By James Hancock August 7th, 2015
On opening night of the new Fantastic Four I went to see the movie with three different generations of superhero fans. In our group we had our family’s original comic book gangster, my 65-year-old dad, who was 11 when he bought Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961 and remained a rabid Marvel reader throughout the 1960s. He would later spoon feed me a regular diet of comics and mythology when I was a toddler sparking my own lifelong obsession in comics, fantasy and superhero movies. I was the second oldest in the group (age 39) and while I have read all of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary run on the title, I grew up during the John Byrne epic run of the early 1980s. As an adult I was horrified by Fox’s earlier attempts at building a Fantastic Four franchise but maintained my love for the characters by reading Jonathan Hickman’s now classic run on Fantastic Four and FF (2009-2012), which I believe is the best version of the franchise to date. Rounding out the rest of our moviegoing group were my three youngest brothers ages 13, 12 & 10 (I’ll explain how that happened in another post). Of the three, the eldest is a movie fiend, the middle one is a comic fanatic, and the youngest is primarily a gamer but digs most movies, toys, etc. featuring people in tights punching each other. The reason I am rambling about the mix of our party is to underline how Fox could ask for no better focus group for assessing the appeal of their rebooted franchise to different generations of moviegoers who have a passionate interest in these kind of movies. After enjoying a roundtable discussion with my family about what worked and what didn’t, my conclusion is that Fox has a real problem.
The massive problem Fox has on its hands should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the critical assault on Fantastic Four all week. Director Josh Trank rather publicly ran for cover on Twitter with claims that there was a very different movie he wanted to release. Twenty minutes later, whether he decided to on his own or was forced to, Trank deleted the tweet. Even without the tweet, the writing was already on the wall. For months now we have been hearing rumors about the trouble with Josh Trank’s reboot of Fantastic Four. There were stories about strife between the powers-that-be at Fox and the relatively inexperienced, but highly talented young filmmaker. I’m not sure what stories to believe, but in the end the only thing that matters is the final film. Is it as bad as the crap made by Tim Story in 2005 and 2007? Hell no. Anyone who says so has a very short memory but the fact is that over the last ten years the superhero genre has evolved and audience expectations have changed dramatically. In an era of superhero flicks like X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), movie studios can no longer get away with releasing relatively lifeless cookie cutter product devoid of any thrills or excitement. With so many superhero movies coming out on a regular basis, audiences and critics are more than happy to cut to pieces any new superhero movie that disappoints. Fantastic Four is a disappointment in almost every way, mostly due to its shockingly uninteresting villain, generic musical score, deeply flawed story structure and utterly lackluster action sequences. But for anyone who has ever enjoyed a Marvel comic, in particular one featuring Marvel’s First Family, we all know that in an alternate universe there is a brilliant movie that could have been made.
For over fifty years, despite many ups and downs, Marvel Comics with the help of many talented writers and artists has managed to keep their First Family relevant. With all the Marvel superhero mania these days, many people forget that the comic Fantastic Four is the genesis of all of it. Stan Lee was on the verge of quitting the comic book business when his wife suggested that he try writing a book exactly the way he wanted to. The result was a team called the Fantastic Four. They did not have secret identities, initially they didn’t even have costumes, and their stories felt more like science fiction adventure stories featuring an incredibly tight knit group of family and friends as opposed to a traditional team like DC’s Justice League of America, Marvel’s distinguished competition. The book featured giant monsters, alien races, alternate dimensions and family drama all while showcasing a supporting cast of allies and villains that ranks among the best in comic book history. The book was so successful that Stan Lee went on a writing frenzy that gave birth to Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, etc. but more importantly he built a shared universe, a tapestry into which all these separate stories could weave in and out of one another. He changed the business forever and today we’re seeing the same approach successfully implemented by Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios. Sadly Marvel does not have the movie rights to the Fantastic Four due to some bad licensing deals made many years ago and like Sony’s mangling of the character of Spider-Man, Fox has taken one of the most iconic team of characters in all of comics and turned them into box office poison with a series of movies that completely fail to grasp the appeal of these characters.
