Thursday Comics Hangover: The Fantastic Four and the problem with adaptations

Usually, this column is about new comics I bought on Wednesday. But last night I went to a press screening for the Fantastic Four movie that opens tomorrow, and I want to talk about that for a bit instead. (If you're looking for a straight-up movie review, you can read my review at Prairie Dog.)

The first 102 issues of the Fantastic Four by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee are basically the template for every adventure comic book that came after: big sci-fi ideas, big discoveries, comic relief, and personal drama. Not every issue is a classic — Tomazooma the Living Totem wasn't the huge character find of 1968 — but the whole run is quite impressive.

So since there's already a blueprint out there clearly explaining what the Fantastic Four should be, why is it so incredibly hard to make a Fantastic Four movie? Why has every Fantastic Four adaptation been a bust? (Some people like to insist that The Incredibles is a good Fantastic Four movie, but that's not quite right. The Incredibles gets the family dynamic right, but they're superheroes. The Fantastic Four are sci-fi adventurers. It's an important distinction to make, because it's an entirely different motivation.)

What we're talking about here is a problem of adaptation. Everyone knows adaptation is tough; you can't just take a comic and duplicate it onto a movie screen (though Zack Snyder certainly tried during the making of Watchmen.) It's almost a cliche at this point to suggest that what doesn't go into an adaptation is just as important as what does. But it's true.

The new Fantastic Four movie is outright terrible; it replaces the optimistic post-Kennedy vibe of the comics with a dour fear of being different. So why can filmmakers create wonderful, fairly faithful adaptations of Captain America and Batman, but nobody is able to toss the Fantastic Four up on a screen? It's not because of the corny name.

Maybe the answer has to do with the fact that the Fantastic Four is a family, and modern blockbusters don't have the patience to depict families beyond the typical Spielbergian fathers-and-sons-are-magical dross. Weirdly, the only time I ever see families depicted with any complexity during blockbuster season is in Pixar movies like Inside Out and the aforementioned The Incredibles; maybe nuanced portrayals of human beings is kid's stuff?

Or maybe the Fantastic Four would be better-recieved if they were on television. Special effects on a TV budget might be tough, but if you want to watch male and female characters interacting in a non-sexual way, you're much better off on TV than you are in a movie theater.

Maybe there's something else that I'm missing. Maybe the gee-whiz scientific appeal of early Fantastic Four comics has worn off through the years. But frankly, I don't think so. It's true that the widespread adoption of smartphones has changed the idea of what science fiction means, but a good Fantastic Four story should happily embrace new technology and offer bizarre new ways to surpass the technology we've already grown to rely upon.

Or maybe part of the problem is that the Fantastic Four, when you look deep down in their souls, are happy people? Any idiot can tell a story about a miserable superhero, but it takes a special kind of talent to tell an interesting story about good-natured, positive people. As sad as it sounds, miserable sells itself but happy, in the wrong hands, bores us to tears.

Rather than supporting yet another bad adaptation, I'd encourage you to track down the first 102 issues of the Fantastic Four and read them. Those stories might not resemble the world around you right now, but they sure do look like the world you'd like to see outside your window.