HOW TO FIX THE FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

Standard

The stars were aligned against Josh Trank. Fox greenlit his Fantastic-Four-by-way-of-Cronenberg’s-The-Fly-Laboratory-Sci-Fi-Thriller, but nobody seemed to want it. When Fox realized that, they didn’t seem to want it and forced changes upon an already troubled production –much of which attributed to Trank himself. The result was, of course, an uneven mess with hints of Trank’s passion amid a whole lot of squandered potential.

While Fox wonders what to do with the Fantastic Four (2015) or just let the rights revert to Marvel, let’s talk about what they could’ve and maybe should’ve done.

THE FILM ITSELF

To recap: a Young Reed Richards and a Young Ben Grimm teleport a toy car to another dimension.

Seven years later, they’re recruited at a science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm and his shy daughter Susan to make a bigger, more stable interdimensional teleporter. Their teammates will include Sue, her adrenaline-junkie brother Johnny, and the criminally troubled Victor Von Doom. After some montages showing their “chemistry,” the teleporter is ready. With NASA threatening to steal the glory, the team decides to dimension-hop pre-emptively. So Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Doom go to another dimension, where they play with some magic green goo and everything goes wrong.

They return from this alternate dimension -minus Doom- with varying -and initially crippling- super powers and stuck in military custody. Reed escapes, leaving Susan (Invisible Woman), Johnny (the Human Torch), and Ben (The Thing) conscripted into military black ops missions. A year later, they are forced to track down Reed to force him to rebuild the interdimensional teleporter so the military can create more superpowered beings.

When Reed does this, the teleporting team retrieves Doom from the alternate dimension, only now he’s made of metal and has a messiah complex. He kills his way out of the military base and launches a scheme to destroy the world. After a fight, Reed, Susan, Johnny, and Ben defeat him, negotiate autonomy from the military, and rename themselves the Fantastic Four.

THE PAGE ONE REWRITE

Look at all the time jumps! A total of 8 years jump between story beats, and it’s all unnecessary. It makes it feel like we’re following a plot, not characters. The only jump this might’ve needed is the 7 year jump from children to teens, and even that is being generous.

What’s more, there are three separate movies here.
1. We have a protracted sci-fi lab thriller. Decently characterized with the occasional strong beat, but VERY by the numbers, even on the interdimensional journey.

2. We have a sci-fi military thriller, where the military tries to force the team into something they are not (could this be a winking parallel to impositions forced by the studio?).

3. We have a superhero movie, where Doom threatens life as we know it for thinly explained reasons.

None of these work well together. It’s clear the Fox wanted the Interstellar-esque lab drama , and it’s also clear that it’s the only part of the movie operating with real authenticity. It’s clear they also felt that the military’s oversight was the only way to 1. Ground the characters and 2. Moor it to the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic, supposedly the movie’s key inspiration. The military angle is a shaky transition from the lab thriller, and one could be forgiven for assuming that they were going to be the film’s central antagonists. Problematically, Fox got cold feet when they heard the fan backlash to the liberal adaptation, and called for reshoots –most of which seemingly including the bloated and sudden Dr. Doom fight at the climax. It’s very likely that Doom had been intended to return for the sequel, but nothing else.

So what would’ve been the best version of this? What would’ve been the strongest sci-fi-laboratory thriller possible with this set up?

Simple.

A motley crew of researchers visit an alternate dimension and find themselves permanently changed. When they return, they discover to their horror that something returned with them.

Simple lab horror movie with the potential to grow. And you get there by the simplest, most concise means.

First off, don’t waste time establishing childhoods and how people got on the team; just have them on the team preparing for the momentous trip across dimensions. Start the story as late as possible to keep a steady momentum and to organically develop character in a way relevant to genre. Don’t tell us for a half hour before the mission that this is a team; let the mission show how they become a team.

Secondly, no green goo. Don’t waste time in this alternate dimension if it’s not where your story wants to go. All you need is a containment suit breach or suits that didn’t perfectly protect against the dimension’s radiation. That causes the team to “develop random mutations” or something. You don’t need for the heroes to touch green goo and directly encounter the elements that mirror their prospective power-set.

Thirdly, no Victor Von Doom. He’s too interesting a villain to squander on an identical origin story as your protagonists. Save him for the sequel when he can be your Heath Ledger Joker.

