It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was supposed to be the film to fix all of the franchise’s problems. It was a revamping of the property with a younger, cooler cast and a darker, more visceral feel akin to that of the monumentally successful The Dark Knight. It was supposed to be the Fantastic Four film the would surpass its predecessor not only in financial success but also in critical acclaim.
Unfortunately, that is not what happened. The film’s opening weekend began as an embargo on reviews was lifted, which would eventually lead to an atrocious 8% Fresh Tomatometer rating, and the weekend would end with the film making only around a paltry $26 million at the box office, slightly more than half what it was projected to make. Fantastic Four is not going to be a success.
With a failure such as this, pundits will be looking for a cause for the film’s bad returns. Everything from the tempestuous production period to the uninspired directing and acting to the shoddy pacing will be blamed. Calls for the entire comic book film genre to go on hiatus have already begun. And people will begin saying that the Fantastic Four not a viable film property and will never work on the silver screen.
Is this last point true? The simple answer is that the ersatz version of the characters that were The Incredibles was a success, so the FF should be one too. But for a more complex answer, we’d have to look to what made the comic book a success for almost 55 years. What elements did Hollywood ignore or change that would make for a better movie? The possibilities are endless, but I’ll focus on the four biggest aspects of the comic that Fox has yet to get right that if they did, they would have not have had to do as many reboots.
Doctor Doom is one of Marvel’s most iconic and complex villains, but you would never know that from his appearances is the films. In the Tim Story films, he was a power-mad piece of eurotrash. In Josh Trank’s effort, he was nihilistic loner with a thing for computers. Neither captured the true essence of the character.
You’d need a thesis paper to fully delve into what a great character the comic book Doom is, but I’ll try to briefly sum up here. He is a megalomaniac with a sense of honor. He is a scientific genius and a powerful sorcerer. He wants great power, not only to rule the world, but also to rescue his mother’s soul from hell. He refers to himself in the third person, rules the fictional Latveria with an iron fist, and hates Reed Richards with a passion beyond all measure.
In other words, the comic book Doom is a man of contradictions. A man who has a presence about him. He is bombastic, colorful and larger than life. He’s a great villain for the comic books, and deserves a better treatment in the films.
We can only guess why filmmakers have shied away from going full Doctor Doom. Perhaps the pseudo-Shakespearean way of speaking turned them off. That doesn’t seem to hold Thor back. Did they think Doom’s origin had to be directly tied to the FF’s because he needed superpowers? Well, if moviegoers can believe that Tony Stark can build a suit of armor that could go head to head with the Hulk, they’ll believe Doom can build one just as strong to defeat Reed and the gang. Is the fictional Latveria to goofy for fans to grasp? They had no problem with Slovenkia.
Having a power-mad Doctor Doom who can’t be touched legally due to diplomatic immunity, who craves attaining power so he could fight the devil for his mother’s soul would make him into a more interesting character. Hopefully, the powers that be will realize this the next go round.
2. All in the family.
If you’ve read any review or article on any FF film, you probably know that the thing that sets them apart from every other comic book team is that they are a family. This has never been fully addressed by the films. The Story films did the best in paying homage to it, but Trank’s film pays little more than lip service to it. Reviews state that the film constantly reminds us that Sue and Johnny are siblings, but shows us nothing like a brother sister relationship between them or signify any unique qualities Sue being adopted plays into that relationship.
The family dynamic in the comics is so special is because it is in essence a six-way dynamic. Here’s the six points.
- Reed and Ben: These are polar opposites–the erudite brain and the uncultured jock–who have developed a bond that makes them as strong as brothers.
- Sue and Johnny: Similar to Reed and Ben, the reserved Sue is forever linked to the wild-card Johnny through shared DNA.
- Reed and Sue: This shows the ways families can be created through love and romance.
- Ben and Johnny: This relationship mimics the often combative relationship between “brothers.”
