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How to make a good 'Fantastic Four' movie: Geekly Mailbag

Let’s be pro-active.

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Marvel

In the fullness of time, there will be another Fantastic Four. Maybe Fox will wait a few years, jealously guarding the screen rights to Marvel’s First Family. Maybe next time, they’ll opt for a soft launch: Introducing Reed Richards as a background scientist in 2018’s X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga, or including a brief cameo by a man on fire in the post-credits sequence of 2020’s X-Men: X-Tinction Agenda. Maybe Fox will run out the clock plotting an elaborate reboot, Carnahan-Daredevil style, and Marvel will get the rights back. Maybe Marvel will use the FF as the centerpiece of Phase Seven, or maybe they’ll launch a new FF show on Netflix. And maybe people will get bored of superheroes, and the decades will pass, and someday far in the future, your grandchildren will get their own Fantastic Four movie, with some yet-unborn actress wearing a terrible blonde wig.

When readers responded to yesterday’s Mailbag, they were unanimous in two opinions: That the latest Fantastic Four movie is not great; and that there will, someday, be another Fantastic Four movie. What could that movie look like? What should that movie look like? Given that there have been four different attempts — the Corman cheapo, the Alba duet, the Planet Zero calamity — maybe it’s time for an intervention. Let’s consider some possibilities.

As a huge Fantastic Four fan going way back to my childhood in the 60s, I have really been enjoying your articles in EW about the franchise and issues with the most recent installment. To me the biggest disappointment with the film was that it bothered to re-hash the origin at all. I just don’t think it was necessary: the vast majority of the audience is aware of the four characters and their powers (either from the long history of the comics or the first two movies in 2005-7).

Rather than a simple re-boot there was an opportunity to expand the characters, and introduce some of the many colorful enemies (Dr. Doom always bored me a bit in spite of his importance to the overall franchise). Sub-Mariner. Mole Man. Annihilus. The Skrulls. The opportunity to make a blow-out film was there (and still is).

If I were pitching to Fox (or Marvel Studios if the franchise winds up back with them), I would suggest the next sequel to be based on what was to me the best series of issues in the comic’s history: Issues #90-93. It’s a great story with the thing getting kidnapped by the Skrulls and turned over to a slave trader who sells him into a gladiator ring on another planet where he has to fight to the death. There are all kinds of insane creatures, some good/heroic aliens turn up, and the slavers are brutal humanoids who (for some reason) imitate the gangsters of 1930s America. Of course the entire time the rest of the FF are trying to figure out what happened to Ben Grimm and set out to rescue him. It all sounds nuts but it is a lot of fun and it WORKS. 

I attached a pic of the issues I was talking about. This was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at their absolute best.

—Tom

I’m with Tom, 100 percent. The Fantastic Four sub-mythology is one of the richest and wildest in comic books. They constantly travel to faroff planets and hidden worlds, all of them with their own internal power structure. Pick your genre archetype: Undersea kingdom led by a war-hawk royal; subterranean kingdom with a totalitarian dictator; cross-dimensional kingdom led by immortal, cosmically powerful insect-being; a race of conquering shapeshifters — and that’s just the four villains that Tom mentioned off the top of his head!

Fox doesn’t just own the screen rights to the Fantastic Four; they own the screen rights to some of the most important beings in the Marvel Universe’s cosmic firmament. So it makes no sense whatsoever that this new Fantastic Four movie ignored pretty much all of that stuff, focusing on the lame-beyond-lame concept of “Planet Zero,” a boring alternate-dimensional rockscape covered in green power juice.

Part of this, I think, was just everyone involved in this new movie misreading the tea leaves. The latest Fantastic Four was conceived three long years ago, but it really has its roots in 2008, with the tough-and-real The Dark Knight and the low-key banter and military-industrial setting of Iron Man. The good news is, Fox can reboot out of this hole easily, with one simple step: Make Fantastic Four their own version of Star Wars. Don’t ignore the crazy mythology: Dive right into it. The next Fantastic Four should begin with every single cosmic being Fox currently has the right to — plus a few new ones, because originality is fun! — staging a massive intergalactic duel, right here on Earth.

