When I saw how “Fantastic Four” was ranked on Rotten Tomatoes, I ran straight to the theater. Eight percent fresh? I wondered. But how? Was that even possible? That was south of Congress and genital herpes.

Now I know why. It was like Tommy Wiseau directed a superhero movie. It was like watching the Fox News GOP debate, but without the plot, stakes or cheery presence of Donald Trump. Whenever something crashes and burns this badly, it deserves a closer look. What went so wrong?

One of the elements of Wiseau’s horrible classic “The Room” that makes it such a masterpiece is how doggedly it sets up situations and set pieces that are familiar from other films. Love scenes. Fights. Football? But then it doesn’t understand why those set pieces work. How do you show that two people are in love? Well, I don’t know. How about they tell each other, repeatedly, that “I’m crazy about you.” How do you know they’re upset? I don’t know, how about they shout “YOU ARE TEARING ME APART, LISA!”

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This was like that.

Usually, superhero movies contain certain tropes and elements

There’s life before. There’s the event where you gain powers, usually accompanied by a loss of some sort. There’s a montage where the characters learn how to use their powers. Then, after they fail once (but learn, bond and grow in the process) they succeed a second time and we all go home happy with stomachs full of popcorn.

Loosely, this is the superhero movie structure. Even if they don’t contain all of those things, usually they at least contain a couple of key elements, like someone to root for, or a plot.

“Fantastic Four” was above these things.

It wasn’t like they threw out the baby with the bathwater, in the editing room. It’s as though they made an explicit point to keep the bathwater and lose the baby.

It was like the executives behind it asked themselves the following questions:

  • What if we removed all the parts of superhero movies that people enjoy and just had a lot of footage of people staring at computer screens waiting for things to load?
  • What if we made a superhero movie where we just SKIPPED the year when the team discovers their powers?
  • What if we cut out the part where the protagonists bond, do you think the audience would mind?
  • What if the big scientific discovery of the movie is something that an 8-year-old boy built in his garage in the first 10 minutes but I guess it took almost a full hour of movie time and more Movie Science to rebuild it bigger?
  • What if we literally had a science teacher so bad that when the hero teleports something during a science fair, he says “YOU ARE KICKED OUT OF THIS FAIR BECAUSE WHAT YOU DID WAS MAGIC, NOT SCIENCE”?
  • What if the hero got a scholarship to something called the Baxter Institute or Baxter Foundation but the movie never explains whether it’s a school or a lab or an orphanage or what?
  • What if The Thing didn’t wear pants?
  • What if the entire climax is fought in a CGI land where there are no clear rules or stakes, so much so that someone has to keep yelling what everyone is doing and why because otherwise you have no idea what’s going on other than there is a lot of blue flashing light?
  • What if Kate Mara’s special genius skill in the movie was pattern recognition?
  • Seriously, pattern recognition.
  • What if literally someone goes to Kate Mara at a key moment and says WE NEED SOMEONE WHO CAN RECOGNIZE A PATTERN, would that be good? Is that the kind of drama people have come to expect?
  • What if instead of having characters reveal themselves through action, we just had them tell each other what their motives were, saying things like “You look really in your element.” or “No, this is your home.” or “This is what you’ve always wanted.” or “I know why you’re doing this.” or “Let me tell you who you are.”
  • What if the villain’s power is he can kill everyone just by thinking about it, but then when he gets to his home planet where his powers are strongest, he can’t?
  • What if the final climax of the film is someone saying “TEAMWORK! THAT WAS WHAT WE WERE MISSING!”
  • What if someone unironically says, “Please, Victor. We’re not gods.”
  • What if the film includes a scene where Miles Teller carries a big stack of books over to Kate Mara in a library, pulls out “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” and says, “They have great books here. This is my favorite book. In it, a man named Captain Nemo builds a submarine! It goes deeper than anything has ever gone.”
  • What if our main romance is two people whose chemistry could best be described as Two People Who Both Want To Leave The Room Because They Are Running Behind But Don’t Want To Be The First To End The Conversation Because That Would Be Rude?
  • What if their most romantic exchange goes as follows:
    • “I’m adopted,” Kate Mara says.
    • “I know what that’s like,” Miles Teller says.
    • “You’re adopted?” Kate Mara says.
    • “No,” says Miles Teller, “but I wish I were.”
  • What if nobody develops powers or does anything until about an hour has gone by?
  • What if we made a superhero movie with all the urgency and stakes of your grandmother, on the phone, retelling her trip to the grocery while she putters around the house?
  • What if the heroes had to recruit the assistance of a Clearly Evil person whose last name was Von Doom and who says subtle, ambiguous things like “I don’t think humanity deserves a second chance”?
  • What if the basis for everyone getting powers was that they all got mysteriously drunk off a single tiny flask and Miles Teller decided to call up a friend whom he hadn’t seen for months (days? years? the timeline is never clear) and take him with them to another dimension and nobody blinked an eye? They all just nodded and said, “Sure, bring your non-scientist friend into our secret lab, slap a suit on him (we’ve got a spare suit, I guess!) and let’s travel interdimensionally.”
  • What if their motivation for doing this was “everyone remembers Neil Armstrong but no one remembers the scientists who sent him”?
  • What if Kate Mara brings them back by doing that “hacker” thing where your hands go clickety-clickety-clack over the computer keys frantically to “override”?
  • What if when they come back some blue energy goes BOOM so she gets powers even though she did not get to go get space drunk with the boys, because perhaps she had seen “The Fly” and knew better than to just hop willy-nilly into a teleporter?
  • What if Miles Teller just disappears for a year?
  • What if the last word of the movie was someone about to say “Fantastic Four” but they cut to credits before he could actually say it?
  • What if we made a superhero movie where one of the climactic moments was Miles Teller very slowly pulling his arm back into his sleeve?

“Fantastic Four” is the answer to all of these questions. I would call it a trainwreck, but “Trainwreck” was actually good. This was . . . something else. I’d see it again, at midnight, if they let me throw spoons at the screen.

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