The twin engines that power almost every superhero story are wonder and despair: they are expressly designed to juxtapose our greatest hopes with our greatest fears. However, most modern blockbusters are unwilling to commit to either end of the spectrum. They don't want to pause long enough to create a true sense of wonder because they are in a hurry to get to the next action set piece… Which would be fine if their fight scenes ever conveyed any real sense of danger, but they don’t; comic book movies are so desperate to appeal to audiences of all ages that they only ever create consequence free apocalypses that are half impressive and utterly unscary.
But there are exceptions to the rule. For example, this summer’s Fantastic Four made a well intentioned effort to bring wonder and despair back to the superhero movie.
For those that are unfamiliar with the Fantastic Four: they are Marvel comic’s first family. You’ve got Reed Richards, who can elongate his rubbery body to absurd lengths; Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman, whose powers are self-explanatory; Johnny Storm, the flying flaming Human Torch; and Ben Grimm, the rock-covered Thing. Like almost every other superhero, they have impossible powers that they use to save the world, but unlike the X-Men, who were born with powers, or Spider-man, who unintentionally got his powers from an irradiated spider one random afternoon, the Fantastic Four had to earn their abilities.
Well, sort of; they are inexplicably gifted with powers the instant they set foot on the mysterious “Planet Zero” – but getting to Planet Zero was a lot of work. You see, when Reed and Ben were middle schoolers they tried to build a matter teleporter. However, their prototype didn’t work as planned so they had to spend several years trying to refine their initial design. Eventually they realized they would never get it figured out on their own so they joined up with the Baxter corporation in the hopes that Baxter’s team of in-house scientists could help them get the bugs worked out. But even then their work wasn’t done – they still had to put in many hours of blood, sweat and tears as a team before their dream machine was fully operational.
I’m sure that all of that toil was frustrating for them, but I'm glad that they had to do it because all of those scenes of hard work established the story’s stakes. If Reed had just had an idea – “I should build a teleportation machine!” – and then in the next moment he was on Planet Zero then his discovery wouldn’t have mattered at all; then I would have accused the movie of being total gibberish because teleportation is totally not a thing. However, in this movie it matters when Reed and his team arrive at their unusual destination because it is the culmination of a journey and not just an accident; the awe that crosses Reed's face as he absorbs Planet Zero's CGI-created landscape feels earned.
But Fantastic Four doesn’t just try to create a sense of wonder – it also tries to create a sense of despair, because (of course) their trip to Planet Zero has some unintended consequences, and as soon as our heroes discover that their bodies have been mutated by some mysterious green glow-y stuff they start to freak out. As well they should; no one would be happy if they suddenly saw that their body was engulfed in flames.
This is another area where Fantastic Four zigs when most superhero movies zag: the general trend in comic book movies is to avoid dwelling on how monstrous most mutations are in an effort to avoid morbidity, but Fantastic Four is fairly frank about how existentially jarring it would be to discover that you had transitioned from man to monster overnight. In fact, most comic book movies only include those scenes if they need to explain why the villain is crazy – they are willing to show that sort of despair but only if they need a convenient excuse for why a previously well intentioned person would instantly turn to the dark side. Fantastic Four is the only mainstream superhero movie I can think of that pushes its heroes to the brink of insanity before pulling back and establishing them as role models - which is actually kind of cool if you think about it.
Of course, all of that conceptual boldness comes at a price. The formula for a comic book movie is so well entrenched by now that films that refuse to follow that pattern often feel off putting. That's certainly true in Fantastic Four's case. Its refusal to indulge in pointless fight scenes means that the opening acts often feel a bit slow, and even though I enjoyed its methodical pacing I did find myself occasionally wondering “when is the villain going to arrive?” (Not till the very, very end it turns out.)
Furthermore, I can’t claim that the film completely accomplishes its goals. It isn’t as wondrous as it wants to be, in large part because its science is so vague and implausible, nor is it as dark as it should be, in large part because it is reined in by it’s PG-13 rating. Worst of all, Fantastic Four ends with a boilerplate “we have to plug that inexplicable portal before it explodes!” fight scene, and that generic bit of nonsense ends up undercutting a lot of what makes the film’s middle acts feel special. The score to the final battle is full of loud drums and intense strings but it should have been a sample of a studio exec saying “sure, a Frankenstein story that features actual monsters is all well and good, but what we really need is a bunch of heroes that can sell lunch boxes!"
The best way to describe Fantastic Four is to say that it is neither fish nor fowl – it isn’t quite the pure artistic endeavor it could have been, but it isn’t a completely commercial creation, either. Which I suppose is fitting, because it is about characters that are more than men but less than Gods. However, its ultimate irony is actually external: this is a movie about wonder and despair that actually creates wonder and despair – wonder at the idea that such an unconventional genre picture was allowed to exist in this era of play-it-safe studio thinking, and despair at the thought that this movie's total box office failure means we are doomed to an endless loop of completely child-friendly CGI blandfests where the end of the world is always approaching but never arriving.