WE CAN FIX IT: ‘Fantastic Four’
Welcome back to We Can Fix It, where we take the movies that suck and… Well, they’re still going to suck, but at least we’ll figure out where they went wrong. More importantly, we’ll actually figure out how they could have gone right in the first place so the future generations who will inevitably remake these things won’t make the same mistakes we did. Think of us as the parents of future films. We just don’t want them to make the same mistakes that we did. And boy howdy, do we not want the next Fantastic Four movies to suck as much as the last ones.
Yes, this week (well… bi-week) we’re taking a look at Tim Story’s woefully disappointing 2005 movie version of Fantastic Four, based on the classic and historically significant Marvel comic book series originally created by Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby. The film was a reasonable box office success, grossing over $330 million internationally from a $100 million budget – enough to warrant a sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which was better in some ways and worse in others – but it was a critical dud, earning an only 27% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a collective shrug from audiences in general. Some folks admit to liking it, but nobody seems to think that it’s the best Hollywood can do.
First, a brief history lesson: The Fantastic Four is one of the most important comic books in the medium’s relatively short life cycle. Some say that it ushered in a new age of realism in superhero comics, and we’d say that’s a fair statement. The year was 1961, and the Comics Code Authority, roughly akin to Hollywood’s Production Code, had effectively self-censored mature content out of the medium. Not just mature content in the usual, immature sense of the word, meaning violence and sexuality, but also genuinely mature subject matter. For instance, under the Comics Code good had to always triumph over evil, and figures of social authority could not be questioned or subverted. Over the years these regulations softened a little, but upon the Code’s first implementation in the 1950’s, largely thanks to a “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children” outcry after the publication of Fredric Wertham’s infamous anti-comics propaganda tome Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, most comics were stringently following these guidelines in an effort to avoid cancellation and scandal.
The formerly best-selling crime and horror comics floundered after the Comics Code, and most were cancelled altogether or at least neutered to feature the giant monsters popularized in the age of nuclear science, which also sprung forth such movies as Godzilla and Them! Superhero books were still popular, but pervasively “Boy Scout” in mentality, featuring paragons of virtue fighting cartoonish villains who stole giant pennies and the like. Stan Lee, in what he has said he considered a fit of rebellion, openly defied convention and decided to write a comic book that defied convention just for the hell of it. The Comics Code, certainly, would be satisfied, but the narrative clichés that it spawned would be turned on their heads.
The Fantastic Four broke all the rules. The heroes’ personal identities were public. The leader of the team was a gangly science nerd. The monsters that filled so many other popular comics were sympathetic, and even had a character on the team. That character, The Thing, was also melancholic and hated having his superpowers. The team bickered with each other over casual, daily matters like family members did, as opposed to team members on some kind of elite squad who only associated with each other when there was an enemy to fight. Beyond all these then-revolutionary ideas, however, it must be remembered that The Fantastic Four was, most importantly, fun.
The Nuclear Age was still present in the pages of Lee and Kirby’s masterpiece, but in the form of adventure and discovery. New scientific concepts, new worlds, and even new gods in the form of all-powerful creatures like The Watcher and Galactus began to populate its pages. The feeling of extempore was palpable. In one issue The Fantastic Four could be found fighting and then learning to accept a new, dangerous species of creatures known as The Inhumans, and in the next they would be saving the world from a giant space being intent on literally devouring the planet. From the sense of otherworldly scale to the sense of humanity, The Fantastic Four became a seminal work that still inspires the medium to this day.
Not surprisingly, once Spider-Man finally broke records in movie theaters in 2002, Fantastic Four was fast-tracked to follow suit. Like Spider-Man, the film would feature some of Stan Lee’s greatest (collaborative) creations. Unlike the Spider-Man movie, which had flaws but got the character and his world mostly right, Fantastic Four was, to use a technical term, “weak sauce.” Miscast, minimal in scope and shoddily written across the board, the film was recognizable as a Fantastic Four movie but only barely. Some of the details were right – the sniping between cast members, the Baxter Building, Ben Grimm’s self-hatred – but the broader strokes were entirely off. The result was a disappointing film. Not enough of a misstep to make the filmmakers change everything in the sequel, but it laid the wrong foundation entirely, and the franchise folded after just one more film.
