Fantastic Four All Fiction, No Fantasy

Despite their amazing powers, the fantastic four (Mr. Fantastic, The Thing, Invisible Woman and Human Torch), after whom the movie is named, seem to have failed in helping the movie live up to its name. Since Fantastic Four is the reboot of a Marvel comic book, the plot is familiar to many and is followed closely in the movie. However, even that contributes to the film’s lack of appeal. Fortune’s in-house film critic is especially peeved by the casting of a black man as a white, blonde character; by the complete absence of character arc in the movie, described as ‘an insult to the whole institution of storytelling.’ Fantastic Four is therefore awarded a generous three out of 10 stars.

I used to like only the kind of fiction that was far-fetched. Superheroes, mythical creatures, future gadgets and so on are an escape from the one dimensional and boring form of existence we live in. But as time went on, and I became attuned to better forms of fiction in music, books and movies; realistic fiction was much, much stranger. The human consciousness, for instance, is considerably more fantastical than any power a superhero can ever hope to gain. And black holes – objects with such high gravitational forces that not even light can escape their event horizon –are more interesting than anything H.G. Wells has ever imagined.

But that does not mean we should rid ourselves of art, not at all. Wells sci-fi plots might not hold up for posterity, but his themes of the social consequences caused by technological advancements will always be relevant because, even though, physics is always refined, human nature never changes. So, whatever the genre – be it fantasy, action, adventure, animation or horror – if art is meant to be read, listened to, watched or felt, it will always have to be relatable. Not relatable to robots, dogs or super intelligent alien species from outer space but to humans.

This brings me to Matti Cinema’s most recent import, the much maligned Fantastic Four reboot. The movie is one of this year’s most decried movies, both by audiences (it is one of the lowest grossing superhero movies ever released) and critics alike. And more so, by comic book fans, who are usually responsible for the word of mouth critique that seals the fate of films. But all this is not enough to tell us how bad the movie truly is; what is enough is when the film’s director himself denounces the movie and distances himself from it. This, in a more conventional and less eccentric world, should empty Matti’s main cinema hall for a week, but people just do not listen.

The film is an adaptation of a Marvel comic book, so most of us should be familiar with what Fantastic Four is about. Movies like this are not allowed to disturb the accepted storyline of their comic book versions, so they follow the plot as closely as they possibly can – even if it means ending up with a less appealing film. It starts by introducing us to a young Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic; his powers are to stretch like plastic) who, together with his best friend Ben Grimm (The Thing; he is virtually indestructible), discover a fourth dimension. This earth-shattering discovery leads him to the Baxter foundation, a foundation that recruits young minds for scientific research. There, he meets the rest of the team: Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) and her brother, Johnny Storm (Human Torch).

These friends, and one more acquaintance (Victor Von Doom; he might as well go around wearing a T-shirt that reads “I am the villain”), accidentally – very few superheroes gain their super powers willingly – gain powers that originate from an alternate universe. And with more power, says the US to justify most of its foreign policy interventions, comes more responsibility. The fantastic four try to save the earth from being swallowed by a black hole that they themselves have directly contributed to creating.

All fiction, since the days of the mighty Greek civilisation, has three acts. The first act establishes the main characters, their ambitions, quirks and the environment in which they live. The second act defines the plot extensively and shows us the effects of that plot on its characters. Act three brings about resolution of both external and internal goals. Fantastic Four has a hard time dealing correctly with the first and third acts and completely dispenses with the second.

I feel very bad for director Josh Trank because the film actually had some promise. Its biggest flaw is that even though it builds characters (rather unconvincingly, but still), it does not show character arc at all. That is obviously what drove Trank away. One bad movie in one filmmaker’s lifetime is un avoidable (except in Kubrick’s case), but Fantastic Four is not just a misstep; it is an insult to the whole institution of storytelling and to be artistically connected to the film is just immoral.

My biggest objection with the movie is the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch. It is not that he gives a bad performance (which he does), but that he is a black guy playing a white blonde character. It is an issue that is easier for me to make, than anyone of my white film critic counterparts. Using the opportunity the colour of my skin and the continental location of my country, I will make it.

I believe that whatever the social, political and religious circumstances of our current world, art should always be art, free from those three shackles on expression. There is a phrase that gets thrown around these days – colour blindness; the inability of people to see the colour of other people or, more accurately, the inability of white people to see the colour of non-white people. Jordan was not cast because he would serve the movie’s plot or theme but because it is politically incorrect to have an all white cast.

Colour blindness should not be about giving a black actor work simply because he is black. It should instead be about acknowledging the true meaning of race but not being governed by it. We should not try to fool ourselves into believing racial prejudice never happens. In the 1950’s, Jordan would not have got a role in a movie simply because he was black. Fast forward to today and he gets a part simply because he is black. I fail to see where the difference lies. What is next, a black Lawrence of Arabia, an Asian James Bond or – and this may shock a lot of people – a white Shaft.

By  Christian Tesfaye
Special to Fortune

Published on Aug 24,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 799]



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