This is actually a four-in-one, which I suppose is a bit of serendipity given the source material. So there have been four (debatably) cinematic attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen. Thus far none of these have been particularly good or successful. Why has it been so hard? In its way, The Incredibles is a great Fantastic Four movie.
I’ll deviate from my normal formula for storytelling failures because one of the major reasons for failure sort of encompasses everything else – the studio doesn’t give a damn. This reason is the failure of the never-released ’90s movie. The studio made the movie to hang on to the rights and for no other reason. We know how well that worked out for Sony, and Sony could have learned from that. A studio does not hire prolific B-movie director/producer Roger Corman to make a quality picture; a studio hires Roger Corman to make a movie as cheap and fast as humanly possible (this is the same director who shot entire movies in three days). And here we are, two decades later, and the studio again produces something just to hang on to the rights. And again, it didn’t work. Fox also made the same mistake (although perhaps not so knowingly) of hiring a director who didn’t give a damn. It shows. It really shows.
So I won’t go into detail on the Corman version. The fact that it is “the Corman version” and was never meant to be released to theaters says everything there is to say about the failure of that movie.
1) Character – and this is where the movies truly fail. The heart of any FF movie should be the focus on the characters’ relationships to each other. The Avengers team up, save the world, and then split up and go do their own solo movies. The FF team up, save the world, and then go to the same home because they are a family. That’s the difference between the FF and pretty much every other superteam. If that isn’t the center of the movie, then the movie will fail.
a) Reed Richards – nerdy, stretchy genius and default team leader.
i) First reboot – I thought the actor had the right look and attitude. His relationship with Sue was the most explored and that was for a barely-there love triangle. His relationship to Doom was the second most explored and that wasn’t any deeper than a surface rivalry which could be interpreted to have to do with Sue, and not any jealousy between the geniuses. But his relationship with Johnny or Ben? Eh, well, there was a bit there with Ben because Reed obviously felt guilty over Ben’s condition, but there wasn’t much more to it. Even in the second movie when Reed and Sue were trying to get married there just wasn’t much about their relationship except the hackneyed cliche about trying to have a life and breaking up the team. In the end, this left the character feeling flat (ha!) to me.
ii) Second reboot – I thought the actor had the right look and attitude. However, the direction of the plot pushed the character away from how Mr. Fantastic is in the comics (even the Ulti-verse this was supposedly based on). He was angry and scared. When he stepped up to be team leader, this came across as a forced character development to serve the plot. His relationship to Ben was the most explored in this movie, but Ben was completely absent for a good deal of it. He flirted with Sue, of course, and Doom was a jerk to him, but there was hardly any interaction with Johnny. Again, the character was just flat to me.
b) Sue Storm – Invisible Girl turned Invisible Woman and to anyone paying attention the most dangerous member of the team.
i) First reboot – I thought the actress just looked too young. Sue, to me, needs to have a certain toughness to her, and this actress (and the script did her no favors) had none of that. Her defining relationships were to Reed and Doom in the weak love triangle, and she scolded her brother a little. Even the siblings barely interacted. To Ben there was nothing. In the second movie there was slightly more focus on her and Reed, even her getting killed still didn’t feel like a big thing. Her character could be summed up as “the chick” and that’s not a good thing.
ii) Second reboot – I actually thought the actress looked more the part. She had that tougher look about her and really sold herself as a genius (the script did help this time with that). Her relationship to Reed was barely touched on aside from some awkward flirting she pretty much shot down. In this version of the weak love triangle, Doom made his interest in her clear and she pretty much shot that down. The most developed relationship was between Sue and Dr. Storm, which while well-done distracted from what should have been the focus. There was a lot of potential to explore in her relationship with Johnny (considering she was adopted into a family of another race) but instead she scolded him a bit. I don’t even recall her giving him a hug. She was more than “the chick” but not much more.
c) Johnny Storm – The Human Torch (II), and generally one of the more angst-free superheroes, which is good, considering he can explode things really well when he’s upset.
i) First reboot – The actor was perfect. And in and of himself, the characterization was spot-on. He was brash, reckless, and angst-free. He thought his powers were awesome. His most developed relationship was with Ben in which he tormented him like the immature brat he is. But why Johnny treated Ben that way is never really explained. Still, it was nice to have them be foils for each other, although unfortunately this is somewhat lost in the second movie. But there’s hardly any interaction with his sister except to get scolded, and nothing with Reed or Doom. The movie is titled “The Fantastic Four,” not “The Terrific Two.”
ii) Second reboot – I liked the actor fine. He was also brash and reckless, and this version added a streak of teenaged rebellion to the character. He eventually thought his powers were pretty sweet once he learned to control them. But again, the most developed relationship was between him and Dr. Storm. There was little interaction with Sue, some annoyance shown toward Doom, a few minutes with Reed, and nothing with Ben until the end. His relationship with his dad, while a little clichéd, was well done. Still, that’s not the point.
d) Ben Grimm – the Ever-lovin’, Blue-eyed Thing, member/leader of the Yancy Street Gang, perennial sad-sack, and all-around good guy.
