10 Things to Consider If You’re Trying to Make a Fantastic Four Movie That Doesn’t Suck
1. Read the damn comics.
So the reviews for the new Fantastic Four movie are out and they’re not pretty. And between director Josh Trank tweeting about how his intended version of the film “would’ve received great reviews” and star Miles Teller doing the pre-emptive “rarely are films of this size critically well received” thing just prior to the film’s release, it sounds like even the people involved in making the film didn’t have high hopes for the final product. Regardless of how much money it ends up making (and chances are it won’t be nearly enough to make back its $120 million budget), Fantastic Four’s poor reviews and weak opening-weekend receipts means there are now just as many bad Fantastic Four films as there are members of the superhero team (I’m counting the two previous Fox movies and the never-released 1994 Roger Corman version, which became a hit on the comic convention bootleg circuit because of its shoestring awfulness). So what’s going on? Should we give up hoping to see a Fantastic Four movie that’s good? I don’t think so. Marvel’s first family of adventure has been around a long time, and there have been some interesting and, yes, even good takes on the franchise over the decades. Some of those projects were faithful to the original Lee/Kirby series, while others offered new takes on the franchise. But they all had one thing in common: the people behind them clearly took the time to study the source material. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this new film; hell, Kate Mara was even specifically told not to bother reading the comics in which the characters appeared by her director. You wouldn’t think that people putting together $120-million film projects would need to be told it might be a good idea to do their homework, and yet here we are.
2. Skip the origin story.
There seems to be an unspoken rule in Hollywood these days that every superhero franchise has to start with the origin story. The first Superman saw him rocket away from Krypton; Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man takes us through Peter Parker’s fateful meeting with a spider (which we saw again in The Amazing Spider-Man); Batman Begins tells the story of how Batman, well, begins. Nothing wrong with this in theory, but we’re talking about stories that pretty much everyone knows by heart (certainly the people most likely to show up on opening night will), and spending a lot of time showing us how the heroes gained their powers means making the audience wait that much longer to see those powers in action. And let’s be honest, people don’t come out to a Hulk movie to see Bruce Banner tinker with test tubes for an hour; they come out to see the Hulk smash stuff. So start your film in media res, like Tim Burton did with Batman beating up muggers and later cutting back to his parents’ murders in flashbacks. Or you can do it the way The Incredibles did it, by skipping the how-they-got-their-powers stuff altogether and going with expository news broadcasts. They went up in space. Cosmic rays. They came back down. It shouldn’t take the better part of a movie to get the gist.
3. If you must insist on an origin story, then stick with the basics.
The script for the current Fantastic Four film draws a lot of inspiration from Ultimate Fantastic Four, a book from the early 2000s that put a modern spin on the team. It did this mostly by making them all younger and replacing their fateful rocket test with an attempt at teleportation via inter-dimensional travel. And it’s not a bad decision to go with that origin story, necessarily, just… well, why do we need to go there? Yes, outer space might not be the big deal it was in the early 1960s when the first Fantastic Four stories appeared, but after all our decades of space travel and watching the skies we’ve still barely scratched the surface in terms of understanding what’s out there. And if the “beat the Russkies into space” part of their origin story feels dated, then let’s update it by having our heroes conduct a test flight of the first warp-drive engine to allow faster-than-light travel. There’s a literal universe of possibilities out there. And frankly, introducing audiences to the wonders of space wouldn’t be a bad thing (setting the action in space didn’t seem to hurt Guardians of the Galaxy any).
4. Skip the “grim and gritty.”
Back in the ’80s, someone coined the phrase “grim and gritty” to describe the growing trend of superheroes becoming darker and violent in the name of justice. It was seen as a way to give the heroes more depth (and to hold on to grown-up readers who started demanding “mature” versions of their childhood heroes), and in the right hands it resulted in some half-decent stories. But in most cases… not so much. A character like Batman, Daredevil or the Punisher can work “grim and gritty” because of the settings they tend to work in, but turning Superman into a neck-snapping weapon of mass destruction (to give just one example) doesn’t work because it goes against everything the character stands for. Same with the Fantastic Four. It’s fine to insert a little angst or conflict in the script — they are family, after all — but ultimately these people are explorers, not vigilantes. Give them temperaments and a sense of humor that match their status as explorers of the unknown.
5. Give us wonder.
Whatever challenges or super-villains they deal with should take place within the context of their mission: to boldly go (to borrow a phrase) where no one has gone before. Movies are capable of introducing us to incredible new worlds filled with indescribable wonders; think of Middle Earth, or the many planets in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes. A franchise like the Fantastic Four is tailor-made for a filmmaker who wants to tear away from the predictable scripts of other comic-book movies and really push the boundaries of what audiences of blockbuster films get to see up on the screen. Think of this summer’s Ant-Man; apart from the crackling dialogue and top-notch acting from everyone involved, one of the delights of the film was its ability to transport us to places we’ve never seen before (or places we’ve never seen from the perspective of a really, really tiny person). The Fantastic Four are scientists, not superheroes, and their adventures should reflect that sense of wonder that drives them to be scientists first and world-savers second.
