The best way to understand the difficulty of adapting Fantastic Four for the screen is not through its protagonists, but its chief villain. Doctor Doom (real name: Victor Von Doom) is a genius scientist, an evil sorcerer, and the dictator of a small fictional country in Eastern Europe. He wears a metal suit of armor and an ostentatious green cloak and hood at all times. In his first comic-book appearance (Fantastic Four #5 in 1962), he captures the heroes and forces them to travel back in time to steal the pirate Blackbeard’s treasure chest, hoping to claim the wizard Merlin’s lost jewels to power his nefarious magic. He is, even for the era, a delightfully ludicrous creation.
That kitschy tone is part of what makes comic books so special. The medium offers vast dramatic territory for writers and artists to navigate, from the dizzyingly absurd to the most recognizably human. As my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has put it, Doom comes from a genre once dismissed as trash, but at the same time seized on by younger generations who understood the story of a tortured outsider. On the page, it’s easy to relate to Doom as a man while simultaneously enjoying his latest ridiculous battle against a godlike alien or dark demon. On the screen, it’s a far tougher balance to strike, which is why Fantastic Four—simultaneously grounded and preposterous—has proven one of the toughest comic-book properties of all to translate.
Josh Trank’s new film, in theaters Friday, is the third big-screen attempt to make Fantastic Four work, and it’s as tragically flawed as the previous two efforts, although for entirely different reasons. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, Fantastic Four was the first Marvel superhero comic, ushering in an era of protectors of justice who could also be imperfect human beings. The team obeys a family dynamic, with Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) as the stern father, Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) as the warm mother, Johnny Storm (Human Torch) as their smart-aleck kid, and Ben Grimm (The Thing) as his grumpy older brother. Lee and Kirby’s characters bicker and brawl, especially in the early days of the comic, but always stand united in the face of greater threats, like the imperious Doom.
The first Fantastic Four, filmed in 1994 but never released, is the stuff of bizarre Hollywood trivia. Made for only $1 million and produced by low-budget legend Roger Corman, the movie was seemingly created only so its production company could retain the rights to the property for future large-scale adaptations. These days, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube and marvel at its adorable ineptness. If nothing else, the film nails the kitsch factor, but it also makes some marvelously basic errors, like staging a point-of-view shot from the perspective of a character who is blind.
Hollywood’s first real crack at the comic came in 2005 with Tim Story’s Fantastic Four, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis as the super-team and Julian McMahon as Doctor Doom. Its budget was a hundred times bigger than its predecessor, and the script was largely faithful to Lee and Kirby’s origin story for the heroes, who get their strange powers after being exposed to “cosmic rays” during a spaceship flight. But the whole affair was depressingly tame, following the prescribed beats of a superhero movie—strange powers discovered, internal strife resolved, evil villain conquered through teamwork—without anything to distinguish itself. Coming in the early days of the superhero-movie boom, Fantastic Four lacked the visual punch of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, the allegorical weight of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, or the real-world grit of Christopher Nolan’s Batman. A sequel got marginally better reviews but took in less at the box office, and Fox shelved the franchise until Trank’s 2015 reboot.
Plagued by stories of production woes and studio-imposed re-shoots, Trank’s film hobbles onscreen this week to critical jeers, even though it at least tries a different approach. The onscreen mess has elements of Nolan’s grittiness (it’s mostly set in a dimly lit underground lab), Raimi’s pulpiness (Doom is re-imagined as an alien creature who can telepathically explode people’s heads), and even a touch of David Cronenberg-style body horror as the heroes discover their strange powers. It’s a catastrophe, but one clearly brought about by an effort to take a story rooted in both silliness and realism and somehow keep hold of both of those threads.
And yet others have managed this kind of balance. Ten years ago, who could’ve imagined that Marvel Studios (which had no involvement in Fantastic Four) could pull off a cinematic world where the Norse god Thor and World War II propaganda hero Captain America realistically co-exist in the present day? Marvel proved there’s a way to make a ’60s comic-book adaptation work for a 21st-century audience: by including a hefty dash of self-aware humor and imposing a recognizably colorful visual style across all its films. Trank tries to lean in the opposite direction, grounding the Fantastic Four origin story in sci-fi gobbledygook (the heroes get their powers by traveling to another dimension via quantum mechanics) and wrestling with the real-world implications of how the U.S. military might take advantage of the newly superpowered.
The problem is, Trank’s still making a Fantastic Four movie. There’s still a Doctor Doom clad in a green cloak and boasting of world domination. The Human Torch still activates his power by saying “Flame on,” and the rock-monster Thing barrels into villains while shouting “It’s clobberin’ time!” It’s unavoidably camp—and the more Trank tries to avoid that fact, the more risible the whole experiment seems.
Even as a comic-book property, Fantastic Four has lost its moneymaking luster, dropping from the list of Marvel’s top-selling titles decades ago and recently being canceled altogether (although some have theorized that is the company’s way of trying to undercut the film adaptation, since it doesn’t own the rights). Stan Lee’s later creations, like Spider-Man and the X-Men, were even more relatably flawed, and the family antics of the Fantastic Four have struggled to evolve seamlessly with the times as comics grew more grim. And so the best way to bring it to the big screen might be to embrace its glory years and create an evocative period piece, a Mad Men-style take on ’60s comic storytelling with bright visuals to match (Brad Bird’s animated film The Incredibles, which draws loose inspiration from Fantastic Four, succeeds along those lines).
But that approach would rob Fox of what it most desires: the same multi-film, multi-character franchise Marvel Studios has created and Warner Brothers is trying to replicate with its stable of DC Comics heroes. Fox also owns the rights to X-Men, and is reportedly planning a crossover between the two properties if Trank’s film is a hit. For that to work, some real-world consistency is required, meaning audiences shouldn’t expect something unique or daring. And with the comic-book movie genre becoming the standard Hollywood blockbuster, the chance of seeing the kind of revolution Lee and Kirby ignited in 1961 grows dimmer and dimmer.
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