Full disclosure; I’m not the biggest fan of the Fantastic Four franchise, either in movie or print. However, I do recognize their importance in the history of comic books and their influence of the culture that has grown around them. I didn’t enjoy the first FF movie and have never seen the sequel. When the reboot was announced, I went on record as saying that it was only happening to keep the film rights from reverting to Marvel Entertainment.
All of that being said, I was hesitant to watch the teaser trailer for Fantastic Four. I couldn’t think of a way it would be interesting, even after the “controversial” casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm (a controversy that existed more in people’s heads.) But after having the trailer dominate my newsfeed all day, I broke down and watched it.
Now I’m startled, and to be honest, a little confused.
Granted, the trailer is only a teaser, but it was nothing like what I was expecting. If I ignore my negligible FF knowledge and just look at the trailer, all I see is the next too-dark sci-fi movie. It’s got a young, earnest scientist with a motley crew, working towards an ambitious goal in the face of governmental pressure. In this case, our overarching government force seems to be the military, so they probably want to militarize the scientist’s new advancement. The added stress of this leads the scientist and his team to push the limits of their innovation and commence human testing before it is fully ready. Hilarity or calamity ensues. The latter, in this case.
This sounds like the origin story for many a superhero, so consider me underwhelmed. But there’s big something missing from the trailer, a key ingredient to every superhero/comic book movie that I can think of. Where is the bad guy?
I thought maybe I was looking too much into it. So I looked back at some of the teaser trailers for other first installments of comic book movie franchises. All of them made it very clear who the hero’s nemesis would be, or at the very least, we’d see one of the villains. The FF trailer showed a quick glimpse of the back of whom I’m assuming is the antagonist. I’m basing this only on the fact that other people got hurt during the short moment he was on screen. The thing is, this is more in keeping with the teaser trailer for Star Wars: Force Awakens than it is with recent comic book movie trailers.
I could just be reading too much into this. Maybe there are bigger forces than different studios and directors at work here. Bear with me as I try to flesh this out. There have been movies based on comic book properties for a while, but there has been a significant increase in their release and production since around 2008, when Iron Man was released. This came in the middle of the Great Recession. The correlation (not causation) between the economy and the kinds of movies that get made has been explored before. When things are bad, people look to movies for escape. This is where stories about superheroes are key. The Great Depression gave us The Wizard of Oz, a movie that had Judy Garland singing about how anywhere was better than where she was. That’s a sentiment that audiences of the times would’ve been sure to agree with.
The problem with economic downturns is that there isn’t a bad guy to blame, per se. We could blame the banks, but that’s kind of abstract. Comic book movies usually give us a clear villain. This way, our hero has someone to punch. And in the superhero world, punching fixes problems. When an audience is suffering, punching problems away seems pretty appealing. It was during a devastating economic downturn that comic book movies as we know them now came into their own.
However, times aren’t always hard (hopefully,) and so the usual formula may not always work. And if that’s the case, how will these movies continue their box office success? They have to change. It stands to reason that when the economy starts to recover, as we are being told it is, then the types of movies that audiences will want to see will change.
Looking at the Fantastic Four trailer, I can say that we’re seeing said change here and now. Previously, even a teaser trailer would show you exactly who the enemy is, as a means of enticing audiences. But this trailer doesn’t, because it won’t have to. This could be a major sign that there is a different approach superheroes movies beginning to emerge. With a brighter economic forecast, comic book movies could get a more cerebral style, leaning more into a classic sci-fi style. We can also see this shift in the Ant-Man trailer. We assume that the guys with the guns are bad, but their badness isn’t as obvious. They aren’t destroying a town with the fire shooting out of their faces, or even kidnapping a billionaire.
If this a lasting change to the genre of comic book movie,s then it will be interning to see how existing franchises choose to adapt in order to compete with this new approach.