Dear Hollywood: Enough With the Origin Stories

Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot is, as you might suspect from its already notoriously “troubled production” and the ruthless reviews thus far, a mess: a lazy, stale, banal snoozer that can’t even clear the low bar of a late-summer popcorn flick. It’s a poorly constructed, ineptly executed, flatfooted piece of Branded Product that plays as though it were written by a piece of software fed every superhero movie script to date and instructed to synthesize them. And it falls prey to the creakiest yet most bafflingly prevalent convention of the genre (particularly in these ostensibly course-correcting reboots): it’s yet another origin story. Movies, please cut it out.

Fantastic Four hits theaters a mere decade after the last attempt to bring the long-running Marvel comic book series to the screen (itself technically a reboot, following the legendary, unreleased 1994 Roger Corman quickie, whose behind-the-scenes story is more entertaining than any actual FF film to date). Though critically lambasted and generally terrible, it earned enough money to prompt a 2009 sequel, which made slightly less money and was even worse. Neither execs nor audiences were all that into the idea of continuing that particular series — but if Fox didn’t put another Fantastic Four into production, it risked losing the rights. So, as is so often the case, the studio wiped the slate clean and started all over again, with a new director, a new cast, and, yes, a new movie-length dramatization of how the Fantastic Four became the Fantastic Four.

Michael B. Jordan in ""Fantastic Four (2015)"

We’ve been down this road before. Back in 2012 — again, just ten years after the original origin film hit screens — Sony gave us The Amazing Spider-Man, which spent two-plus hours retelling an only-slightly-altered story of how Peter Parker became a web-slinger. That bad movie made money, its worse sequel made less, and now they’re gonna start all over again, with a second reboot debuting in 2017 and, presumably, starting the story over. It’s par for the course; reboots from The Punisher: War Zone to Man of Steel to Conan the Barbarian have spent half or more of their running time retelling the origin stories of their heroes. The new Fantastic Four does the same — the variations are minor (this quartet and the villain they’re taking on are younger; their powers are acquired in a botched trip to another dimension rather than into outer space), amounting to yet another long, dull, movie-length slog to get to what we presumably came to see: superheroes being superheroes.

Simple question: Why? What do the makers of these films think they’re accomplishing? People aren’t stumbling in to a Fantastic Four or Spider-Man or Superman film like some sort of Rip Van Winkle (“Who are these four, and what makes them so fantastic?!?”). It’s pretty safe to bet that the bulk of the audience is at least passingly familiar with these characters, since they’re fucking inescapable pop culture paraphernalia; in fact, they’ve probably even seen their origins as dramatized in those previous films.

One of the few comic books to “get it” was the otherwise unexceptional Edward Norton-fronted Incredible Hulk, pitched as a kinda-sorta-pretty-much reboot in the wake of Ang Lee’s indifferently received 2003 Hulk. It retells the story of how Bruce Banner became Hulk — over the opening credits. They get the job done in like five minutes, and then move on to do this nutty yet increasingly rare thing called “telling a new story.” And it’s not like there aren’t new stories to tell; these are characters that have been around for decades, at the center of thousands of comic books, and yet these schumcks keep putting them back at square one.

Still from "Fantastic Four (2015)"

This is not to imply that this basic concept correction would’ve fixed Fantastic Four ’15; the situation is far more dire than that. The acting veers from serviceable to terrible (Toby Kebbell’s hilariously overwrought turn as Victor Von Doom is the funniest performance of the summer), the dialogue is so riddled with clichés that it could’ve been shot as an Airplane-style spoof with no rewriting, the pacing is inexorable, the effects are shoddy, the production design is airless, the themes are so clumsily overstated that they might as well parade them around on cards like boxing “ring girls,” and the Generic Superhero Movie plotting and style is like a betrayal of everything that made co-writer/director Trank’s previous picture Chronicle so interesting (it explored a ground-level, real-world notion of acquiring “super powers,” and what it would do to actual characters, as opposed to cardboard movie cutouts).

In other words, it’s like a million other movies you’ve seen a million times before — but, more than that, it’s like a specific movie with the same title that you saw ten years ago, only worse. (Yes, really.) But hey, at least we can take solace in this: either it makes a lot of money and the fans love it and they make more of them, or they chuck this cast/approach and reboot the whole thing, and then we get to see this origin story yet again.

I’ll let you decide which scenario is worse.

Fantastic Four is out tomorrow.