Since 1994, we have had three big screen iterations of the Fantastic Four origin story and none have been well received.
With the transfer of rights from Fox back to Marvel following Marvel’s parent company Disney purchasing Fox in early 2019, we’ll more than likely be receiving another version of the group’s origin; one that will have to last in the MCU’s foreseeable future. But what lessons can Marvel learn from films past in order to avoid a fourth failure? Well, first we have a look at the less-than-stellar origin films that came before…
The Fantastic Four (1994)
The Fantastic Four is an incredibly simple film beginning with Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom in college performing an experiment that goes wrong, with Victor being presumed dead but actually ending up in Latveria (a land over which he becomes ruler) – though Doom’s development all happens off-screen of course.
Time then advances ten years…
We then follow Reed as he visits a grownup Sue and Johnny Storm (they were kids before, it was weird) to recruit them for a mission to space with Reed’s other college buddy Ben Grimm. The four go to space and, because someone apparently called The Jeweller stole a diamond from them (and replaced it with an exact replica), they are hit with cosmic radiation that gives each of them superpowers.
After crashing back to earth, they’re captured by Victor Von Doom who is now going by his comic book title Doctor Doom. It turns out that he wants their powers for himself, and he plans to use the stolen diamond to extract the powers with a laser. The gang escapes Doom (of course) and Ben, who’s mad about how he looks, takes the opportunity to wander off by himself because… plot convenience! He gets kidnapped by the Jeweler and a group called the Mole Men who have also captured a blind woman Ben has a crush on. Doom shows up to the Jeweler/Mole Men lair, in which he and his henchmen shoot a bunch of people. Ben attempts to avenge the fallen but has performance issues, returning to his human form and running away. With little explanation, he becomes the Thing again, rejoins the central group, and together they stop Doom – the major notes on the climactic battle are that Doom has his soldiers shoot at them, then fights Reed with a claw hand, then falls off a ledge. The film ends with Sue and Reed getting married, his long arm extending out of the limo that drives them into the sunset (metaphorically).
You would expect that it will be easy for Marvel to avoid the pitfalls of this film. It was doomed (ha) from the start. Bernd Eichinger purchased the rights to make a Fantastic Four film in 1985, and failed to get an appropriate budget to do the film justice. In an attempt to retain the rights, Eichinger hired Roger Corman to produce the film for $1 million. It’s alleged that the film was never intended to be released (though bootleg copies do exist on YouTube). I can certainly buy into that idea. Everything about the film screams “cheesy low-budget production”. The script feels rushed to start production before the rights expiration on December 31, 1992. Some of the practical effects and sets are rather charming, but overall the movie isn’t fun to watch, especially in its terrible bootleg quality. Each of these problems are solved with time and money, and Marvel has both on their side. I can only hope that a new Fantastic Four film can reach a peak as high as this film’s depths.
Fantastic Four (2005)
How sad would it be if this was Chris Evans’ superhero legacy…
There’s a noticeable upgrade from the last film, but that’s mostly due to a budget one-hundred times as large. In this version, Victor is a business mogul that went to school with Reed, a former NASA scientist. He makes a pitch to Victor about a team going to space and studying a cloud of energy for science reasons. Victor funds the project and ascends with the Fantastic Four. He’s dating Sue, Johnny (Chris Evans) is a playboy/adrenaline junkie, and Ben is Reed’s best friend (and he has a wife). In space, they’re hit with radiation and gain superpowers. This happens much sooner than in the first film – the thirty-minute mark versus fifteen – leaving most of the movie to take place in a lab where Reed works to “fix” them by using a device to reverse the wavelength of the energy from the cloud.
Ben’s frustration in this film comes from his wife. She can’t stand the sight of him, and he blames Reed. Victor is also upset with Reed for turning him into organic metal, and because Reed is trying to date Sue – he feels very similar to a combination of Raimi’s Norman and Harry Osborn. Johnny gets to ride dirt bikes and hang out with women, but other than that, he just runs off Chris Evans’ charisma. Sue is reduced to being Reed’s love interest for the most part.
They all spend the film sitting around and learning to cope with powers until Doom becomes a supervillain. He dons a metal mask to hide his scarred face and uses a combination of technology and powers to subdue the Fantastic Four. Of course, they bounce back and beat him, freezing him with chemistry. Reed learns he needs to have room for love as well as science, and he finally proposes to Sue. Doom is put in a trailer on a ship to his native Latveria.
Where this movie fails is in its ability to make a compelling script and capture the originality and charm of the comic book characters. The performances of Johnny, Ben and Doom carry it, but everything else falls flat. There needs to be something going on in between a first action scene (the four save a fire truck after Ben caused a pileup on a bridge) and the climax. The lighthearted and somewhat cheesy tone worked, but the humor contained in the script, be it scenario or dialogue, didn’t hit. These are all things I believe Marvel can fix, while also giving us solid performances across every role. Sadly, this film might be the peak of the Fantastic Four origin story thus far, and it was mediocre at best.