A new Fantastic Four is bound to be green lighted sooner or later (we hear sooner), and so with that in mind we will now examine how they could have got it right the first time (not counting the unreleased 1994 Roger Corman version), so the next movie can be what we wanted in the first place.
1. GET A BETTER CAST
We’ve never outright said to recast a movie before, and we aren't going to make a habit of it. Even Speed 2’s Jason Patric could have been okay if they’d rewritten his character a bit. But there’s a reason why we don’t just throw random actors into any old roles. No matter how talented an performer is, they have a set of proficiencies that don’t fit every film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is an immensely talented actor and brilliant casting for Capote, but if you cast him as The Punisher it wouldn’t quite work… although it would certainly be interesting.
Before we get into this we need to make it clear that not every piece of casting was a misstep in Fantastic Four. He wasn’t blonde, but Chris Evans was an excellent choice as Johnny Storm, aka The Human Torch, filled with the right amount of youthful mischievousness and bravado. Michael Chiklis likewise was likewise a superb casting decision for Ben Grimm, aka The Thing. The star of TV’s The Shield superbly handled the melodrama of the ill-fated superhero, and also captured his dignity too. Stan Lee was an ideal choice for the brief-but-appreciated appearance of The Fantastic Four’s kindly mailman, Willie Lumpkin. Unfortunately, the other half of the cast was way off.
Everyone more or less agrees that Jessica Alba, lovely though she may be, was completely wrong for the part of Susan Storm, aka The Invisible Woman. Her acting talents are limited at best, and she was thoroughly unable to depict her character with any kind of genuineness. Ioan Gruffudd looked uncomfortable as the nerdy Reed Richards, aka Mister Fantastic. He was handsome, certainly, but seemed afraid to play that down enough to fit a character who for all intents and purposes is an introverted bookworm who lacks obvious charisma. And then there’s Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon, who played the once superlative supervillain Doctor Doom as a generic corporate type with limited ambition and no scientific interest whatsoever. Granted, each of these actors was let down by a script that failed to maximize the potential of their characters (we’ll get to that next), but unlike Evans and Chiklis they weren’t up to the task of elevating the material, which means they were pretty much miscast in the first place.
So, we’d have cast other actors instead. Sounds simple enough. Honestly, the possibilities are many for each character, but our top picks would have been as follows:
Replace Ioan Gruffudd with Paul Bettany, who was recognizable at the time from his memorable supporting appearance in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind but not a big enough star to distract from the rest of the ensemble cast. Good-looking but not overtly handsome, lanky and no stranger to playing characters of intelligence, he could easily have played Reed Richards as a science nerd with bouts of heroism, and although he’s only two years older than Gruffudd, he gives the impression of age that would have imbued the character with an air of authority that eluded Gruffudd in the actual film.
Replace Jessica Alba with Claire Danes, whose star has waned but was more of a household name at the time of production, having recently starred in (the somewhat underrated) Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Danes not only looked the part (as opposed to Alba, whose features made her an implausible casting choice as Chris Evans’ sister, not to mention as a blonde) but had a sense of – here’s that word again – dignity that Alba failed to capture as Susan Storm. Alba’s version of the character was mature in the way that romantic comedy leads are often mature, i.e. superficially, but the star of Romeo + Juliet and My So-Called Life had already proven her mastery of playing young, memorable characters who were also strong enough to earn the respect of their peers.
Also, replace Julian McMahon with Guy Pearce, an actor with a stronger theatrical presence who could have made the most of Doctor Doom’s overt supervillainy without sacrificing his humanity, much like he did for the character of Fernand Montego in the otherwise disappointing 2002 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Extremely talented, familiar but not a superstar, Pearce could have given the character the gravitas needed to actually be Doctor Doom, rather than merely play him. He also could have pulled off an Eastern European accent, damn it. Come to think of it, Bettany and Pearce could switch roles easily if they were so inclined.
