Talk about a change in momentum! For months, 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot seemed dead in the water — in no small part because the studio had given us almost no information about it. After all, we’ve been trained to follow superhero-movie publicity cycles that offer a steady drip of tantalizing details and images as much as a year before the flicks hit screens. The Fantastic Four (complete with a definite article, à la The Fast and the Furious or The Wolverine), by contrast, had spawned almost no confirmed and fleshed-out details since its casting announcements. We were left with vicious rumors about a troubled production plagued by clashes with the studio and riddled with questionable plot choices. (Dr. Doom being some kind of hacker? Hoo, boy.)
But our information drought abruptly came to an end last night, and now we’re flooded with details, footage, and ideas … and what we’ve learned should give us hope! In fact, I haven’t been this excited about a superhero franchise in a long time.
(For those not in the know, the basic setup of The Fantastic Four, as laid out in the Marvel comics they’ve starred in since 1961, is as follows: A scientist, a young woman, the woman’s hotshot brother, and a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks all get into a scientific accident that gives them the power to transform their bodies in strange new ways. The team has already been adapted into film a few times, all of them critical disappointments.)
First off, we saw a lengthy interview that Collider scored with director Josh Trank (best known for his fascinating indie-superhero movie Chronicle) and writer Simon Kinberg (who penned one of the better superhero movies of the modern era, X-Men: Days of Future Past). They were cagey about the plot but gave some supremely tantalizing tidbits about the tone and creative direction.
For example, it seems The Fantastic Four is going to be the first superhero film scored by Philip Glass. Yes, that Philip Glass: the revolutionary minimalist who altered the course of Western music — and who has produced some of the most beautiful film scores of all time, from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and The Hours to Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels. He’ll be working with Marco Beltrami, who is no stranger to superhero cinema: He scored Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II and Hellboy.
The rest of the information from the interview was heartening, though a lot of it could turn out to be bluster (most notable: They spent a significant amount of time doing damage control, saying they hadn’t released information previously because they wanted to maintain an aura of mystery). But if we take Trank and Kinberg at their word, they seem to be doing something fascinating and unique: creating the first big-budget superhero movie that’s rooted in hard science-fiction and body horror.
They’re apparently looking for inspiration in the work of the most eminent of body-horror filmmakers, David Cronenberg. Here’s Trank breaking down his approach:
I would say that the science fiction of it is a big thing that sets it apart from most of the other superhero genre films. I’m a huge David Cronenberg fan, and I always viewed Fantastic Four and the kind of weirdness that happens to these characters and how they’re transformed to really fall in line more with a Cronenberg-ian science-fiction tale of something horrible happening to your body and [it] transforming out of control … I don’t know if there are Blockbusters [the video chain] anymore, but there would probably be a superhero section. And this would fit more into the science-fiction, or horror, or even drama sections of the Blockbuster.
In retrospect, it seems like such a no-brainer: Of course you should approach the Fantastic Four like you’d approach The Fly! I mean, come on, it’s a story where people suddenly find out their bodies are made of rocks or burning from the inside.
Then, this morning, we awoke to find that Fox had finally dropped a teaser-trailer for the movie. And man, it looks really good. Unlike the average superhero trailer, this one has no fight sequences, no self-aware gags, none of that low-tone booooooom that’s ubiquitous in high-octane teasers. Over a contemplative and repetitious score*, we see visuals that are more closely aligned with thoughtful sci-fi films like The Thing and Contact than bombastic action flicks.
We see Reed Richards, here played by indie wunderkind Miles Teller, traversing a catwalk while looking at a science lab with blissful awe. We see Susan Storm, as portrayed by the underrated Kate Mara, staring into a windy and dark landscape with potent terror. We see Johnny Storm, embodied by the stunningly talented Michael B. Jordan, quietly engulfed in flame while crouched calmly at the end of a body-littered hallway. And we see Ben Grimm, played by the skilled physical performer Jamie Bell, sparingly — which makes sense, since he’s doomed to become the stone-exteriored Thing. Voice-over ominously speaks of humanity’s endless desire to innovate, and the consequences of that hunger. All the while, we get intersplicings of soiled containment suits and mysterious wreckage, stern military men and silent landscapes. The aim here is for us to be unsettled and curious, not amped on adrenaline. It’s really something to behold, and worth repeated viewings.
The icing on the cake was a Yahoo Movies video, in which Trank and Kinberg verbally annotate their own trailer. There’s not a lot in there that we didn’t already know about from the Collider interview, but it’s encouraging to hear how composed and confident they sound. They seem dead-set on making a movie that’s grounded in some degree of actual science, as well as the troubled dynamics of a blended family (which is, after all, what the Fantastic Four have always been). They also repeatedly call attention to one of the greatest Fantastic Four comics runs of all time, the initial, early 00s story lines of Ultimate Fantastic Four, as penned by Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, and Mark Millar.
Of course, this may all end up going down in flames. After all, the initial reports and footage of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel were all very encouraging, and that movie turned out to be another generic superhero movie (albeit a commercially successful one). But right now, it looks like we could get the most innovative and tonally unique marquee superhero movie since Iron Man laid out the Marvel Studios template in 2008. The Fantastic Four changed comics forever when the world first met them in 1961. Here’s hoping lightning (or cosmic rays, as the case may be) strikes again.