Ant-Man And Fantastic Four: A Tale Of Two Movies


It was the best of Summer 2015 films, it was the worst of Summer 2015 films …

That’s what the story looks like for Ant-Man and Fantastic Four.  How did two Marvel movies with similar problems end up with results that were polar opposites of each other?  We explore and theorize what happened with each production to see if there’s something to be learned.  After all, a bad superhero film would only hurt fans who love the genre.  If Hollywood sees enough of these flops, they may eventually deem comic book properties to be over-saturated and nonprofitable — which means we’ll be seeing less of them in the future.

The Critics Have Spoken

Okay, I’ll be the first to say this: I think Fantastic Four being at 9% on Rotten Tomatoes is sort of ridiculous.  And yes, I understand that the 9% doesn’t mean the film is rated to be 9%.  It means that only 9% of critics found the movie to be not rotten.  But does it really deserve the flack it’s getting?  I will have to say no.  It gets to a point where the critics are just feeding off of each other.  Who knows?  They might be secretly emailing each other and seeing how low of a rating they can get it.  Conspiracy theories aside, I believe that Fantastic Four had potential.

When Life Gives You Lemons …

This weekend saw Ant-Man top $326 million and the release of Fantastic Four which, so far, has a paltry $11.3 million from Thursday night previews and Friday showings.  What’s even worse for the film about Marvel’s first family is that in general, box-office performance will usually drop by 50% for films in their second weekend of release.  And that’s actually being optimistic.  With bad word-of-mouth, low ratings, and horrible reviews, Fantastic Four may see a 60% or even 70% drop by the second weekend.  20th Century Fox will certainly feel that pain point because they shelled out $120 million making the flick.

Both Ant-Man and Fantastic Four had their fair share of production problems.  Ant-Man started with creative differences between its original director, Edgar Wright, and Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige.  Soon, Wright left Ant-Man and new director Peyton Reed was brought in.  Script rewrites ensued, and the drama was kept to a minimum.  In fact, a lot of the drama for Ant-Man was only speculation.  Both Feige and Wright kept quiet about it and everyone handled it respectfully.

Aside from some fan backlash of casting Johnny Storm as a different race, Fantastic Four started out as mundane as any production.  Stories then started to leak out about director Josh Trank’s erratic and destructive behavior.  Sources also reported that the young director, who got his calling card from Chronicle (2012), never meshed well with the studio and rarely communicated with them.  Problems reached their peak when 20th Century Fox had to bring in Simon Kinberg, the writer and producer of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), to help do reshoots for the film.  It was reported that Trank wasn’t very cooperative or happy about that.

Ant-Man was released on July 17, 2015, and though many people thought the latest installment would be Marvel Studios’ worst outing, it actually pleasantly surprised fans and critics.  Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang was introduced as a hero audiences could relate to, and the film hit the right tone of humor, action, and cross-universe references.  The film came in number one at the box-office for two weekends.  It was finally dethroned by the release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation which is completely understandable.  As of today, Ant-Man holds an 80% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which is well in the fresh zone, and has crossed the $300 million mark in worldwide box-office sales.

Fantastic Four is currently being decimated by reviews with the addition of salt-in-the-wound empty seats in theaters.  What made matters worse was Josh Trank tweeting out a message distancing himself from the film, claiming that his original vision would’ve received better reviews.  Aside from the fact that I think Trank may not work in Hollywood again, at least not on large productions, this is a sign that there were much more deeper issues involved.  No one saw or heard Edgar Wright or Marvel Studios publicizing their disagreements over Ant-Man other than the obligatory “creative differences” excuse.  In fact, Feige and Reed went on record describing which scenes of Wright’s they kept — going as far as saying his ideas were great.

Ant-Man and Fantastic Four were both headed towards the same fate if not for one change of which Ant-Man‘s creatives knew they could control: the screenplay.  When Wright initially left, Feige and Marvel Studios went back to the drawing board and rewrote the script.  They later brought in Gabriel Ferrari and Andrew Barrer to make further revisions.  With a new ground-up blueprint, the team was ready to bring Ant-Man to life.

For Fantastic Four, there were reports of reshoots and editing, but not script rewrites.  This led to a discombobulated uneven story.  The film introduced some great ideas, but failed at resolving them or even exploring them.  Without a strong screenplay, the film will now pay for what 20th Century Fox could’ve controlled.

