When 2007's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ended, it seemed like the franchise had plowed its way to rock bottom.
It was easy to see why. Galactus, a powerful, godlike planet consumer in the comic books, was turned into a cloud with the appearance (and personality) of a sea cucumber. The entire movie was bathed in weightless CGI culminating in a final battle that had the Human Torch (a pre–Captain America Chris Evans) absorb the powers of his fellow superheroes and fight Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), who had absorbed the powers of the Silver Surfer. Directed by Tim Story and written by Don Payne and Mark Frost, Rise of the Silver Surfer cobbled together a 37 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Thirty-seven percent isn't just failing, it's failing impressively. If doctors only delivered 37 percent of babies, our population would be struggling. If only 37 percent of highways were built, we'd have roads to nowhere. And just imagine if Chris Evans only had 37 percent of his good looks.
Thirty-seven percent feels a lot like rock bottom.
But a new depth of terribleness was found on Friday, when Fox's reboot, Fantastic Four, absolutely murdered what was left of the franchise. Fantastic Four's death wasn't humane. This was no quick knife between the eyes. Rather, it felt like there had been an open attempt to make the movie stink. Bad acting, bad writing, and bad direction combined to create an unmitigated garbage fire that's currently charting at 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
As with any wrongful death, there's a desire for an autopsy to figure out what went wrong and why. We want to know who is responsible, but usually studios don't allow this. Then something funny happened.
Director Josh Trank tweeted to the world that this Fantastic Four movie wasn't his doing. And just as quickly as it appeared, his claim disappeared. Since then, anonymous source after source has emerged from the shadows to flesh out just how this movie spun out of control.
Trank's outburst isn't just a fit of anger or embarrassment. The conflict between him and Fox points to a bigger problem — a conflict bigger than his awful movie that spans the entire superhero film genre. Is there enough creative freedom for the director of a superhero movie? And further, when it comes to a superhero film, does a director even matter?
Josh Trank let the reviews get to him, and denied responsibility for Fantastic Four
The reviews for Fantastic Four (including mine) were not kind. It is impossible to find a review in English that sings the praises of the film. And Trank has to be aware of this. On August 6, Trank (or someone with access to Trank's account) snitched on Twitter, telling the movie's critics that he'd had a better movie in his back pocket but wasn't allowed to make it:
(Let's have a brief pause to note how this tweet misspells "received.")
Trank (or someone with access to Trank's Twitter account) deleted the tweet shortly thereafter.
But the damage was already done.
Trank's tweet created a narrative in which Fox stifled and strangled his vision for Fantastic Four. The final version, according to this tweet, is something that Trank didn't approve of but was forced to go ahead with anyway. Trank's outburst also implied that there must have been a lot of conflict going on behind the scenes.
The reason one might be inclined to believe Trank is that we know he is capable of churning out a good superhero film. In 2012 he directed Chronicle, a found-footage movie that explored the horror of what happens when teens get superpowers. Chronicle was clever, it helped solidify star status for Michael B. Jordan (also in Fantastic Four) and Dane DeHaan, and it was critically acclaimed, scoring an 85 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Because Trank has shown that he can be better than Fantastic Four and because Fantastic Four was so bad, there's an understandable desire to believe him, even if his tweet was laced with sour grapes.
Sources close to Fantastic Four backed up the tweet, telling Entertainment Weekly that Trank clashed with Fox:
According to several individuals who worked on the movie, the studio delayed casting and script approvals, slashed the budget by tens of millions from what was originally promised during the development phase, and tried to force last-minute script changes to the film just as principal photography was beginning.
In the months before the movie's release, reports came out that there were massive changes, sets had to rebuilt, and reshoots were scheduled. These are almost always signs that a movie is in a dodgy state.
Fox and a few of its anonymous sources say Trank was abusive
Trank's tweet — 140 characters or less — started a war. In the hours that followed, and even with its deletion, a different set of anonymous sources told EW the director was at fault. EW reported:
Several high level sources close to Fantastic Four – spoken to independently of each other – have told EW the rift on set was not about creative differences but rather combative and abusive behavior Trank demonstrated toward the crew, producers, studio and even the stars. It’s partly linked to Trank’s personal disputes – involving accusations of deliberate damage done to the house he was renting, as revenge over a dispite [sic] with the landlord – which sources say eventually manifested on set as hostility and frustration from Trank.
Trank allegedly had beef with both Miles Teller and Kate Mara, who play Reed Richards and Sue Storm. On August 2, Mara and Teller revealed to the BBC that they hadn't even seen a finished version of the film yet.
These reports of conflict tie into Trank's life and history outside Fantastic Four too. In late April of 2015, it was announced that Trank was not going to direct the second Star Wars standalone film. Initial reports said the decision was made after reports came out that Trank was "erratic" on the set of Fantastic Four. But according to the Hollywood Reporter, Fox said that (at the time) it was "very happy with the movie and we can’t wait for audiences to see it," but the studio allowed that there "were definitely some bumps in the road."
This "abusive behavior" allegation fills in the gaps. It also makes Trank look like a liability that other people had to pick up the slack for. That's not something you want to hear if you're a studio inclined to choose Trank to direct your film.
Who has the power when a movie is being made?
At the heart of all these cracks and fissures is a glimpse at the balance of power in moviemaking.
