HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Tripping The Dark Fantastic

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, instead of looking towards the past, we look to the future to cover the forthcoming reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR and the serious problems it is already generating in the fan community.

FantasticFourRebootCastJoshTrankAfter a rough start (I’d call having the writer of Batman and Robin as your producer as getting off on the wrong foot, regardless if he won an Oscar since then), the Fantastic Four reboot seemed to be moving in the right direction when they hired Josh Trank as director of the film in 2012. Trank was the director of the 2011 surprise hit Chronicle, a found-footage take on three teenagers who gain superpowers from a mysterious item. It was a realistic take on the superhero genre, and earned the director great praise from fans and critics. It also earned him the honor of being the youngest director to have a film debut at #1 at the box office.

Having such a man at the helm of a licensed superhero movie was considered a good thing. He proved that he understood the genre and was able to bring fresh ideas to the execution of it. Trank’s hiring seemed at the time to be a sure sign that Fox was going to get it right this time around.

Unfortunately, that was the last piece of good news the reboot had. As a matter of fact, what came after turned that good news into bad news.

Michael-B-JordanThe first bump in the road was the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, a.k.a. The Human Torch. The African-American actor being cast as the Caucasian Johnny was sure to raise a roar of outrage in the fan community, as any deviation from the comic book-established-norm would. And it did. Only this time, the counterpoint to the protests brought up a racial element in them–that there was at the very least an underlying element of racism in the criticism of Jordan’s casting.

katemaraI don’t believe in absolutes. Could there be people who hated Jordan’s casting simply because they are racist? Yes. But you don’t have to be a racist to have issues about Jordan’s casting. I believe that Jordan is a great actor (I think it was a big snub that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Fruitvale Station) and I think that he will do well in the role. However I believe his casting, especially in regards to the casting of Kate Mara, is a dangerous break from what made the source material great.

Every great comic book film adaptation makes changes to the source material in order to make a good movie, yet remains true to the heart of the original concept. And the heart of the Fantastic Four concept is family. In every version, in every parody or homage, the fact that the FF is a family is a main feature of the team. And the family dynamic in the original FF works in many ways. First, you can break the quartet into pairs, each pair being extremes united by a family bond. The rough hewn, not-that-smart Ben Grimm and the scrawny, super-intelligent Reed Richards are not biologically related, yet become as close as brothers through shared experiences. The wild and unpredictable Johnny is the polar opposite of his sister, the calm and reserved Sue.  If it wasn’t for the fact that they share the same biological parents, there would be no connection between the two. And “how could these two come from the same parents” became part of that dynamic.

RegECathey2Now, in the reboot, they haven’t come from the same parents. With the casting of Reg E. Cathey, it appears that Sue is either adopted or a step-sister of Johnny. So that part of the family dynamic is changed for the upcoming film, and I imagine not for the better. It’s not that I’m saying that adopted children are not a real part of the families they join or that merged families aren’t real families. But they are different from a biological family, with a different family dynamic. This wouldn’t be a problem if I thought the film was going to have something to say about that dynamic. But in a big budget blockbuster? It will be a cosmetic change at best.

And an arbitrary one as well. Nothing against Kate Mara as an actress, but you mean to tell me that there are no African-American actresses as good if not better in Hollywood? Casting an African-American actress would have preserved the biological ties between Johnny and Sue and provided another high-profile role model in the film superhero world. Why wasn’t an African-American actress cast? Would an interracial relationship be too hot to handle? Is there some kind of Hollywood law that you can only have one African-American on a superhero team? Wouldn’t having a strong, central African-American female set a good example?

chronicle livestream chatThat is, of course, if Michael B. Jordon’s casting is meant to be a means of breaking down barriers and changing perceptions like his defenders say it is. I think there’s a simpler reason for Jordan getting the role–it’s comfort casting for Trank, pure and simple. As everyone knows, Trank directed Jordan in Chronicle. Jordan has gone so far as call Trank a “good friend” in media interviews. So there is a strong connection between the two.