Or, more creatively, go for Tom’s solution: Send the Thing and the other members of the team on a small-scale journey through the cosmos. The film that sets the perfect templae for Fantastic Four isn’t The Incredibles. It’s Hellboy 2: A film that jumps right into a typical mission for a work-family superteam, which tracks a short span of time (a little more than 24 hours) in the life of those characters, but which immediately mixes in elaborate webs of mythology. Fantastic Four doesn’t need realism. It needs a goblin market.

Reading your article I felt rather identified with the part that says the modern comic book movie fan is basically a fan unfamiliar with the comics that likes super-hero movies. I personally don’t know anything about the Fantastic Four aside from what I remember from the 1967 Hannah-Barbera opening credits, (which is all I can remember from the re-runs I watched when I was little), the mid 2000’s franchise, and some googling about the main characters and the villains…

The truth is, I didn’t want a “contemporary re-imagining” (heck, the re-imagining is from a 2005 film! I guess that in the 21st century, 10 years is enough to call it contemporary). I didn’t hate the previous movies, I sure wanted a reboot that did some justice to what those characters were in my mind, and looked like a “Heroes” season finale (just not season 3) with Jon Hamm as Reed Richards and Charlize Theron as Sue Storm. I wanted a cliché super-hero New York setting, with a good villain, and awesome action sequences, with no teleporting or dangerous universes. So basically a mash-up of the 2005 film with any other super-hero movie Marvel has made.

—Luis

Jon Hamm as Reed Richards: COSIGN. Charlize Theron as Sue Storm: COSIGN. The great thing about that casting is how it fundamentally establishes a dynamic that we don’t often see in movies: A pair of romantic leads, where the guy is not the most badass action hero.

Lemme throw in one more idea here. One thing that the badness of Fantastic Four obscures is the goodness of one of its central ideas: Shaking up the usual tendency to cast another white dude names Chris as the lead in a movie. Why not push that idea further with our theoretical new Fantastic Four. Johnny Storm is a great character, but the idea of a wild young man is a bit played out. You know what isn’t played out? Wild young women. I’m talking like Miley Cyrus-tearing-apart-a-teddy-bear, Amy Schumer-in-Trainwreck, the-entire-cast-of-the-Bad-Blood-music-video wild. Turning Johnny Storm into Janey Storm has the immediate effect of transforming every FF argument into a gender-balanced battle of the sexes — and imagine Charlize Theron as the tough-smart-frustrated older sister to a hip party-hard younger sister, played by, I dunno, Hailee Steinfeld.

Keep in mind: This idea, even if it’s bad, is not worse than anything in the last few Fantastic Four movies.

I do not care how the Fantastic Four became the Fantastic Four. Do I care how Batman became The Dark Knight? Absolutely. I wanna see that poor child ripped from his parents over and over, because that’s super important to his work as the Winged One. The Fantastic Four are super ordinary folks with minimal life problems — I needed less time at the science fair, or the junk yard, and more with Johnny flying around (Smiling! Would a smile kill this movie?!), or Reed stretching to save his first woman falling from a bridge. 

WHY DID WE TIME SKIP OVER THE FIRST USE OF THEIR POWERS???

—Johnny

Johnny, I love you forever for the phrase “I wanna see that poor child ripped from his parents over and over.” You’re in luck: Scientists estimate that kids born today will see Thomas and Martha Wayne brutally murdered in Crime Alley at least a thousand times before they turn 18.

But you’re onto something with your description of the Fantastic Four as “super ordinary folks with minimal life problems.” This is a particular frustration I have with a lot of blockbusters, but: A superhero movie does not need to be about the superhero triumphing over some personal emotional adversity. The biggest problem I have with the Marvel Studios movies is that they always feel the need to establish that this, this, is the greatest battle this superhero will ever fight. (Until the next battle, in the next sequel.) The Fantastic Four don’t need to triumph over adversity; it should be good enough to see them triumph over, like, Galactus.

