When it comes to film adaptations, the Fantastic Four are a tough nut to crack. In dealing with a quartet of superheroes, there is a challenge in giving each of them equal weight and moving the story forward. Yet the essence of the group is of a family with character flaws who struggle with personal issues and high stakes, such as saving the world.
Since the team debuted in 1961, the Marvel Comics’ flagship title has gained a strong fanbase among comic book readers. Over fifty years, fans have grown to love the adventures of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing. Long-time adult collectors relish the early issues penned by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but everyone enjoys the balance of action and humor. However, the process of making it to the big screen has not been an easy journey. After 11 years in development hell, Fantastic Four arrived in theatres in 2005, but there were several versions of the story that were made in the process.
In 2001, Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Doug Petrie was assigned the task of penning the screenplay to 20 Century Fox’s adaptation of the comic. Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Ant-Man) was attached to helm the project. Contrary to popular belief, the script is not a 1960s period piece but a modern day story. There were rumors of Peyton Reed intended Fantastic Four to be set in the Kennedy Camelot-era, but the director later revealed this was not the case. Eventually, Reed dropped out after Fox chose to go in a different direction.
Although Petrie left the project too, his dream cast was revealed to be Alexis Denisof as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Charlize Theron as Sue Storm/Invisible Woman, John C. Reilly as Ben Grimm/The Thing and the late Paul Walker as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch. Tristan Patterson and Mark Frost ended up writing later drafts of the script, but it was ultimately Frost and Michael France (who wrote a stellar 1996 draft) who received credit on the final product released in 2005.
While fans feared the possibility of Fantastic Four being developed as “a sitcom” and “a bittersweet comedy” (as described by producer Avid Arad), Petrie’s screenplay finds the proper balance in adapting the comics to the medium of film. Dated February 22nd 2002, it is a solid mixture of action, adventure, comedy and drama without overdoing the humorous aspects of the characters. Indeed, it feels akin to a meta-fictional narrative on fame with elements of Spider-Man and X-Men.
The script starts with the robbery of a Brinks truck in downtown New York City. As the public watches excitedly, the Fantastic Four arrive and demonstrate their powers as they take down the robbers. Each member is given their moment to shine: Reed taking out the criminals, the Thing displaying brute strength, Johnny stopping a missile, Sue saving the crowd from hot liquid metal. Afterwards, the group takes off in the Fantasticar, complete with Johnny dropping autographed 6x8 photos of himself a la The Beatles’ A Hard Days’ Night. Within the first seven pages, Petrie presents the four protagonists as a team of heroes and a family, albeit an unusual one.
Upon returning to the Baxter Building, the four resume their usual family banter behind closed doors: debating about who has the best uniform, whether or not to order pizza and the question of their efforts as superheroes. Reed insists on the team training more, whereas Ben and Johnny continue to torment each other. In a hilarious sequence, a pizza delivery guy attempts to sneak a picture of their equipment for the media, but he is quickly cornered by Sue and escorted outside. Upon seeing a news story of their fateful space adventure, Reed becomes sullen and goes to work on his own, triggering a flashback as to how the Fantastic Four acquired their powers.
Eighteen months ago, Reed, Ben, Sue and Johnny blast off on the space shuttle Diana with physicist Victor von Doom, who is described as “Playboy Prince” of Latveria. The purpose of the mission is to harness the Particle Wave, a cluster of cosmic rays which they hope will replace fossil, nuclear and solar-fuelled energies. Upon encountering the rays, Reed and Victor fight over how to proceed with the mission. Reed wants Ben to turn the ship around, but Victor insists flying through the storm with a minimum amount of exposure. As they fight in zero-gravity, Reed throws Victor into the escape pod, which is jettisoned from the spacecraft seconds before it gets hit by the Particle Wave. The four astronauts are bathed in the radiation- described as “’The Perfect Storm’ in space”- before landing back on Earth.
As the Fantastic Four are making headlines, the plot switches over to Latveria, where Victor is revealed to have become Doctor Doom and overthrown the local government. Despite escaping the cosmic storm, he was badly burned while reentering the atmosphere and is forced to rely on the metal armor to keep himself together. In one of the more suspenseful scenes, Doom removes his mask for a boy who delivers a package to his castle fortress- revealing his handsome face to seemingly be unaffected. However, without the mask, his features begin to sag and melt, prompting him to kill the boy for merely seeing his face. The script reveals a flashback of the space disaster from Victor's point-of-view, in which the horror of his disfigurement is depicted.
