Tripping the Light Voyage, Part 1: What Fantastic Four Movies Keep Getting Wrong

I’ve watched four feature films with the title ‘Fantastic Four.’ Here they are, by the numbers:

  • 3 were released in theaters. All of those with wide release were produced by Fox Studios.
  • 1 was done by the legendary master of schlock film-making, Roger Corman, and was never intended to be released to the public.
  • 2 were directed by Tim Story (of Barbershop).
  • 1 was directed by Josh Trank (of Chronicle, who also wrote the film).
  • 4 included Doctor Doom.
  • 1 of these Doctor Dooms lacked any superhuman powers and battled based on his intellect and ego, as well as his mastery of science.
  • 3 have Ben Grimm, the Ever-Loving, Blue-Eyed Thing, in a foam-rubber outfit.
  • 1 has the Thing as a CGI construct using motion capture of the original actor.
  • 4 have the Thing looking like something made of fresh turds.
  • 4 have had the Thing utter his iconic battle cry ‘It’s Clobbering Time!’
  • 1 had him say this at a super-awkward and inappropriate moment.
  • 0 have H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot.
  • 2 films have a Rotten Tomatoes rating BELOW the one that was so bad as to be unreleased.
  • 1 has a Rotten Tomatoes score in the single digits.
  • 2 have a Rotten Tomatoes score that would be considered ‘Fresh’ (60% or higher) if it was doubled.
  • 0 have a Rotten Tomatoes score that would be considered ‘Certified Fresh’ (75% or higher) if it was doubled.

The Fantastic Four comic books ushered in the Marvel Age of Comics in 1961. There was something about that single book that was so ground-breaking, so pioneering, that it changed the face of the comic book industry from that point up to, and including, now. Prior to FF #1, comic books about superheroes by publishers other than DC had failed to make a mark in over a decade. For the first few months of publishing, Marvel Comics was still doing romance. mystery anthology, and westen comics.

When the Fantastic Four hit the shelves, this was forever altered. Over the course of the next few years, Marvel’s publishing metamorphosed from the variety of genres it had once encompassed to entirely superhero books. The publishing house also transformed from nearly being forced to close its doors (it was actually being distributed by National Publishing, whose own comic book division was DC) to out-selling everything else on the shelves for the next two decades. FF was the catalyst that saved, not only Marvel, not only superhero comics, but the entire industry.

The importance of the Fantastic Four has been somewhat forgotten for the last 25 years. Ever since the rise of the X-Men, the concept of the superhero team has come to be represented by that particular band of merry mutants rather than what the FF represented. The X-Men were forced to be close to one another due to the fact that, by virtue of their very genetic background, they were hated and feared by humanity. Conceptually, this has been mirrored by countless superhero groups over the last decades whereas the Fantastic Four, representing the nigh-literal nuclear family, has been relegated to an old-fashioned ideal.

That said, the concept of a group of heroes functioning as a family unit has a remarkable value in the world of modern cinema. It enables unique story opportunities to present themselves. The ability to tell familiar, personal stories within the context of the superhero narrative. With superheroes having become their own film genre, varying the dynamic of the heroes involved; from a group of people thrust together by little or no choice of their own to… anything else, really; can be valuable to keep audiences interested.

This is where the latest FF film fails. It tries to shoe-horn the idea of this group falling together into the story while informing on the unlikely events surrounding how they gain their unique abilities. The narrative of the film embraces the least important components of Fantastic Four dynamic while ignoring those aspects that made the book unique when it debuted in November of 1961.

Of course, Josh Trank’s FF manages to fail spectacularly; almost impressively.

This misstep cannot go ignored by Fox Studios. Despite the fact that there was an announcement that there would be a follow-up sequel to the Fantastic Four movie prior to its release, the reality that it is among the lowest-scoring, lowest-reviewed Marvel movies of all time (worse than Elektra and tied with the 1990 Captain America film in which Red Skull was Italian) seems to indicate that there will be a pivot from this course. Unless Fox wants to lose even more money, they will likely reconsider dumping more capital into this franchise which is, ultimately dead and buried as a film property thanks to having been thoroughly mis-managed.

There is a recent precedent for this.

In 2014, Amazing Spider-Man 2 seemed poised to take the crown of the top superhero film. However, studio meddling by Sony altered the final cut of the film to the point that, alongside some poor performances by the supporting cast, torpedoed these aspirations. Combined with two remarkably strong showings from Marvel/Disney (Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), the returns on ASM2 caused Sony to dramatically reconsider their options with the Spider-Man franchise.

This led to the now-famous deal which allows Marvel to include Spider-Man in MCU films while Sony continues to produce new Spider-Man content with the support of the grander Marvel mythology behind it. It’s very much the equivalent of having your cake and eating it, on paper. While things look good, it remains to be seen how the execution of this deal will play out. We can anticipate good things from Captain America: Civil War; the first Marvel Studios film to include the iconic character of Spider-Man in its massive cast; but speculation is all part of being a geek.

It seems unlikely that such a deal could be struck with Fox. The studio has long been known to desire absolute control over intellectual properties to which they own the rights and this can be seen from all of the Marvel content they have maintained. With the X-Men movies remaining profitable, Fox likely feels that they can leverage those to improve the public opinion of the FF. This is all speculation, but the expectation of studio short-sightedness is tantamount to that geek speculation I just mentioned.

It’s Pavlovian, ultimately. Ring the bell of announcing a new project revolving around something geeks love, and we have been trained to salivate with righteous skepticism.

Marvel Studios, however, has managed to purchase a great deal of geek faith by making franchises that are lesser-known to the public shine. They have found that thin line that stands between translating a property from comic to film and being true to the characters and have managed to walk it with confidence.

Regardless of the outcome of the returns of Fan4stic, whomsoever is allowed to usher this property into a new, fourth (!) iteration should carefully consider what the property means and how to properly care for it.

Before I go forward, I want to publicly announce my willingness to write the screenplay for the next Fantastic Four movie. I don’t want to be accused to being an ‘armchair film-maker’ without, at the very least, offering to pen the film. Despite the fact that I don’t have a great deal of experience with writing feature-length screenplays, I have scripted a number of shorts and one-act plays, as well as several comic books. I have studied the art off the screenplay a great deal and would be willing to work with a co-writer, if such a thing was determined to be needed. I don’t have an ego about it, I just know that I can tell a compelling, efficient, and fun story.

That’s why this site exists.

When we approach a new variation on the Fantastic Four, they should not be re-introduced in yet another film that meticulously, and painfully, shows their origin. There have been three films that do this (two that people saw) and that’s plenty. We know, by now, that the FF gained their power through some accident of science which impacted each of them in very different ways.

Instead, the next incarnation of the Fantastic Four should be brought in within the context of the greater universe that they will have already been a part of. In Part Two, I shall detail examples of how this could be done.