Story is King

The old Hollywood adage that story is king holds true in the case of both Fantastic Four and Ant-Man.  People may respond and say, “No duh!”  Well, that’s not always the case.  There have been multiple box-office successes where a film’s narrative didn’t take precedence.  A few recent ones off the top of my head are Magic Mike (2012), Her (2013), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).  These films either had no goals or the plot was weak, yet they were still able to reel in audiences.  However, action films are a special breed, requiring clear goals defined from the onset.  Transformers: Age of Extinction may have been a bloated and terrible movie, but the changing goals throughout the movie were clearly spelled out to the audience: survive; save the daughter; stop Galvatron.

One of the first things I noticed about Fantastic Four was that the story played out like a first draft screenplay.  There were many ideas introduced, and with such a thin second act, I knew that the writers had an idea of how to begin it and end it, but had problems in creating a compelling conflict.  This is something that’s not uncommon in screenwriting.  Any screenwriter will tell you that Act 2 is the most difficult part.  I think a writer would rather get a root canal than deal with the nuances of Act 2.  That’s because Act 2 is where the meat of your character development lies and sets things up that make Act 3’s resolution so satisfying.  Without a good Act 2,  you’re basically eating a meal with appetizers, a small roll in the place of a proper dinner, and going right to dessert.  See how weird that feels?

Fantastic Four‘s Act 1 was a giant table of multiple appetizers.  We had the backstory of Reed Richards, the introduction of Victor von Doom, inter-dimensional travel, government lackeys, fractured families, etc.  These were all great elements to be explored, but there wasn’t one real goal unifying them.  What were the consequences of not finding inter-dimensional travel?  So what if Reed Richards felt out of place.  His problems were over the minute he got recruited by the Storms.  Why did Victor become evil so quickly?

Act 2 should’ve explored those problems and conflicts in detail.  Instead, it jumped right into Victor going on a killing spree with no real rhyme or reason just because the film needed a villain.  Because of having no Act 2, there was no midpoint twist.  Midpoint twists keep the audience engaged and gives the story a new direction.  With no goal and no twist, the audience saw no point in staying with a superhero group that had no problems other than finding a cure for their “conditions.”  Even that point got lost towards the end of the movie.

Now, contrast Fantastic Four with Ant-Man.  Ant-Man had a goal from the start.  In fact, Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym literally tells the audience all the goals: “I want you to break into a place and steal some s***.” and “I need you to be the Ant-Man.”  If those aren’t clear goals, I don’t know what is.  Even the ones that weren’t spelled out were clear.  Scott Lang, in order to get visitation rights to see his daughter, needed to secure an apartment and a stable life.  All of this required money.  So his first goal was to get some money.  When that didn’t work out, he got a “job” working with Hank.

The goals themselves were also compelling enough for the audience to be engaged.  Scott’s one focus in the world was his daughter.  That was enough of a motivating factor for what he had to do.  There were also consequences to inaction.  If Scott and Hank didn’t steal the Yellowjacket suit, it could mean the destruction of the world.  Hey, that sounds like a good enough reason to get your plans going.

On top of these factors, we had things that stopped the good guys from getting to their goal.  First, Scott is an untrained civilian who’s also a recently released ex-con.  Hank needs Hope to train Scott, but Hope is reluctant because she feels she’s more suited for the job.  Using our original dinner analogy, all of these conflicts residing in Act 2 gave Ant-Man a very healthy main dish of steak and potatoes.

Most of Ant-Man‘s Act 2 composed of preparing for the heist and hitting some snags along the way.  This allowed for ample character development.  Fantastic Four basically had an unbalanced structure: a backstory; getting their powers; a weak and thinly explored goal of curing themselves of their new abilities; an introduction of the villain; and the defeat of the villain.  If Fantastic Four was given a few more drafts, most of these problems would’ve been remedied.  All they needed to do was go back to formula or use a template.  There’s no shame in doing that.  Why do you think most successful Hollywood movies follow that same structure?  Because it works.

Final Thoughts

Whether Fantastic Four‘s weak story and disjointed editing was the result of Josh Trank’s work or the studio’s, we may never know.  At this time, it’s all finger-pointing.  It may one day be a very compelling documentary.  What’s truly fascinating is the fact that both Fantastic Four and Ant-Man had problems in their initial production with some on-set drama.  But Ant-Man, understanding what could be controlled, came out victorious with a story that engaged audiences.

Fantastic Four‘s screenplay was something the studio could’ve controlled.  Had 20th Century Fox taken a step back and gave it a rewrite, the movie wouldn’t be the disaster it is today.  The takeaway is that no matter how bad your production is turning out to be, focus on the screenplay.  Make sure you never lose sight of your story, and stay true to the narrative you’re conveying to the audience.  You’d be surprised how forgiving the audience will be if you present to them a great story.

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