Friday, 18 July 2014

Josh Trank's Fantastic Four - Adaptation or Betrayal?

Welp, this was interesting. This might be judging a work a little early, but given the uproar surrounding this superhero team of late, this is something which I feel needs to be discussed. The new reboot of the cinematic Fantastic Four has been an ongoing parade of betrayal and news which has only led fans to continually damn the film even before trailers have hit cinema. Every bit of news has only served to show that the director seemingly has no respect for the comics, or is willing to even follow basic elements of the team. This has only gotten worse with every interview, leak and news which has followed, which has made it seem as if this will be Fantastic Four in name only. Well, not even that actually. Apparently they might not even have the name.

Let's just run through this - Johnny Storm undergoes a race change.
Not necessarily bad, they had a good actor for him, and it would mostly reflect badly if Marvel opted to pull another Nick Fury Jr. in the comics.

Then comes the news that they will be teenagers.
Not a good angle to go for given what happened with the Ultimate Fantastic Four, but it might work.

Then there's the news that the group will not be called the Fantastic Four at all, and they might not even wear the costumes. 
In the interests of fairness they didn't wear the costumes for a few issues, but not even having the team name? Even Blade kept the character's name.

Then comes the further news that the group will be treated as superheroes with disabilities they need to cope with. 
Okay, this was the Thing's shtick occasionally but all of them? No.

Finally, we have an interview which states the following: Director Josh Trank considers the actors being familiar with the characters to not be a necessity. He is aiming for a found footage approach, ultimate realism and a gritty angle.
Oh dear.

This isn't even the Fantastic Four by this point. This has effectively abandoned everything tonally consistent with the comics, many basic elements and even their most recognisable traits. The Fantastic Four were known for their high adventure style science fiction tales with fun, a family dynamic and aiming for the less grounded approach of other tales. They're the ones who frequently fight Skrulls, invaders from alternate dimensions, Celestials and even introduced Galactus. This? This reads less like Trank was interested in doing the team and more like he desperately wanted to make an X-Men film, but had to make do with other heroes.

Now, this article isn't going to be a rant so much as an examination of the positives and negatives of this. This has obviously broken away from just about all elements of the comics, but is it truly bad? What's more, what is the wider implications of this?

Now, to be completely fair, no Marvel film has been totally accurate to any comic. Many serve as a distillation of elements from various stories, arcs and ideas throughout their long history. This has usually worked out for the best, retaining certain plot elements while leaving everything free for the director to put their own mark on the film. The Avengers is a key example of this, as the Avengers were formed while fighting Loki in Earth's defence, but other elements such as the cosmic cube tesseract device were added along with S.H.I.E.L.D.

This ability to veer away from what was originally told has largely befitted the cinematic universe. It allows directors to play to their greatest strengths, leave their own mark on each film and trim out the elements better suited to a comic book format than a cinematic experience. For example Kenneth Branagh's Thor was wildly different from many of the comics, with Loki being less of an overtly maniacal figure, a different variant of humour than what was usually on display in the comics and new characters were added. It was a very different spin on the tale, but it wasn't inherently bad in any way despite these changes, and allowing the director to do his own thing obviously helped it.

To give an even older example of this, James Bond is an entire franchise built upon adaptation and changes. Each one has had its own different themes, approaches and degree of cheese or realism. Even the famous Sean Connery era was a massive change from the novels, which were far more gritter, hard-line and brutal in his approach. He was more like Sharpe than a suave, charming and cool agent armed with countless wonderful toys provided by Q. In fact, in many respects audiences didn't see a "true" James Bond adaptation until Timothy Dalton's sadly short lived tenure brought many of those elements to the forefront of his character. Despite that, every incarnation was visibly still Bond and quite recognisable no matter the actor playing him.

A TV example would be Doctor Who as well. Each and every Doctor has had a wildly different personality, often working as an opposite extreme of the last one and quite frequently changing everything. If you run down the line of original actors even just in the classic series, you can see each was wildly different from the last. Jon Pertwee was the total opposite of Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker's wild eyed eccentric was completely alien to the more subdued and human Peter Davidson. Even basic elements such as the TARDIS design, his relation with his enemies or universe evolved from one story to the next due to countless different writers being onboard. Things dramatically change, but each one is the Doctor despite writers being free to put their own spin on the previous tales.

