'Fantastic Four' is proof realism is killing superhero movies

There are many, many problems with the 2015 reboot of “Fantastic Four” — the movie’s dismal box-office opening and terrible reviews leave little room for doubt. Unfortunately, when an intended blockbuster movie fails so spectacularly, speculation about why a project failed generally gravitates to one or two big reasons (in this case, a mess of behind-the-scenes drama), when in fact there are almost always many. 

Let’s talk about one possible reason: Realism. 

A lot of 20th Century Fox’s 2015 attempt to make “Fantastic Four” is a direct response to the studio’s first attempt to make “Fantastic Four” back in 2005 and 2007. Those movies were campy, so this one would be serious; those movies were aimed at a family-friendly audience; this one was made for serious, thoughtful viewers; those movies were over-the-top, so this one would be realistic.

Realism is a great thing to have, but a poor storytelling goal when dealing with inherently unrealistic things like superheroes — because a realistic response tends to boil down to two very simple reactions: fear and/or awe. And it seems that the more “realistic” a story wants to get, the more it veers to the former. 

Minor spoilers for “Fantastic Four” follow.

Not long after the accident that turns the titular four young people into superhuman beings, three of them are placed under strict government supervision while their abilities are eagerly monitored by nefarious military personnel eager to turn them into living weapons (as well as figure out how to replicate the accident and make more super people). One of them, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell, in the film’s sole moment of anything approaching pathos), has been turned into a rock monster, which makes him really effective as a walking tank. 

He is immediately placed into military service, and while it’s not clear if his consent is sought or not, he does express that he’s resigned himself to it, since he doesn’t believe he’ll be cured and has no chance of having a normal life. 

Fantastic four the thing20th Century FoxIn one of the scenes featured in the trailer but cut from the movie, The Thing is dropped from a military plane to take on an unnamed opposing force.

Once upon a time, the idea of the military wanting to take a scientific discovery or superhero and make it a weapon was a terribly original idea. 2015 is not that time. 

Of course, it can still be done in a compelling way, but when you get down to the specifics of comic book superheroes, it gets in the way of what really makes them special. For example, you just don’t have as much time to explore what makes Superman great after you’ve spent so much of it meticulously depicting how the military would respond to him. 

It also makes everything far more homogeneous — superhero stories, by definition, are about people with extraordinary, dangerous abilities. While there is much variety to all these abilities and the people who have them, when you get down to it, they are almost all scary or awe-inspiring to normal people who don’t have them. But when you bring authority figures in — people who are defined by power — the only sensible response is fear. 

So you have The Thing as a weapon, Superman in cuffs, Batman hunted by the police, Thor versus a Spec Ops team, or the entire plot of “The Avengers.” 

Superman man of steelWarner Bros.A scene from ‘Man of Steel’ where Superman hands himself over to authorities who fear what he’s capable of.

And all this time, you’re exploring other people, and not the main characters that make your story different: The heroes. Not only is the “realistic” approach exhausting in its cynicism, it promotes passive storytelling. If, for example, “Fantastic Four” wasn’t a film so concerned with being grounded and realistic, it would maybe be free to explore the truly exciting thing about the characters as articulated on this page in “Fantastic Four” #60 by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo.

Much like this comic suggests —  and Vulture’s Abraham Riesman elaborates on  —  the Fantastic Four occupy a truly unique place in pop culture. They’re more like a family of super-brilliant, space-faring, Indiana Joneses than a crime fighting team, forever seeking out and diving headfirst into the new, the strange, the inexplicable.

“In this era of superhero ascendancy at the multiplex,” Riesman writes,  “there are no tales that look forward.”

That’s what happens when you get bogged down in this modern cinematic notion of “realism” — everything becomes reactive, by necessity. 

“Realism” — it’s in quotes because there’s no way of actually knowing how anyone would really respond to these extraordinary things that don’t exist — isn’t necessarily wrong or bad. There are many good superhero movies that take a “realistic” approach! It remains, however, a limited approach — one that often serves to restrict these stories more than it illuminates them. 

We’re getting more and more movies based on comic book superheroes every passing year, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it slowing. There is endless amount of variety to be explored with each and every one of these characters regardless of whether or not they come from Marvel, DC, Valiant, or elsewhere. 

Having them constrained by something as mundane as “realism” would be a rather easy way to ensure they’re all pretty boring. Or at the very least, predictable. 

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