Poor Josh Trank has had to answer a sea of rumors in putting together his vision for “The Fantastic Four.” The scrutiny is understandable: this is a property that has been adapted into film twice already (three times if you count a basically-unreleased early ’90s incarnation), each time failing to impress the hardcore fans. And Fox, eager to kick-start the series to keep it from reverting back to Marvel, have been keeping things close to the vest, refusing to disclose any story details for a film that’s a little over a year away, and about to begin production. But if this latest casting notice is anything to go by, Fox is playing fast and loose with the series. And why not?
Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell and Michael B. Jordan are the names that have been mentioned as the likely stars of this new version, which emerges in July 2015. And that’s miles away from any familiar incarnation the fans are familiar with. As the Invisible Woman, Mara seems like an inoffensive choice. But Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic has always been a deadly serious genius, usually depicted in his late thirties to forties, with a gray streak in his hair. Teller, a comedic presence in films like “That Awkward Moment” and “21 And Over,” is in his mid-twenties, and always profiled as a young Vince Vaughn. Bell is leagues separated from the usual incarnation of Ben Grimm as a larger, more physical force, a grumbly Jewish bruiser from Yancey Street. And Jordan, well… the Human Torch is black, fans. You’ve got to come to terms with that.
That last wrinkle actually matters, given that Jordan’s Johnny Storm is actually meant to be a sibling to Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman. It’s unclear how this is going to be explained, though it’s a talking point amongst fans because “The Fantastic Four” don’t wear the title of Marvel’s First Family without reason. As Marvel’s most beloved married couple, Richards and Sue Storm treat Johnny like the little brother, while Grimm has always been a caretaker to the Richards and Storm relationship as a peer, and best friend, to Reed.
Part of how this was communicated was through subtle age differences, with Reed being the paternal type and Johnny the young hothead. This carried over to the movies, which attempted to recreate that dynamic. But this new cast is uniformly young, and in fact Teller is the youngest of the crew by days. This is just part of a radical re-invention, and if you believe the internet (don’t believe the internet!), we’d be getting the Fantastic Four as test subjects, a female Dr. Doom, basically cats and dogs living together and mass hysteria ruling the land.
Of course, take a seat, take a deep breath, and tell this to yourself: it doesn’t matter. Despite what the studios have believed since the early ’00s, comic books are a different medium, and the stories and themes could stand to change a little. Fox’s two “Fantastic Four” films were clumsy, silly family entertainments, lightweight pictures that, for the most part, captured the camaraderie and comedic spirit of the team, if not the scope of their adventures. Ultimately, they were disposable. So why not try something different? This isn’t “Hamlet,” this is “The Fantastic Four.” And the Bard’s work has been altered a lot more often anyway.
“The Fantastic Four” legacy stretches over fifty years, and while there have been several decorated runs, the great stories are few and far between, and often beholden to the comic medium, due to either outlandish imagination or a dependence on other heroes that may not reside underneath Fox’s umbrella. In other words, you’re going to need to monkey with the formula a bit if you want to make this work as a movie. Fox likely still looks at this as a “superhero” series, a mistake the earlier movies made, but looking back to the earlier comics, these are science fiction characters. And science fiction characters are malleable, not stuck to one genre or another.
The “Fantastic Four” debuted in 1961 as Marvel’s first relevant superheroes of the post-war age. Under the Timely imprint, Marvel had debuted heroes like Namor and Captain America in the forties, but their hero universe had grown dormant while DC had thrived on the back of Superman and the Justice League. Essentially, there were no rules, and the Fantastic Four’s casual infighting and monster brawls set the stage for Marvel’s wave that included the Hulk, the X-Men and Spider-Man. Basically, there was no template, there was no pattern for success, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee simply set out to create a “team book.”
Fox needs to do the same here. The Fantastic Four, in their popular form, had their shot. The characters origins, especially the space race elements, are products of the sixties – even Peyton Reed knew that when he was in line to direct the property more than a decade ago. Trank is the latest guy for the job, and it’s important that he not be too precious with the material. Let Invisible Woman and Human Torch be unrelated. Make The Thing gay. Maybe they get their powers by tripping and falling into toxic waste. Maybe Dr. Doom isn’t even a licensed doctor. We’ve had years and years of filmmakers treating comic book characters like gospel, but none are as glued to their four-color origins as the Fantastic Four. It’s about time Fox unglued them.