What's more is that Trank's film distancing itself from the comic has saved it from one big problem. A previous criticism on this website was that comics could easily prove to be an ideas junkyard for Hollywood rather than a medium in its own right. Many decades old and famous storylines were being taken for the bigger films, and hammered out so the cinematic universe could make more cash, with the comics losing their identity or relevance as a result. By avoiding directly adapting Galactus' arrival or other big tales, the film its running the risk of overshadowing famous stories and allows each interpretation to stand on its own.

Unfortunately, Trank adds to this problem as much as he solves it. He might not be openly using the storylines and ideas of other authors, strip mining concepts from the absolute best plots from decades of stories, but he's ignoring everything about the comic. Again, the comic book Fantastic Four themselves are a high adventure science fiction group with a family bond, who exist in a bright colourful world. The Fantastic Four here are not even recognisable as the Four beyond their names and, perhaps, their powers. Their treatment, approach and very story ideas completely oppose the direction the comic have always gone in, showing them no respect and betraying the team's identity. This above all is the biggest problem, as it's one director taking a licence from someone else, and then completely altering it beyond all recognition. 

Say what you will about James Bond, Doctor Who and everything else, but every adaptation always showed some awareness and respect for what came before. Even when it changed things dramatically, the very core of its characters and basic ideas were till in place. It's the same thing I have personally argued about canon: Most of it is malleable, can be changed and altered to suit a story, but there are certain pillars. Certain basic established facts and characterisations which help make that universe what it is. A good adaptation will respect this, but a bad one will utterly bulldoze right through them, and destroy a work's identity. The end result is a complete bastardisation of what it should have been, mauled and barely recognisable to fans or even the public.

Sadly this is only the basic elements of this problem, and should this be a success it will lead to something far worse. It will send a message to filmmakers: That they don't need to respect the comics or the established fandoms in any way. That they can treat Marvel licences and ideas as a junkyard of basic ideas and do whatever the hell they want with it. 

While Marvel studios itself might be able to defend its licences, there are plenty of character IPs it does not directly control, and even ones beyond that. Warner Bros repeatedly screwed with its films, supposedly driving Green Lantern into the ground when executives hijacked the film. Even in that case they did not go so far as to completely change his power-set. Hellboy was almost changed completely from the comics, and only proved to be successful thanks to Guillermo Del Toro being such a massive fan of the character. Superheroes are a big thing right now, so this would be a sign to bigger studios that they wouldn't need to bother with negotiating with the creator or even resemble it. They get to do whatever the hell they want, but still have the chance to use a well known name.

It's still early days of course, but this is truly damn worrying. If they manage to turn this around, if they manage to make this somehow work, then fine. However, given the team involved and all which has been freely stated so far, it sounds like a recipe for a complete betrayal of the fans. One so bad that Marvel itself is supposedly ready to kill off the Ultimate Fantastic Four and retire the 616 team for the moment.

Still, this is just my own personal opinions on this. Whether you're a fan of the team or just a reader in general i'd like to hear what others think on this. Please leave your own thoughts in the comments below if you have thoughts of your own.


  1. From what I have been hearing about this reboot lately, it sounds like this would be more suited for a sequel to Chronicle than a Fantastic Four reboot. Still waiting for a trailer before I go into panic mode or excitement mode, but I am a little bit worried that this will be another Catwoman: a movie that is in no way like the comic it is based on and with the main actor(s) not portraying the character properly or in an interesting light that still maintains a few familiar characteristics.

    1. That's actually a pretty good comparison, where a film has effectively taken a much bigger name for itself and then proceeded to completely ignore anything about the basic premise. I actually did a bit of digging after this and there's been a surprisingly large number of attempts or basic cases of this. Upon getting Frank Miller onboard for a Batman film, he and the director turned it into a work of pure insanity before the studio took one look at the script and shut the whole thing down.

  2. Why even bother calling it the Fantastic Four then? Why not just change the names and let it be its own thing? At this point the only reason I can see for keeping the names the same is to trick fans of the series into going to see it.
    Who knows though, it might be good, in the same way that everything might be good, but I won't get my hopes up, as I haven't seen anything that I liked where the director wasn't a fan of the source material.

    1. That's pretty much what everyone is saying in relation to this - If they're not even going to pay lip service to the source material, why make any kind of adaptation? The thing is, looking at this a few times there are plenty of teams which this might have worked for. Even ignoring big name ones like the X-Men (or one of the now ignored teams like Generation-X) who would have been perfect for this, there are teams like the Runaways or Avengers Academy who would have been perfect for this sort of premise. The latter especially given the nature of their powers, their lack of experience and some of the ideas we've seen hinted at.

      Nothing ever good comes of a film which is apparently ashamed of its own source material, and this entire thing sounds like it's going wrong from the start.