Here’s what I’m getting at: the acquiring of super powers isn’t your Act One Turning Point; it’s your Inciting Incident. The act one turning point is the conflict they must face.

So the team is horrified by their transformations, but not so horrified by what they find: husks of their scientist friends and soldiers around the base. Something has been killing and digesting them. Pulling themselves together as much they can -they’re all blaming each other for their mutations- they find the killer: a monstrous, insectile thing with a crazy appetite, crazy powers, and a crazy growth rate.

Yeah, that’s a bastardization of Annihilus, but it doesn’t HAVE to be Annihilus; it could just be a random monster. It could also be a new villain -another scientist who they went on the mission with. The point is, we establish by minute 25 that this ragtag team has to stop this monster before it gains more power and escapes into the world. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is our Act One Turning Point.

From there, Act Two is the still-learning Fantastic Four fighting Alien on steroids-and much of it plays out like Alien. The creature keeps jumping out and killing people, the Fantastic Four surviving by the instinctual & accidental use of their powers. As this thing grows in size and power, so does the scale. Jump scares turn into small skirmishes, which turn into destructive battles, which finally turns into a full-on Kaiju battle as this thing escapes and threatens all life on Earth. The whole while, the Fantastic Four are getting acclimated to their powers, conflicting with each other, and trying all they can to stop this thing to no avail.

Act Three, the Fantastic Four realizes that they can’t fight it conventionally and the military -try as they might- sure as hell can’t. So the answer lies in science. Eventually, in the midst of a crazy kaiju fight, Reed Richards gets the team to act as unit to science this thing to death. Or to another dimension, whatever. Having saved a city from destruction, the Fantastic Four are hero-celebrities and return to the Baxter Building, where they continue to use science to benefit mankind.

Boom. Themes of teamwork, unison, and the triumph of science, all within an organically structured movie that smoothly transitions from body horror flick to super hero epic.

LINGERING PROBLEMS

That said, none of this changes the fundamental issues at play:

1. Fantastic Four is a fun, lighthearted family team of sci-fi explorers. Trank’s vision and this proposed rewrite simply could not and would not deliver that. It could’ve been a great superpowered horror movie (and that kind of thing should exist, damn it), but it would never have been a Fantastic Four movie in the minds of fans.

2. It would not have been a Marvel movie, which is an insurmountable, emotionally-set goalpost that would’ve been impossible to meet. Even if the movie had been Marvel-styled and perfect, people would’ve hated the movie for not being in Marvel’s possession and for aping Marvel’s style.

So, best case scenario, ignoring point #2 for the fallacy it is, what could Fox have done to make a faithful and appropriately updated Fantastic For movie?

THE OBVIOUS

1. Don’t make it a Cronenbergian body horror in a laboratory. I love Cronenberg, but the Fantastic Four doesn’t fit his worldview.

2. The Incredible Hulk. Seriously, there had already been a Hulk movie, nobody needed another protracted retelling of the origin story. Incredible Hulk recapped the origin story in its opening credits. Arguably, Fantastic Four should’ve done that. With the origin out of the way, the movie would’ve been free to tell whatever story it chose with whatever elements it chose. It also wouldn’t have felt so prosaic. By now, we’ve seen countless superhero origin stories. We can do without for awhile, especially on an established property.

3. Wonder. I made a point of mentioning how Reed and Ben teleport a toy car to the alternate dimension. It’s such a simple, but elegant beat, but when they eventually travel to the alternate dimension, they should’ve found the car. Maybe it’s warped all to hell, foreshadowing their future, or perhaps it hasn’t aged a day, and reminds them of how far they’ve come. Of how long they’ve been friends. That they’ll always be friends. The alternate dimension is such a cool idea, and it’s played so matter of factly, erasing it’s potential to be a fanciful daydream that inspires us for the better. It SHOULD do that.

4. Take my proposed outline and make the alternate dimension monster Annilihus, a conqueror with a massive bug army. When they escape -gaining powers in the process- Annihilus and his army force their way into our dimension to take over. The Fantastic Four comes together as a unit to science them away, everyone’s skills coming into play at least once.