Obviously these casting choices would have to be based on such practical matters as the actors’ interest in the material and their availability, and there are other similarly qualified candidates who could have played each role masterfully. Alas, Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba and Julian McMahon, talented though they may be, were not among them.
NEXT: How to pay attention to the damned comic books, how to hire the right director and how to tell a bigger story with the same limited budget…
2. GET THE CHARACTERS RIGHT
Casting isn’t everything. As we stated above, hardly anybody in Fantastic Four had much to work with in the first place, since the underwritten screenplay demonstrated a minimal understanding of what made the heroes and villain work in the first place.
For starters, there’s Reed Richards. On paper his character might have seemed fine, but only on the surface. He’s bookish, yes, but not nearly bookish enough. Reed Richards is obsessed with science. Like, genuinely, unhealthily obsessed. His every reaction is cerebral and he’s preoccupied by facts and figures that the typical audience member would have difficulty following, let alone understanding. And that’s okay. What matters is that Reed Richards understands it. His passion, arguably misplaced, makes him an engaging character. He’s not attractive despite his bookishness, he’s attractive because of it. He’s the professor who doesn’t understand that his students have a crush on him, and if you brought it up he certainly wouldn’t understand why. One of the things that so offends Doctor Doom about Reed Richards is his humility. He doesn’t realize that he’s the smartest person on the planet, or at least he doesn’t realize what that really signifies. He’s too introverted, even shy to qualify as “Vulcan,” but it’s a good place to start when discussing the character. As written in Fantastic Four, he’s a cool guy who’s just a little ignorant about relating to women romantically. You know… just like everyone else. That’s not Reed Richards at all.
We’re not sure where the hell they were going with Susan Storm, who in the film is at turns a scientist, an executive assistant, a jilted lover and so on and so forth. Susan Storm needed to be developed a bit in, admittedly, since despite Lee’s best intentions her original portrayal in the comics was too much of a wilting flower, depending on Reed’s attention to justify her own self worth. But she needs a source of personal confidence. She needs to be really good at something, be it big business or science (either would be fine). She needs to be able to function without defining herself by her relationship, which as written in the finished film never comes across. Further, she needs to have a real relationship with her brother, which in the film takes the form of a brief, one-time maternal chiding as opposed to an pervasive familial relationship. She needs a lot of work.
Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm are, as stated above, more or less okay, but they’re not perfect either. The makers of Fantastic Four strived too hard to make Johnny Storm “cool,” giving him an absurdly over the top introduction that portrayed him French kissing a girl driving a speeding sports car whilst riding alongside her on a motorcycle. Hot Shots had a more modest heroic badass character introduction. And attempts to make him “edgy” by giving him a big motocross show-off sequence were dated by the time the film came out. Ben Grimm was mostly right, but the filmmakers made him accept his fate as the monstrous Thing by the end of the film, which minimized his character development in future films. Preventing him from turning back at the end for one reason or another would have been more dramatic. Chris Columbus and Michael France did an excellent job of this in their unused script by forcing him to choose between saving Reed Richards in the end or saving the means by which he could be turned human again, and ultimately making the heroic, selfless decision.
And Doctor Doom… Geez, where do we start? He’s not Doctor Doom in Fantastic Four, he’s The Green Goblin. Literally, he has the same damned storyline as Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man: the head of a company who’s ousted by his board of directors after a disastrous scientific experiment who spends the bulk of the film exacting his revenge on them. His national identity is token at best, mentioned offhandedly but never informing his character. Victor Von Doom is Latverian, damn it, which yes would give him an excellent supervillain accent but also affects his outlook, coming as he does from a country with a history of monarchs and despotism as opposed to one of democratically-elected leaders. He’s an egomaniac who feels the need to prove his superiority at all costs. Remember that if it weren’t for Reed Richards, Victor Von Doom would be the greatest scientific genius in the world, and possibly in history. In Fantastic Four he actually says at one point that Reed Richards is “always right,” which isn’t like Doom at all. Doom is always right, and the film missed a key dramatic opportunity by limiting his scientific involvement in the accident that gave them all powers in the first place. In the finished Fantastic Four, Reed Richards never understands how he miscalculated the events that transpired. Perhaps Doctor Doom could have been made responsible by trying to “fix” Richards’ work, admittedly not unlike his involvement in the version of events in the comic book Ultimate Fantastic Four, informing his character and illustrating the competitive nature of his relationship with Richards better than merely trying, thoroughly unsuccessfully, to steal his woman.