A lot of my youth was spent reading comics, especially the Fantastic Four. John Byrne was my favorite writer/artist of that time. Loved the stories. Have since stopped reading comics, but I watch the superhero films and love the work Marvel Studios has done. I’ve seen the Roger Corman FF film and the Tim Story FF films. None of them impressed me. I adored the Incredibles and didn’t understand why the FF films couldn’t be that good. As good as they were in the comics. Had my own vision of the Josh Trank FF film. Wanted it to be an older version of the FF with a young Franklin Richards. When I heard the details about Josh Trank’s film, I was disappointed. But I was hopeful that the horror angle could work.

Saw the new FF film the Thurs. night it opened among an audience of about 15 to 20 people. I was bored the entire time. The film had very little humor…Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben didn’t feel like close friends much less family. Sue turns on Reed in the movie at the drop of a hat. 

I told every friend I knew who wanted to see the movie to not bother going. Have seen FF films on 4 occasions now and have been let down each time. Wish Marvel Studios had more creative control over these movies with Marvel characters. 

—Ron

Ron’s is right about one thing. For all my qualms about Marvel Studios, they are very good at something that should be simple: Getting the characters in a movie to talk to each other. The best part of Age of Ultron is the early party scene, when the most powerful heroes in the world just hang out, have a laugh, have a few drinks, try to lift Thor’s hammer.

This should be a hallmark of every Marvel movie. It most definitely is not. Besides a few great scenes in X2 and First Class, the X-Men only ever use their powers in times of insane absolute crisis. And now here we have a Fantastic Four movie where the four superheroes don’t even use their powers together until the final battle to save the universe.

Honestly the problem with this movie, and even the previous two is the creators total lack of ability to give us anything that closes resembles the comic book version of Victor Von Doom. Dr. Doom is one of the greatest villains in the history of all comics and pop culture. The truth is, it is the villains of these super heroes that can make or break these movies. Doom has been completely looked over and his representation in these films is why they continue to struggle. A stronger Doom would make a stronger overall film. And honestly it shouldn’t be that hard.

—Grader

The main issue with the Fantastic Four is simple: They are goofy, and campy, and over-the-top. Doctor Doom is a scientist who is also a magician, and he wears a suit of armor with a big flowing green cape, and he is the dictator of an Eastern European nation, and his name is Doctor Doom, and HIS REAL NAME IS VICTOR VON DOOM. There is no way to play this in a way that isn’t wacky. Guardians of the Galaxy showed a new way forward for this kind of comic book storytelling: It steered right into the skid. The Racoon doesn’t just talk: He gets drunk and cries. Gamora is a galactic assassin beauty with green skin — and she has a sister who is also a galactic assassin beauty with blue skin. Star-Lord calls himself Star-Lord, and he loves Footloose, too.

The problem is that, when it comes to their superhero movies, Fox generally seems uniquely incapable of steering into the skid. Bryan Singer has ever-so-gradually brought Claremont-Byrne weirdness into the X-Men franchise, but it always feels like the studio is running scared from the crazier and weirder and more out-there aspects of their characters. (Sometimes this is great: The Wolverine is a great argument for low-fi superhero movies, right up until the incongruous robo-samurai.) The problem is, Fantastic Four is only crazy/weird/out-there. If you were to try and do a blanket pitch for the entire sum history of the superteam, it would be the Creation montage from Tree of Life combined with Modern Family.

The film had one of the most rapid endings in superhero history (heck, in movie history). Maybe it’s because MCU and DC all run an hour too long nowadays, but I was anticipating Doom’s return, a city battle (Marvel’s fave!), and Stan Lee. (Then again, maybe the lack of a city battle was a good thing.) The strange thing is, though, that I didn’t feel the ending was rushed, it just felt like the movie stopped halfway through.