To be fair, even the publishing arm of Marvel doesn’t always get these characters right. Certain squeaky clean characters whether you’re talking about DC’s Superman or Marvel’s Captain America tend to have tricky formulas that are tough to do well. Only a handful of writers in Marvel history have really nailed the Fantastic Four. Stan Lee, John Byrne, Jim Shooter, Mark Waid, Warren Ellis, Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction have all left their fingerprints on the franchise with signature runs and incredibly memorable story lines but many more writers have totally dropped the ball when they’ve had the opportunity to work on the title. One of the most essential details to get right is the villain Dr. Doom. Going back to the early days of the Fantastic Four, they have always been locking horns with Victor Von Doom, a brilliant and charismatic villain as interesting as any hero on the Marvel roster. He and Reed Richards were rivals as young men and Reed discovered that Victor was working on a way to try and save his mother’s soul. Long ago she had sold her soul to a demon for mystical powers and while Victor was no slouch in the magic department he wanted to use science to bring her back. When Reed tried to point out a design flaw, Doom became enraged and ignored Reed’s advice leading to an accident that left Doom’s face permanently maimed, the ultimate curse for a man as vain as Doom. Doom would later design a suit making him one of the most formidable villains in the Marvel Universe and eventually seized control over the country of Latveria that he rules as a somewhat benevolent dictator with his combination of technological and mystical prowess. Of all the villains in Marvel Comics he is consistently one of the most entertaining. He speaks in the third person, is a total egomaniac and when written by someone with the chops of Jonathan Hickman becomes my favorite character hands down in all of comics.
But in the movie I saw last night, one would think that the people involved with the movie had never read a comic in their life. As portrayed by Toby Kebbell, the character is just fucking awful. He comes across like a pouty teenager who hates everyone out of childish spite which we are supposed to believe supports the plot twist where he suddenly tries to destroy planet Earth. For reasons that I don’t understand, they chose to reimagine his powers where he has basically become one with a planet in another dimension. He looks completely ridiculous. He has no mouth or facial expressions of any kind and in spite of being an all-powerful being made up from different elements he chooses to wear a cape and hood on a planet where there is not another single living being to see how he is dressed. His relationship with Reed, one of the all-time great rivalries in comics, is not explored at all and the final showdown between him and the Fantastic Four feels like Fox brought in Joel Schumacher from 1997 to direct the scene as poorly as humanly possible. The last act of the film taken by itself is now in the mix for one of the worst superhero movies ever made. I would go into how they dropped the ball with the Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing but it makes me too sad. Ben Grimm, a sad case of a noble character being part man part monster, has more heart and soul than almost any fictional character I can think of and I can only hope that one day a filmmaker gets him right.
To be fair, it looks as if Josh Trank had an interesting idea for a movie before the train for whatever reason flew off the rails. Using Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Fantastic Four #1 (2003) as a jumping off point, Trank clearly tried to do a modern take on the characters, one more grounded in science fiction and horror than in spandex. I applaud him for trying to go that route. He hired a terrific cast, and for the record, Michael B. Jordan kicks ass as Johnny Storm. The first thirty minutes of the movie, in spite of the painfully grim and serious tone, go relatively well as the main characters are introduced. But everything starts to go wrong as soon as Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm and Victor Von Doom teleport themselves to Planet Zero. For reasons the movie does not even try to explain, the planet imbues all of them with mutations and powers. Even Sue Storm gets powers somehow even though all she does is teleport them back when the expedition goes wrong. After that, the movie really starts to rush through the plot, what little there is, accelerating toward a limp climax that feels underwritten and uninspired. As soon as the movie ended, the five of us stood up and just shook our heads wearily at the disappointing shared experience we all had.
The Fantastic Four, when it works, is all about scientific discovery but more importantly about family and the love/hate relationships between the four characters. As written for the movie these relationships don’t even begin to scratch the surface of their dramatic possibilities. The last half of the movie feels like entire sequences and plot lines were just cut from the movie entirely. But rather than harp on everything this movie got wrong I’d rather close on a positive note with a list of suggestions for my favorite FF stories I’ve read. The concept and the characters when done right are absolutely fantastic in every way. My hope is that Fox throws in the towel after this movie and just lets the rights revert back to Marvel like they did with Daredevil. The Fantastic Four deserves a franchise as wildly imaginative and totally cosmic as Guardians of the Galaxy. With the right approach, there is a Fantastic Four movie to be made that could completely reinvent the superhero movie genre in the exact same way the comic did for the comic book industry way back in 1961. Most likely I’ll be going to see that movie with four generations of fans instead of three so hopefully my Dad can stick around long enough to see his childhood heroes done right. Whoever makes the movie, I hope they stop messing about and just hire a mad genius like Warren Ellis or Jonathan Hickman to write it. They have a proven track record with the characters and the added bonus of legions of devoted fans who love their take on the material. I guess that solution is too obvious for a studio like Fox to consider. So for now, I’ll just keep crossing my fingers that Kevin Feige eventually gets the rights to the characters back and the chance to hire the proper creative team of madmen and lunatics who understand what makes this franchise tick. I refuse to give up hope that eventually we’ll get the movie we deserve. As always, Make Mine Marvel.
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Essential Runs on Fantastic Four:
Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
Fantastic Four #1-100 (1961-1970)
Fantastic Four #232-295 (1981-1986)
Fantastic Four #570-588, 600-611 (2009-2012)
FF #1-23 by (2011-2012)
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