Monday, June 22, 2009

Fantastic Four Reboot

Okay. So yet again millions of dollars are about to be spent on an entirely crazy idea: take the Fantastic Four out of the comic books and put them on the silver screen. Again. My first reaction was "Why?" With a sudden realization that the answer is the same answer that always fuels comic book adaptations that don't make any sense: money.

For anyone unfamiliar with the comic book, the multiple animated series, the t-shirts, lunch boxes, video games, and countless other FF paraphernalia, I recommend WikiPedia to get you caught up. Yes of course you can't count on Wiki as 100% accurate and some can argue that endlessly. I don't care. It works for me and I don't want to try to detail almost fifty years of history in this blog. I'll get sidetracked to the point I actually wanna make. It is possible to put the actual Fantastic Four on the screen, but Hollywood can't do it. It would require actually following the original source material, and Hollywood won't tolerate that.

First, it's a period piece. Fantastic Four is not Fantastic Four without taking place in the early 1960s, when the general public really had no concept of how radiation or cosmic rays worked. Marie Curie discovered radiation in the late 19th century, and papers about breast cancer were published by other great minds in the 1920s, but making the connection between radiation as both a possible cause and a possible cure or treatment didn't make strides in the medical community until after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby committed the origins of many modern "marvel" legends to paper. The Incredible Hulk's exposure to gamma rays, Spider-Man's radioactive spider bite, and of course the Fantastic Four's exposure to cosmic rays during a sub orbital flight - all this was based on speculative fiction to which time has not been kind. So telling the same origin story fifty years late makes absolutely no sense. However, if treated as a period piece, it's as good a story as Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde.

Second, it's a family piece. This means you can have conflict between the characters, but you can't have them just break up at the drop of a hat. It gets too cliche too fast if you jump to that. The foursome consists of a married couple, a brother-in-law, and an old friend of the family. Ben & Reed's relationship goes back to when they were in the academy together, then the military, then the space program. Ben & Reed believe in each other and are essentially blood brothers, having saved one another multiple times. Reed's love for Sue is unmistakeable, and Sue's love for her brother Johnny is equally resolute. There are decades of complexity here that can't be captured in a two hour movie. Even comic book writers of more recent decades have made the mistake of splitting them up because they are trying to keep things interesting. However, what sets the Fantastic Four apart from other heroes is not their special powers. Most everyone in their world has powers. What sets them apart is the inter-relationship of the foursome. They are often conflicted and strained, but they are also connected by an unconditional love that comes only from having been through what they've been through - it's a bond stronger than blood.

Third, it's not dark. The current rumor is not only will the Fantastic Four get rebooted yet again, but the franchise will go darker with it like the Batman Dark Knight series. However, the Fantastic Four has never been dark. Admittedly, horrible things have happened. Most notably is Reed Richards' betrayal of the others. After many years, it's discovered that on some unconscious level, Richards may have deliberately sabotaged the space flight, using his own friends as guinea pigs in an experiment that would either grant them unknown power, or kill them outright. That's mighty dark. However, you can't start there. The audience has to experience the lifetime of camaraderie and trust and faith or else that discovery has no weight to it.

What might work is taking a page from recent critically acclaimed success of the movie Watchmen, and also perhaps a page from the tv series Lost. If'n I were Fantastic Four's reboot artist, here's how I'd do it.

You'd have two storylines being told at once in the first film, in a treatment similar to Lost or Kung Fu. The first storyline would take place in the 1960s, and would be essentially a very brief origin story told by news reporters as they were covering the events that essentially put the Fantastic Four on the map: the Mole Man Battle. This story would show the Fantastic Four as they were first starting out, and with their powers still fresh and novel to them. Their friendship would be palpable and their teamwork flawless. We'd see them overcome inexperience and adapt to the new life of heroism before them. These scenes would be bright and vibrant. Even venturing into the caves, everything would have a look of fond reverie - the good old days how everything looks better than perhaps it really was.

The second storyline would be your dark storyline and would take place some decades later - perhaps even in present day. The Fantastic Four would have had many adventures on Earth, and then at one point they went into deep space to fight in the Kree-Skrull Wars, leaving their nonpowered infant son in the hands of trusted friends. They return only a few weeks later in their time, but many years would have passed on Earth. In their absence, the Earth they knew would be a world without any superheroes and devoid of any happiness. Those who had powers were now in the service of a nameless, faceless despot who Reed would assume immediately was Doctor Doom.

The Fantastic Four would be branded as un-human and face death or exile from Earth if they refused to do the despot's bidding. The Fantastic Four would struggle with this discovery, avoid death and exile, while investigating the events that led to their homeworld turning so grey and hopeless. Ben would meet the nameless despot first on his own, be captured and tormented, and the truth revealed to him that Reed had purposefully orchestrated the accident that left him a freak. Ben would break free of his prison, hunt down Reed and demand an explanation. Reed has no conscious knowledge of this, but it's something that causes him to second guess his actions, as the foursome agree to settle their differences later and confront this unknown enemy together.

At the end it would be realized that their son grew up into a powerful being but with a cold heart having been abandoned at a young age. Franklin is the nameless faceless despot that demands the foursome go back in time and undo the damage that has been done, and has spent considerable time and resources since his youth creating a time machine explicitly for this purpose. Reed explains to Franklin that's now how time works - that the foursome could go back in time but that this reality would be unaltered - a new timeline would emerge from their return from the past. It would not erase the current timeline that already existed. "Time is not a chalkboard, Franklin. It's more like a river. You can dam up the water and redirect it, but the dry riverbed you leave behind will remain, scarring the land."

Franklin's power, coupled with his rage, is so great that he claims he can destroy the universe in which they currently reside either after the FF return back in time to correct their past mistake with him, or he'll destroy it with them still in the present. Essentially this dooms the fate of two potential universes. Reed relents and the foursome venture into the time machine.

Upon the return to the past, which in the narrative happens about the same time as the narrative in the first storyline approaches the foursome leaving Earth to fight in the Kree-Skrull war, we see this mature and conflicted foursome still together but with more questions about trust and devotion than they have ever had before, and Reed struggles with whether he should murder his own son now to spare the potential power to experience upon maturity, or hope that he and Sue's presence in young Franklin's life will be enough to change those variables, like a butterfly's wings. Meanwhile, since in this timeline the Fantastic Four never go into space to fight in the Kree-Skrull war, it instead comes to Earth, which sets up the sequel.

There. You got your darkness, but you also got a chance to show the Fantastic Four at their best and brightest. You got conflict, but it develops naturally in the context of the plot and not unnaturally like in the previous movies. I'd go see it, but I'd probably be the only one. Here's hoping at the very least, the new reboot of Fantastic Four doesn't include that preposterous robot Herbie. God, I hated that thing.

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