The future of superhero movies and why I won’t watch ‘Fantastic Four’

fantastic four 2015 movie
(20th Century Fox)

Recently, I was supposed to watch and review the latest Fantastic Four movie. As the film reviewer and one of the first contributors to a website which focuses on geek culture with a heavy emphasis on superheroes, I feel a responsibility to cover as many superhero and comic book-related films as possible.

Sadly, this summer movie season I’ve missed both of the big Marvel productions due to different markets having different openings (I was in the U.S. when Age of Ultron opened early in South Korea, and Ant-Man opened a week late where I am now). Further, with my other professional writing obligations I haven’t been able to provide the analysis I’ve wanted to. My “to write” list is about a dozen titles long – only counting projects for this site – and rapidly becoming outdated. But most of all, I’m just someone who grew up with a passion for superhero comics and grew into a passion for film.

This passion is why Pop Mythology exists. We are fans and enthusiasts. Like anyone else, we take time out of our regular lives to consume the books, comics, music, television, and movies which we address on this site. While many contributors receive complimentary review copies (and well deserved as those reviewers do a great job), I’ve spent hundreds of dollars in order to write these reviews. Usually, I’m happy to. My compensation comes in a chance to express myself and my passion and to support a vision, a community, and the films and filmmakers I believe in.

These are the reasons why I have decided not to watch or review Fantastic Four.

Between the response of fellow reviewers and audience members who have access to early screenings and the way the marketing has generated no personal interest whatsoever, I simply don’t want to subject myself to another lifeless cash grab. Contrary to the response toward my Jurassic World review, I do not go into a movie with the sole intention of writing mean things about it. Quite the opposite in fact, my most common rating is 3.5 stars out of 5, meaning I am generally positive on the things I watch and don’t usually watch something if I’m not interested in it. I want every movie I attend to be good. Why else would I give my time and money to see it? I’m not one of those folks who enjoys watching bad movies. There are too many good movies I still haven’t seen. Sure, I like plenty of movies very few others do, and I despise many films that most people love, but I don’t decide I’m going to dislike a movie before taking my seat.

(Warner Bros.)

Like any other reasonable audience member I do a little research on the film’s director, writer, stars, and source material in order to understand what I’m about to see. This is why my expectations are extremely low for The Force Awakens and Dawn of Justice, because both J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder have been nothing but disappointing for the last ten years. I may have such an opinion, but when I enter a movie theater it means that I want to enjoy my time there. I want what I see to make me discard analysis and nitpicking. I want to lose myself in the story, setting, characters, themes. I want to leave that theater inspired. I want my only ill feelings to be that this wonderful trip is over and that I didn’t personally have a role in making such a remarkable piece of work. Yet I see no evidence that I’ll receive any such enjoyment from Fantastic Four. I may be completely wrong in that assumption, but for right now, I’d rather spend my time on activities or projects which have to potential to leave me inspired.

It’s this same passion which makes me critical of movies like Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, films which have every advantage toward greatness but settle with being varying degrees of passable. When relatively tiny budgets and barely recognizable names can create masterpieces like What We Do in Shadows and Ex Machina, why can’t big studio pictures with all the special effects money in the world and access to the most beloved franchises, biggest stars, best writers, and most visionary directors be able to make something just as good? Of course the need to appeal to a mass audience makes it more difficult to play into quirks or take the big chances often necessary for inspiring cinema, but that’s no excuse to make piddling garbage. Only three months ago Mad Max: Fury Road was released as a franchise film with a giant budget and huge stars which also had a challenging story, strong characters, and a visual style unlike anything released in years. The result was not only a great film but also a worldwide box office which doubled the film’s cost and a renewed interest in a thirty-year-old film series.