Also, Doctor Doom shouldn’t have superpowers. We see what the filmmakers were getting at here: in an effort to craft a “clean” narrative they combined Doom’s origin with the Fantastic Four’s, and as a result it makes a modicum of sense to give Doom powers as well. But this was a mistake, as it robs Doom of part of his need to prove his superiority to the superteam. (The sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, attempted to amend this by robbing him of his powers almost immediately.) He should have been there, certainly, but instead horribly mutilated by the incident, forcing him to don his ceremonial honor to (literally) save face. He’d then spend the rest of the film developing the means by which to best the now universally-beloved Fantastic Four using only his scientific genius, as opposed to breaking into his own warehouse and stealing low tech equipment like heat-seeking missiles to do the job for him. Invent something for God’s sake. We have more to say on the subject of Doom, but we’ll get to that soon.
In any case, half the characters in Fantastic Four shared at best surface similarities to the characters they’re actually based on, and the changes were not an improvement. A massive rewrite is in order.
3. GET A NEW DIRECTOR
“We’re adapting one of the most ambitious comic books in the history of the medium. Bring me the guy who directed Barbershop!!!”
Maybe they weren’t cackling with villainous glee at the time, but at some point a studio executive essentially said just that. Barbershop is a fine movie, certainly, but aside from the character interactions it didn’t display any of the narrative qualities required from the director of a Fantastic Four movie. Granted, he probably really wanted the gig and wanted to stretch his muscles, and who knows? Maybe he would have been great, but he shouldn’t have been anyone’s first choice. Or in the Top Ten. The fact that the studio kept him on board for the sequel implies that somewhere at the top, executives had the wrong ideas about where to take Fantastic Four as a franchise, because they backed this particular horse long after it proved itself lame.
So who else? Well, hindsight is 20/20, and many of the up-and-coming directors of the day have since proved themselves capable of the kind of film Fantastic Four needed to be, so admittedly we have a leg up on producers of the original film. But… We can’t help that. But if they’d asked us or anyone else who really cared about the material in the first place, here are a few names we’d have come up with at the time of production:
Guillermo del Toro comes to mind. He’d recently proven himself capable of superior genre entertainment with the action-packed Blade II, which wasn’t very intelligent but was brimming with the kind of wild ideas and respect for the source material that Fantastic Four needed to succeed. As for intelligence, well, his other films like The Devil’s Backbone and Cronos had proved him capable of that. But even then he was seen as more of a horror director, so let’s think of a few others.
Want to go classier? Try Gary Ross, the director of Pleasantville. Ross’s excellent screenwriting pedigree as the writer of Dave and Big had proved him a master of Capra-esque wonder and character development, which Fantastic Four really could have used to elevate its sense of scale. And his fantasy sensibilities and inventiveness had been proved in his debut directorial effort. He’d have been just great.
And you know what? We never thought we’d suggest this, but even Chris Columbus could have made it work. We know, we know, he didn’t direct the best Harry Potter movies by a long shot, but we had the pleasure of reading his original draft of Fantastic Four from the 1990s (again, co-written by Michael France), and he pretty much nailed it. The characters were just right, Doctor Doom presented a genuine threat and all the elements needed to make the story work were present. He demonstrated a genuine love for and understanding of the source material that obviously eluded the filmmaker they eventually chose. He might have been too busy in the Potterverse at the time, of course.
