The stars were aligned against Josh Trank. Fox greenlit his Fantastic-Four-by-way-of-Cronenberg’s-The-Fly-Laboratory-Sci-Fi-Thriller, but nobody seemed to want it. When Fox realized that, they didn’t seem to want it and forced changes upon an already troubled production –much of which attributed to Trank himself. The result was, of course, an uneven mess with hints of Trank’s passion amid a whole lot of squandered potential.
While Fox wonders what to do with the Fantastic Four (2015) or just let the rights revert to Marvel, let’s talk about what they could’ve and maybe should’ve done.
THE FILM ITSELF
To recap: a Young Reed Richards and a Young Ben Grimm teleport a toy car to another dimension.
Seven years later, they’re recruited at a science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm and his shy daughter Susan to make a bigger, more stable interdimensional teleporter. Their teammates will include Sue, her adrenaline-junkie brother Johnny, and the criminally troubled Victor Von Doom. After some montages showing their “chemistry,” the teleporter is ready. With NASA threatening to steal the glory, the team decides to dimension-hop pre-emptively. So Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Doom go to another dimension, where they play with some magic green goo and everything goes wrong.
They return from this alternate dimension -minus Doom- with varying -and initially crippling- super powers and stuck in military custody. Reed escapes, leaving Susan (Invisible Woman), Johnny (the Human Torch), and Ben (The Thing) conscripted into military black ops missions. A year later, they are forced to track down Reed to force him to rebuild the interdimensional teleporter so the military can create more superpowered beings.
When Reed does this, the teleporting team retrieves Doom from the alternate dimension, only now he’s made of metal and has a messiah complex. He kills his way out of the military base and launches a scheme to destroy the world. After a fight, Reed, Susan, Johnny, and Ben defeat him, negotiate autonomy from the military, and rename themselves the Fantastic Four.
THE PAGE ONE REWRITE
Look at all the time jumps! A total of 8 years jump between story beats, and it’s all unnecessary. It makes it feel like we’re following a plot, not characters. The only jump this might’ve needed is the 7 year jump from children to teens, and even that is being generous.
What’s more, there are three separate movies here.
1. We have a protracted sci-fi lab thriller. Decently characterized with the occasional strong beat, but VERY by the numbers, even on the interdimensional journey.
2. We have a sci-fi military thriller, where the military tries to force the team into something they are not (could this be a winking parallel to impositions forced by the studio?).
3. We have a superhero movie, where Doom threatens life as we know it for thinly explained reasons.
None of these work well together. It’s clear the Fox wanted the Interstellar-esque lab drama , and it’s also clear that it’s the only part of the movie operating with real authenticity. It’s clear they also felt that the military’s oversight was the only way to 1. Ground the characters and 2. Moor it to the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic, supposedly the movie’s key inspiration. The military angle is a shaky transition from the lab thriller, and one could be forgiven for assuming that they were going to be the film’s central antagonists. Problematically, Fox got cold feet when they heard the fan backlash to the liberal adaptation, and called for reshoots –most of which seemingly including the bloated and sudden Dr. Doom fight at the climax. It’s very likely that Doom had been intended to return for the sequel, but nothing else.
So what would’ve been the best version of this? What would’ve been the strongest sci-fi-laboratory thriller possible with this set up?
A motley crew of researchers visit an alternate dimension and find themselves permanently changed. When they return, they discover to their horror that something returned with them.
Simple lab horror movie with the potential to grow. And you get there by the simplest, most concise means.
First off, don’t waste time establishing childhoods and how people got on the team; just have them on the team preparing for the momentous trip across dimensions. Start the story as late as possible to keep a steady momentum and to organically develop character in a way relevant to genre. Don’t tell us for a half hour before the mission that this is a team; let the mission show how they become a team.
Secondly, no green goo. Don’t waste time in this alternate dimension if it’s not where your story wants to go. All you need is a containment suit breach or suits that didn’t perfectly protect against the dimension’s radiation. That causes the team to “develop random mutations” or something. You don’t need for the heroes to touch green goo and directly encounter the elements that mirror their prospective power-set.
Thirdly, no Victor Von Doom. He’s too interesting a villain to squander on an identical origin story as your protagonists. Save him for the sequel when he can be your Heath Ledger Joker.
Here’s what I’m getting at: the acquiring of super powers isn’t your Act One Turning Point; it’s your Inciting Incident. The act one turning point is the conflict they must face.
So the team is horrified by their transformations, but not so horrified by what they find: husks of their scientist friends and soldiers around the base. Something has been killing and digesting them. Pulling themselves together as much they can -they’re all blaming each other for their mutations- they find the killer: a monstrous, insectile thing with a crazy appetite, crazy powers, and a crazy growth rate.
Yeah, that’s a bastardization of Annihilus, but it doesn’t HAVE to be Annihilus; it could just be a random monster. It could also be a new villain -another scientist who they went on the mission with. The point is, we establish by minute 25 that this ragtag team has to stop this monster before it gains more power and escapes into the world. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is our Act One Turning Point.
