The superhero film marketplace has certainly become a very crowded place. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony Pictures developing a “Spiderverse,” 20th Century Fox’s X-Men Universe and Warner Bros.’ DC Universe films all competing for attention and dollars in the years ahead, one would think there isn’t room for another tent pole franchise based on a comic book.
But Fox isn’t satisfied with just “X-Men.” The studio has held the movie rights to the Fantastic Four for nearly a decade, but after the release of two films in the mid-2000s the characters have been out of the public eye. With a franchise as potentially lucrative as Marvel’s First Family, especially given how well other Marvel properties have translated to the big screen, Fox has been looking for a way to get the quartet back on the big screen. The previous films, both directed by Tim Story, are not very highly regarded, relying on heavy-handed dialogue and routine set pieces. The first film performed well at the box office, but the second, 2007’s “Rise of the Silver Surfer,” fizzled, leaving the franchise seemingly dead in the water.
Based on contractual stipulations, Fox had to make the decision to use or lose its rights to the franchise. The studio opted to maintain its hold on the FF rights, turning to “Chronicle” director Josh Trank to reboot the franchise. But is there room for another superhero franchise in such a saturated market? And how can Fox avoid comparisons to the first two attempts at big screen FF glory? With the lead roles cast earlier this week and the filming of the new “Fantastic Four” creeps closer to reality, we have some suggestions that could help make the film a rousing success.
The Fantastic Four have arguably one of the greatest collection of dastardly rogues out of any Marvel Comics heroes, including one who may well be the greatest villain in all of comics. With a new “Fantastic Four” franchise comes the opportunity to introduce a veritable legion of antagonists. Imagine an “FF” film set in the Negative Zone to tackle Annihilus, or journeying to Atlantis to face the Sub-Mariner or Attuma. The film could utilize the Skrulls, or delve into mysticism and horror with Diablo or the Salem’s Seven. Great villains define the heroes they fight, and if Fox wants to score with its new take on “FF,” it needs to spend time deciding on the right evil for the Four to take down.
And then, there’s Doom. Of the sins committed by the previous “Fantastic Four” films, perhaps none doomed them so much as the portrayal of Dr. Doom. Reed Richards’ arch-nemesis is not a smarmy, cackling, generic villain; he is a megalomaniacal despot who is as adept at science as he is with sorcery. Doom’s mere presence should fill an audience with fear and apprehension; he’s not just a generic baddie to be easily dispatched with a freeze ray or whatever it was that happened at the end of the first film.
As if Doom weren’t enough to handle, there’s also Galactus, sometimes know as The Devourer of Worlds. Other heroes have villains that define them; the Fantastic Four have a very hungry celestial god. Portrayed as a planet-eating cloud in “Rise of the Silver Surfer” — because the filmmakers feared audiences would not be able to embrace a giant, planet-devouring being — there’s no reason to avoid the magnificence of Galactus as Jack Kirby first presented the planet eater decades ago. Executed properly, it should be possible to capture the sheer awesomeness of the concept on a big screen and embrace everything that makes the “Fantastic Four” so fantastic.
Let the Characters Be the Characters
Editing, set design, pacing and script all help to make a successful genre experience, but the most important thing is, of course, character. As soon as the initial rumors about Michael B. Jordan’s casting hit months ago, a certain subsection of FF fans immediately sounded the alarms. Now, upon learning that Johnny will indeed be a black man with a white sister — unlike his white comic book counterpart — that outrage has ramped up. But if Sue and Johnny act like Sue and Johnny, nothing else matters. The film needs to be filled with moments that scream Stan and Jack’s foursome, with Reed locked in his lab clueless to anything but his work, Johnny and Ben pranking and fighting, and Sue as the glue that holds the team together. A solid “FF” film, based on Lee, Kirby, John Byrne, Roy Thomas, Mark Millar, Jonathan Hickman or Mark Waid’s work, or an amalgamation of the bunch, can only guide the film down a path to greatness. Intangibles, such as fiddling with the basic personalities and character motivations, are what would ring false and cause the reboot to collapse like a house of cards, not the idea that Johnny and Sue are members of an interracial family.