Meanwhile, Reed continues work on a chamber that harnesses the power of the Particle Wave, which he hopes will remove their powers for good. The team comes under fire from their irritated landlord demanding rent money, government agents investigating Reed’s questionable experiments and the continued coverage by the media. Specifically, the agents find mechanical bugs that are made of the space shuttle’s technology, and the evidence appears to be pointing to Reed. Victor goes public by accusing Reed of deliberately exposing the team to radiation by flying into the Particle Wave. He appeals to Ben, Johnny and Sue and urges them to leave Mr. Fantastic’s controlling nature. The Fantastic Four disbands in the wake of the controversy. Desperate to become human again, Ben is manipulated by Doom into granting him access to Reed’s power chamber. It is up to the four friends to overcome their differences and stop their enemy.
Reed has the strong, central arc in Petrie’s script, and he is involved in a lot of the story’s more dramatic moments. Although the author writes him as being 40 years old, he appears to be a man of action and a gifted scientist. In contrast to the 2005 and 2007 films’ depiction of a brilliant yet timid man, this version of the character leads the charge into battle and makes good use of his knowledge. His guilt over the accident in space leaves him obsessed with changing Ben back to normal, and this leads to tense exchanges between the two friends.
Sue Storm is one of the most well written roles in the script. Still in her late 20s, she is assertive and confident in helping the team. Indeed, this incarnation is a far cry from the token female who had little to do in the comic’s early years. Petrie also gives her some of the best lines; for example, when Johnny and Ben question Reed’s codename, Sue responds by saying, “The man who can mold his body into any shape and have it stay that way as long as he wants? Trust me, he’s Mr. Fantastic.” When dealing with Reed’s workaholic tendencies, Sue makes it clear that she loves him, but she refuses to play housewife.
Johnny is very much in line with how he originated in the comics. Whereas the character was a headstrong teenager interested in cars, he is slightly older but possesses the same cockiness and carefree nature. However, his growth to maturity is more solidified in this script than the 2005 film. During an outing to a nightclub, he flirts with a young woman and takes her away from her boyfriend. Rather than fight him, the boyfriend reveals he would use the Human Torch’s abilities as a force for good, rather than showing off. It is a sobering moment for Johnny, who begins to consider the consequences of his behavior.
Of all the characters, it is The Thing who has the deepest story arc. After Reed electromagnetic test on Ben, it appears that he has been restored to his human self, but he painfully regresses to his Thing form, which resembles the reverse transformation in The Incredible Hulk. In a tragic moment of pathos, Ben responds to Sue’s attempts at comforting him by saying, “Ben is dead. I’m just a thing.” While drowning his sorrows at a local bar, he meets a woman who seems to be interested in him, but he is crushed upon learning she only spoke to him for the purpose of winning a bet. His relationship with blind sculptress Alicia Masters is one of the best aspects of the script. Ben feels like a monster but has his spirits lifted after helping out Alicia in a street fight. Sensing the goodness in him, Alicia urges Ben to get out of his depression, stating “You’re the only one who can decide who you’re gonna be.”
Doom is portrayed in a chilling, effective manner. Petrie claimed in interviews that he made Doom to be the “Pete Best” of the Fantastic Four- i.e- being left out of the accident that gave them powers and fame. When he is introduced in the flashback sequence, he is shown to undermine Reed’s authority by insisting on flying through the cosmic storm. Victor strongly believes that achieving strength comes through isolation, which separates him from Reed. As the monarch of Latveria, he is capable of manipulating the team members via the media and his own. This depiction of Doom is more of a cunning and sinister type than the 2005 version, in which he tries to destroy the Fantastic Four with no real motivation.
In terms of action, the script is mainly concerned with the Fantastic Four's family dynamics, and there are no epic set pieces that demonstrate their awesome abilities. Aside from the previously mentioned heist opener, The Thing has a large fight scene with the Yancy Street Gang that results in a school being demolished. Having been rumored to become a Pyro-type character, Johnny Storm does fully “flame on” as the Human Torch and has several flying sequences throughout the film. These range from a nighttime flight while being chased by the NYPD to an impromptu departure from an interview with Kathy Couric on The Today Show. Finally, the last twenty pages of the script features a climatic battle with Doctor Doom, and it is significantly larger than the finale of the Tim Story film. Indeed, one can see elements of Petrie's draft in the 2005 movie, such as Reed's creation of the chamber to reverse the storm, Doom manipulating Ben, Ben having to make a decision of being human or the Thing, and the street fight between the four and Doom.
Looking at this script, would it have been a successful film? The answer would have to be a definite yes. Clocking in at a brisk 121 pages, Petrie’s screenplay gives the four protagonists ample screen time and character development to grow, something that was lacking in the X-Men film franchise. It is disappointing that Peyton Reed never got to make the Fantastic Four movie he wanted, but comic fans are fortunate to read what might have been.