Why is making a good Fantastic Four movie so difficult?

After only a week in theaters, it seems that Josh Trank’s rebooted Fantastic Four film is going down as one of 2015’s greatest box-office bombs. Financially disappointing, the film was also savaged by critics: Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called it “worse than worthless,” while the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd described the film as “shockingly humorless and glacially slow.” A week after its release, the movie hovers below 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. So what happened?

It’s possible that some of the negative press may be exaggerated — after all, some of the critics who trashed Fantastic Four disliked it for precisely the flaws superhero movies can often get away with. And comic fans didn’t cover themselves in glory when they carped about the casting of a tremendous young actor, The Wire‘s Michael B. Jordan, as the Human Torch. But there does seem to be a general sense that the new Fantastic Four is a bomb, a movie that simultaneously takes itself very very seriously and doesn’t have anything serious to say.

And it’s not just this one — ask any fan to rank the modern superhero films, and the lackluster 2005 Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer will be well down toward the bottom of the list, possibly hovering somewhere above the widely-ignored Elektra. This pair of plodding, inconsequential messes suffered from an absence of clear vision as well as hopelessly miscast villains. And 1994’s Fantastic Four movie, produced by low-budget king Roger Corman, never even made it to the big screen. Intended just to hold on to the film rights — shades of the modern film! — the 1994 film was a goofup so legendary it got its own documentary.

In a world where obscure comic characters from Blade to Ant-Man to Rocket Raccoon have made it to the movie screen, where TV viewers know who Firestorm and Captain Cold are, why on earth can’t anyone seem to make a good movie out of the comics franchise that started the Marvel Age?

Maybe the problem is the superhero cinema’s preoccupation with origin stories. After all, an origin story appeals to screenwriters: a movie character needs an arc, a journey of transformation, and what’s more of a journey of transformation than a superhero origin? And with some characters that works well enough — although I think by now we’re all getting a little sick of them. But the origin story is fundamentally the least interesting thing about the Fantastic Four. Indeed, other than gaining superpowers, the characters don’t really change at all. They’re designed as a team, as a set of complementary personalities, and they stay that way.

Lee and Kirby designed a set of characters heavy with symbolism, each corresponding to one of the four elements of classical Greek thought with a corresponding personality — so, for example, Mister Fantastic, with his flowing shape and calm, logical mind, corresponds to the element of water, while the Human Torch is literally “hot-headed,” as impulsive and aggressive as you’d expect from a character who corresponds to the element of fire. They’re also a family, with a pair of kindly parents and two squabbling brothers. It’s a great foundation, but it doesn’t have a conflict at the heart of it — no secret identity, no sick aunt, no moral qualms about violence. Each character has individual conflicts but there isn’t a fundamental conflict within the group. Conflict in Fantastic Four stories comes from outside the group — and let’s not forget that those conflicts included the first appearances of the Black Panther, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer and Galactus in just a few short months. It’s a fine model for an ongoing series, but

Unfortunately, that means that in order to create a compelling one-shot story, the screenwriter of a Fantastic Four movie needs to craft something that isn’t in the comics. That can be a compelling internal conflict, but creating this type of plot risks sacrificing the iconic roles that the four characters play. Alternatively, it can be a potent, visually striking external conflict. Again, that’s something the movies have so far failed to do. You wouldn’t think it’d be possible to mess up Doctor Doom, the archetypal supervillain, but there you go.

Will we ever see a great Fantastic Four film? It doesn’t look likely at the moment, particularly since the comic itself is presently getting no love at Marvel. It’s possible that the structure actually doesn’t work well in a two-hour feature format; given the soap opera ensemble structure, the franchise might be better suited as a television series. (Imagine, for the sake of argument, a TV series that had FF #44-53 as a season. You’d watch that, right?)

And so Fantastic Four, released briefly from Hollywood for its now-routine shot at stardom, slinks back in defeat. It may be simply a case of a concept too obvious for a big-budget blockbuster. And you don’t hear that every day.

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