From there, Act Two is the still-learning Fantastic Four fighting Alien on steroids-and much of it plays out like Alien. The creature keeps jumping out and killing people, the Fantastic Four surviving by the instinctual & accidental use of their powers. As this thing grows in size and power, so does the scale. Jump scares turn into small skirmishes, which turn into destructive battles, which finally turns into a full-on Kaiju battle as this thing escapes and threatens all life on Earth. The whole while, the Fantastic Four are getting acclimated to their powers, conflicting with each other, and trying all they can to stop this thing to no avail.
Act Three, the Fantastic Four realizes that they can’t fight it conventionally and the military -try as they might- sure as hell can’t. So the answer lies in science. Eventually, in the midst of a crazy kaiju fight, Reed Richards gets the team to act as unit to science this thing to death. Or to another dimension, whatever. Having saved a city from destruction, the Fantastic Four are hero-celebrities and return to the Baxter Building, where they continue to use science to benefit mankind.
Boom. Themes of teamwork, unison, and the triumph of science, all within an organically structured movie that smoothly transitions from body horror flick to super hero epic.
That said, none of this changes the fundamental issues at play:
1. Fantastic Four is a fun, lighthearted family team of sci-fi explorers. Trank’s vision and this proposed rewrite simply could not and would not deliver that. It could’ve been a great superpowered horror movie (and that kind of thing should exist, damn it), but it would never have been a Fantastic Four movie in the minds of fans.
2. It would not have been a Marvel movie, which is an insurmountable, emotionally-set goalpost that would’ve been impossible to meet. Even if the movie had been Marvel-styled and perfect, people would’ve hated the movie for not being in Marvel’s possession and for aping Marvel’s style.
So, best case scenario, ignoring point #2 for the fallacy it is, what could Fox have done to make a faithful and appropriately updated Fantastic For movie?
1. Don’t make it a Cronenbergian body horror in a laboratory. I love Cronenberg, but the Fantastic Four doesn’t fit his worldview.
2. The Incredible Hulk. Seriously, there had already been a Hulk movie, nobody needed another protracted retelling of the origin story. Incredible Hulk recapped the origin story in its opening credits. Arguably, Fantastic Four should’ve done that. With the origin out of the way, the movie would’ve been free to tell whatever story it chose with whatever elements it chose. It also wouldn’t have felt so prosaic. By now, we’ve seen countless superhero origin stories. We can do without for awhile, especially on an established property.
3. Wonder. I made a point of mentioning how Reed and Ben teleport a toy car to the alternate dimension. It’s such a simple, but elegant beat, but when they eventually travel to the alternate dimension, they should’ve found the car. Maybe it’s warped all to hell, foreshadowing their future, or perhaps it hasn’t aged a day, and reminds them of how far they’ve come. Of how long they’ve been friends. That they’ll always be friends. The alternate dimension is such a cool idea, and it’s played so matter of factly, erasing it’s potential to be a fanciful daydream that inspires us for the better. It SHOULD do that.
4. Take my proposed outline and make the alternate dimension monster Annilihus, a conqueror with a massive bug army. When they escape -gaining powers in the process- Annihilus and his army force their way into our dimension to take over. The Fantastic Four comes together as a unit to science them away, everyone’s skills coming into play at least once.
And you know what? With my outline, it would’ve been crazy easy to set up Doom for the sequel. Maybe Annihilus is stopped/banished/killed with outside aid, like a hacking code from Latveria. Maybe Richards “borrows” Latverian tech, not realizing the source. Maybe Dr. Doom straight up appears and fights this thing with a pre-existing and suggested rivalry. The point it, is sets up that Doom was in some small way instrumental to defeating Annihilus and thus, in his mind, KEY to defeating Annihilus. That would give a sequel an emotional foundation: Doom constantly reminding Reed of his superiority.
And if we want to get crazy, all we need to show is a deep-space imaging device, a space radar, or something showing a blip. Maybe a dark spot in space. Maybe an energy spike. Doom was monitoring something approaching and was preparing. Maybe Fantastic Four 2 would’ve been about Doom attempting to take over the world to prepare for the coming onslaught. And if that panned out, Fantastic Four 3 could’ve been about that onslaught: Galactus, and whether or not the world was ready.
…and whether or not the deposed Doom would deign to save it.
The Fantastic Four is a property with infinite storytelling potential. Unfortunately, that property is continually squandered by inappropriate creative visions, studio mismanagement, and total lack of foresight –issues which resound throughout Fantastic Four (2015). Clearly there’s a creative spark behind Trank’s effort, but it’s not faithful to the material. Fox wanted a quality movie –not to mention one to do gangbusters at the box office- but the studio seemed driven by “make money; don’t spend any,” “not Marvel,” and “not comic-booky.” Those are typical sentiments of the mediocre pre-MCU Phase 1 era, and they’re a recipe for disaster with the project’s other idiosyncrasies.
It was a rush job created solely to keep the property out of Marvel’s hands, and with a little foresight, it could’ve been as transcendent as everyone hoped it’d be. A story of family coming together under unimaginable circumstances. Of vistas and beings beyond our wildest dreams. Of optimism for tomorrow and all the challenges it brings. It could’ve been a perfect update of a classic comic.
It could’ve been fantastic.
Sorry. Couldn’t resist C;