Fantastic Four (FANT4STIC) (2015)
I didn’t see this flop when it was released, and I had no interest to ever see it. I had seen bad reviews in passing, but most of my exposure to this film was Internet vitriol – people really hated this movie. I sat down to watch this with zero expectations and, for a long time, I was confused as to why it was received so poorly. Sure, the first fifty-five minutes is mostly knockoff Spielberg with so-so dialogue, I’m not buying any of these people as teenagers, and Ben just goes missing for most of the film, but it isn’t that bad. As we near closer to fifty-five minutes, the film gets interesting. Victor, Reed, Ben and Johnny travel to an alternate dimension that looks like a barren, primordial Earth. It almost feels like Alien when things start to go wrong, and everyone is exposed to something that changes them. Victor is left behind, and they travel back. The characters wake up trapped and struggling with their new abilities. It’s actually decently creepy body horror, until it very suddenly isn’t.
The film fast forwards a year. Sue, Johnny and Ben are all being trained as tools for the military in scenes straight out of X-Men. Reed ran away to Central America, using his stretching powers to change his face, though the central group find him with a tracking device and bring him back. A team is sent to the other dimension, where they find Doom waiting. He kills them and comes back to Earth. This Doom doesn’t wear a mask, but has been turned into a crappy terminator with green eyes instead of red. He inexplicably has a hood and cape, but his powers are much more in line with Doom’s comic abilities (a change from having none, and then having lightning, in the previous two films), using energy blasts and Jedi-like crushing-and-summoning powers. The government captures him briefly (a scene that surely played out much differently in Trank’s original conception, the music is so different from earlier in the film but it’s shot like the other body-horror parts), but he escapes and kills tons of people. He creates a giant rift in space-time to suck up the Earth, and the Fantastic Four have to travel to his dimension to kill him.
The final battle is pitiful.
The five characters are essentially standing in place the whole time, save a couple of moments. They stop him by pushing him into a rift… thing? And then by closing it. It is one of the worst scenes I’ve seen in a studio film. It’s no wonder everyone hated it, this is just about the last shot of the movie and is bound to leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Even so, the teens are given a new lair, and now they need a name…
This one is by far the most disappointing of the three. Josh Trank and Fox clashed, and the resulting film looks like the product of Solomon’s judgment. There are tons of noticeable reshoots in the last forty-five minutes – the pace goes from slow burn to Michael Bay explosion – and the mediocre dialogue becomes painful to endure. Of course, Marvel has had its fair share of clashes with directors, but never this far into production, and never to the level of detriment these clashes had on the finished product. However, Marvel shouldn’t be so scared to give a competent director creative freedom, because there are some really good moments and ideas in Fant4stic that aren’t fully realized. Horror elements aside, the relationship between Franklin, Johnny and Sue Storm is actually a big plus. The Storms are black and Sue was adopted, yet the effects of that are hardly seen.
Mostly, this movie feels like a rough first draft where someone yada-yada’d a bunch of the plot, and it all feels incredibly weird by the end.
What’s In Store for the Fantastic Four?
Despite the poor quality of the earlier origin films, it’s clear that there are some core elements that need to be kept. The most blaring is that the team’s powers relate to their flaws – Sue struggles with confrontation and self-expression, Johnny is hot-tempered, Reed over exerts himself, and Ben either feels isolated, inferior, or is a rough-and-tumble kind of guy. There also needs to be a prior relationship between Reed and Doom, and science has to cause the four to receive their powers – it would be very easy to follow the superpowered stone-heavy Infinity War and Endgame with some magic, but it wouldn’t be the best fit. A lighthearted tone also fits some of the sillier elements, such as the name Victor Von Doom or Ben’s catch phrase, “It’s clobberin’ time.” They can spend time trying to cure themselves or doing other science but action in some capacity seems to be necessary to keep these films interesting. I’d also argue a mask for Doom is necessary; the change in the third film is jarring.
Outside of that, it seems that it’s about time we see a Ben that enjoys being The Thing. He always wants to be changed back so fast that it gets old. What about a Doctor Doom origin film, or an embrace of Doom’s magical origins? Maybe he could show up in a future Doctor Strange film, or be the villain in a team-up movie? I’d also like to see Reed Richards established in the MCU as soon as possible; his science prowess has benefit before he becomes Mr. Fantastic, and familiarity could prevent the need for the traditional origin story. I’m excited to see how Marvel handles the Fantastic Four in the future because they have the potential for an interesting and creative film due to their (mostly) unique powers and their somewhat iconic villain – there’s a reason they’re dubbed Marvel’s first family.