DOOM

And you know what? With my outline, it would’ve been crazy easy to set up Doom for the sequel. Maybe Annihilus is stopped/banished/killed with outside aid, like a hacking code from Latveria. Maybe Richards “borrows” Latverian tech, not realizing the source. Maybe Dr. Doom straight up appears and fights this thing with a pre-existing and suggested rivalry. The point it, is sets up that Doom was in some small way instrumental to defeating Annihilus and thus, in his mind, KEY to defeating Annihilus. That would give a sequel an emotional foundation: Doom constantly reminding Reed of his superiority.

And if we want to get crazy, all we need to show is a deep-space imaging device, a space radar, or something showing a blip. Maybe a dark spot in space. Maybe an energy spike. Doom was monitoring something approaching and was preparing. Maybe Fantastic Four 2 would’ve been about Doom attempting to take over the world to prepare for the coming onslaught. And if that panned out, Fantastic Four 3 could’ve been about that onslaught: Galactus, and whether or not the world was ready.

…and whether or not the deposed Doom would deign to save it.

FANTASTIC FINALE

The Fantastic Four is a property with infinite storytelling potential. Unfortunately, that property is continually squandered by inappropriate creative visions, studio mismanagement, and total lack of foresight –issues which resound throughout Fantastic Four (2015). Clearly there’s a creative spark behind Trank’s effort, but it’s not faithful to the material. Fox wanted a quality movie –not to mention one to do gangbusters at the box office- but the studio seemed driven by “make money; don’t spend any,” “not Marvel,” and “not comic-booky.” Those are typical sentiments of the mediocre pre-MCU Phase 1 era, and they’re a recipe for disaster with the project’s other idiosyncrasies.

It was a rush job created solely to keep the property out of Marvel’s hands, and with a little foresight, it could’ve been as transcendent as everyone hoped it’d be. A story of family coming together under unimaginable circumstances. Of vistas and beings beyond our wildest dreams. Of optimism for tomorrow and all the challenges it brings. It could’ve been a perfect update of a classic comic.

It could’ve been fantastic.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist C;

The Powerful Sexuality of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION’s Ilsa Faust

Standard

I liked Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Yeah, the setpieces were cool, and while I appreciated their groundedness (except for the water tank, which felt too constructed & comic booky even for me), I had trouble getting past how stock the characters seemed. Ethan/Cruise was Tom Cruise: action spy; Benji/Pegg was a stereotypical video game-playing hacker; Luthor/Rhames played Ving Rhames: hardware guy; Brandt/Renner was Jeremy Renner. Even the villain, Solomon Lane/Harris –whose complex scheme was always two steps ahead of the IMF (Ethan’s team, the Impossible Mission Force)- just doesn’t seem like an enduring character.

There was, however, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust.

The spy/assassin Ilsa stole every scene with her ice-cold demeanor, unpredictability, badassery, and visceral sexuality. Her enigmatic agenda and raw presence tipped the balance from stock character to a sexy, third-wave character bordering on Imperator Furiosa-level groundbreaking.

So let’s talk about that!

1. PROBLEMATIC?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Ilsa’s sexual presence is undeniable, from her leggy opera dress, to emerging from her pool like a bikini-clad Venus, Rogue Nation jumps at every opportunity to undress her. While in many cases, her sexuality is filtered through Ethan’s gaze –easily intuited as a calculated manipulation on her part- there are plenty of instances where the camera is the sole arbitrator of male gaze, which is intended specifically for the audience’s titillation.

Typically, this kind of male gaze is utterly objectifying. See Black Widow in Iron Man 2, who is objectified from her earliest scene. Ilsa, however, subverts this at every turn, providing 1. A narrative excuse, 2. A character excuse, and 3. A representation excuse (we’ll come back to this) for each shot emphasizing her physique.

From here on out, SPOILERS abound.

No two scenes spell out this three-part subversion like the torture scene and the opera-house assassination attempt.

A. THE TORTURE SCENE

We’re introduced to Ilsa in the torture scene, where, without speaking a word to the captive (topless) Ethan, she preps a series of vials for interrogation. Ignoring Ethan, she calmly places her high-heels on the table and unbuttons her blouse.

When she finally turns around to face him, her face –and intentions- are unreadable. The coding, however, is clear on several levels: SHE has the power; whatever happens is by HER demand and for HER pleasure; and SHE is playing a far larger game.