6. Give all the main characters a reason for being in the plot.
In the original stories (and in the unreleased ’94 film), Reed was a scientist and Ben was a pilot. When they made their fateful trip into space, it was obvious why those two had to be on the spaceship. Sue and Johnny, on the other hand, just happened to wheedle their way onto the ship with some “where you go, I follow” nonsense. In fairness to the most recent FF movie, this is something it got right: all four of the main characters had a reason to be a part of the voyage besides their status as someone’s best friend or little brother. But even giving them jobs and titles isn’t enough; we need to believe that these people are willing to risk their lives for something greater than themselves, and for each other.
7. Bench Doom.
In all four Fantastic Four films to date, Doctor Doom gets the guest-villain slot for obvious reasons: he’s visually appealing, he’s the team’s biggest arch-nemesis, and he and Richards have a past. Honestly, though? We need to think fresh. Making another movie with Victor von Doom is only to going to invite comparisons to past FF movies, plus Marvel movies have taught us anything it’s that you don’t need an A-list villain to make a movie work. So let’s get past this “gotta have Doom” mentality and find some other classic villains for our team to spar with. Here’s a pitch: their rocket malfunctions during their test flight and they end up warp-driving into the “Negative Zone,” where they discover the voyage between dimensions somehow altered their bodies. Though shocked by their new abilities, they find they come in handy when they land smack dab in the middle of a power struggle between Annihilus, Blastaar and other Negative Zone warlords… one of whom decides for his own reasons there’s a benefit to helping these strangers return to their own universe. See? Easy.
8. Have a story that’s about something.
The best sci-fi is stuff that works on two levels: as an entertaining story in itself, and as something that makes us think. Think of the original Star Trek episodes, which used their futuristic setting and alien civilizations as a way of getting audiences to think about current social issues. Or the Terminator franchise, which at its best is able to balance questions of destiny and scientific hubris with robot-smashin’ action. Whoever writes the next FF film (if there is a next one) should take inspiration from the best sci-fi works and treat our quartet as “science heroes” (to borrow a term from Alan Moore) instead of superheroes, people who encounter new ideas and moral quandaries while they explore strange new worlds. Maybe they return to Earth and find themselves rebelling against a military mindset that wants to replicate their powers. Maybe the public either disbelieves their story or outright condemns them for becoming “freaks,” which the shape-shifting Skrulls living among us use to their advantage. There are a lot of possibilities that we can explore to make our screenplay more than just pages of the Thing clobbering bad guys.
9. Explore the ramifications of the changes they have experienced.
In his review of the 2005 FF film, the late, great film critic Roger Ebert was underwhelmed by the way in which the team members respond to their super-powers: “Are these people complete idiots? The entire nature of their existence has radically changed, and they’re about as excited as if they got a makeover on Oprah.” It’s a valid point; in one scene, we’re told the Human Torch can burn at supernova temperatures hot enough to incinerate life on Earth, but then — nothing. The Thing gets a few scenes to mope about the impact of his new body, but the rest of them seem completely unfazed by what their bodies can do: “Oh, yeah, I can stretch now — just the thing I need to fetch that roll of toilet paper we keep across the hall for some reason.” It’s even worse in the new film, where Jamie Bell’s Thing treats his transformation as only slightly more inconvenient than getting a zit the day after the prom. What does it really feel like to become super-stretchy? How does Sue see the world in her invisible state? A little sense of awe around their transformed status wouldn’t be a bad thing.
10. Screw the present; set course for the past.
It worked for X-Men: First Class, so why not the Fantastic Four? Maybe one way to honor the source material is to set the action in the years when the original comics came out. This would allow the script to do several things: (1) establish the FF’s brand as the “first family” of the Marvel universe (2) insert a lot of Mad Men-friendly fashions and designs for extra visual appeal (3) give audiences a sense of what it was like in the ’60s when astronauts and scientists were bona fide heroes and (4) give the film permission to have a sunnier, more optimistic attitude than most superhero and sci-fi films set in the present tend to have. Look at the image up above from this year’s FF film: they’re all staring at some light show in a rocky wasteland. Who decided that’s what kids want to see in a superhero movie? Screw that; let’s move forward by heading back to the past. and by reminding audiences why we fell in love with these characters in the first place. (Just two things: Susan doesn’t sport her original beehive ‘do, and she never acts like the team’s designated doormat. Some things are best left in the past.)