(Walt Disney Studios)

Fury Road is just the latest in a stretch of recent films which proves that blockbuster movies don’t need to be lobotomized, soulless goliaths racing toward the lowest common denominator. They can be well-crafted, artistic, intelligent pieces of cinematic entertainment. Just last summer, Edge of Tomorrow was a major studio picture which blended action, wit, dark humor, and effects into a compelling narrative, Captain America: Winter Soldier added a surprisingly dark and relevant political message to a superhero action flick, Lego Movie turned a two-hour commercial into one of the most subversive and enjoyable films of the year, X-Men: Days of Future Past showed that a long-running and once dying franchise can revive itself when handled with care, and Guardians of the Galaxy proved that pure fun can also have engaging, memorable characters. Say what you will about the Marvel formula but Avengers: Age of Ultron, as gluttonous and quickly forgotten as it was, and Ant-Man were both major spectacle movies which weren’t afraid of including the character quirks and flourishes more often found in arthouse releases. Hell, one of the absolute best movies of the last ten years included a man in clown makeup fighting a guy in a bat costume. There is no reason to settle for mediocrity!

As I’m sure is true with many of you, I grew up reading comics. I debated with my friends about whether Wolverine could beat up Batman. I worried that my favorite characters would die, even when I knew they wouldn’t. I collected back issues and trading cards and totally fell in love with Rogue in the comics and Harley Quinn in the cartoon. And since this was the early 90s and comics weren’t “cool” yet, at least not the way they are now, I had to hide all of this excitement from any of my non-comics reading friends. Eventually I drew fewer superheroes and started picturing more movie scenes. I enrolled in more film courses than art classes. So I was totally thrilled when the directors of Evil Dead II and The Usual Suspects started making movies about my two favorite comics. Not only would I get these great characters on screen by filmmakers I admired, but their presence as blockbusters meant that this nerdy, hidden passion I had could be shared with others. Friends I never knew were into comics would confess, “I read the series for ten years,” and I’d reply with, “Me too!” We comics lovers could finally worship openly and without judgment.

spider-man 2
(Sony Pictures)

Now, almost a dozen years after Spider-Man 2, still one of the best superhero movies of all time (Dark Knight is exempt because, c’mon, it transcends the genre), set the record for opening weekend box office, we are in the age of the superhero movie. Superheroes, and by extension all “geek” properties, are more influential and accepted than ever. Between Marvel’s galaxy-spanning Phase 3 and the gloomy, broody DC universe, the next several years are going to be dominated by superhero movies. This doesn’t include Fox’s expansion of the X-Men franchise, Valiant Entertainment’s emergence into theaters, or (by extension) Duncan Jones’s World of Warcraft and the glut of Star Wars-related movies set to flood our multiplexes. We are already well on our way to superhero meltdown. We’ve seen two different versions of X-Men complete with standalone stories, are getting a second (recent) Batman and a third Spiderman only a few years after their previous adaptations ended, the Hulk is thriving in a group after failing twice alone, Daredevil’s cinematic disaster has been forgotten as he leads a multi-series television line-up, and we now have a second, by-all-accounts poor attempt at a Fantastic Four reboot. Next year we’ll have at least a dozen new or revamped superheroes hit the big screen. In comics terms, we are rapidly reaching the point at which a crossover event culls the weakest characters from the line. In cinema terms, we are nearing the saturation point at which audiences will no longer care.

The only way to stop the inevitable backlash (which I warned about a year ago when no one knew just how good Guardians would be) is to make sure the films are good. As long as the MCU keeps putting out quality and isn’t too formulaic, their movies will be successful. If DC can find a way to escape Zack Snyder’s decade of disappointment, they could be on their way to again equaling their longtime rival. Superhero movies need to reflect the same passion that comics and film fans have. We need filmmakers and studios that want their projects to be as great as we want them to be. More than that, we as an audience, we as filmgoers, we as consumers, need to demand  greatness. We can’t allow film studios to turn the characters or franchises we love into vapid caricatures the way they did Batman in the 90s and Superman in the 80s simply because they know we’ll flock to see them. And the way we do this, is by not giving our time or our money to films which don’t deserve it.

I will not be watching or reviewing Fantastic Four. There are better things to do.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

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