Almost immediately, the scene transforms into a brutal fight scene with Ilsa assisting in Ethan’s escape, the motivations for her undress becoming instantly apparent: she’s loosening up to kick nine kinds of ass. This “dressing-down” beat is echoed later in the opera-house assassination attempt, when Ethan (I keep wanting to call him Cruise; the character did nothing to differentiate him from Cruise’s other roles) yanks off his tie and unbuttons his shirt to fight an assassin.

ELBOW DROP!!!

The beauty of this scene is complex. 1. It establishes that every time we see Ilsa, she’s playing a larger game that’s just outside of our understanding. 2. It establishes that Ilsa’s dress, however sexual, is her choice and is in many respects her weapon. 3. It establishes that her sexuality is not “for” anyone but herself. 4. Her constant positioning to weapons, tools, and plot-foreshadowing elements establishes that she is always prepared or preparing. 5. It establishes Ethan’s sexual confusion about her. 6: It establishes that Ethan is under her control and that he is only a pawn. 7. And by virtue of 5 & 6, because the story is largely filtered through Ethan’s obsession and biases, it establishes sexual confusion and enigma in the audience’s mind about her purpose. These seven points reverberate throughout the entire movie.

B. THE OPERA HOUSE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT

No sequence so obviously showcases Ilsa’s figure as the Opera House Assassination attempt. In short, Ethan attempts to prevent the assassination of the Austrian Prime Minister while three assassins -Ilsa-included- converge. In the ensuing struggle, the Prime Minister escapes, shot through the arm by Ethan and Ilsa escapes with Ethan only to escape again. It’s a fascinating, elegant, character-driven sequence, but Ilsa’s role, before, throughout, and after it is super interesting.

With the opera in full sway, Ilsa sashays into the opera house. The camera positions itself to maximize the full-leg slit in her dress, very nearly reaching the heights of up-skirt shots. Positioning her sniper nest in theater scenery, the camera continues to emphasize her legs as she assembles her sniper rifle and readies herself. Gratuitous? Perhaps. Enabling Ethan’s escape from torture, Ilsa only says, “We’re on the same side,” which neither Ethan or the audience can discern as a lie or not. Given Ilsa’s apparent goal of assassinating the Austrian Prime Minister, it’s hard to tell, and her sexuality being associated with danger –to the point of being positioned with weapons nearly all the time- prevents the audience from finding balance. At this point, one could call Ilsa a ‘femme fatale,’ but that’s oversimplistic, given her larger goals and inscrutability.

During the escape from the opera house, Ilsa pauses, midway sliding down a rooftop with Ethan to ask him to take off her high heels. She insists that he does this, even though they slide off easily. Why? Because this creates a false connection between her and Ethan, tying him to her sexuality. While there’s chemistry here, it’s not romantic; it’s a very subtle manipulation.

Finally, after ‘escaping’ from Ethan, Ilsa returns to Solomon Lane. Threatened by one of his goons, Ilsa takes him down in one powerful movement –one that provides a detailed look up her dress. However, male gaze as the shot is, there’s no denying that it marries Ilsa’s sexuality to power and domination, and that’s where the aforementioned “representation excuse” comes into play.

The theatrical version is shot from the front!

With respect to all body types, because everything can be beautiful, Hollywood loves its waifish female characters. They’re girlish and often aren’t connected to any kind of real physicality. In cases of employing curvy actresses like Scarlett Johansson, their figures are often downplayed. Look no further than the hilariously airbrushed poster of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Johansson’s waist is preposterously synched.

Rebecca Ferguson is no waif. She’s got a curvy, athletic body whose every movement conveys power and poise. Even when removing a wet shirt after the water-tank dive (more on that soon!), the camera highlights her muscular back and powerful build, just as much as reminding us that, yes, this is a topless woman. While there’s an pronounces air of having one’s cake and eating it with the male gaze (not to mention the fridged woman early in the script), there are clear elements of “different body types are sexy,” “sexuality does not negate agency,” and “sexy can mean strength.” Sure, the camera’s male-gaze-y at times, but it’s operating at a higher level than “here’s a sexy lady, boys!”

It’d be easy to call Ilsa a femme fatale and walk away, but that undercuts her character. Her sexuality is a function of her strength and ability, not the other way around.

And her strength doesn’t end there.