What novice director (Fantastic Four will only be Trank’s second film) wouldn’t want his friend, a skilled actor who he has directed before, in the cast of the blockbuster film he is directing? At the very least, you have an actor whose style and work ethic are familiar to you, one you’ve already developed chemistry with. At the most, you have an ally working with and for you in the production, someone who will mold the other actors to your directing style and help your vision come through. Having Michael B. Jordan in the cast just makes Josh Trank’s job that much easier.

Having a personal muse, a repertory of actors you frequently use, is not unusual. Heck, Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, Joss Whedon, and Quentin Tarantino are famous for it. Martin Scorsese has both Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio on his speed dial. But none of the above directors are willing to destroy the spirit, tone and feel of the source material to work with their favorite actors. That takes a certain kind of ego and hubris.

jamiebellAs egregious as some might consider Jordan’s casting to be, I consider Jamie Bell’s casting as Ben Grimm/The Thing’s to be even more problematic. Ben Grimm, in the comics, is the brawn to Reed’s brains. He is a bulky, linebacker sort of man who has the look of someone who would protect a science nerd such as Reed while they were in college.

Jamie Bell simply has a different body shape than you’d expect Ben to have. Granted, at 5’7″, he is the same height as Michael Chiklis, who played the role in the previous films. And the picture to the left shows that he does have a superhero physique. But it’s just not Ben Grimm’s. And if Miles Teller gets into superhero shape, the actor, who is five inches taller than Bell, might just make it  look like Reed’s the one sticking up for Ben.

This might seem like petty griping, but once again the way the characters are portrayed in the comics are what makes them great. Ben Grimm has always been a stocky, Lower East Side, everyman whose inherent goodness cause him to defend and eventually befriend Reed Richards. It’s not that the same dynamic couldn’t be on play here, it’s just that they will have to work harder to show it.

TwentiethCenturyFoxLogoOf course, this is running on the assumption that there will be any dynamic from the comics that make it to the screen. One of the most disastrous things to happen to the reboot was when a casting announcement revealed story elements from the reboot. Unfortunately, we are no longer able to legally quote the plot synopsis verbatim, because that is owned by Fox and a reprinting of it is violation of their copyright according to their lawyers (more on that in a paragraph or two). However, through the “Fair Use” provisions of  US copyright law (specifically section 107 of Title 17 of US Code) we can quote part of it to comment upon and criticize it. And, hoo boy, is there a lot to criticize.

The new story makes substantial changes to the Fantastic Four mythos, including:

  • Reed and Ben get their powers as teenagers, don’t meet an already superpowered Johnny and Sue until later: Every version of the FF’s origin, from the mainstream Marvel Comics one to the Ultimate Marvel Comics one, through every cartoon and film version,  the quartet get their powers at the same time from the same event. This is a fundamental feature of the characters and is what reinforces the family aspect that makes them great. The accident that gives them their powers is a shared experience that brings them closer together. It is the fickle hand of fate that creates an unbreakable bond between the already close foursome. Having them get their powers separately destroys this aspect of the characters, and they are weaker for it.
  • Reed’s genius-level intellect is now a by-product of the event that gave him his stretching powers: Once again, Reed’s smarts have always been part of his pre-accident characterization in every incarnation of the character. It is his defining trait. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for Reed’s reckless pursuit of knowledge, the Fantastic Four would not have existed. To have Reed’s high intelligence become a super-power he gains is like instead of having Superman being an alien, he was just some guy who got his powers from some alien rock. That change completely destroys the character from top to bottom and is a stupid move.
  • Reed and Ben are taken into government custody and are used as weapons: While the Ultimate Marvel version of Reed is recruited by the government to join a think tank, nowhere in the history of the FF have they ever been consigned into government service as living weapons. Once again, in what is becoming a reoccurring theme, this is a catastrophic break from the original concept. The FF are idealists who willingly use their powers to help protect their fellow man. Making them government lackeys takes away that nobility and weakens the concept.

