Moriarty Bombards Simon Kinberg's FANTASTIC FOUR Script With Gamma Rays, But It's Still Not Super!!
Published at: Oct. 15, 2008, 1:42 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
First, before I even begin, let me apologize for the delay on this one. I never meant to tease you for two weeks. One thing I’m sure of now is that this is still a work-in-progress, so this isn’t the final set-in-stone shooting draft, and it’s important you remember that. Hell, it’s important I remember that so I don’t get all hyperbolic about certain things. I’m not sure if they’ve got anyone on-set in Vancouver right now working on the script, but it’s definitely been a fairly fluid document these last few months.
Mark Frost’s earlier draft set off a fair amount of controversy when fans heard some of the story and character details, and I know of at least one writing team that worked on it after that. Simon Kinberg appears to be the guy who got it across the finish line, though. He’s been a busy guy lately. Doug Liman’s finally finished shooting his spy thriller MR. AND MRS. SMITH, and Lee Tamahori’s in the middle of shooting XXX2: STATE OF THE UNION right now. I’ve read the Ice Cube sequel, and it’s a much better script than the original, with great roles for Cube, Sam Jackson, and Willem Dafoe. I totally get why Kinberg’s the go-to guy at the moment. He writes smart action and strong characters. Makes perfect sense, then, to put him on FANTASTIC FOUR.
And if you’re worried about Avi Arad’s comments that the film is a “family comedy,” you should relax. There is some very funny interplay between the characters, but this isn’t meant to be a joke. There’s a fair amount of reinvention involved, but it still feels true to the spirit I always enjoyed about the comics while growing up. I’ve never been the most avid reader of the series, but I’ve enjoyed it on and off over the years, and in a way, I’ve always thought of this as one of the crown jewels of the Marvel Film properties. It seems so simple, such an easy sell. Tone is important, though, and I’ll give Marvel credit for taking their time to work toward getting it right instead of just rushing something into production.
So... all that preface aside... how’s the script?
This is a more intimate origin story than, say, X-MEN. Juggling multiple characters with personalities this strong can be tricky, especially when you’re also trying to build a world-threatening scenario to challenge them. The solution they’ve come up with here is to tie in the film’s primary threat to the origin of the FF, and the way they’ve done it might work for mainstream audiences even as it makes the most ardent purist fanboys absolutely bugshit. On the first page of the 118-page draft, one visual image sets up the relationship that defines the whole film:
”EXT. MANHATTAN SKYLINE - DAY
”Familiar skyscrapers fill the frame, except for TWO rising high above the rest. On either side of CENTRAL PARK:
THE BAXTER BUILDING rises high on the WEST SIDE. THE LATVERIA TOWER rises directly across the park, on the EAST SIDE. Baxter is a sleek and beautiful shimmering silver. Latveria is an odd mix of stone and steel, making it look like a combination of a skyscraper and a medieval CASTLE.”
BEN GRIMM and REED RICHARDS are visiting the headquarters of Latveria Industries, figurative hats in hand. Latveria’s an enormously successful superconglomerate with interests in space stations, nuclear power, and military contracts. Reed’s looking for support for a major scientific endeavor, a proposed study of a cosmic storm that may have been one of the key triggers of evolution on Earth. Reed makes his case to the head of Latveria Industries, VICTOR VON DOOM. And, yes, it’s Von Doom now. Not Van Damn. It’s obvious that he’s got history of some sort with both Reed and Ben, but they’re willing to swallow their pride and set aside old differences in the name of science. Von Doom seems to take particular pleasure in goading the two of them, especially once he realizes it’s not money they’ve come for. They just want his space station, and Reed offers up total financial control over any practical commercial applications that may arise from the trip and the research they do.
The history between them becomes quite clear when SUE STORM enters the office. Reed’s ex, she is now working for Von Doom, and dating him as well. Von Doom agrees to the experiment, but instead of letting Ben pilot the shuttle, Latveria insists on using their own pilot. Enter JOHNNY STORM, Sue’s younger brother, who used to serve as a junior officer under Ben’s command at NASA. There’s a great sense of antagonistic play between them from the moment Johny is introduced, one of the things they got the most right in the whole script. Once the entire principal cast is introduced, they’re out of Earth’s atmosphere by page eleven.
The next ten pages onboard the space station are dense with characterization and action. Von Doom joins them on the mission, so when the cosmic storm hits, they all get stuck in it, even as Von Doom tries to abandon the others to their fate. He’s in one place when the cosmic rays reach them, while everyone else is onboard the station, and they all end up getting dosed in different ways. This sort of reminds me of the way JJ Abrams wanted to make Lex Luthor a Kryptonian with super-powers to match Superman’s, but just dosing Von Doom with cosmic rays didn’t strike me as a deal-breaker.
Back on Earth, Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben are all put under quarantine at a military facility, locked down completely until it can be determined if anything has happened to them. They look fine at first. All their tests seem okay. The scene where Ben, who took the worst of it, wakes up for the first time is a great example of the way Johnny loves to torture him. Von Doom, who returned to earth in an emergency shuttle, is missing, presumed dead. Sue turns to Reed, which makes sense. They all turn to Reed, actually, expecting him to somehow sort everything out. Over the next ten pages or so, their powers begin to assert themselves, a little at a time. Reed, Sue, and Johnny all get together to compare the reactions they’re having. When they go to see how Ben is, the door to his hospital room is locked, and they hear terrible sounds from inside. When they try to get in, Ben smashes out the wall of the room and runs.