2. A POWERFUL WOMAN

I’ve used the word “power” repeatedly to describe Ilsa Faust because it’s accurate on so many levels. Not only is she a physical combatant to be reckoned with, but she controls Ethan as much as she negotiates the balance of power between herself her “boss,” Solomon Lane. The IMF are her pawns as much as she is Lane’s pawn –but she’s playing a different game.

As highlighted in the above section, Ilsa controls Ethan –past the point of compromising him emotionally and logically- via her sexuality and intelligence. Nearly every situation Ethan finds himself in is arbitrated by her and for her own goals. While there’s a sexual tension between the characters, there’s never a sense of a building tryst. She is not showing off for him; she’s dressing in a way that suits her. She is not his to earn (as even Ant-Man failed to circumvent with its out-of-nowhere makeout beat); he is hers to wield.

The wrinkle in this is the number of times Ilsa saves him when it’s seemingly against her better interests. She saves Ethan from torture when it might mean compromising her deep cover; she saves Ethan from drowning in the water tank when she could die in the process; and she allows Ethan to live when Lane gives her express orders to kill him. These are powerful actions in their own right, positing that a woman is every bit as capable as a man. Some might read them as romantic impulses by a woman who can’t hide her affections, but the underlying reasoning is deeper –and more powerful (there’s that word again)- than that.

Ilsa is a double agent in the employ of Britain’s MI6, and her handler, Simon McBurney’s Atlee, has charged her with infiltrating Lane’s terrorist network. To this end, Atlee implies that Ilsa is the definition of expendable and that her life doesn’t matter outside of Britain’s interests. He also suggests that she ought to stop compromising her cover by saving Ethan. However, as a disposable pawn, the last thing Ilsa wants is to make someone else a disposable pawn.

As mentioned, Ilsa’s power is also conveyed in more straightforward ways, the most interesting of this being a brutal knife fight during ROGUE NATION’s climax. It’s a small but significant thing to point out, but it’s generally uncommon to see heroic women physically fight villainous men in movies. Furious 7 is an obvious example, giving Michelle Rodriguez’s character a throwaway fight with all-female palace guards in Dubai. Not so in Rogue Nation. To give Ethan time to confront and ensnare Lane, Ilsa knife-fights “The Bone Doctor,” the movie’s heavy fighter and infamous torturer. Beyond being an absolutely vicious fight with both combatants taking slash wounds, the fight operates with the two as equals; Ilsa’s gender doesn’t factor into it. Moreover, this is THE final fight scene of the movie, leaving Ilsa with the most ass-kicking battle and Ethan the honor of out-thinking Lane.

Rogue Nation subverts typical action movie endings with Ilsa & Ethan’ closing beat. After beating Lane at his own game, Ilsa & Ethan could very well share a trope ‘smooch of victory’ (or sex of victory, we’re all adults, here), but the movie opts for a hug. Not one of sexual intimacy, but one of thanks, relief, and apology. It’s a complex action communicating Ilsa’s deep admiration and appreciation for Ethan’s role in her mission and her role in his mission (as both of their stories were important throughout this). The message here is progressive: despite her enticing dress and their mission together, Ethan is not “entitled” to her. Her body is not a given.

Finally, as she prepares to drive away from him, she simply says, “You know where to find me.” A fun callback to her previous lines in the movie where Ilsa’s left clues to her whereabouts and the next phase of the mission, it could be a reprise of that just as much as it could be an invitation for sex. The point is that her sexual favors aren’t tied to Ethan’s success, but to her agency and interest.

3. OTHER ARGUMENTS

Despite all this, I could understand anyone telling me I’m making too much of a female double-agent. I DID write that article about Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassin afterall, and it IS a known trope. That said, I feel like the biggest separator between Ilsa and others of her trope is her agency. Rogue Nation is every bit her story as it Ethan’s, and her agenda is very much her own. All she does in service of Ethan is repeatedly save his life. She just as often hampers him from interfering in her mission.

It all comes back to a central idea in screenwriting that every character thinks the movie is their story, but in plot-driven action movies, that can all be lost in the shuffle. It’s a testament to Rogue Nation that it doesn’t forget that notion and that it also doesn’t let Ilsa’s story overpower the narrative like Ant-Man arguably did with Hope Van Dyne.

So maybe I didn’t love Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but it’s still a damn fine movie and more than worth your dollar.