The rest of the movie wasn’t perfect, either: the dialogue was pretty bad, and the cast (unfortunately) just looked bored. At least there won’t be a FF universe (complete with villain- and female-centric spin offs) anytime in the future. 

—James

PS. Why do you think it was that Guardians of the Galaxy was such a cultural smash last year? While it was well-written and the banter was funny, it was the first MCU movie I saw where I was bored with the formula (Dark World was the first that was just downright awful). Winter Soldier was far more thrilling, and, while a hit, didn’t inspire nearly the cultural zeitgeist of Guardians. I liked Guardians, I’ve just always been curious about why an almost beat-for-beat Avengers remake received such a huge following.

James brings up something I had been wondering about. One of the best parts of the new movie is when Doom reappears, goes crazy, and starts blowing up people’s heads. (Yes, it’s totally random, but at least something is happening.) When you watch that part of the movie, you’re primed for something big. And then…well, nothing.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering: How much better would this Fantastic Four be if it started in the middle? Like, the movie opens on a mysterious military mission. Black ops, top secret. We think we’re watching Zero Dark Thirty — and then the soldiers jump out of the helicopters, and it’s The Thing, Invisible Woman, and the Human Torch. They lay waste to a terrorist facility, return to base, and get their new assignment. They need to track down someone they know very well: Reed Richards, fugitive from Justice.

From there, the movie progresses the way it actually does. They catch Reed — but only after a much more elaborate action scene, which requires them to fight through Reed’s defense system, which has been specifically tailored to all of them. (Reed douses Johnny with a waterfall.) They bring him home; he gives the government the ability to return to Planet Zero. There, they find Victor, long thought dead, who now has all kinds of powers, and wants to conquer the world. End of act one.

The best thing to come out of Fantastic Four‘s failure, I think, is that Origin Fatigue is real now. Which means, hopefully, no more endless opening hours of people who aren’t superheroes very gradually becoming superheroes. The audience gets it.

PS: I wrote about this a bit last year, but I don’t entirely mind that the Guardians movie adopted the Avengers formula so completely. If anything, I like how Guardians managed to graft so much funky eccentricity onto the superteam formula. But I also feel like the movie could’ve been much, much more interesting — there’s no reason why it has to end with the same old ships-flying-over-the-city finale that Avengers had. (Winter Soldier had that ending, too, but it made more sense in context than in either of the other two movies.) But, like, the stuff I remember from Guardians is all Guardians: The Celestials, the space outpost inside a giant space-monster skeleton, the costumes, the colors. So I’m going to assume/hope that Guardians 2 is going to really shake up the formula.

Okay, so here are my two cents: big fan of the comic. From 1993-2015, I picked up every issue of every FF related title. I am fairly certain that I know how the Fantastic Four works.

That said, there were great ideas in the film completely ignored, like the time jump to one year later and bypassing the body altering issue setup. But the thing (pun not intended) that made me furious was Ben Grimm watching footage with 23 confirmed kills! Ben Grimm is not a killer. Ben Grimm is a Jewish man who says shabbat prayers over dying men (see FF #56, vol. 3). Ben VALUES life. To make him into something out of character means it’s not the FF.

My 2.

—John I.

The whole Ben-as-a-Soldier subplot gets introduced and discarded so quickly; I’m not even sure it’s worth taking it seriously, except as further evidence that this movie was five opposing concepts mashed together. But John brings up an important point: This Fantastic Four movie is one of the single darkest takes on the Fantastic Four ever. I’ve never read the Ultimate version of Fantastic Four, but by all accounts it’s also pretty bleak — like, Reed Richards goes cuckoo bananas crazy.

Now, I am totally down for the dark version of Fantastic Four. But if you’re gonna do Return to Oz, you can’t suddenly decide midway through that you’re actually doing Oz the Great and Powerful.

Brief tangent!

To say you hated “Spiderman2” already makes me think you’re just a little off. The actors and actresses nailed every scene.  Sally field and her emotion were great. And you could feel the chemistry between Garfield and Stone. You can type you didn’t like it but,  “Hatred”? I know it’s America but, dude. ……..come on. 

