(Not So) FANTASTIC FOUR Adaptations 3: Michael Chabon, THE FOX Films & ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT??

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Welcome to the conclusion of our look back at some of the many takes on Marvel’s Fantastic Four – and for this final installment, we take a look at a couple not-so-official adaptations, including one that never made it to the screen, and a bizarre parody from a cult sitcom.

Also, the actual Fantastic Four movies from the early 2000s. They are actually less entertaining than the non-official stuff.

Michael Chabon FF treatment page 1
Michael Chabon FF treatment page 1
Credit: Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s Fantastic Four Treatment (1995)

It’s always fascinating to see how cinematic adaptations of classic characters might have turned out with different talents behind the scenes. That’s why it was particularly cool when we found a PDF of the treatment for a Fantastic Four movie by Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Chabon’s contributed to a number of genre screenplays (fun game: start a nerd fight by insisting John Carter is a misunderstood work!), and a hardcore comic book fan who’s done treatments and drafts for several other Marvel films, including Spider-Man 2 and X-Men. So we were very interested to get a sense of how an FF movie plotted by him might have worked.

Michael Chabon FF treatment page 2
Michael Chabon FF treatment page 2
Credit: Michael Chabon

In a three-page memo to Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures, Chabon pitches a fairly radical version of the FF – they take place in a world where “even in 1995, it is always November 21, 1963.” Citing the famously subversive melodrama director Douglas Sirk, whose films satirized the values of the 1950s through their deliberately artificial nature, Chabon proposes the FF’s universe as a bright place filled with wonder, albeit one where "the Commies" are still a menace.

The plot would involve Dr. Doom using his time machine to remove a “key life” responsible for this world being the way it is, which would effectively transform everything into…well, our world. Meanwhile, in a subplot, Sue Storm is having doubts about losing her identity by marrying Reed Richards, but an attempted brainwashing by the Commies leads to her developing her full powers and kicking some butt.

Michael Chabon FF treatment page 3
Michael Chabon FF treatment page 3
Credit: Michael Chabon

This more stylized take on the FF would have been more palatable around 1995; at that time, Tim Burton’s Batman and their sequels had established a precedent where superhero/comic book related movies were heavily based around production design and deliberately artificial universes. After the blowback against the campy Batman and Robin in 1997, these types of movies were based in a more recognizable “reality,” but at that time, it wasn’t unusual for a superhero film to be a period piece – look at The Phantom (Slam Evil!) or The Rocketeer.

Chabon’s FF film sounds like something in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – a colorful, over-the-top world threatened by “our” reality. Would it have worked? We’ll never know, but it’s an intriguing idea.

Interestingly, director Peyton Reed (Bring it On), who did a similar period piece parody with Down With Love, was once in talks to do a FF movie…and as you know, he’s now directing Ant-Man for Marvel Studios. It all comes around. We haven’t found any FF pitch by Reed online, but we’d be curious to read it if a similar document exists.

But a decade after Chabon’s treatment, the Fantastic Four finally got a big-budget studio film released in theaters…

Fantastic Four (Feature Film, 2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

After more than four decades of trying and one false start, the Fantastic Four finally made it to the big screen in the wake of multiple other Marvel films. And it was…enough to get a sequel and be run frequently on basic cable.

Look, it kind of suffered because The Incredibles came out the previous fall, and how great a Fantastic Four movie was that?

Retelling the FF’s origin yet again, the first film updates the “beat the Commies into space!” premise to involve a space station, which gets hit by cosmic rays and also mutates Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who’s funding the thing, into an electricity-shooting metal guy. Strangely, his face is not that affected.

The sequel features Doom again, along with Laurence Fishburne as the Silver Surfer, a big “Galactus” cloud, and Andre Braugher as an army guy the FF runs up against. Also, Jessica Alba ostensibly got more to do as Sue Storm, at least according to pre-publicity, but it wasn’t that much.

Directed by Tim Story, who’s better known for comedy (Think Like a ManRide Along), the two FF films (the first co-written by Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, and the second co-written by the late Don Payne, a former Simpsons writer who also helped write the two Thor films and several episodes of The Simpsons) alternate between “ugh, this isn’t a very good variation on the comics” and “could be worse.”

The Thing is kind of a weird design, though it’s closer to how the appeared early in the comics. Julian McMahon has the right look and creepiness for Victor Von Doom, but the Norman Osborn-meets-Darth Vader-type take on the character doesn’t actually seem like an evil genius. Galactus, as mentioned, is a big cloud, though they at least hint there’s giant armored guy inside there. And so on.

Also, Alicia Masters is played by Kerry Washington. She had to pay some serious dues before Scandal. Insert sarcastic joke about no one complaining about this character being recast with an African-American actor here.

