Fantastic Four (2015) as Josh Trank’s film à clef

Fantastic Four (2015) as Josh Trank’s film à clef first published by the Guardian

After writing, directing and editing episodes of Spike TV’s The Kill Point (2009) and editing Robert D. Siegel’s feature Big Fan (2011), Josh Trank got his big break with Chronicle (2013), a low-to-mid-budget feature that he helmed and helped write. Telling the story of three high-school seniors who receive telekinetic powers from an alien object and then fall out with each other, and marrying a found-footage format to superhero tropes, Chronicle pulled off the miracle of turning the $12 million that it cost to make into a worldwide gross of $125 million, and made Trank, at age 27, the youngest director to have a film open in the Number One position at the American box office.

In other words, Trank had become a golden boy, and Hollywood was quick to come calling. The offers came flooding in, or were rumoured to: Sony’s Venom, Warner’s The Red Star, even a Star Wars standalone film – all big-name brands, whether as comicbook adaptations or entries in established film franchises. Yet the title that would attract Trank was Twentieth Century Fox’s reboot of Fantastic Four This Marvel property was first made as a Corman quickie in 1994 so that Bernd Eichinger’s Neue Constantin production company could retain its rights on the material – and it was in fact never released theatrically, although bootleg copies have won it a certain cult cachet. Fantastic Four was then relaunched in 2005 as a big-budget Fox-Constantin co-production (of questionable quality) directed by Tim Story, who went on to helm its 2007 sequel as well, with rapidly diminishing returns. This was one of the less memorable Marvel superhero franchises of the new millennium, which made the prospect of reimagining it for the third time in two decades either an utterly thankless task, or a genuine challenge.

Still, it it not hard to see what would attract Trank to this story world. After all, at least in Trank’s retelling of it, Fantastic Four shares a lot of DNA with his directorial debut Chronicle – for here once more young friends accidentally acquire freakish powers from an alien source, and are set at odds with each other. So Trank was remaking his own film as much as Tim Story’s Noughties pics – and seen from this perspective, it is not just another dumbassed superhero film, but a metacinematic commentary on the relationship between independent filmmaking and the Hollywood machine, and on the sacrifices, transformations and compromises required by any young filmmaker who wants to make a mark.

Viewed this way, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a figure for Trank himself: smart, talented, ambitious, interested less in money than in “making a difference”, ripe for disillusionment. Like many a would-be filmmaker, Reed starts at an early age on do-it-yourself projects at home, and after an extraordinary success, is lured to a better equipped facility, the slick, well-funded Baxter Building, where he is invited to repeat his brilliant if juvenile work on a much larger scale (not unlike Fantastic Four itself, which was made for over $100 million more than Chronicle). Yet scaling up also brings much greater scrutiny and less independence, as various parties run by older men start to take a close interest in the talents of Reed and his equally youthful colleagues. Reed and his newly empowered buddies Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) do their best to forge a new identity for themselves working either inside or outside a corporate machine that seems determined to exploit them to its own ends, while Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) strives to go it alone and maybe even bring down the whole system.

All this rather obviously reflects and allegorises the issues and choices that Trank was facing as he had to find his own way through a studio system that was all at once assimilating and diluting his name and talent for their latest blockbuster title. You can see it in Reed’s initial entrancement with the bigger, better toys of the Baxter building (or of the even bigger laboratory where he ends up), and in his instinct to bail at the first opportunity once he sees how all this has changed him; or in Sue’s anxious resistance to being made a “tool” of the suits; or in the way that Ben is blackmailed into doing the company’s dirty work; or in the ease with which Johnny is seduced by all the speed and flames and big-bang action on offer; or in the way that Reed and Ben reminisce wistfully about the old days and wonder how different things might have been if their early work had never been discovered and they had been left to their own creative devices.

Finally this creative ensemble comes back together, as Reed realises, “This is who we are now”, and embraces this new opportunity for his “work to make a difference.” It is, of course, at this late point in the film that a cosmic threat and a big punch-up are shoe-horned into the plot, delivering precisely the sort of action extravaganza that audiences (and studios) expect in a big-budget Marvel adaptation, while equally marking it as gratuitous, tacked-on, pathetically empty spectacle. In Fantastic Four, the climax comes as a disposable afterthought, advertising its own deeply compromised nature. Trank schools us in the sort of nonsense we get – and desire to get – in a product from the big boys, while devoting most of the rest of his film to celebrating the virtues of being small and retaining integrity, even amidst great change.

In the post-battle coda, we see Reed insisting to his paymasters that he and his team get full independence, and a promise of no outside interference, for their next project. One can only dream – and it is interesting to see that dream, and the realities of blockbuster filmmaking that constantly work against it, being presented so vividly on screen. Still, good luck to Reed – and Trank – with that. True independence, you see, both does, and doesn’t, come cheap.

Anton Bitel