A Cultural Legal Reading of the ‘un-fantastic’: Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four and modern science fiction
20th Century Fox’s cinematic reboot of Fantastic Four has failed to fire up enthusiasm from film critics and left audiences stone cold.
This fourth attempt by Fox to bring Marvel’s first family to the movie screen (which includes an unreleased Roger Croman film and two early 2000 films with Captain America: The First Avenger star Chris Evans playing Johnny Storm) was distinctly un-fantastic both in execution and performance.
Instead of a gritty revival, Josh Trank’s film now joins other notable superhero misfires including Catwoman (2004), Green Lantern (2011) and Fox’s own Daredevil (2003).
While Marvel’s Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy films prove that audiences are open to the weirder stuff within comic books on screen, Josh Trank had promised in an exclusive interview with website Collider, that his film would emphasise the “body horror” of being transformed into a superhero. While some of those elements are retained in the movie, Trank has since disavowed the film publically on Twitter.
So have audiences finally succumb to superhero fatigue, as some in the film industry predicted (and which I have been expecting since 2012)? The contrary would seem to be self-evident with the sheer quantity of superhero films scheduled and with recent reboots of Spider-Man and Man of Steel having performed well at the box office (despite a mixed response from critics and audiences).
The problem at the heart of Fantastic Four is that it struggles with its own origin story. Superhero films as works of genre elicit certain expectations from their audience, which anticipate thematic reference points—we know that Bruce Wayne’s parents are brutally slain, that Clark Kent is an alien refugee and that a single spider-bite transforms Peter Parker into Spider-Man.
However, the site of the Fantastic Four’s transformation has been recalibrated from exposure to cosmic radiation to a volatile green goo from an alternative dimension. The turn is still accidental, as many superhero origin stories are, but the long set-up gives little space for the more intriguing David Cronenberg-like body horror that Trank had promised.
This points to Fantastic Four’s attempt to ground its origin story in a much harder science-fiction than the traditional superhero fare. In fact, Fantastic Four feels decidedly anti-superhero in its treatment of the material. From the development of their containment suits, which are designed to control their powers, to the emphasis on building an inter-dimensional teleporter, the film feels more like the latest sci-fi flick (think Ender’s Game or Interstellar), than a traditional superhero film.
It is not as if these genres are mutually exclusive, and there are certainly overlaps with other traditional institutional tropes of the Marvel Universe, such as the government’s treating these superheroes as super weapons.
In fact, most of the fun of this film comes from scenes where the Fantastic Four use their power with or against the military. We see the Thing, a military codename for Ben Grimm who has transformed into an incredibly strong and near indestructible rock monster, singlehandedly take out an enemy compound. Reed Richards, who can disguise his face using his body’s elasticity, escapes an ambush by punching out multiple soldiers from a distance with his fast, flexible and extendable arms.
So, given how sci-fi heavy this film turned out to be, is there any space for a cultural legal reading of the film? While such a reading does not lie in the overt content of the film—the criminological themes (Batman or Daredevil fighting for vigilante justice against a law that fails to deliver) of much of the superhero genre being absent, not to mention a lack of courts, lawyers, judges or even police in the film—the mode of operation of the film, in terms of its speculative science-fiction does give rise to questions that can be understood as cultural legal.
While much of this is wish-fulfillment (who hasn’t wanted to be able to build a teleporter in their garage?), speculative fiction encompasses a reflection on the reality of the auteur or viewer, despite its engagement and creation of different worlds, novums and characters.
While Trank points to the ‘reality’ of the studio’s control over the final product arguing that they are responsible for the un-fantastic outcomes, the fantastic itself is still captured in the mode of envisioning that these films present to us. By envisioning worlds of advanced technology, inter-dimensional travel or alien life, we explore reflections of our own desires, dreams and understanding of our world.
It is in this sense that we can understand films of speculative fiction like Fantastic Four as essentially world-creating and which reflect, in many ways, the world-creating nature of the law.
From this perspective, the role of the jurist and artist overlap in the space of the imaginary.
Law operates not just through legal institutions and forms but exists in the cultural legal imaginary that gives it substance and allows it to be brought into existence.
The representations of popular culture, which we enjoy or criticise, play a significant role in the development of our cultural legal imaginary—including those that do not specifically depict legal institutions.
The normative aspects of legal analysis and legal interpretation are always about the enforcing of a particular vision of the world on the factual situation in which it engages. While the director, author or artist may only be creating representations of alternate worlds or potential futures, the lawyer or jurist in many respects brings such an alternate world into being.
This is not to understand the law as being able to unproblematically construct or create the world (a particularly ‘modern’ vision of the task of law itself), but in reading speculative fiction as an analogue of law’s world-creating function enables us to see the world as gifted and storied, not simply as constructed—both created and contingent.
This ‘un-fantastic’ rendering of Fantastic Four represents this mode of ‘modern’ reasoning. Professor Storm and his Baxter Institute are founded on the ideals of solving the problems of the previous generation.
The reason it is full of wunderkinds is because the older generations have already failed. Yet, what remains is a belief that technological and scientific progress will save the world from ecological and other problems (created by technological and scientific progress).
While Victor von Doom has to be convinced to return to the Baxter Institute, it is on the premise that they can achieve something that no one else can.
The promise of the alternative dimension to which they venture is not just a chance for exploration, but for its ability to be exploited in order to resolve our world’s energy crisis.
But the engagement of an alternate dimension causes significant problems: when one looks at the void of destruction, the temptation is further destruction and not necessarily salvation—particularly if your name is Victor von Doom.
However, Doom’s attempt to destroy our world is, in good comic book tradition, the evil that needs to be eviscerated and what brings together the other special young men and woman and solidifies the ‘team’ of this superhero narrative.
In this sense, Fantastic Four recognises the need for interdependence. Individualism (represented by Doom) leads to destructive tendencies, but collectively (the ‘fantastic four’), there is potential for a higher purpose. While this might sound somewhat clichéd and naïve (and is represented with a degree of self-reflexive irony in the film, which concludes on the question of the name ‘fantastic four’) it is a theme that needs exploring: how do we envisage a means of being together that is not about destruction?
This underlying question of Fantastic Four is represented problematically, in a film that is un-fantastic and uneven in its execution.
But it bears serious consideration: how do we envision a law that focuses on interdependence and relationality rather than individualism and self-destruction?
While this summer blockbuster struggles to consider such a question, we can only hope that the scheduled fifth instantiation of the Fantastic Four on screen might attempt to answer it.