Realistic, gritty, grounded.
Are there any three words that comic book fans are more tired of hearing from filmmakers? Those three buzzwords are thrown around like confetti every time a new superhero film is in development, as if a necessary step in promoting your comic book movie is assuring fans that your film is going to be painted in the appropriate shades of grey. Now, grey’s a fine color; it’s given so many of our superheroes some much-needed dimension, filled out the edges of characters that feel too antiquated to work in modern cinema, and allowed comic book films to gain at least a little ground in becoming a respected genre of film. But not every superhero or superteam needs to be dip-dyed in darkness, especially if it comes at the expense of the characters’ true natures.
Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot over at Fox has not been shy about introducing the world to a darker version of Marvel’s first family, and their commitment to this interpretation of the characters was recently echoed by screenwriter Simon Kinberg. In an interview with Hitfix, the Fantastic Four scribe said, “This will definitely be a more realistic, a more gritty, grounded telling of the Fantastic Four.”
The problem is that there’s nothing gritty, grounded, or realistic about the Fantastic Four. Marvel’s first family is probably the least grounded heroes in the company’s entire stable of heroes. Their origin story reads like pure comic book cheese: four friends travel to outer space in a rocket ship that wanders into a galactic storm and is hit by cosmic rays that give all four members incredible powers. The four then decide to dress up in bright blue spandex and protect a big and shiny version of Manhattan from nefarious villains such as Mole Man and Doctor Doom. It’s hard to reason why anyone would read that origin story and reason that it needs a dose “gritty” or “realistic.” While a hero like Batman thrived when given the grounded treatment, with Christopher Nolan’s trilogy turning Gotham’s gothic alleyways and ridiculous villains into a noir-ish crime story and morality play, the Fantastic Four is a different beast altogether. Going too realistic would strip the work of the qualities that make it a classic to begin with.
All we need to do is look at the recent Superman reboot, Man of Steel, to see the problem. Zach Snyder and the folks at the WB were all too eager to follow the mold of Batman and give Supes a dark makeover after Superman Returns drew ire from hewing to closely to Richard Donner’s original. Unfortunately, Snyder’s Man of Steel completely misses the mark. It takes the big blue boy scout, a simple, fun, and whimsical hero, and puts him in an utterly joyless movie. Man of Steel is loud, overbearing, and dour. It has no sense of levity, and it especially has no sense of wonder, one of the most important aspects of Superman. The film’s biggest crime however is that it’s hardly ever fun. What’s the point of watching a film about a flying man trying saving the planet if the film takes itself way too seriously to be fun. Superman is supposed to be a bright primary colored romp, and was instead turned into a bleak, grey, slog of a film. All in the name of being gritty and realistic.
It seems that far too often, filmmakers mistake words like “gritty,” and “grounded” for words like complex and interesting. Supeheroes don’t always need to scowl their way through their adventures, and being dark and gritty isn’t the only way to produce a quality, well reviewed film. Hopefully, the minds behind Fantastic Four don’t lose sight of the original inspirations of their film.