Learning From (Others’) Failure

You can learn a lot about storytelling from taking in great stories. Let The Last of Us teach you about immersive storytelling. Don Quixote effortlessly plays with the characters’ relation to the narrative. Learn how to have a bunch of different character arcs in motion from The Avengers.

Bad stories can also teach you a lot, especially bad movies. I’m not talking so-bad-it’s-good stuff like The Room where the movie fails so hard it creates an entirely new form of entertainment; I’m talking about ones that are just plain bad. Watch Twilight to learn how a passive main character makes for a boring book. If you lose sight of your protagonist’s arc you end up with the muddled mess that are the Hobbit movies. The Big Bang Theory shows you how to write punch-down humor at dated stereotypes.

And then there’s the new Fantastic Four.

Which teaches you how not to tell a story.

There’s a lot wrong with the movie. The grievous mishandling of Sue Storm. The oddly conspicuous absence of Ben and Jonny for chunks of the plot. The total lack of agency from everyone up to and including the protagonist. The utter abandonment of what could have been great themes. The fact that we don’t see the titular four in the same shot until over an hour into the movie. The arbitrariness of the supposedly-emotional beats. But it’s all rooted in a fundamental ignorance of storytelling.

Here’s the thing: Story is king. Yes, it’s a frustratingly patriarchal term (“story is everything” doesn’t sound quite as good), but the sentiment is there: story’s the most important thing. There are vital ingredients for story to ‘happen,’ which Fantastic Four just doesn’t have.

The first, is character.

Duh.

For a story to happen, you need people with goals and fears and all that. The Lord of the Rings would hardly have worked if Frodo’s only characterization was that he was a Hobbit. Conversely, The Insider is so tense because of Wigand’s conflict between doing what’s right on a big scale (whistleblowing the tobacco industry) and keeping his family safe. Both of these devote time to building characters, giving us moments that highlight not just what they’re doing, but what they want and why.

Character down, we need conflict. Say John McLane asks Hans Gruber to let the hostages go and Gruber just says “yes.” There’s no story there. The protagonist needs obstacles in their way to keep the audience engaged and asking “how’re they gonna get past this?” These conflicts also allow chances for characters to show who they are (McLane really cares about his wife) and for them to make interesting choices (McLane chooses to soldier on even when the feds won’t help him). These conflicts, that happen because of character, get us as the audience invested and interested in what happens next. When they payoff comes, it’s earned and catharsis happens.

It’s honestly quite surprising how little character there is in Fantastic Four. No one has much of a goal — Johnny and Sue are literally kind of just there — and when we get hints of one they hardly affect, well, anything — Ben would like to be changed back so he works for the military until he decides he’s okay as he is. Reed’s characterization can be summed up as “very intelligent” and presumed antagonist Victor is “very intelligent and maybe a little anarchistic.” Characterization is never allowed out: nearly every conversation is pure exposition. There’s no banter, no subtext, no verbal conflict (Reed and Victor never disagree while working together, Johnny and Ben say maybe four lines directly to each other), it’s nothing but explanations about what’s going on.

That character is done in such broad strokes may be forgivable, were the characters given anything to do. But they aren’t. There’s never any conflict until Victor reappears and decides to be evil in the final thirty-odd minutes. In fact, Reed — the protagonist — only makes three clear decisions. First he decides to use his teleporter/transporter himself. Second, he decides to escape from the government base. Finally, he decides to fight Victor since, well, they’ve all been sucked into the other world and might as well. Only the first one is earned, and that’s only because we’ve spent the first half of the movie watching Reed work on the damn machine. To call Reed and the others boring is a disservice to boring characters: they do nothing, have no opinion on anything, and hardly react to the plot. He’s as bad as Bella Swan, and he’s the best character the movie has to offer.

We crave for stories. We want narrative to happen, characters to be introduced, conflict to break out, and resolution to give us closure. Fantastic Four does none of that.

Nothing happens.

No one changes.

It just is.

And that is terrible. Don’t do that.

Please.

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