How to Make the Four Fantastic
I remember collecting The Fantastic Four as a kid, particularly the John Byrne run of them (#232-95, July 1981-October 1986), and while they weren’t my absolute favorite title (The Uncanny X-Men held that honor), I greatly enjoyed the FF in their way, and it’s that realization that hits me as I see yet another Fantastic Four movie tanking (or Tranking?) upon release. Everybody’s fixating on the Thing loping around without any pants or on the black Human Torch, or yet another origin story as the culprit behind this latest FF flop. I remember being bummed out years ago that Sharon Stone would never be able to be Susan Richards—if anybody personified my conception of Sue Storm/Richards, it was Sharon Stone, at least in her look. Alas, it was never to be. They keep botching the Fantastic Four, but I think it’s the medium that is screwing the FF, versus casting or scripting choices (of course, shoddy writing never helps, but I don’t think it’s the real culprit, here).
Specifically, I’m talking about the big screen. Movies can often do wonderful things, tell great stories, but if producers really wanted to do the Fantastic Four justice, they’d eschew the big screen entirely and push it to the small screen. The Fantastic Four belong on television, not in movies.
That’s because the Fantastic Four aren’t so much a superhero group as they are a superhero family. The family dynamic of the Fantastic Four is front and center, first, last and always. So, right there, you have the makings of a superhero family drama, something that could be carried out over several seasons, as the narrative arcs could be developed and properly realized. Think of The Incredibles, which mined that dynamic so perfectly—and with a very clear debt to the Fantastic Four. Can there be any doubt that Brad Bird had the FF in mind when he made The Incredibles. Only he did them right—family was always front and center with The Incredibles, and it should be with the Fantastic Four.
Second, a key aspect of the Fantastic Four is about exploration and science—sure, it’s bogus Marvel meta-science run through with 60s bric-a-brac, but reading the Fantastic Four isn’t so much about bashing baddies in the conventional sense; rather, it’s more like superhero Star Trek. That’s what the Fantastic Four is all about: the mystery and wonder of the cosmos, from outer space to inner space to other dimensions. The FF covered the cosmic as surely as they covered the microcosmic, and all under the steady, scientific hand of Reed Richards. And that’s what’s missing in the effort to throw everything up on the big screen. It tries to do too much and too little, in the classic Hollywood sense.
For the Fantastic Four to thrive, it needs to be a television series, so that the stories have time to evolve, for the dimensions (literally! Negative Zone, I’m looking at you!) to be developed and explored at a more measured pace. The wonder of exploration, the centrality of family, the relationship between the key members of the “team”–this is something that only time can develop.
A movie reduces things to a key, pivotal moment in time, and it just ups the ante and forces the Fantastic Four into a scenario that the team is just not equipped to handle. There’s a reason why the Avengers thrive in that setting, and the Fantastic Four do not—just as there’s a reason why Star Trek movies haven’t carried as much pop cultural cachet as Star Trek television programs.
You want the Fantastic Four to be compelling? Put them on television, keep them small and intimately familial, even as you gradually explore dimensions and introduce villains. That’s the way to do it. The vainglorious efforts of film directors don’t mesh well with the Fantastic Four narrative, where too much needs to be explained too quickly for a compelling movie to be made.
The alchemy is all there—earth (The Thing), air (Invisible Woman), fire (the Human Torch), and water (Mr. Fantastic—okay, a stretch [pun intended, but you see my point]). The emotions are all there—hotshot Johnny Storm, know-it-all Reed Richards, sullen Ben Grimm, and superwoman Sue, who holds them all together and is really the heart of the team. The challenge is to find a proper venue to express that alchemical family.
Screenwriters out there, that’s your mission, if you dare: turn the Fantastic Four into a science fictional family drama superhero television series, and you’d make something that people might actually be willing to watch.
The Fantastic Four are Jerks