Despite singlehandedly launching the Marvel superhero juggernaut more than a half-century ago, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four has never gotten the big-screen treatment it so richly deserves.
Back in 1994, producer Roger Corman’s comically awful take on the superhuman quartet was never officially released, and today the movie remains little more than a curio for convention bootleggers. Tim Story’s 2005 Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, meanwhile, managed to pull down respectable box office numbers but quickly faded from the public’s memory due to aggressively bland scripts that wasted a talented cast, including future Captain America star Chris Evans, who played the brash young Human Torch, and decades of fertile mythology.
Fox, hoping the fourth time would be the charm for the property, hired filmmaker Josh Trank to reboot the franchise in 2012. Trank was brought on board mainly due to the success of his debut feature Chronicle, a found-footage sci-fi thriller that played as a dark inversion of superhero origin stories, complete with nods to Katsuhiro Otomo’s apocalyptic anime Akira and Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. The director seemed like a solid, unconventional choice at the time, and he still does, but his Fantastic Four has already been the subject of a deluge of criticism from irate Marvel fans, most of it arriving months before anyone had seen a single frame of the finished film.
So what’s with all the hate? Much of it stems from an early announcement that Trank’s creative team would be taking their cues from the 2004 Ultimate Fantastic Four comic series, a polarizing alternate-universe continuity that made several drastic changes to the team’s classic origin, meaning the fire-bending Human Torch, his force field-generating older sister the Invisible Woman, her super-stretchy scientist crush Mr. Fantastic and their thick-skinned mutual friend the Thing will all be significantly younger, sexier and more angst-ridden than viewers remember them.
Those grumbles escalated into a full-scale uproar when it was revealed that Trank and his co-screenwriters Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Jeremy Slater (the upcoming horror movie The Lazarus Effect) were demoting the team’s arch-nemesis Dr. Victor von Doom from the iron-fisted dictator of the fictional Eastern European country of Latveria to a disgruntled Internet blogger named Victor Domashev whose hacker alias happens to be “Doom.” That’s right, what at first seemed like an elaborate bit of trolling actually turned out to be the bitterly ironic truth. For my fellow Batman fans, this would be the equivalent of Warner Bros. suddenly recasting the Joker as a loveable jaywalking mime.
Since those reveals, nearly every piece of news related to the film has been received by the blogosphere with the same amount of enthusiasm as an approaching colonoscopy. Everything from leaked set photos to out-of-context quotes from the actors involved was regularly held up as evidence of the movie’s inevitable mediocrity. So it was a genuine surprise when the majority of Marvel fans greeted the film’s first teaser trailer, posted online this past Tuesday, with cautious optimism and even outright praise.
While a trailer is almost never a reliable means of assessing a movie’s quality, the Fantastic Four teaser is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of salesmanship based on two major factors: the uniqueness of its tone – Trank’s directorial style owes more to David Cronenberg than Joss Whedon – and the strength of its gifted young cast, including Miles Teller, who earned raves in last year’s phenomenal Whiplash, as Mr. Fantastic, Kate Mara, late of Netflix’s House of Cards, as the Invisible Woman, Michael B. Jordan from the critically acclaimed racial drama Fruitvale Station as the first non-Caucasian Human Torch (one assumes he and Mara’s characters are no longer biological siblings) and Jamie Bell, last seen in Bong Joon-ho’s locomotive sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer, as the Thing.
Another interesting aspect of the teaser is the fact that we almost never see our heroes in costume. Instead we’re presented with a group of close friends recovering from a horrific accident (in the original comic, the characters were bombarded with cosmic rays during an ill-advised scientific mission in outer space) and adjusting to their newfound abilities with varying degrees of success and suffering. It looks startlingly grim given the source material, but not in a way that feels derivative or arbitrary.
So why is it so damn difficult to make Marvel’s “first family” work on the big screen? Many would argue it actually isn’t. Brad Bird and Pixar took Lee and Kirby’s core concept of a dysfunctional but loving family of superheroes and created The Incredibles, a brilliant pastiche of comic book tropes and James Bond aesthetics that encapsulated the whiz-bang spirit of Marvel even better than the company’s own current cinematic universe. If Trank is able to take Lee’s patented “heroes with hang-ups” dynamic and marry it to a PG-13 level of grit and intensity, the results could be truly fantastic. If not, well, there’s always the fifth time around.
Landon McDonald is a graduate student studying public relations. His column, “Screen Break,” runs Fridays.