Again, many possibilities, all of them better than Tim Story, who definitely has his talents even though directing Fantastic Four obviously wasn’t one of them.
4. GET A SENSE OF SCALE
The Fantastic Four are scientific explorers on the cutting edge of discovery. In Fantastic Four they spend most of the film goofing around in their apartment. Did it give the characters room to interact? Certainly, but that could have been accomplished while they were actually doing something… well, “fantastic.”
Budget was clearly a factor here, so trips to alien worlds or The Negative Zone were probably never in the cards until the first installment of the franchise proved the sequels worthy of additional funding, but the film could have expanded its horizons in smaller ways throughout the narrative. The Thing himself is a good example here. He’s short in the movie version, as opposed to the hulking behemoth of the comics. Many people considered this a mistake for purely aesthetic reasons, but having a giant on the team would have contributed a great deal to the larger than life aspects of the storyline. Moreover, it would have better justified the subplot in which his girlfriend leaves him. Being scared of your fiancé because he has a skin condition is one thing; being scared of him because he’s eight feet tall and could crush you with his pinky is another. Some say money would have been a factor here, but by 2005 The Lord of the Rings had already proved that forced perspective and the occasional apple box could convey massive height differences easily and inexpensively.
As for the broader canvas, take the scene where the Fantastic Four are revealed to the general public. Saving people from a multi-car pileup – which incidentally they themselves caused – is a job for Spider-Man. Saving the world from monsters, perhaps created by the same cosmic rays which created the Fantastic Four, is more up their alley. If that’s too expensive, how about a shower of catastrophic meteors caused by the storm instead? Then you’d have a similar scale disaster to the car crashes, but based on scientific concepts rather than relatively mundane ones.
Or even better… make the event the result of the machinations of Doctor Doom. If the film has one huge, glaring flaw… Well, it’s the casting. But if it has two then it’s the fact that Doom’s villainous plots are entirely based on destroying the Fantastic Four and not upon actually acquiring power, or at least recognition, for himself. Everything Doom does in Fantastic Four is essentially petty, and limited in scope. He has no desire beyond merely killing the Fantastic Four. That’s not Doctor Doom, folks. Doctor Doom wants to prove his superiority through his accomplishments, not just by killing the competition. Doom never killed Reed Richards in the comic books because he wanted to Richards to acknowledge his genius first. Maybe he could try to harness the cosmic rays and aim them at the Earth to give everyone super powers so the Fantastic Four would be no better than anyone else, so Doom’s own genius would once again set him apart from the rest of humanity. Or if that doesn’t work (it probably wouldn’t), maybe he just wants to conquer the world with some kind of newfangled superweapon. (In Columbus’s and France’s draft, it involved a machine that controlled the Earth’s weather.) Why not? It’s better than wanting to pummel his enemies in what amounts to a mere street fight. More importantly, a threat that extends beyond our protagonists increases the scale of the film, since it impacts more than four characters. The Fantastic Four would seem like more significant heroes if they actually saved the world rather than just their own lives.
Having a limited budget doesn’t mean you can’t dream big. Peter Jackson shot all three Lord of the Rings movies simultaneously with a budget of less than $200 million. Think about it.
And that’s how we’d fix Fantastic Four, aside from ripping the script apart and starting completely from scratch (which would also have been a good idea). It’s not a complete failure, and it’s certainly not the worst film we’ve covered on We Can Fix It, but it’s not The Fantastic Four either. It’s just okay, when we needed a grand cinematic adventure that did justice to the monumental original series.
Come back in two weeks for more We Can Fix It. Maybe we’ll finally do Batman Forever. Maybe we’ll take a fan request and cover Battle: Los Angeles. Or maybe, if we can stomach it, we’ll try taking a look at M. Night Shyamalan's awful, awful, awful The Last Airbender. Or maybe we’ll surprise you. We haven’t decided yet. But whatever we do tackle next… we can fix it.
WHAT MOVIES WOULD YOU LIKE US TO FIX…?