John C.

Disagree on all counts! Jamie Foxx was terrible, Dane DeHaan was a bad haircut in search of a character, Sally Field was just wasted, and whatever chemistry there was between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone doesn’t matter, because absolutely nothing they did in that movie is interesting whatsoever. This is America, and we deserve a better Spider-Man movie. Come on!

And in conclusion, here’s a solid theory on the failure of Fantastic Four:

I liked Ant-Man. But it wasn’t great, the casual movie watcher probably wouldn’t say they’d watch it again. I think the “ok-ness” may have had an effect on Fantastic Four. Without realizing, maybe Marvel’s B character origin movie may have assisted in stopping people from watching F4. Maybe they didn’t want to be disappointed again. Thoughts?

Jaime

Sometimes, the success of a movie is all about timing. Like, the best thing that ever happened to X-Men: Days of Future Past was Avengers. Two years after Marvel Studios brought their super-fun superteam to life, moviegoers wanted to see another big wild crazy superteam movie. Nothing had scratched that itch in the ensuing two years — if anything, movies like Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 and The Wolverine just whetted appetites for another big superhero mash-up.

I don’t think that this new Fantastic Four movie could have ever been a massive success in its current form — it’s too much of a dreary downer — but I guarantee, in the alternate universe where Fox held off on rebooting X-Men and went full-steam-ahead on Fantastic Four, this movie earns at least $50 million on its opening weekend just by drifting off residual Avengers fumes. (And maybe it would’ve made even more: Never forget that the grotesque chumpstew misery of Alice in Wonderland grossed over a billion dollars mainly because people wanted another 3D experience like Avatar.)

So this new Fantastic Four movie had the opposite problem. People just had the Avengers movie they were actually waiting for. (And the reaction to that movie was decidedly more muted.) I’m not sure I can draw the same line to Ant-Man — but only because, from what I’ve heard anecdotally, people who saw Ant-Man seemed to dig it specifically because it was so low-key and so un-Avengersy. If anything, I feel like that’s the way forward for superhero movies — which could mean good things stuff like Gambit, and bad things for movies like Fantastic Four or Batman v Superman or even Captain America: Civil War, which seem to depend on the audience wanting to binge out on superheroes.

Which means that, if I’m Fox right now, and I’m still fundamentally wedded to the idea of keeping Fantastic Four, then I need to start figuring out how to play the long game. Superheroes have come back from toxic onscreen outings before. People really didn’t like Ang Lee’s Hulk, a movie which actually has a few things in common with Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four: They’re both very weird, and very bleak, and they both involve weird semi-abstract digital final battles. Marvel tried to reintroduce the Hulk a few years later, but people didn’t like the Edward Norton version either. So instead, they quietly re-reintroduced the Hulk in the Avengers as a secondary character. This was also, in a way, the Marvel playbook for Daredevil: Once they got the rights back from Fox, they waited a couple years, and then gave him a small-scale Netflix show.

What is the Fantastic Four version of that? How do you introduce a superteam in a secondary fashion? By focusing on a character just adjacent to them — a character who can theoretically have his own adventures, but who could also meet up with the Fantastic Four, and set them up for their own (hopefully more enjoyable) adventures. Dear Fox: The time has come for the Silver Surfer movie. Pay Guillermo Del Toro all the money, or Spike Jonze, or Matthew Vaughn if you’re nervous, or Duncan Jones if Warcraft is any good, or Jennifer Kent if you’re feeling like a badass. Pick up with the Surfer when he’s already on his own, maybe caught in a three-way fight between the Skrulls and the Shi’Ar. Or, even better, do a Kill Bill thing, where the Surfer has to track down all the Heralds of Galactus. 

Or maybe just wait a few years for Chris Evans’ Marvel Studios contract to dry up, and pay him big bucks to return for a Human Torch spinoff. That’ll show ’em.

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