Of course, after this hit and fan outrage went through the roof, Josh Trank went on Twitter to say in no uncertain terms that the synopsis was a fake (Trank has since shrunk away from social media since then. His Twitter and Facebook only have a few entries from 2012. Everything else has been deleted. Try to click on a link of one of his tweets and you get a message saying they’re not found.). This would be reassuring if it wasn’t for the fact that at the very same time Fox was sending out take down notices to everyone who posted the synopsis. This caused Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta to ask what many other film journalists were asking:

After this debacle, the FF reboot became a ludicrous train wreck where most any rumor, even ones later proved untrue, could get traction. Josh Gad as the Thing? He’s so not appropriate for the role that it has to be true. A female Doctor Doom? Well, they changed everything else, why not change that too.

Then came the rumor that Josh Trank was about to be replaced in the directorial chair and the reboot would restart over fresh. The rumor was strongly denied at the time and we now know did not come to pass, although it appears at least two directors were asked to replace Trank and refused.

One hopes that the synopsis is not correct, because it seems rather senseless to have a Fantastic Four reboot in name only. As far as I can tell,there has been no official confirmation of what the storyline will actually be, other than Josh Trank telling Badass Digest that “The only truth in that plot description is that there are four characters named Reed, Ben, Sue and Johnny” and  “You’ll see in June of 2015.” But even if the film does hew closer to the source material, based on what we have heard from the principles involved in making the film is still enough to cause us concern:

And I think what we’re going to do with Fantastic Four is going to be very grounded and it made sense to me. When I read the script, I didn’t feel like I was reading this larger-than-life, incredible superhero tale.  These are all very human people that end up having to become I guess what is known as the Fantastic Four.–Miles Teller

All I know is it’s going to be a very different take on the film than what probably people expect. I think we’re making a very grounded version of the superhero film.–Kate Mara

This will definitely be a more realistic, a more gritty, grounded telling of the ‘Fantastic Four’ and no matter what people think about the cast.–Simon Kinberg

SimonKinbergThis all has the air of studio mandated episodes of fan reassurance. I mean, they all use “grounded” for goodness sakes. And if they were making The Grounded Four then this would be reassuring. Unfortunately, they are making the Fantastic Four.

This all plays into the popular Hollywood misconception that all comic book fans want is grim and gritty imagining of their favorite heroes, because that was the only reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were so gosh darn successful. What they fail to realize is that not all comic book concepts lend themselves to grim and gritty interpretations. And Fantastic Four is a prime example of this.

I mean, “Fantastic” is part of the teams name! They’re the heroes who face off against giant men who eat planets or insectoid malcontents from other dimensions or superhumans in royal palaces hidden in the Himalayas or a race of monsters that live underground. There have been periods of seriousness here and there, but even in the Ultimate Marvel version of the characters, the team has been about pursuit of the wondrous,  pursuit of the amazing, and pursuit of, well, the fantastic. In other words, the Fantastic Four cry out for a “larger-than-life, incredible superhero tale,” not a “more realistic, more gritty, grounded telling.” And the fact that all involved don’t realize that completely and utterly scares me.

What does this all this chaotic mess add up to? A Fantastic Four film I really am not up for seeing. Either we will get a Fantastic Four film that breaks entirely with the source material, or we’ll get a film that doesn’t not capture the proper tone. Filming has just begun and its debut is over a year away, so maybe there will be more than just Doombots and Mole Men to make fans of the characters happy. But based on everything I have seen about the project up to this point, Fox might be wise to find something else to put in its July 14, 2017 spot, because it’s not likely there will be a Fantastic Four 2 to put in theaters on that date as they planned.

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About William Gatevackes 1933 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Tripping The Dark Fantastic http://t.co/hajeXEb6qW

KevRuzz
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KevRuzz

Hit the nail on the head, brother. I said a lot of the same things in my vid a month or two ago. It’s starting to look like the major studios can’t match the kind of successful adaptations that Marvel’s pulling off regularly, and the FF is the one that I most wish would unravel so the rights can go home to Marvel sooner rather than later.