Don’t Forget the “X”
Aside from the all-new cast, how can Fox let mainstream audiences know their new “Fantastic Four” is all-new and all-different? Easy — just offer one clue, one reminder, one inkling that this new film exists in the same shared Universe as Fox’s “X-Men” films and eyes will be wide open, searching for deeper connection between the two franchises. If Fox does opt for the rumored shared universe route, the marketing for the new film needs to lay the ground work to tie it to Xavier’s mutants — and make sure fans know it has nothing in common with its Tim Story-directed counterparts. “FF” sharing a reality with “X-Men” is incredibly intriguing, opening a second universe where Marvel properties can share face time, allowing for crossovers, guest spots and thematic extensions. For example, when Apocalypse arrives in the 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” directed by Bryan Singer, the battle could also be felt or foreshadowed in “FF.” Standing alone, “FF” could be viewed by the general public as just another superhero film. Tying it to the “X-Men” can help increase its appeal for a wider audience looking for the promise of another cinematic universe.
Find the Right Tone
The “Fantastic Four” has always been a book more steeped in science fiction than superhero tropes — which is ironic, because it was “FF” that kicked off the Marvel Universe. As such, the new film, while maintaining its superhero roots, should embrace the science in its fiction to help differentiate itself from the rest of the superhero pack; more “Doctor Who” than “The Avengers,” more “Flash Gordon” than “The Dark Knight.” The movie needs to embrace its inherent wackiness, to proudly portray the insane elements and characters from the FF’s history. A major element of the “FF” comic has always been its freewheeling sense of humor. Between Reed’s cluelessness to anything but advanced science, Ben and Johnny’s constant banter and supporting characters like Willie Lumpkin and H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot, “FF” has never shied away from the whimsical. Let DC and Warner Bros. do bleak and somber. Any “Fantastic Four” film, any real “Fantastic Four” film, must know how to balance the wacky with the intense, the power of family in the face of Armageddon. Whether it was during the Lee and Kirby era, the John Byrne years, Walt Simonson run or the time of Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, “Fantastic Four” has always tonally stood out from the rest of the Marvel Universe, and any successful “FF” film will reflect this same approach.
Go Big or Go Home
At numerous points in its history, “Fantastic Four” has been Marvel’s grandest title. In the original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby run, every issue not only explored the character dynamics of Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben, but also had the stalwart four encounter some of the most mind-blowing concepts of the day. They were not just superheroes, the Fantastic Four were — and are — explorers, every issue introducing new worlds and concepts to readers. The FF didn’t stop bank robberies; they stopped alien excursions from other dimensions. They did not just encounter villains; they encountered other dimensional warlords bent on conquest.
In the previous “FF” films, Reed’s lab looked entirely mundane, outfitted with standard issue beakers and desktop computers with beakers, not the kind of place that would allow and encourage the impossible to happen on a daily basis. Reed shouldn’t have microscopes in his lab, he should have portals to the Negative Zone and other gizmos and engines that crackle with otherworldly Kirby-esque energy. Everything the FF does is epic; every story they are involved in should be an exercise in world building. During the Silver Age, mind altering concepts that became major parts of the tapestry of the Marvel Universe were introduced in the pages of “Fantastic Four” on a monthly basis.
A film worthy of the name “Fantastic Four” should match the scope of the comics, the stories breaking the boundaries of reality, unafraid to take chances. A new “FF” film needs to embrace the insanity and grandiosity of “FF,” or will it fall short of both the team’s moniker and the book’s legacy. The characters that comprise the Fantastic Four are human, but the situations they find themselves need to go far beyond the standard conception of our daily reality. A “Fantastic Four” movie should be filled with energy and huge moments, fevered set pieces that fans will never forget and inspire filmmakers the way the comics have so many of the writers and artists who followed Lee and Kirby. After all, these aren’t voyagers of the kinda cool: They’re the voyagers of the fantastic.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on “Fantastic Four.”