Jon Watts’ “Cop Car,” which opens this weekend, is a nifty little thriller about two children dipping their toes into the dangerous waters of adulthood. Part “Stand by Me,” part “Blood Simple,” it’s the kind of movie that gets you excited for what the director, Jon Watts, might do next. Unfortunately, we already know what Watts is doing next: He’s signed on to direct the as-yet-untitled, as-yet-unwritten (second) reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, due out in 2017. The pairing makes sense, in a way: Tom Holland will be the youngest actor ever to play the part, and “Cop Car” shows Watts’ skill with young actors, even if there’s a world of difference between the 19-year-old Holland and “Cop Car’s” 10-year-old leads. But it’s also disheartening to see yet another promising indie director sucked into the studio machine so early in his career.
We attach so much importance to the thrill of discovering new directors that it’s easy to forget that first movies are less important than second ones. Debuts make the initial splash without which a followup would not exist, but it’s the movie a director makes once they’ve cleared that initial hurdle that really tells us who they are: Think “Bottle Rocket” vs. “Rushmore,” or “Bound” vs. “The Matrix.” But when the first thing they make after the world has heard their voice is a corporate-controlled franchise film, that voice is stifled, and in some cases never heard again. “(500) Days of Summer” had many waiting for Marc Webb’s second act. After two uninspired “Amazing Spider-Man” movies, does anyone care what he’s up to now?
It’s too early even to speculate what Watts’ Spider-Man movie might look like, but there’s something too perfect about the fact that “Cop Car” opens on the same day as Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four,” a rudderless superhero reboot that puts a major dent in a once-promising career. Trank’s “Chronicle,” from 2012, wasn’t an earth-shattering debut, but it put an intelligent low-budget spin on both found-footage movies and superhero origin stories, which made him seem like promising choice for Fox’s third try at making Reed Richards and co. click on the big screen. (Their first, notoriously awful, attempt was a Roger Corman special produced solely to hold onto the character rights and never intended to be seen; their motives have not improved.)
The results, unfortunately, are simply dreadful. “Fantastic Four” starts off as a modestly engaging story about teenage science nerds, although giving Ben Grimm’s catchphrase “It’s clobberin’ time” to his physically abusive older brother gives a hint of the spectacularly ill-judged moments to come. The scenes where Reed and his future comrades toil away in a lab trying to open a gateway to another dimension play, at their fleeting best, like a gloss on Shane Carruth’s “Primer” — or, perhaps more to the point, like the best bits of “Chronicle.” “Fantastic Four” doesn’t truly fall apart until it gets to what ought to be the good stuff: the inter-dimensional trip (no cosmic rays here) which turns the four, plus Reed’s main rival, Viktor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), into physiological freaks. “Planet Zero,” as they name the alt-Earth which they discover, is a barren wasteland of orange rocks and rivulets of pulsating green energy that look unfortunately like molten snot. The movie has been driving towards the discovery of this hitherto unexplored territory, but when we get there, it’s spectacularly underwhelming, and it gets worse from there. (Kate Mara’s Sue Storm, incidentally, doesn’t even get to join the boys on their drunken pan-dimensional joyride; she just stays home and works the controls.)
The aftermath of the Four’s ill-starred jaunt dips, briefly, into the Cronenbergian body horror Trank said would be a major influence on the film, but “Fantastic Four” can’t abandon that tack fast enough. A “One Year Later” caption pops onto the screen with all the grace of a needle scratch on a vinyl LP, and suddenly the Four are in full command of their powers, working under the aegis of a shadowy government conspiracy so generic it might have come out of a black and white box. There’s no period of adjustment, and, in some cases, not even the shock of discovery, just a carelessly papered-over hole where an entire act ought to have been.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Trank insists he was in command of the movie’s major reshoots, which are often easy to spot due to Mara’s ill-matched wig and the prevalence of two-character scenes set in indistinct underground bunkers. But he also took to Twitter last night to disavow the current version. (Trank deleted the tweet minutes later, but the message was out, and the damage done.)
“Fantastic Four” is far too big a debacle to be the fault of any one person: Simon Kinberg’s script lacks even a single memorable line or original idea, and whatever problems the studio-mandated reshoots were ordered to fix, it’s hard to imagine they were more dire than what ended up on screen. But it’s Trank who will suffer the most for it, especially since unnamed sources have been working diligently for months to ensure that he shoulders the brunt of the blame. Even comic-book fans, who are normally fiercely protective of their fellow geeks, have turned on him, swarming critics who gave the film even modestly positive reviews the way they normally descend on the first unfortunate soul to spoil a movie’s perfect “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Trank is hardly the first director to dash himself against Hollywood’s rocks, but this time, few seem to be taking his side. The general sentiment seems to be that Trank knew what he was getting into, or should have, and that either way he should keep his mouth shut. (Edgar Wright put eight years into “Ant-Man” before Marvel removed him, and you don’t see him whining on Twitter.) It’s possible that Trank’s original version of “Fantastic Four” was a trainwreck; his collaborators on the film have been vague and tepid in their defenses, and his “Chronicle” screenwriter, Max Landis, suggested that Trank was “not prepared going in to not FIGHT like hell, but WORK like hell.” But it’s unnerving to see purported film fans with virtually no knowledge of what actually happened reflexively side with Fox and Marvel and against Trank, as if the corporation that’s already screwed up the Fantastic Four’s story multiple times is somehow blameless.
It’s no secret that studios pick promising but relatively inexperienced indie directors for their franchise projects because they expect they’ll be easier to control. Even old hands like Joss Whedon find themselves losing battles and ground down by the struggle. (Colin Trevorrow, who made the leap from “Safety Not Guaranteed” to the massively successful “Jurassic World,” might be an exception to the rule, but it probably helped that, even if he hadn’t made more movies thank Trank, he’s a full decade older.) What chance does a newbie with one movie under his belt have? Watts told Indiewire’s Zack Sharf that Spider-Man has, thus far, been a “very collaborative process,” but then, that’s always how it starts.