There’s sort of an odd, quippy tone to these movies – almost every scene has some kind of joke or one-liner to it, and a sort of random “let’s get to the next plot point” structure, which isn’t that unusual for most superhero and/or action films, but feels especially…weightless here. A “Cinema Sins” trailer for the first film sums it up best: “We secretly replaced all your character development with gut-busting inside jokes!”

For example, second film has a bit where Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd, now on ABC’s Forever) gives a pretty good smackdown to some military guys about how they probably used to bully guys like him in school, and now he’s a famous superhero engaged to Jessica Alba, er, Sue Storm.  Not a bad speech, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie! It comes out of nowhere and has little payoff, which is sort of how these films feel – a lot of moments and special effects sequences that don’t add up to a coherent story.

Look, they’re just kind of lame; feel free to disagree in the comments! That’s why there’s an Internet. Pretty much everyone in front of and behind the camera in this one has been more successful elsewhere, most notably Chris Evans, who had much more luck in the Marvel Universe as Captain America.

You know what that means, right? Reboot!

But first…

Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes (Cartoon Network Animated Series, 2005)

Blink and you missed this series – it aired for all of eight episodes in 2005 before being pulled. Some of its remaining episodes returned in 2007, but bouncing around the schedule and networks never got it much of an audience. It’s now online for free courtesy of Marvel itself – you can watch the episodes starting here on YouTube.

Launched in the wake of the 2005 film, the Cartoon Network series ignored most of the film’s changes, and used an anime-influenced look that combined traditional cel animation with CGI backgrounds and figures.

We’ll be blunt: Johnny Storm’s hair is terrifying.

A number of Marvel names contributed scripts and stories to the series, including Dan Slott, animation veteran Christopher Yost and Avi Arad. Like a lot of cartoon shows from around this time, there’s some fun writing that is often overshadowed by the hyperactive visuals, with the CGI often distracting from the story and voice acting.

It’s sort of a weird attempt to do a more modern, contemporary take on the old-school superheroics of the FF, and while we give some props for not relying as heavily on rehashing of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby stories as the other animated series, it’s just kind of okay at best.

And while our next entry isn’t technically a Fantastic Four movie or TV series, it is still one of the more entertaining things on our list.

Arrested Development (2013)

The Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie received a surprisingly elaborate multi-episode homage in the fourth season of the cult comedy Arrested Development. Noted actor and analyst/therapist (or, as he regrettably abbreviated it, “analrapist”) Dr. Tobias Fünke (David Cross) tried to make a new start (or, as he regrettably announced it on a vanity license plate, “ANUSTART”) when he hooked up with former actress/addict DeBrie Bardeaux (Maria Bamford) at a methadone clinic he thought was an acting clinic called “Method One.”

As it turned out, DeBrie had played the Invisible Girl in an FF film quickly made by director (and Arrested Development producer) Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment to prevent the rights from lapsing (Howard, it should be added, got his break directing feature films from…Roger Corman).

Technically, DeBrie had just been a member of the catering staff hastily cast in the last-minute movie, but the eternally-optimistic Tobias felt this was a sign that he could take his acting career to the next (read: any) level and re-launch DeBrie’s by having them do public appearances as the Thing and the Invisible Girl (well, first Tobias was “The Human Flamer”).

Sadly, this only resulted in Tobias and DeBrie receiving multiple cease and desist requests from Marvel, and Tobias being arrested by John Beard’s To Entrap a Local Predator: Orange County Edition: Super Creeps due to a poorly-worded phone call to his daughter Maeby involving his costume where he explained he needed help with “his Thing” and “getting his rocks off.”

Things (so to speak) looked up when Tobias found himself in a work-release program at Lucille Austero’s “Austerity” rehabilitation clinic with DeBrie, and quickly put together a stage musical version of the Fantastic Four as a vehicle for her and a project for the other patients.

Despite boasting such star power as Andy Richter’s identical quintuplet Emmett Richter, Tobias’ mother-in-law Lucille as Latverian comics villainess Lucia von Bardas and baby-faced singer Mark Cherry (not to be confused with baby-faced Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry), the production at the annual “Cinco De Cuartro” celebration proved a miserable failure, with the eight-minute-long musical losing most of its stars and being drowned out by various political upheavals, possible murder, and other Arrested Development-type chaos.

It was still better than most of the adaptations on this list.

scene from Arrested Development
scene from Arrested Development

Interestingly, one of the process servers who shut down Tobias and DeBrie’s street act was played by…Josh Trank, who’s now directing the new FF movie. We asked Marvel about this and their thoughts on the parody back when these episodes came out, and got a “no comment.”

In an interview with VultureArrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz said the inspiration for the parody came in part from him seeing the four Bluth siblings in Arrested Development as sort of like the dysfunctional family of the Fantastic Four. “And I liked the idea of having rocks all over Tobias.”

Now you know.

We recognize we devoted more space to this than the actual FF cartoon, but this was pretty damn entertaining.

What’s your favorite Fantastic Four adaptation? Sound off below!

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