”Ben steps into the light, where we see him FOR THE FIRST TIME: he’s HUGE, easily twice the size he once was, and AN ORANGY ROCKY SURFACE COVERS HIS ENTIRE BODY.”
He makes his way to the Brooklyn Bridge, attracting the attention of the police and the military. He plans to kill himself, unwilling to face life as a monster, fuelled by Debbie’s total rejection of him. What really makes this sequence great is the way it’s not about some big evil bad guy. They don’t leap right into being superheroes. Instead, they act because they want to save a friend in distress. It’s a realistic escalation of completely unrealistic circumstances, and it serves beautifully to draw the four of them together. Even in the midst of a tense action scene, there’s some great character humor. Finally, at the top of page 44, with the four of them united as a unit, Reed swears to them that he won’t rest until he changes them all back.
So far, so good, right?
I mean, sure, they’ve refigured some of the major details of the piece, but the way it works seems to really nail the most important thing about FANTASTIC FOUR... the relationships. Because of that, I am more than willing to roll with the changes.
But let’s talk about Dr. Doom.
I want to believe this could work. For one thing, I’m a big fan of the casting. Julian McMahon’s giving one of my favorite current TV performances on NIP/TUCK (right up there with Dominic West on THE WIRE and James Gandolfini on THE SOPRANOS), so I’m glad to see him cast in such a high-profile role. After all, Dr. Doom’s one of the most iconic villains in the entire Marvel line-up. When I was a kid, I loved seeing him show up in all the different series to torment the various Marvel heroes. He was like Lex Luthor, but with a groovier wardrobe, an all-purpose megalomaniac. With STAR WARS: REVENGE OF THE SITH coming out next summer, I’ll bet Fox and Marvel were at least a little worried about having a bad guy dressed in armor, so I can understand a bit of redesign or reinterpretation. Still, you’d think they would want to make him at least vaguely recognizable... right?
From the moment he’s reintroduced on page 44 of the script, though, Doom gives me angst. There’s something wrong with his face, something we don’t see in that first scene. He wraps himself in a green blanket (get it?) and heads into a nearby town, where he freaks out in a diner, revealing that he has super-strength and that he’s covered now with patches of strange organic armor that’s spreading like a virus. Streaks of it, at first, but enough to make him freakishly strong and give him the power to shoot electricity out of his hands. He sees a news report about Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben, who have been dubbed “The Fantastic Four” by the media. This makes him freak out even more, and he steals a motorcycle to head back to the city. Which raises my first question. Here’s a guy who is the head of a multi-billion dollar company. Sure, he’s a bit of a creep at the start of the film, but he must have some redeeming qualities. After all, he’s Sue’s boyfriend, isn’t he? And he’s obviously got the acumen to negotiate all the deals that built his empire, right? So why is it that the moment he wakes up disfigured, he starts acting like a supervillain? Why does he have to steal the motorcycle? Why doesn’t he call someone who works for him? While the Fantastic Four work to figure out their powers and what they should do with them, even as the media goes crazy for them, Von Doom returns to Latveria Industries. Again, no one seems to work in his building, and he has to smash his way in. It’s all very dramatic, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It also doesn’t make sense the way the script turns them into media darlings after just that one incident on the bridge. We never really see them being heroes after that. Sure, they saved some lives in that first big scene, but they also created the situation. Suddenly, they’re on every magazine cover and Johnny’s doing LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN and they’re getting bags of fan mail. Why? I’ve always enjoyed the celebrity nature of the characters. It sets them apart from the rest of the Marvel heroes. It wasn’t an instant thing, though. They had to earn it, and they don’t in this script. Still, the stuff between the characters works well enough to hold it all together. Ben struggles with his new identity as The Thing, and his developing relationship with Alicia Masters is one of the best things about the script. I have a feeling Michael Chiklis is going to walk away with the film, and I’m eager for my first glimpse of Spectral Motion’s design for the character.
Page 70 is where Von Doom finally comes back into contact with the Fantastic Four, setting his endgame in motion, and I’ll speak in general terms so I don’t ruin any plot details. I like the idea that the film’s central crisis is so personal, so specific to the characters and what they’re going through. But by the time the script reached its climax, I genuinely hated Dr. Doom. And not in the “Ooooh, what a deliciously evil villain” way either, but more in the “Oh, fuck, what a weak rehash of all the most shallow and predictable traits of bad movie villains” way. Keep in mind... I’m firmly in the “Make Mine Marvel” camp. I unabashedly enjoy DAREDEVIL, THE HULK, and THE PUNISHER. That’s why this script concerns me so far. As good as parts of it are, there are some pretty epic miscalculations involved, and it feels like the first time with any of these films where they just didn’t crack it. Now they’re locked into a release date and they’re on location and shooting and I’m not sure how they can fix the fundamental problems they face. I want to believe that Tim Story and Avi Arad and Kevin Feige and everyone at Fox know what they’re doing and how to make that third act work on film. I want to believe that Dr. Doom isn’t going to turn into an embarrassment, and that Julian McMahon’s going to be able to turn this stock character into something memorable. I want to believe that the film’s structural weaknesses can be overcome by energy and a good cast and the right design team.
But most of all, when I sit in that theater and look up at that screen and watch the Human Torch and the Invisible Girl and Mr. Fantastic and The Thing in action... well... damn it... I want to believe.
I’ve got a review of ALFIE, my DVD column, looks at two of this year’s Oscar hopefuls, a few Coax pieces, a review of Sophia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE script, and much more on tap for the next ten days or so. Until then...