i) First reboot – The actor was perfect. He understood his character and it absolutely showed in his performance. And again, in and of himself, the characterization was spot-on. His interaction with his fianceé was appropriate and sad. He got pretty angsty about being a monster, but with losing his fianceé like that, who could blame him? He had the most interaction with Johnny, and while entertaining, the reason he’s the butt of Johnny’s jokes is not explained. There’s a bit with Reed, but almost nothing with Sue, and some annoyance at how smarmy Doom is. But the movie is titled, “The Fantastic Four,” not “The Terrific Two.”
ii) Second reboot – The actor was good. Ben’s characterization was fine right up until after the accident, and then it took a sharp turn from the comic book (maybe not so much the Ulti-verse though; but that’s not necessarily a good thing). Obviously he had the most interaction with Reed, whom it seemed he regarded with respect for his intelligence. He also understood that Reed was leagues beyond him and encouraged him. But after the accident? He’s fine with working for the government to kill people in the hopes he can get cured and immediately assumes Reed has betrayed him and is never coming back ever. What?
e) Victor Von Doom – To quote Stan Lee, “Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you hit a homer first time at bat.”
i) First reboot – Fail. I don’t know if the actor failed or the script failed but both movies’ efforts at a convincing Doom utterly failed. This guy was the poor man’s Norman Osborn. His only mode of acting was “smarmy” and while I get that he’d think it’s the best thing ever to steal a guy’s girlfriend from him, I never figured out why Sue would start dating him. I’ll give props to the Corman version for this – that movie understood the relationship between Doom and Reed was important. Also, the real Dr. Doom gave himself powers; this is a part of his character. This Doom got powers with the FF because a guy building awesome superpowers in his basement is somehow too difficult to believe? This Doom was lackluster and generic, which are two words that should never, ever be applied to Dr. Doom.
ii) Second reboot – Fail. This time I think the script failed more than the actor. Most of Doom’s interaction was again with Dr. Storm and not the people who should have been his friends/adversaries. When he’s first introduced, he’s wallowing in self-pity. Dr. Doom from the comics is incapable of wallowing in self-pity. Sure, he sulks, but self-pity? No way. Then Doom comes across as some angry, disillusioned person railing against “the Man.” Again, Dr. Doom is “the Man.” And in the end, he’s turned into a generic villain (with powers he didn’t make) who wants to destroy the world. Again, lackluster and generic.
2) Plot – superheroes are no good unless they have something to do.
a) First reboot – Ugh. So their first adventure as a team is to remedy a problem that Ben accidentally caused. Then sitcom-like hijinks ensue, and they fight and defeat Doom-lite. Their second adventure could have been better, but was rendered ridiculous by the colossal incompetence of the military, more sitcom-like hijinks, and the baffling decision to turn Galactus into a giant space cloud.
b) Second reboot – Okay, this could have been a good movie: an experiment produces superpowered humans that the government tries to exploit and turn into military weapons. Hell, I’m pretty sure this has been the plot of at least one movie or TV show. Except this is not the plot of a Fantastic Four movie. This is too dark, too serious, and not superhero-y enough. It’s a fine plot for a sci-fi dystopia, but not for a family of superheroes. I’ve heard there was a lot of conflict between the director and the studio to the point the studio essentially took over directing to try to make this a proper FF movie. Whatever happened, there is a severe tonal shift near the end of the movie during the final battle scene. The resolution of the battle seems too convenient and the last scene in which the four are actually acting like the Fantastic Four contradicts the tone of the rest of the movie. That was way too little, too late.
3) and 4) Not much to say here. The failures here were in characterization and plot, not structure and setting.
Conclusion – had this movie not been titled “The Fantastic Four” and not featured those characters, it might have been a decent movie (much like if Man of Steel had not ostensibly been about Superman). Hell, even the logo at the end wasn’t the right logo. But this wasn’t a FF movie.
Final thoughts – I don’t think this should be that hard. Obviously the first step to getting this right would be to let Marvel have the characters back. Sony’s figured that out, but apparently Fox is more stubborn. By the way, here’s my brief summary of a FF trilogy:
1) First movie – start with a cold open featuring the team beating up some giant monster that retreats into the ground. They all meet up in the Baxter Building. Reed and Sue follow up the investigation. Johnny goes on a date. Ben babysits a young Franklin Richards who wants to hear the origin story. Ben tells the story via flashback to college inter-cut with scenes of the others finding clues on the giant monster. Ben finishes the story, the others trace the monster to the Mole Man, and they go fight and defeat him. The teaser is the Mole Man tells them that something else was behind stirring up all the monsters and that this isn’t over…
2) Second movie – the team investigates to eventually find Dr. Doom has some sinister plan (because he’s DOOM!), and Reed realizes his frenemy from college is not dead after all! They fight and defeat Doom but he berates them for being idiots because he was just trying to save the world from the coming threat…
3) Third movie – After getting little information from Doom, they eventually figure out the coming threat is Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. Hell, they could throw in a line about his appearance and Galactus would say back something like, “This is not what I look like; this is only what your inferior minds can comprehend.” They fight the Surfer, they turn the Surfer into a good guy, he tells them there’s one way to beat Galactus, sneaks them onto the World Ship, and Reed defeats Galactus by threatening to use the Ultimate Nullifer. Galactus sulks off, fires the Surfer, and he gets a proper spin-off while the FF go home and Sue and Reed hug Franklin and ask him what he did at school that day.
And there you go. Too bad Fox won’t relinquish a property it obviously can’t handle on its own back to Marvel.