A new Fantastic Four movie was just released from Fox. This… is not about that movie. This is about the way we fans talk about Fantastic Four movies, and how we may, in fact, be getting it wrong.
I’ve seen it happen enough to be a foregone conclusion: when discussing Marvel comics on film, if you bring up the Fantastic Four, somebody will return volley with, “If you want to see a perfect Fantastic Four movie, go watch The Incredibles.” I’ve done it myself — MANY times — and that particular refrain got louder and more frequent the closer we got to the release of the latest Fox effort. But, hearing some variation of that statement repeated so often kinda got me wondering… are we actually right about that?
I mean, yeah, The Incredibles has a lot of surface details in common with the Fantastic Four. It’s a super team that’s also a family. Most of their superpowers are the same; Mr. Fantastic and Elastigirl’s stretching ability; the Invisible Woman and Violet Parr’s invisibility and force fields (that one’s a blatant knock-off); The Thing and Mr Incredible are both big, bulky muscle-men. The only odd-man-out is Johnny Storm, whose flame powers are reflected only briefly as ONE of Jack Jack Parr’s multiple abilities — on the other hand, Dash Parr is practically a carbon copy of Johnny Storm’s brash, mischievous personality.
The similarities are obvious, and they beg comparison, but do the comparisons stand up under scrutiny? Could you really swap out the characters and tell the same story as effectively as The Incredibles did?
I’m kinda thinking… no.
The Incredibles is a story about a guy dealing with his midlife crisis in a world where superheroes have been outlawed, and how his past mistakes and rash decisions drag his wife and children into a dangerous scenario that tests and ultimately strengthens their bonds as a family.
Is that a Fantastic Four story? Can you really see Reed Richards as the middle-aged, middle-class meathead who keeps uprooting his family because of a selfish longing for the good old days? Can you really see Johnny and Ben hiding helplessly in a cave, not knowing what to do while Sue sneaks off to find Reed in Doom’s compound? Can you really see Doctor Doom as an over-obsessed, petulant fanboy who is eventually done in by his own insistence on wearing a cape?
The Incredibles worked because everything about it, from the world-building to the character dynamics to the distribution of superpowers, was built to support the story of how Bob Parr overcomes his midlife crisis and learns to love his family again. It may have shown us some cool action sequences and clever ways to use the Fantastic Four’s powers, but that doesn’t make it a good Fantastic Four movie. It just makes it a good movie that kinda reminds us of the Fantastic Four.
I don’t think fans actually want to see Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny going through the same trials and tribulations as Bob, Helen, Dash, and Violet. The Parrs’ life was one of exceptional people straining against the bounds of mundanity — superheroes forced to hide in plain sight, state-enforced secret identities, high school crushes, soul-sucking day jobs, moving houses, school sports, social problems. The Fantastic Four have more resources, more freedom, more visibility, more power, and NONE of the dysfunction the Parrs have (in fact, if they were to ADD that sort of dysfunction to a Fantastic Four movie, I’m pretty sure it would piss people off).
We do a disservice to the Fantastic Four by focusing on their superficial attributes while ignoring the actual substance of what makes them unique. Sure, Hollywood hasn’t gotten it right yet. Sure, Brad Bird has come the closest, and he’d undoubtedly have some valuable insight to offer the next time someone attempts to bring them to the screen. But insisting that the Great Fantastic Four Movie has already been made, just because someone told a good story with the same superpowers, means we’re looking at these properties the same way cynical Hollywood does: as a collection of visual FX with interchangeable stories.
The fact we keep pointing to The Incredibles as the perfect Fantastic Four movie makes me think Hollywood aren’t the only ones who don’t know what makes a good Fantastic Four movie.