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Astrojive: How Do You Do Fantastic?

Richard Lee Byers ponders the facts, rumors about the forthcoming Fantastic Four movie


If you were a studio executive, which of these versions of a classic story would you invest millions of dollars to film?

A. It’s 1961. A brilliant scientist and World War II vet (and so he’s pushing 40) is so hell-bent on beating the Commies into space that he steals the spaceship he himself has built for the government in order to launch it without delay. He recruits his best friend, also a World War II vet and an expert pilot, to fly the vessel and likewise brings his fiancé and her teenage brother along to … I don’t know, watch the dials or something.

Cosmic rays bombard the ship, the shielding proves inadequate, and the four people inside acquire superpowers. They vow to use their abilities to help mankind.

B. It’s today, and the government has a secret think tank where young geniuses work on super-science. The brightest of them all attempts a teleportation experiment.

Predictably (at least to those of us who have watched “The Fly”), the test goes awry. It was only supposed to teleport an apple, but it instead shifts the young physicist, his non-brainiac best friend, an attractive bioengineer, and her underachiever kid brother into another dimension and back again. They return with superpowers they soon are called upon to use to defend mankind.

Version A is the origin of the Fantastic Four as created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Version B is the origin of the “Ultimate” Fantastic Four, an alternate-universe version of the team, as envisioned by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar and Adam Kubert.

Whichever one you prefer, when 20th Century Fox announced a casting call for its reboot of the Fantastic Four franchise, the notice included a partial plot synopsis that suggests the new movie will take its cues from “Ultimate Fantastic Four.” This dismayed a fair number of comics fans who feel that while the “Ultimate” stories may be good in and of themselves, any movie incarnation of the team should derive from the original, iconic version.

Director John Trank subsequently declared on Twitter (where else?) that the partial synopsis was inaccurate, and so it may well be. Still, we now know that Miles Teller will play Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Jamie Bell will portray Ben Grimm (the Thing), Kate Mara is Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman) and Michael B. Jordan is Johnny Storm (the Human Torch.) It’s a safe bet that neither the young-looking Teller nor the equally youthful Bell is being asked to play a 40-year-old, which lends at least a little credence to the idea that the reboot will take some of its cues from “Ultimate Fantastic Four.”

With regard to the casting, some FF traditionalists have also expressed disappointment that Michael B. Jordan, a black actor, is playing Johnny Storm. In the comics, Johnny is white, as are all his teammates.

All of which prompts the question, how do you make an FF movie that will succeed at the box office by appealing to comics fans and general audiences alike? What elements should you change, and which must you absolutely leave alone?

I’m a longtime comics fan myself (old enough, alas, that I read the first issue of “Fantastic Four” when it first came out, and I found it on a spinner rack in a drugstore), but I think you can and should change quite a bit. First off, there’s no reason to make the movie a period piece. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had to take place when it did because Cap’s identity is so rooted in the greatest struggle of the Greatest Generation, but that’s not true of the FF. Indeed, the writers of Marvel Comics themselves long ago stopped saying that Reed and Ben fought in the Big One and they and the Storms took their hijacked rocket into space to win the Cold War. (This sort of collapsing backstory is a convention of superhero universes necessary to keep long-running characters like Superman and Batman off Social Security.)

But if you do the origin of the FF in the present day, that origin needs to change, and there are more problems with it than just the team’s motivation for making its legendary flight. Quite a few astronauts have gone into space since ’61, and so far as I know, none has acquired superpowers as a result. It also seems unlikely that Reed, supreme genius that he allegedly is, would bungle the task of getting his rocket properly shielded when the engineers who built the Apollo capsules and the space shuttles got it right.

Even in the context of whacky comic-book science-fantasy, there’s just no reason to burden the movie with plot contrivances that are going to look that dumb. A more exotic scientific accident — like a mishap with a prototype teleportation machine — is almost sure to seem more plausible or at least less of a blatant disregard for the realities of space travel as we know them in the 21st century.

And while the rocket flight as Lee and Kirby presented it holds a hallowed place in the memory of comics fans, it doesn’t really matter exactly how the FF get their powers, only that they get them in a scientific accident for which Reed is responsible. (That’s important because Ben, unlike his teammates, can’t revert to a normal human appearance. He’s stuck in his hideous rocky shape all of the time, and in the comics, his resulting bitterness and Reed’s guilt-ridden attempts to fix him drive many a story.)

I also think it’s fine if Johnny is black. There’s nothing fundamental to the character as presented in the comics that makes it implausible, so why the hell not? Why not, that is, as long as the movie still establishes that he and Sue are brother and sister (the children, perhaps, of an interracial marriage.)

That matters because the personalities and relationships of the FF are a big part of what make the comic great, and you start dismantling them at your peril. Johnny and Sue need to be siblings, Sue and Reed need to be in love, Reed and Ben need to be longtime best friends, and Ben and Johnny need to bicker.

That’s why, of everything we know about the new movie so far (which, of course, really isn’t much), the one thing that gives me a pang of unease is that Teller and Bell are as young as they are. I’m one of the guys who would prefer that the movie, at its core, feel like original FF even if it takes some of its plot from “Ultimate” FF. And in the Lee/Kirby material, Reed and Ben come across like guys on the threshold of middle age. Bold, adventurous, energetic guys on the threshold of middle age, but still.

But that’s not enough to make me pessimistic about the movie. I’ve liked all the Marvel-based films that have come out lately, and I also liked “Chronicle,” director Trank’s previous feature about people with superpowers. I think the new “Fantastic Four” could be very good indeed.

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