There is nothing new under the sun.
I thought of Solomon’s iconic lament as I walked out of Fantastic Four, a painfully unnecessary (and painfully bad) reboot of a franchise that comes across as a forgettable B-side to The Avengers.
Was anyone in the world (other than Hollywood investors looking to make easy money, and young actors looking for blockbuster roles) actually hungry for a Fantastic Four reboot, a mere ten years after the last Fantastic Four? Probably not.
But sadly, reboots seem to be the only sure money in Tinseltown these days. And with Jurassic World’s quick box office ascension to becoming the third highest grossing film of all time, expect more. At this rate, a Titanic reboot starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Tye Sheridan will be coming soon.
There is nothing in Fantastic Four that hasn’t been seen before. The plot is a ho-hum hodge-podge of every comic book superhero film cliché imaginable: Mildly nerdy (but not really) high school kid does science experiments that eventually lead to a mishap. Said mishap gives him and his friends mutant powers. One of them turns evil and starts killing people, then declares that the entire earth must be destroyed.
The four mutant teens resist being turned into military weapons by government villains, instead opting to save the world on their own terms. Climactic battle involving teamwork and cool special effects ensues, and they succeed. Saving the world from extinction at the hands of a maniacal villain has never been more boring.
Not that it didn’t have promise. With Miles Teller (Whiplash), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Kate Mara (House of Cards), and Jamie Bell (Snowpiercer) comprising Fantastic’s quartet of superheroes, the casting alone should have made the film watchable. But the best actors and the best special effects cannot redeem a clunker of a script.
The problems with Fantastic’s script are extensive, starting with the fact that the film is 90% set-up (or should I say—yawn—the “origin story”). Only in the final fifteen minutes do the four heroes start to do anything remotely fantastic, and then right as they get going the film wraps up and the credits roll.
Then there’s the excruciatingly bad dialogue, with too many cringeworthy lines to count, including the “mentor” character’s sage advice to his millennial protégés (“The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours”) and insightful gems from the nerdy-but-beautiful girl who listens to Portishead while she calculates teleportation equations (“We can’t change the past, but we can change the future”).
Aside from being a portentous sign that the short-lived golden age of Hollywood reboots (which probably peaked with 2005’s Batman Begins) is coming to an end, does Fantastic Four reveal anything insightful about our world in 2015? Perhaps its existence, as another remake/sequel/reboot that will probably make more money than 95% of the original films that come out this year, confirms that “we prefer nostalgia to novelty,” as was eloquently argued in a recent Christ and Pop Culture article on the subject.
Maybe the film also provides more evidence for the pervasive anxiety we feel in today’s world, where narratives of zombie apocalypse, Rapture apocalypse, alien invasion, machine takeover, toppling skyscrapers, and San Andreas-style disaster are the ones that resonate the most. Fantastic Four definitely takes a page from the “earth is dying and we need to look to other planets if we want to survive” playbook, as seen in recent films like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Michel Faber’s excellent novel, The Book of Strange New Things.
Though the details are a bit sketchy, the driving assumption of Fantastic Four’s plot seems to be that newly discovered resources in another dimension will ensure the sustainability of human life. If we can only harness those powers, perhaps we can save earth from its inevitable self-destruction.
Are plots like these signs of society’s collective resignation to earth’s imminent demise? Have we given up hope of actually finding solutions to the problems that plague our planet?
Gone are the optimistic visions of a future where technology made life better (Disneyland’s Tomorrowland opened in 1955, The Jetsons, even Back to the Future II). 70 years after atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ushered in an always-on-the-brink-of-annihilation world, dystopian visions reign supreme on today’s screens. The narratives we cling to today are more about survival (Hunger Games), escape (rapture or space exploration), or supernatural rescue (superhero movies) than they are about human progress.
But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps the “nothing new under the sun” creative failings of Fantastic Four are just an indication that the formula works for a reason, and always has. The arcs of the “super,” “amazing” and “fantastic” heroes resonate with what we instinctively know: humans cannot redeem themselves on their own merits. We need something “super,” a power that transcends our limits and comes from beyond our world.
Fantastic Four is full of the sort of PG-13, largely CGI comic book violence that we’ve by now grown accustomed to. Bodies undergo disturbing mutations as super-powers are discovered. Villains kill victims by making their heads explode (not too explicitly, of course). Fights between superheroes are intense but bloodless. Most viewers will have seen it all before. Other than comic book violence, the film also has a handful of curse words and a scene of heavy drinking that leads to very bad decisions (but one that is essential for the plot).
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken.