How To Fix The Fantastic Four In 3 Easy Steps
On the list of awful comic book films, where do you rank the four Fantastic Four movies? (Yes. There are four. If you include the 1994 film that went unreleased. That movie was so bad, Avi Arad, the founder and former CEO of Marvel Studios, bought all the prints and had them destroyed. Well … Almost all of them.)
I’d say the earlier Fox films aren’t as bad as you remember, so they shouldn’t be placed near the second Ghost Rider or the 1990 Captain America film where the Red Skull is Italian for some reason. I would place the earlier Fantastic Four films somewhere around Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk and the Blade sequels. They’re not great, but they’re also not offensively bad either.
If you were to ask most fans of the franchise how to fix the Fantastic Four movies, most will say that Fox should give the rights to Marvel and let them make the movies. Clearly, if you look over at Spider-Man and the arrangement Marvel has with SONY, these fans would be right. Before Civil War, I had zero interest in seeing another Spider-Man film. After Civil War, I’m amped for the next one, although I’m still feeling a little weird about “Hot Aunt May.” (Also: If Michael Keaton isn’t playing Norman Osborn, and is instead playing the Vulture as reported, that would dampen my enthusiasm a bit. Michael Keaton should not be wasted as a one-off, and one note, Marvel movie villain. Nor should Doctor Doom, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
But when it comes to the Fantastic Four, I don’t think a similar deal between Fox and Marvel is necessary. Pixar made what was considered the best Fantastic Four film, The Incredibles, and Marvel had no involvement in that one. And Fox also brought you Deadpool, X-Men: First Class, and X-2 (the only good X-Men films), so Fox is capable of making good superhero films. The issue with the Fantastic Four films is actually easy to fix. So much so that you can make a great Fantastic Four film with just three changes:
Set the film in December of 1961
Other pop culture observers have noted, that any future Fantastic Four film should focus on them as a family first, and a group of superheroes second. I agree with this, but then the question becomes: Ok, what is the internal strife within the team that creates tension then? There’s an easy question to answer.
-The Fantastic Four debuted in November of 1961. The following month, the United States went to war in Vietnam on December 11th as our troops arrived in Saigon. Since Johnny Storm is the kid brother of Sue Storm, make Johnny get drafted 1A. (That means he’s the first to go overseas to fight in Vietnam) and have him packing and preparing to leave before Reed drags him along on his crazy trip to space.
-Have Reed Richards be a supporter of Robert Mcnamara, and also have him believe in the Domino Theory. (The theory with Vietnam was, if we let the Communists win there, then Communism will continue to spread across the region). Don’t make Reed a cold and distant jerk like he is in the comics. It’s the ’60s. He’s rich. And since Tony Stark hasn’t even been born yet, you could have Richards trying (but maybe struggling for humor’s sake) to be like Hugh Hefner. A strong advocate for free speech and civil rights, whose flaw is that he thinks he knows what’s best for everyone. Which is why he buys into the Domino Theory. Because as bad as it is now when we look at Vietnam from the 21st Century, at the time it makes sense for someone like Richards and others to believe that the country that stopped the Nazis could, and should, stop Communism from spreading.
-Johnny is anti-Vietnam, as is Sue. Sue Storm, here as in the comic, is younger than Reed. But here she’s younger by at least ten years. Sue is also a hippy and an early feminist. Her attraction to Richards is that he’s her polar opposite. They meet while Sue is protesting outside the Baxter Building and Reed invites her in. Reluctantly, she goes inside. He asks why she’s protesting, and after doing some probing, realizes it’s because her brother is about to be shipped off. Reed mentions the test flight he’s about to embark on, and that’s how Johnny and Sue wind up on the ship. I also really like the idea of Sue, now able to turn invisible after her brief trip into space, going and sabotaging Dow Chemical and other war profiteers on her off days from the Fantastic Four. Doing this gives here more character development and agency than she’s had in decades.
-And Ben Grimm? Poor old Ben, he’s always getting crapped on by life, but Reed is his friend, and also an employer. So Grimm is sort of stuck with these people. And after a trip to space turns him into a rock monster, for lack of a better description, these three are the only ones that he’s got in his life. (Sue and Benn become fast friends, while Johnny remains an antagonistic, but playful, jerk to Ben, as he is in the comics.)
-One other thing about Ben Grimm, that’s been ignored in the films thus far: He’s Jewish. Stripping that away from him removes a lot of his identity. Jack Kirby modeled Grimm on himself and his younger days growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Giving Grimm the Brooklyn accent and Jewish identity helps fill that character out beyond “Strong monster guy.” Not to mention: The Thing, like Marvel’s mutants, gives people someone to identify with. He’s rejected by society for no reason other than his appearance. That’s a powerful thing.
There’s your tension. You can even use Christmas as your backdrop, with a lot of what I laid out here being shown through flashback.
Yeah, I know Christmas has been done to death, but from a marketing and plotting perspective, it’s an easy framing device to tell the story. It also makes the Fantastic Four a Christmas film, which means it’ll have some longevity behind it. Most of the Marvel movies, as much as I like them, aren’t going to be movies you remember in ten years. But a Christmas film with superheroes? You better believe that’s going to be a staple for that time of year, played on every television and cable network that can get the rights to it. (TV isn’t going anywhere. Don’t buy the hype about cord cutters and streaming.)
You see, the biggest problem with the Fantastic Four films thus far, and this applies equally to the comic, is that they are a product of their time. You can’t modernize them. The Fantastic Four belong in the ‘60s.
Think about it: A bunch of scientists going to space and getting powers from gamma radiation is something you wouldn’t see work today. We have mostly lost interest in space as a country, unfortunately, and everyone knows radiation doesn’t give you magic powers. It gives you cancer.
