Josh Trank's Original Fantastic Four Pitch Is Filled With Missed Opportunities

We are more than 20 years removed from 2000's "X-Men" opening up the door for Hollywood's ongoing obsession with superhero movies. Yes, "Blade" cracked the door open in 1998, but true mainstream success followed with Marvel's mutants two years later — and Sam Raimi would truly break the whole thing wide open in 2002 with "Spider-Man." By 2015, we were a decade and a half into the superhero boom and the time for attempted reinvention was upon us, and that attempted reinvention came from director Josh Trank taking a stab at bringing Marvel's first family to life in "Fantastic Four."

The film wound up being a remarkable disaster of epic proportions, with it ranking as one of the worst-reviewed superhero movies of the modern era and the dreadful box office returns to go along with it. The movie's reputation is cemented in stone. But it didn't have to be this way, as Trank's original idea for the film, at least on paper, seemed pretty compelling and leads us to believe there were some majorly missed opportunities that were abandoned (or killed) somewhere along the line.

A fascinating pitch on paper

At the time, Trank was coming off of the found-footage hit "Chronicle" which was, itself, a dark superhero movie of sorts. He had built a good relationship with Fox and it had been several years since the release of "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." With the "X-Men" franchise riding high following the release of "Days of Future Past," and with "Deadpool" just around the corner, the time came for the studio to turn to the other Marvel franchise it controlled. 

Speaking with the Los Angeles times around the movie's release, Trank explained his original pitch to then-Fox President of Production, Emma Watts.

"I got on the phone with [Fox president of production] Emma Watts and she asked me if I like Fantastic Four. I said, 'I love Fantastic Four, and I actually have an idea if you're open.' I pitched her a movie where we'd make the science modern and the accident where they get their powers would play out as a horror scene. In high school, I wrote Cronenberg-inspired short films about people in a hospital with telekinetic powers. This movie felt like an opportunity to explore this canvas that I've always dreamt of."

While the "Fantastic Four" are colorful and often thought of as somewhat lighter on the scales of darkness when it comes to superheroes, what Trank proposes here is a valid interpretation of the source material, and one that reads the group's origin as truly horrific. 

Producer Simon Kinberg boarded the project on the strength of that pitch. He said:

"The thing that really hooked me was: What would the honest reaction be if you suddenly didn't have control over your body anymore – if you were uncontrollably on fire or invisible or you were a rock creature? That just seemed so original in a genre that it's hard to be original in. We ended up talking for an hour or so, and then I called Emma back and said,'I'm in.'"

Not the way it worked out

And that was that. Trank boarded the reboot with a longtime "X-Men" producer in his corner to go along with a fresh take on one of the biggest comic book properties out there. Unfortunately, the movie we got only brought out shades of what Trank had in mind. Admittedly, I write this with only foggy memories of the film many of us saw and were puzzled by in the summer of 2015. The tale of Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) proved to be dark, yes, but lacking the intrigue contained within that pitch as laid out by the filmmaker.

That pitch — a superpowered family by way of David Cronenberg — is more memorable than the movie that hit theaters that summer. The cardinal sin of 2015's "Fantastic Four" as it exists is that it is largely unmemorable, serving as a dark and gritty reboot for the sake of being dark and gritty, something many films did in the wake of "The Dark Knight." Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and The Thing don't leave an impression, and neither does Doctor Doom, as portrayed by Toby Kebbell. Great characters left to languish in a painfully average studio-created monster of a blockbuster.

The infamous deleted tweet

So, what might Trank's original vision look like? What if he had been able to maximize that horror juxtaposed against the notion of great power and responsibility? We'll never know, but the filmmaker has strongly hinted that the movie we got was not the movie he wanted to make. In a since-deleted tweet posted around the time of the film's original release, the filmmaker said the following:

"A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would've received great reviews. You'll probably never see it. That's reality though."

So it is, and we're left to ponder what a sci-fi horror picture through the Marvel Comics lens might have been.

Fantastic Four is getting another shot, but not like this

The good news is that the folks at Marvel Studios are readying a "Fantastic Four" reboot that will bring the characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel president Kevin Feige and Co. have a tremendous track record and we have every reason to believe that this very well could be the best adaptation of the landmark comic to date. That having been said, there is precisely zero chance that we're going to get a version that even remotely resembles what Trank had in mind when he first signed on the dotted line to make his movie.

Sure, Marvel is dabbling with horror these days, what with "Moon Knight," the upcoming "Blade" reboot, moments within "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," and even a "Werewolf by Night" Halloween special on Disney+. But there is no way they're going to go full-on sci-fi Cronenberg with a property such as this. But honestly, more than 20 years into the superhero movie boom, big swings such as that sound increasingly refreshing. It's why movies like "Logan" feel so special when they do come along, because superhero movies play it safe far too often, and often not for the better.

But that ship has sailed and it's time for Marvel Studios to offer their tried-and-true brand of safe to Reed Richards and the gang. It will probably be fun, and it will probably make a lot of money, but it won't turn a man with devastating firepower or an unwitting rock monster into the horror show that very well could be. That much is all but certain.