Disney’s recent purchase of 21st Century Fox’s film assets does (among other things) return one crown jewel back to the Marvel Universe: the Fantastic Four. The originals, the First Family of Comics, bringing Reed and Sue Richards, Johnny Storm, and The Thing back with the rest of the old Earth-616 gang opens up a lot of possibilities for new Fantastic Four appearances on-screen. With the as-yet-untitled Avengers 4 still filming, there’s a strong chance we may even get to see them face off against Thanos before the decade is over.
But why get so hyped for a new Fantastic Four movie? There have been three FF movies in the last 12 years, and they’ve gone steadily downhill in quality, from the bland-but-fun Fantastic Four of 2005, to 2007’s hammy and apocalyptic Rise of the Silver Surfer. The culmination, 2015’s rebooted Fantastic Four, was diametrically opposed to the FF movies that came before, but still ended up missing its mark in search of a different take on the FF. So what are some things that can be done to fix the FF for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Here are 17 of the biggest mistakes Hollywood made that they would do well to avoid.
17. SEPARATED THEM FROM THE MARVEL UNIVERSE
The Fantastic Four for all intents and purposes started the Marvel Universe as we know it — before that, Marvel Comics had been around for 30 years, doggedly trying to keep up with current trends in the comic book world, be it superheroes, monsters, detectives, or a mix of everything. With the introduction of the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were able to not only fold in old, beloved parts of Marvel’s backlog (Namor), but they were able to introduce new and enduring casts of characters (the Skrulls, the Inhumans, Black Panther).
They were not only an entryway into the history of the Marvel Universe, but they very literally helped shape its future. And with the Hollywood adaptations, due to rights issues, the FF has never even been able to interact with anyone else (save Stan Lee) from Marvel at large, making them a dead end instead of an open door.
16. THE ROGER CORMAN ADAPTATION
The ’90s were not a wonderful time for superheroes –the Image mutiny had led to an entire generation trying to ape Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee’s hyper-detailed musculature in comics, and what few attempts made at filming superheroes were largely confined to TV movies. Roger Corman, the legendary film director and producer, executive produced a Fantastic Four movie in the ’90s, from rights held by Bernd Eichinger; they gathered a skeleton crew and some actors and filmed a Fantastic Four that looks straight out of someone’s backyard Super 8 movie club.
Corman-produced movies are renowned for being low-budget, quick-and-dirty affairs, and Fantastic Four was no exception. The film didn’t even get a proper release, which led many to accuse Corman and Eichinger of creating an “ashcan” movie–that is, he filmed it just so Eichinger could keep the rights, with no intention of release.
15. COMPLETE MISCASTING
The Fantastic Four lives and dies on the interpersonal relationships between the Richards’, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm. Each member of the team has their tactical role, and each member is like family to the others — Ben and Johnny are siblings with a rivalry, and Reed and Sue tend to be their exasperated, super-smart parents (even after the birth of Franklin and Valeria). When casting the big-budget Fantastic Four movies — the first released FF movie — the studio apparently threw interpersonal chemistry out the window, and decided to focus strictly on getting people who looked like that Fantastic Four.
The best that can be said for the casting is that they definitely succeeded in getting people who look like the FF — Michael Chiklis’ performance as The Thing is rock-solid (pun very intended), and Ioan Gruffudd looks dead-on like Reed Richards; but putting glasses on Jessica Alba does not make her act smart enough to be a super-scientist.
14. TRYING TO DO TOO MUCH AT ONCE
One of the great joys of the Fantastic Four is that they’re always pulled in a hundred directions at once — for the First Family of comics, there’s never a dull moment, never a real break between adventures. While this is a fine approach for a comic that came out once a month, every month, for 50+ years, it’s not exactly a winning formula for a standalone movie. A movie has to have a beginning and mostly an end, even if there’s going to be a sequel — you have to finish the work you’re doing in this movie before you can move on to that movie.
The Fantastic Four movies never really got that message. The movies are getting shorter and shorter and trying to shoehorn in more and more, leaving things that should be the entirety of a movie (e.g. Galactus) and short-shrifting them into third act set dressing.
13. DOCTOR DOOM ALWAYS LOOKS LIKE A SCIENCE FAIR REJECT
Doctor Victor von Doom, ruler of Latveria, is one of comics’ most recognizable figures, a Shakespearean ruler who is on an eternal quest to save his mother’s soul, and destroy that incorrigible Richards for ruining the perfect visage of Doom. His look is iconic, from the forest green of his cape and cowl, to his modern-era knight’s armor, right down to an intimidating mask.
