Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Fantastic Four (2015), Brand Loyalty, and "The Genius of the System"

I saw Josh Trank's Fantastic Four movie last week and what surprised me most was that, while it wasn't outright terrific, it actually wasn't all that bad. The critical and fan backlash against the film would have us believe that it was one of the worst movies of all time, which clearly is not the case.

Yes, the film is a bit slow-paced, which works fine in the opening 30-40 minutes as characters are being introduced, but dampens the fun in the back half. Yes, there is a devastating lack of witty banter of the sort one expects from the FF -- Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm do not flip each other any shit until the very last scene of the film, and that is a major problem. In general, Trank's take on the FF is a bit too serious in tone, which works well in the horrific segments depicting how the individual characters react to their newly acquired powers, but kills the buzz when it comes to the group's interpersonal dynamics. Omitting the traditional witty banter between the members of the FF is the biggest crime this film commits.

On the other hand, the movie's overall plot is well thought out; the idea that the military would try to control and exploit the FF really works for me. Furthermore, the film's portrayal of Victor Von Doom is absolutely spot-on, one of the best things about Trank's version. The darker tone really suits that particular character, and the parts where he starts wreaking havoc are terrific, although arguably they come along a bit late in the proceedings.

Toby Kebbell as Victor Von Doom -- the best part of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four movie. 

In other words, the FF film is flawed but not a disaster. As the Red Letter Media guys tell us, there are many good things about it, enough to keep it from being an outright failure. I personally enjoyed the film about as much as I enjoyed Marvel's Thor (2011), which had some good parts (its Asgard sequences) and, like the middle third of Trank's FF movie, just as many parts that dragged lifelessly and bored me (in Thor's case, pretty much everything that takes place on Earth).

Yet the Marvel movie fanbase seems to think that all Marvel Studios movies are somehow better than any other superhero action films these days and are rooting for Fox to hand the rights to the FF to Marvel Studios in the wake of Trank's reboot's under-performance. Bracketing aside that for economic reasons alone, that will never happen, I am not actually sure that is such a great idea. I think having different studios producing different "takes" on Marvel properties is probably a good thing, and I am not convinced that the Marvel Studios-produced films are really as consistently good as their brand-loyal fans think they are.

I am not saying that Marvel Studios isn't good at what they do. I enjoyed the first Iron Man and the first Avengers movies and thought the first Hulk and Thor movies were at least watchable. But the second Iron Man movie was a hot mess, and there is a kind of formulaic sameness that infects all Marvel's films that is getting really boring to me at this late stage in the game.*

Not that Trank didn't have his own problems with Fox Studios -- he did. As Mark Harris documented in 2014, we are in a completely franchise-dominated, bottom-line driven era of blockbuster film production, in which Disney-owned Marvel is just one particularly exemplary participant.** To be sure, Marvel Studios showed its true colors when it foolishly drove Edgar Wright off Ant-Man and pushed Joss Whedon to the point of exhaustion on Avengers 2, yet Fox and Universal are just as capable of crushing originality and creativity (or at least crushing the possibility of great mid-budget movies from directors like Trank) as is Marvel.

And my critique here reveals my own bias, doesn't it? I still tend to trust the individual director more so than I trust the larger Studio-as-auteur model now dominating Hollywood (just as it did in the Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s). To be fair, my preference for the individual director over the "house style" of a studio like Marvel (which is really Disney) is surely misguided. As Thomas Schatz writes in his brilliant book The Genius of the System,
the closer we look at Hollywood's relations of power and hierarchy of authority during the studio era, at its division of labor and assembly-line production process, the less sense it makes to assess filmmaking or film style in terms of the individual director -- or any individual, for that matter. [. . .] The quality and artistry of all these films were the product not simply of individual human expression, but of a melding of institutional forces. [. . .] The chief architects of a studio's style were its executives*** 
While it is not entirely accurate to compare today's Hollywood, dominated by unit-production and run by multinational conglomerates, to the vertically integrated major studios of the Golden Age, there are nevertheless some illuminating parallels to be drawn when discussing Marvel Studios in Schatz's terms.† Mark Harris has recently argued that studio executives like Marvel's Kevin Feige are the new power brokers in a Hollywood addicted to franchises and "live-action trailers" such as Feige's attention-getting 2014 reveal of the MCU's Phase 3. Indeed, Marvel Studios' Feige is surely the contemporary analogue to those executives to whom Schatz refers, and it is Feige, along with his corporate overlords at Disney, who chart the course of the MCU and make the final decisions about the tone, style, and content of each Marvel film.

No wonder idiosyncratic directors like Edgar Wright and Josh Trank, used to working in the somewhat more freewheeling indie sector, chafe at the dictates handed down by Disney/Marvel and Fox Studios.