I don’t want to hear that won’t work, or a modern audience won’t find a ’60s setting interesting because you have the Christmas movie angle, and more importantly, you also have the success of Mad Men that says otherwise.
No Dr. Doom
Doom is one of Marvel’s greatest villains. It’s arguable that, if Marvel had the rights to use him, he would be the big mastermind villain that everyone would fight and not Thanos.
But because Doom is such a massive villain, it’s a disservice to jam him into one movie. Or give him the Marvel treatment where he’s not that big of a deal. Doom is your A+ level villain. You don’t stick him in a movie and go, “Hey kids, DOOM!” That, unfortunately, has been the strategy of the four Fantastic Four movies released so far. You have to build up to Dr. Doom.
Note: I’m not a franchise guy. I think every movie should stand alone and if there’s a sequel and a compelling story to tell? Great. Let’s do a sequel. But if there’s not, one movie is fine. So I can see where people would go, “Then you want Doom in the first movie”, but I disagree. In the first film, if we were starting from scratch, the focus should be entirely on the family. The villain should compliment that and raise the tension among the family. Period. Full stop.
Doom doesn’t do that. He’s someone they have to stop. Someone the four members unanimously agree they need to fight. There’s no tension within the family as it relates to Dr. Doom.
That brings us to one of my personal favorite Marvel characters: Namor. He’s now back in the fold at Marvel Studios.
In his near eighty-year history as a character, Namor has most commonly been portrayed as a villain. And within the context that I’ve laid out for you here, Namor would be the perfect villain for a Fantastic Four film. (As an added bonus, the odds are pretty good that people who don’t read the comics have no idea who he is. To them, that’s exciting. Who wants to see Dr. Doom for a fifth time?)
-Namor has the power to alter and harm the family dynamic of the Fantastic Four. Johnny Storm could want to run to Atlantis and avoid going to Vietnam. (The military now even MORE interested in Johnny because of his powers.)
-Sue could fall in love with Namor, causing tension with Reed. Or if you’re a fellow feminist, Sue discovers she shares the same ideology as Namor and realizes that together they can bring down these evil corporations polluting the environment and profiting from the war. (I like the idea of Sue becoming romantically involved with Namor, but since she’s the only woman in the film, I can understand the resistance to that plot point.)
-The Thing could join Sue and Johnny in Atlantis. Namor is a prince, and to him, The Thing is propaganda to show his people how evil the surface dwellers are. He can do this by showing them what they’ve turned Ben Grimm into. But while there, Grimm discover Namor’s actual plan to flood the surface world, which if you’re a history buff, was Namor’s whole deal in the 1930s.
Mayhem ensues as the family reunites to stop him after discovering his plan. You’ll also notice at this point that I haven’t said much about Reed Richards. That’s because Reed works best bouncing off the actions of the other characters.
Now we have a villain with a clear, and sympathetic, goal. You’ve got him interacting with the family in unique ways (Sanctuary for Johnny, a love interest for Sue / an ideological match for Sue, a hatred for Reed and what he represents, and using The Thing to sow the seeds of war.)
Plus, if Namor is well received, you can spin him off into his own movie. There’s nothing to say he has to die or go to jail at the end of the film. Just that his plans are foiled.
Make it PG
Ok, so full disclosure: I hate the attitude that sometimes permeates the comics community that everything has to be grim and dark.
There’s nothing wrong with gritty and dark; the issue is that this faction of the fans wants everything to be grim and dark, and many characters don’t do well in that kind of setting. The Fantastic Four included.
You can’t do a dark / super serious Fantastic Four film. That doesn’t mean you go in the other direction and do a Deadpool style film either. No. What you do with the Fantastic Four is you make it Rated PG.
That’s how the Fantastic Four, as a film, should be marketed. It’s a family Christmas movie that has something for everyone. There’s nothing dark about it. There’s no brooding or emo screaming (I’m looking at you, Superman). The film works on a lot of levels and is bright and optimistic about the future.
Now is that going to work in terms of appealing to the more hardened comic fans? I think so. Honestly, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from over ten years of marketing, it’s that you can sell anyone anything. It’s just an issue of finding the right message and putting the money and time into that message. With a nice, long build leading to the December release, you could do well with a Fantastic Four film that was geared toward a family audience.
Doing a Fantastic Four movie that’s fun, accessible, and bright is the way to go. Look at the world we live in today. If there’s one thing we could use a little more of, it’s optimism and fun.
The Fantastic Four characters are ones that thrived using that formula of bright, happy, and optimistic, during a time of a pointless war, assassinations, and threats of nuclear annihilation. Setting the film in that era, and presenting it today to show us, “Hey, they made it through, so can you” is moving, and not something to be discounted.
Then, once people are in and hooked on the Fantastic Four, you can give them Dr. Doom. All it takes is three easy steps.
P.S. Just a couple of a quick points on the subject of diversity and the lack of women in a typical Fantastic Four film.
- There’s absolutely no reason why Namor, Sue, Johnny, and Ben have to be white. Although in Grimm’s case I’d argue he’s always been a distinctly Jewish character. So regardless of who plays him and their ethnicity, his religion and culture should not be lost.
- She-Hulk. If this is a Fox produced film, you ain’t seeing her.
However, in a collaboration with Marvel, having She-Hulk in a new Fantastic Four film ties the Fox and Marvel universes together. She-Hulk has a long history with both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, and she’s also Bruce Banner’s cousin. Finally, having She-Hulk in the film adds some desperately needed estrogen to the mix, even if it’s in a limited capacity. Having her present, even if it’s just Jennifer Walters as a lawyer working for Reed Richards, creates a unique dynamic. And if you go with my idea of Johnny, Sue, and Ben running off to Atlantis, She-Hulk / Jennifer Walters gives Reed someone to interact with.