So why is it that every time they put Doom on screen, he looks like something a fourth-grader glued together with popsicle sticks and aluminum foil at the last minute? The performance of Doom is tough — his overwrought soliloquies would sound like marbles in the mouth of a real person — but the look shouldn’t be. Alas, all we are left with up until now is a history of weak Dooms who could use a makeover before anyone starts taking them seriously.
12. NO SENSE OF MAGIC OR WONDER
The big difference between Fantastic Four and most other superhero books on the shelf is that the stars of the Fantastic Four are not just heroes — they’re explorers. Where the thrill of a Batman book is the tension in following Batman on his latest case, the thrill in a Fantastic Four book is to see what new holes they can find in the borders of reality. The FF are at their best when they’re hopping through space and time in pursuit of new challenges, new knowledge, and new frontiers.
The movies have all been the first act of the Fantastic Four stories, the team learning how to use all their new powers, and they never get the chance to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, aside from their tragic origin accident. Without that sense of discovery, the Fantastic Four movies fall flat.
11. GALACTUS THE CLOUD
Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds, is one of the major icons that make the Fantastic Four what they are today — if it weren’t for the trilogy of Fantastic Four #48-50, we wouldn’t have Marvel mainstays like the Silver Surfer, and the Watcher wouldn’t have achieved the status that he has. But Galactus is, again, something that works on the page of a comic much more easily than on film; putting a man who is at least 30-feet tall on screen without a lot of big-budget camera trickery is enough to wreck a movie.
In 2007’s Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, audiences were ready to be amazed by Galactus — where treads the Surfer, so Galactus must follow — but by the end of the movie, all we got was an enormous space cloud with vague suggestions of Galactus’s helmet shape. Talk about a let-down.
10. THE MOVIES KEEP GETTING STUCK AT THE BEGINNING
Fox can’t seem to get a Fantastic Four movie series past the initial phase, and yes, that includes Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The truly beautiful moments in the saga of the the first family of comics come in the telling, the moments when the Richards feel the tension in their marriage, or Ben has to wrestle with how much he hates himself in the face of how much his family loves him.
These aren’t dynamics that the movies can get to right away, and even with the opportunity to make a second movie, they made one that was all spectacle and very little relationships even though the Richards wedding was a major plot point — these movies drop the ball that hard. To really get a compelling Fantastic Four story, they’ve got to start skipping ahead to the good parts.
9. MAJOR SERIES ICONS BECOME SET DRESSING
Fantastic Four introduced legends of all kinds to the Marvel Universe, while recontextualizing older characters into the modern-day heroes they needed to be. In a world like this, littered with things like the Super-Skrull, Galactus the Devourer, the Silver Surfer, Blastarr, Uatu the Watcher, and so on, there has never been a shortage of awesome ideas to snatch up for a Fantastic Four movie.
The really embarrassing part is that they’ve never properly used any of them — in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, they let the audience sit and wait for Galactus for almost a full two hours, only to be treated to a tease. If you’re interested in featuring a classic character, either bring them into the story or don’t feature them — short-changing the characters short changes the viewers, too.
8. BUCK NAKED BEN GRIMM
This one is more symptomatic of a larger problem. As the movies keep flopping, the filmmakers keep trying to figure out what’s “wrong” with the FF. The first two movies started out with a hefty amount of cartoony action alongside almost-slapstick humor, and audiences weren’t really having it; when they rebooted the series, they pushed the needle completely the other way, making a movie that was too serious to really enjoy.
In this pursuit of seriousness, they gave all the members of the FF tactical suits, with functional-looking panels and lots of extra straps — and in their infinite wisdom, they realized that there was no reason not to put the old debate to bed and not give Ben Grimm any kind of clothes. Brody can finally rest: the Mallrat’s Paradox has finally been answered.
7. NOBODY LOOKS LIKE THEY’RE HAVING FUN
It’s always fun to read a Fantastic Four comic because it always feels like the team is having legitimate fun. Even if Reed is involved in some deep-level calculations or scientific analysis, Johnny and Ben can usually be found cracking wise at each other and using new and unusual settings to find new and unusual ways to rib each other.