To be clear, there wasn't just one thing wrong with Fantastic Four — it had many glaringly terrible parts working in unison to give us a Voltron of garbage. The pacing was awful (something you would attribute to directing and editing), the actors were lackluster, the lines the actors were saying were stale, and the overall concept was a mess.
In this case, Trank directed the film and shares screenwriting credits on it. But you can't help but wonder about the checks and balances at play. Were Kate Mara and Miles Teller really complicit with lines like "Dr. Doom over here"? Who decided to reshoot scenes with Mara and that terrible wig? And there's the sense that a lot of parts of this movie (the scenes when Reed and Ben are kids, or the scenes right after the heroes get their powers) felt more in line with Trank and his work on Chronicle than other parts of the movie.
When movies are critiqued, the bulk of the ownership usually falls upon the director. Recently, we saw something similar happen to Amy Schumer's Trainwreck. Though Schumer had screenwriting credits, said that this movie had parts borrowed from her life, and starred in the film, critics attributed flaws in the movie's story to director Judd Apatow.
"Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can't escape the feeling that somehow Schumer's vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies … follow," the Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek wrote. "One in which the comforts of conventional partnerships and family life are what we should all aspire to, even though we may pretend to be interested in tawdry things like casual sex and excessive partying."
With Fantastic Four, things are different. Trank directed and co-wrote the movie. You can assume his voice is all over the movie, but it's unclear how much Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater, the two other screenwriters, contributed or how much (or little) Trank listened to them. It gets even murkier since Kinberg, who, by virtue of writing the hit movie X-Men: Days of Future Past, has Fox's confidence (Kinberg is writing Fox's X-Men: Apocalypse) and was also a producer on Fantastic Four. If Fox wasn't happy with Trank, it could have caused conflict with Kinberg.
The idea of too many bosses is a reality when it comes to a studio tentpole film. Max Landis, who wrote Chronicle, explained that not having enough independence was behind Trank's frustrations. When the two worked on Chronicle together, there weren't as many people involved:
Chronicle was an incredibly rare and easy ride. I loved writing the script. I enjoyed our producer, John Davis, and our exec, Steve.— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 7, 2015
But Chronicle was a complete fluke. We had so much control because the movie was, in relation to other movies that year, TINY.— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 7, 2015
A movie like Fantastic Four, an assignment with a lot riding on it, was always going to have a tremendous amount of cooks in the kitchen.— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 7, 2015
Even though Fantastic Four was terrible, the deeply cynical side of me believes Fox doesn't care how bad it was. The reality is that Fox has to produce movies by a certain date to retain the rights to its Marvel characters. Fox would, no doubt, prefer a good movie that makes piles of money. But even with disaster, it's managed to keep the rights to the Fantastic Four.
How Josh Trank explains Ava DuVernay and Joss Whedon
Trank's fight with Fox might ultimately damage his career. He's now seen as a directorial liability whom large studios might think twice about hiring to direct a franchise blockbuster. He may ultimately have to do a bevy of smaller, independent projects or turn to television.
But Trank's experience isn't a unique issue. Over the past year, there have been several talented directors who have fallen out with their studio or had disputes over comic book films.
In May 2014, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) left Ant-Man because of "differences in their vision of the film," Marvel and Wright said in a joint statement. Wright's script still served as the basis for the film's eventual screenplay.
One year later, around the time Avengers: Age of Ultron launched, Joss Whedon came clean about the creative disputes he'd had with Marvel and how "unpleasant" they became. Whedon mentioned an instance in which Marvel held one of his scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron hostage until one that Marvel wanted, but Whedon didn't, was included.
And just last month, Selma director Ava DuVernay announced that she wouldn't be directing Marvel's Black Panther movie. In a statement, DuVernay explained the movie would be a huge investment of her time. But the fascinating and revealing thing about her explanation was that she said it would be an investment of time in a movie that wasn't truly hers.
"It's important to me that that be true to who I was in this moment. And if there’s too much compromise, it really wasn’t going to be an Ava DuVernay film," the director said.
What Wright, DuVernay, Whedon, and Trank have in common is that they were chosen for their specific vision, but the studios weren't fully comfortable with letting them do what they do so well. There's an underlying sense of compromise each director had to face, and some weren't willing to work under the aegis of someone else's vision.
From a studio perspective, this compromise is needed not only because there's just so much money riding on these films, but also because so much money has been made delivering the same kind of story. Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World all have the same basic structure — good guys have a weapon but don't know it; a bad guy obtains it and goes on a mini-rampage; good guys are part of a dysfunctional team that has to work out its issues; aliens invade; bad guy loses the destructive weapon; and the good guys almost die defeating said bad guy.
If you're a studio head, you don't want to stray too far away from this formula because there's just too much risk in something edgier. That's understandable. But it also compromises directors' creativity — this is why Captain America: Winter Soldier, a political thriller disguised as a superhero flick, and Avengers: Age of Ultron's sad moments were so refreshing to see.
The more disheartening side to this equation is that any director who chooses to work on a superhero movie will continue to have his or her art flattened, maybe beyond recognition. The more successful superhero films become, the less reason there is to stray from the formula and the more likely we are to be fed stories from corporations instead of actual humans. And maybe the one good thing Fantastic Four can bring is a realization that isn't the path we want to be on.