Embattled director Josh Trank. 

All that said, perhaps the most noteworthy thing to me about Trank's Fantastic Four is its refusal to objectify or diminish Kate Mara's Sue Storm -- yes, amazingly, the film avoids the sexism that has so far pervaded the "official" Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios' ongoing refusal to give Black Widow her own movie is only the best-known instance of this problem, dubbed "The Black Widow Conundrum" by Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich. Franich writes:
isn’t it weird that, by the final action sequence [of Avengers 2], Black Widow’s main role is the same role as Pepper Potts in Iron Man, or Jane Foster in Thor: The lady who helps her man become a hero? “I adore you,” she tells Bruce Banner, right before she forces him to Hulk out and save the day. He also saves her life, and then makes the executive decision to disappear—To protect her, I guess? Even though the last time they talked, she made it pretty clear that she didn’t need to be protected?
Similarly, Natalie Portman's role in the Thor films is so transparently that of a two-dimensional damsel in distress that the actress attempted to escape the franchise after the first movie, to no avail.

Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne is relegated to training Ant-Man, her male replacement, because sexism.

To take an even more recent example, as Allyson Johnson argues in Marvel’s Ant-Man Went Out of Its Way to Shrink Hope Van Dyne’s Role and Suffered for It,
There is absolutely no reason why [Hope] shouldn’t have been the hero of the story. She’s relegated to being mad at her father and to training Scott, who in reality, has no real reason [for] being Ant-Man in this narrative aside from the fact that the larger narrative in the Marvel cinematic universe needs him to be. Hope is skilled in fighting, wildly intelligent and knows the lay of the company they will be infiltrating, and she continuously tells her father that she should be the one putting on the suit.
Indeed. Sadly, Ant-Man's Hope Van Dyne is just the latest female action hero to fall prey to what Tasha Robinson calls Trinity Syndrome, in which a female character initially presented as an ass-kicker is given very little to do in the film's narrative besides support the male protagonist. According to Robinson, this increasingly common character type ends the films she appears in as "the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene."

 Kate Mara as Sue Storm.

Fantastic Four's Sue Storm does not suffer this same fate. Hell, she does not even become Reed Richards's love interest in any palpable way during this film! She does become the target of Victor Von Doom's inappropriate affection/vengeance, but the film makes clear that she never encourages this. Furthermore, she never "uses" her feminine sexuality as a weapon or trap and the film never visually objectifies her. She simply plays her capable role on the team and that's that. What a refreshing breath of fresh air that was, believe me.

So in the end, I guess I am somewhat invested in keeping some of these Marvel characters in the hands of other studios and other directors. Trank's film may have been something of a noble failure, but for its casting, tone, refusal to objectify Sue Storm, and a few other nifty ideas, I respect it. While taking nothing away from Marvel Studios and what they do so well, I would rather see a few more of these offbeat attempts at something different than the same formulaic and predictable product Marvel/Disney seems intent on pumping out until the turn of the next millennium.

UPDATE 8/30/2015: Here is a list from that addresses the sexism of the MCU in an amusing yet accurate way.

* In truth, I have not actually seen any Marvel Studios film since The Avengers in 2012.
** Harris updated his comments in this 2015 follow-up, written after Jurassic World's release.
*** Schatz, The Genius of the System (Pantheon Books, 1988), pp. 5-7.
† Unit production, which has been the dominant way of making Hollywood films since the 1950s, is when a unique constellation of creative and technical personnel (the "unit") are assembled to make each individual film. As Schatz documents, while some studios flirted with unit-production methods during the studio era (1920s-1940s), the dominant mode of production back then was to have one supervising producer in charge of several films at a time at a given studio. The authority of this creative studio executive, who usually reported only to the studio boss, was so great that key personnel on individual films, even directors, were considered interchangeable. These producers (Irving Thalberg at MGM, David Selznick at RKO, Darryl Zanuck at Warners) were indeed the auteurs of the films they supervised, and they frequently mixed and matched directors, writers, cinematographers, etc., as each project required, thereby diffusing the creative control of those adjuvant personnel.
†† As io9's Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta have noted, Marvel/Disney's disservice to Black Widow extends beyond the films: they cite Jeremy Renner's public slut-shaming of the character and the lack of Black Widow merchandise as evidence of the structural sexism surrounding her at Disney/Marvel. Of course, they also note the unfortunate sexism of her "forced sterilization" back story in Avengers 2: "Instead of wading into the 'red ledger' of a complicated person who did seriously heinous acts and is trying desperately to buy redemption with good deeds, we get the character who feels ruined by her barren womb." Much of my diminishing interest in Marvel movies is due to crap like this.

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