So I think we can all agree that we’ve got four terrible Fantastic Four movies under our belts. Everyone on board? Yay! These movies are all unwatchable for different reasons: bad effects, terrible writing, stupid villains, nonsensical plots … But I believe there is one thing holding back a potentially great Fantastic Four movie that every one of these films shares.
Reed Richards is an asshole.
That’s it. He’s not a nice guy, or even pleasant. You could make an argument that he’s often not even very moral. Reed is kind of a jerk, and an all around piece. Stop trying to make Mr. Fantastic seem so, well, one dimensionally fantastic.
Note that I didn’t say he’s a bad guy. He’s not — Reed Richards is, at the end of the day, a good guy, in the comic book sense of the word, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good man.
Marvel likes to define its anti heroes as being guys like The Punisher or Wolverine. Dudes that murder criminals and bad guys with guns and claws but it’s OK because they’re noble, or have their reasons, and look really cool when they smoke. And that’s super boring, and super restrictive to storytelling.
Do I wear skulls because I’m an anti hero or am I an anti hero because I wear skulls?
What makes an antihero is much more gray than “is sort of a Canadian Dexter with a healing factor.” For instance, a guy who greenlights his own family to test drive a trip to another dimension (or take a cosmic ray bath if you’re nasty) because to him, somewhere in his super brain, scientific progress is more important than the safety of the people he loves, is a damn antihero.
The fact that Reed is the only intellectual equal of a guy named Dr. Doom isn’t a throwaway fact. It tells you everything you need to know about Mr. Fantastic. Both men are terrifyingly brilliant, and you’ve got to understand and accept that there’s a lot of overlap in the Richards/Doom Venn Diagram where they are basically the same guy.
It’s like looking at Ryu and Ken!
But these movies keep trying to portray him as a bland good guy, and that’s completely boring. Have you ever met an uncomfortably smart person who values logic over emotion? They’re not easy to get along with. In fact, sometimes it’s impossible, but you get through it because you’re friends, or you’re family. That’s just the way it is, even if cutting ties might be easier. That’s a family dynamic.
Fantastic Four movies keep trying to push the idea that they’re a family, but they keep leaving the dynamic out of family dynamics, and it all starts with Reed Richards: Reed is a brilliant but insufferable bastard, but Sue loves him. Why does Sue love this guy? What is it in her personality that draws her to Reed? Does she believe his intellect can make the world a better place and that the ends justify the means? She’s easily the most powerful person in the group, and yet she defers to this piece of egotistical hot garbage. Why? It’s got to drive her brother insane to see the way Reed treats her, and really burn his ego when Reed acts superior to him. And let’s not forget Reed’s childhood best friend that’s stuck with him through thick and thin, knowing full well that not only is the guy capable of being a monster — Reed Richards literally turned him into a monster.
They should all bail, but they can’t. Sue is scared that without her, Reed falls even further into himself. Torch can’t leave because deep down he doesn’t trust Reed to not Doom-out on his sister, his nieces and nephews, and the world. Thing can’t leave because he’s Reed’s only friend, and he has to hope that somehow Reed can fix him. And that’s not even getting into the idea of them being a super-powered family. Forget stretching and force fields and fire and rock skin. This is a fascinating family dynamic.
People complain about Sue Storm being this outdated character that’s subordinate to men, and that’s how she’s always portrayed. I would argue that she is an old-fashioned, subordinate character, but these movies never play up the reason: That Reed Richards is, at his worst, an oppressive, borderline psychologically abusive husband. I personally think it’s fascinating that Sue Storm, one of the most powerful people on the planet, chooses to ‘yes dear’ this guy. Why does she do it? What’s holding her back? Why was Skyler able to finally walk away from Walter White while Sue can’t abandon Reed?
Johnny Storm is a hot headed show off that shouldn’t have a care in the world. He should be off making movies or making out with Kardashians and just being a generally self absorbed party monster, but he’s not. Is it because he can turn into a fire person and has a responsibility to save the world? No. Fantastic Four isn’t about saving the world first. It’s about family first, and it’s family that binds The Human Torch to this group. He’s got to be there for his sister. For his nieces and nephews. Because while he sees the good Reed Richards is capable of, he’s seen the bad. Reed Richards can protect the world from Galactus, but he can’t protect his wife from himself. That’s Johnny Storm’s job.
So what about Ben Grimm, the ‘ever loving Thing?’ His old stupid sounding nickname is actually a very important clue: He loves Reed. Since they day they met, for whatever reason, Ben got Reed on a level that no one else did, but also recognized that Reed needed his help. After all, Reed was an Einstein level genius when he was ten years old. Social situations and day-to-day charisma were not going to be his expertise, or his concern. And that, Ben Grimm decided, is where he came in. Ben would be that shield Reed Richards needed. He would be the charisma, and the muscle to watch Reed’s back. Grimm was the guy that would smile apologetically at the diner waiter and say ‘just a couple of coffees and a pie please’ after Reed unloads on the server for interrupting his train of thought.
And that’s been his job ever since, even after Reed Richards turned him into an orange rock monster. It’s why he and Johnny always pick at each other: Johnny thinks Ben is an idiot for sticking up for the guy, and Ben sort of sees Johnny as the kind of guy he needed to shield Reed from at frat parties. But how far can Ben take this? He’s lost everything to Reed. How much is left in the friendship tank?
And that leaves us with the big wanker himself. Why isn’t Reed just another Dr. Doom? What in his brain zigged when it could have zagged that didn’t make him a monster? What’s it like being the smartest guy in the room and not be able to process the idea that maybe seeing your son is more important than the experiment in the lab? A guy that has visited distant stars but can’t sit at a bar and have a beer with his friends? He obviously loves Sue, but what does love mean to a guy that probably can’t quantify the logic of it? Is he in pain knowing that he’s the anchor of his family’s dysfunction? Can he even afford to feel that pain when he knows there’s a ticking clock on when the next weird disaster strikes? Can we as an audience bring ourselves to empathize?
So now take those relationships and make them a super powered team that has to defend the world from an alien invasion. Throw everything you can at the weaknesses in their bonds, and we’ll see what makes their family strong. We’ll see what makes them interesting.
It just makes one choice for a writer to start to see the world they’re building unfold, and the choice that has always driven The Fantastic Four at their best is that Reed Richards is a total tool.
Plus I just don’t understand how you cast Miles Teller in that role and not have a Eureka moment about what’s missing from your script. I mean, just look at that guy’s face.
Look at it.