- Reed and Johnny: Reed often takes on a father figure role towards Johnny, as his reserved nature contrast with Johnny’s impetuous style.
- Sue and Ben: Both are the strength of the family, Sue through a more of a steely reserve, Ben in a more demonstrative way. They have kept the family together numerous times and during the times when either has left the group, the family is a much weaker unit because of it. The characters know this similar role they play, and respect each other for it.
If attention is given at all, it is given to the first four points. However, it’s all six that makes the FF as a family sing.
3. It’s Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben: That’s it, that’s all.
Whatever the origin may be–be it getting soaked with cosmic rays up in space or blast by space goo from another dimension–it should be consigned to Reed, Ben, Johnny and Sue. There should be no more, nor no less.
Limiting it to this four adds a reinforcement to the familiar bonds I mentioned above. They are all united by a common curse/blessing and always will be, which draws them closer together while setting them apart from the rest of humanity. And Reed’s guilt about what he did to his friends and loved ones, especially Ben, is a powerful part of the FF’s narrative and works best when the guilt pertains to just these four people.
The film simply cannot let that dynamic stand. The Story films shoehorned Doom into the team’s origin. While this did give the character a set of poorly defined powers, it also weakened the bond between the other four. Now there is an outsider that shares their curse, one who hates Reed and one who hates Reed back. There will never be any unity because Doom will always be at odds with the other four. And Reed’s guilt, since he is a nice guy, will always extend out to Doom, but audiences will not be as moved. Doom is an arrogant ass. Who cares if he gets cured? And if the audiences don’t care, why should Reed?
Trank’s version of the origin goes one worse. Once again, Doom is shoehorned into the origin accident, but Sue is arbitrarily left out. She doesn’t go to the alternate reality, she gets her powers from some cosmic backwash when the boys return. In this circumstance, Sue becomes even a bigger outsider in the process than Doom. She doesn’t have the agency that volunteering for the project typically gives her. It relegates her to the role of the victim who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It cheapens Ben’s standard “I’m a monster” character trait, because at least he has a chance to not go to the alternate dimension. Poor Sue got powers forced on her through no fault of her own.
This is the origin for the Fantastic Four. Not the Fantastic Five or the Fantastic Three and a Half. Keep the origin to just the four heroes. It will make it more powerful and a stronger beginning as well.
4. The FF are about the awe and wonder, not about the grim and gritty.
The comic book Fantastic Four are explorers. Many of their adventures revolve around them investigating the unknown. And these adventures expose the team to many wonderful and, well, fantastic concepts, ranging from subterranean warlords to giant purple men who eat planets, from alternate dimensions to secluded areas of the moon that can support human life. The limits of where the FF go should only be constrained by the filmmakers’ imaginations and their special effects budgets.
The Story films deal with this in the most pedestrian way, with the team being more reactive than proactive in their response to the unknown but with its share of dark moments as well. However, that approach seems almost sacrosanct compared to the approach Trank took, which was certainly influenced by the studio as well. His FF is a darker, grittier take on the concept. The color palette makes 80% of the film look like there’s a 90% chance of rain. Most of the team ends up working for the government, and the film is proud to show the Thing as a killing machine. And Doom’s grand plan is that he wants to destroy the Earth, killing all of humanity for the main reason that, well, someone in an office building on the Fox lot thought that it will be really grim and gritty in a cool way.
The idea that comic book films will be more successful if they are darker is one of the most repugnant trends in modern comic book film. Just like the grim and gritty period in the comic books that followed Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Hollywood is following in the footsteps of The Dark Knight and giving comic book film fans what the studio thinks they want. Of course, like in the comics, the grim and gritty trend does not always fit the original concept, and, in these cases, the result will never be better than what has happened before. And the Fantastic Four works much better when it has a lighter tone.
The Fantastic Four does not work well in a second rate Nolan, Scorcese or Tarantino film. If anything, Fox should aim for a second rate Pixar film. May I suggest The Incredibles?