The scripts for the Fantastic Four movies are packed with jokes, one-liners, and scenes that are clearly intended for comedic relief, but they all fall flat because the cast never looks like they’re enjoying their time in the Fantastic Four universe. They can give them all the jokes and funny lines they like, but if the cast doesn’t look like they’re having fun, they won’t. And they never look like they’re having fun — aside from Chris Evans, very occasionally.
6. THE DRABBEST OF COLORS
When the Fantastic Four go adventuring and exploring, the new worlds and dimensions they encounter aren’t all filled with drab grays, they don’t look like they’ve had a dark, grimy filter overlaid on top of all of the film. They’re beautiful, they burst with color, they’re inventive; in short, they’re everything that the Fantastic Four movies are not.
For a space-faring family who wear bright blue bodysuits all the time, there’s no vivid color in their film universe, there are only dull suggestions of it. The Thing shouldn’t look like dark red Georgia clay, he’s supposed to be bright, Cheeto orange; he’s supposed to be one of many eye-catching elements in the FF’s orbit. Instead, he’s just another dirty orange-ish smudge in the story.
5. RUINED BY REWRITES
Each iteration of the Fantastic Four has its own troubled production history (aside from Rise of the Silver Surfer, which seems like sort of a studio inevitability) — the first movie spent over a decade in production limbo, going through draft after draft of screenplay before ending up on the final version. The first two movies credit Mark Frost (co-creator of Twin Peaks) with writing credits as well as a story credit for the second; the 2015 reboot features three separate credited writers, including the director, but not including other writers who worked on the project as early as its 2009 inception.
It’s difficult to make a movie on its own; it’s incredibly difficult to make a movie when it’s being written by committee. It’s no wonder after all that the FF movies all suffer from a lack of a coherent vision.
4. THE FAMILIAL CORE OF THE SERIES IS NEVER REALLY THERE
Ultimately, the FF is about family. It’s dressed up in superheroics and super-science, in spandex and rock, but at the end of the day, the Fantastic Four are fantastic because they’re a family. Whether the focus is on the romantic love between Reed and Sue, the caring sibling relationship between Johnny and Sue, or the rivalry between Ben and Johnny, the greater adventure has to be grounded in their relationships as a family.
The movies lose sight of this — they cast the FF as a gang of quasi-friends who are forced to be best friends, which is similar, but not quite the same, as being family. These Fantastic Four members are very concerned about saving the world, but they aren’t that concerned with saving each other.
3. TRYING TO RIP OFF THE X-MEN MOVIES
The X-Men movies were the first majorly successful superhero franchise in the wake of the Batman & Robin bubble; they proved that people still wanted to see superhero movies, but that maybe to ground them a little bit more in reality and a little bit less in the zaniness and bombast of comics.
Where the X-Men movies set their own tone and stuck to it over the course of an entire trilogy before pressing reset on the whole series, including revamping the tone from a militaristic one to more of a classmate focus, the Fantastic Four movies stagnate. They tried to copy the aesthetics of the X-Men movies, with subdued colors, a roughed-up aesthetic for the Thing, and with locations that all look like the same sterile labs, but they never captured the spirit.
2. ALWAYS FEARFUL IN TONE, INSTEAD OF HOPEFUL
As explorers of the unknown, the Fantastic Four are known for facing things that would break the minds of other people. They’ve seen reality crumble, they’ve tripped through time, and they’ve fought off conquerors who would take over the world without a second thought. The thing about the FF, though, is that they always have hope — even if they’re not sure whether or not they’ll win, they know they’ll be a family until the end.
In the films, however, we get a Fantastic Four who can’t seem to remember why they became a team, an FF who remain fearful in the face of adversity. They don’t share the spark of hope that you’re supposed to get from the Fantastic Four, and the movies are lesser for it.
1. THE STUDIOS CAN’T GET OUT OF THEIR OWN WAY
Before the Josh Trank-directed reboot of Fantastic Four, the studios had largely gone for a safe superhero movie both times out — under two hours, lots of kid-friendly action and joking, and some legitimately fun CGI set pieces. When those ideas weren’t working for them anymore, they hired Trank on the strength of his superhero-adjacent film, Chronicle, which had taken an original tack on the superhero genre and made it work.
Rather than hire a man that they believed who could do the job in order to let him do it, Fox couldn’t decide if they wanted Trank to make his movie or theirs, and the result was a mishmash of a movie that felt like two movies stitched together at the seams. Maybe now that the rights have changed hands, we’ll get a chance to see a better FF movie, but who knows.
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