its absolute beginning, do a montage in the title sequence or add a quick flashback or two.  Any writer worth their salt can fill in blanks as the story goes.  Like I said in my post last week, there’s a reason George Lucas started shooting STAR WARS movies with episode four.

There is one other thing I’d do out of respect for the source material. I’d ask a question.

What is the core idea behind the source material?

Sure, the world of the Fantastic Four has it’s cheesy
moments, but there are also moments like this.
There are reasons good super villains do what they
do–it’s not just because they’re crazy or want to see
the world burn. It’s because they’ve suffered at the
hands of others who think of themselves as
righteous.  How can ANYONE think Namor
wouldn’t be a perfect parable to modern terrorism?!

This is the hardest thing for any mainstream writer to accept when sitting down to write a genre film based on a pre-existing property: you must respect the original idea at the core of the source material.  It’s doubly hard to accept that about making a FANTASTIC FOUR movie since, let’s be honest, the comic has it’s fair share of cheesy moments.  That’s not to say there aren’t some really wonderful dramatic moments, too.

The thing is, the whole point of making a movie or TV show or even a comic book or a novel, based on a property from another medium is to capitalize off of that property’s pre-existing audience. If you don’t honor the reason they like the propery, you’ll lose the most vocal fans of that source material.  Without them, you might as well just make a movie that isn’t based on something else at that point.

However, in the case of movies like FANTASTIC FOUR, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven that if you honor that original core, you won’t just please the fans, but you will also make good movies.

With FANTASTIC FOUR, the core is all about science allowing us to experience the truly fantastic.  The lab in which Reed perfects his teleporter in Josh Tranks FF movie was the opposite of fantastic science.  It was boring, drab, uninteresting science that looked a lot like your average cube farm with three refrigerators in the middle of everything.  The computers had keyboards and small displays.  The computers on the AGENTS OF SHIELD TV show look cooler than this. And there’s nothing particularly fantastic about SHIELD’s computers.  So, the ante needs to be upped seriously in a FANTASTIC FOUR film.  Then there’s the feeling of wonder this fantastic science should bring the audience.  This isn’t science class–this is science adventure.

Final Thoughts on Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR and the Action Movie Formula

1994 > 2015
(way cheesier, but still better)

Before starting this piece, I hadn’t heard anything about the on-set strife between director Josh Trank and the producers.  I’ve read that the studio had huge problems with his final cut.  I’ve also heard that he and the lead actor did not get along in the least.  This is unfortunate–but ultimately, the sign of a good director is someone who knows when to put up a fight and when to compromise.  Not all compromise is bad.  I can’t imagine that there wasn’t a middle ground that could be found with the producers.  But who knows?  I think it’s a shame, regardless of what the truth is.  Though, I think, it is the responsibility of the director to do the work the producers want him or her to do.  Voice your opinion, do what you can to convince them, but ultimately back down because, they are your bosses.  Get yourself locked out of the editing suite and you can’t have any say in how the film ends up looking.

Ultimately, this film and too many others rely on this basic formula for making an action movie.  I get it–life is easier with instructions.  Life is also more boring when all you do is follow the instructions (Come on, you’ve see THE LEGO MOVIE, haven’t you?).  So, use the formula but break it into pieces and then glue it back together with imagination–character development, plot points and devices that are rarely used or are, at least, unexpected.  I don’t know if Josh Trank did this only to have the producers and/or studio come in and edit all of his film’s good moments out.  All I can do is judge the film as it was released.

So, maybe this is yet another example of Fox execs screwing up a movie.  Personally, I think Fox should do what Sony did with Spider-Man and do a deal with Marvel Studios to fold the FF into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Clearly, Marvel knows what they are doing with super-hero movies and pretty much everyone else has little to no clue.

Was Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR entertaining?  No.  Would it have been better if it was done my way?  Hell, it would have been better if it had been done anyone else’s way.