In 1988, when I heard that Michael Keaton was going to play Batman, I was not immediately outraged – I just thought, “Hmm, that’s a really odd choice that doesn’t seem quite right.” I had more faith in Tim Burton than some, as his first two features were and are two of my all-time favorites. But Keaton? The big fear was that because he was known primarily for comedies, this upcoming Batman movie – that would be the definitive cinematic Batman movie in a way that Richard Donner’s was the definitive cinematic Superman – was going to be comedic. And Batman comics fans, who had just devoured The Dark Knight Returns on the page, were really sick of people thinking that “DA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA BATMAN!” was the truest adaptation of the character. It wasn’t that we thought Keaton couldn’t act – Clean and Sober had proven indisputably that he could – but that we worried his casting was a clue to a tone we didn’t want.
Batman ’89 certainly wasn’t campy, at least not by the standards of the time. I had my issues with it, but it was a step forward for showing the non-comic-reading public that Batman could be interpreted many different ways, and it was closer to the Batman I knew, even if it wasn’t quite close enough in some respects.
Flash forward to last year and Ben Affleck being cast as the new Batman. I did not think it was a good choice, as I don’t generally think Affleck is a good actor. But I don’t have to. Christian Bale in The Dark Knight already portrayed “my” Batman. Val Kilmer was pretty close to exactly how I envisioned Bruce Wayne. I even love Adam West now, and for the absolute purists, Mask of the Phantasm is still the best Bat-film. But the point is that for most people, there already is a best one. Gotham by Gaslight could be the next Bat-film these days, but nobody would have wanted it to be the FIRST one.
The Fantastic Four, who were a bigger part of my young childhood than Batman (who frankly bored me back then because he had no powers; I only became a fan as a teen), have had THREE live-action movies. A fourth is on the way. Yet I don’t know a single person who can say that “their” Fantastic Four is onscreen, in the same way that Bat-fans can find at least one Batman movie that works for them. Reed Richards has signature graying temples, yet every movie has cast actors with obviously painted hair. I enjoyed the Tim Story films for what they were – they captured a fun tone that in the pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe era was rare – yet I’m not oblivious to the fact that they have issues, particularly Julian McMahon as a singularly un-menacing Dr. Doom.
The issue with the new one, which commenters here and elsewhere have jokingly described as “grimdark,” is not that someone is trying a new take on the Fantastic Four. It’s that nobody has ever really tried to get the old take correct first. We want goofy cosmic rays, Ben Grimm as a New Yawk big lug, flights in the Fantasticar, and hell, even a cameo from Herbie the robot. Most of all, we want Dr. Doom – arguably the most recognizable arch-villain in the whole Marvel universe – as a foreign monarch megalomaniac, and not just a science nerd who gets angry.
Yes, people complain about the casting, and some proportion of that may be racists who simply hate Michael B. Jordan. For me, the real issue with him is not that Johnny is black, but that Sue isn’t as well – it sends a message that the filmmakers are okay with a black man being a hothead, but his sister cannot also be black if she is to be the beautiful love interest for the white hero, so let’s bend over backwards to establish they’re now half-siblings. Seriously, is Kate Mara significantly for better box office than, say, Tessa Thompson?
I have more of an issue with Jamie Bell – taking a character who is quintessentially a big, American jock and casting a skinny English kid seems almost perversely contrarian. Bell may turn out fine, and Jordan and Mara are good actors, so I doubt the performances will be a problem in the end. But the way they go out of the way to be different is what’s problematic for FF fans, especially in age – Reed Richards, to me, is the cooler-head, mature guy in the comics (the father figure in this makeshift family), and while Miles Teller is great in other films, nothing about him thus far shows me any of that.
Yes, the Ultimates had them younger. Fine. And yes, characters like Nick Fury in the movies have gone the Ultimates route, which is more excusable because (a) we all love Samuel L. Jackson, and (b) aside from the eyepatch and cigar, most casual comics fans probably don’t know a whole lot about classic Nick Fury beyond the fact that he’s an agent of SHIELD. Via cartoons, however, the Fantastic Four have been available to us for years (although we’ve tried to forget the solo Thing cartoons that have him transforming from a nerdy kid via a magic ring, an interpretation that would suit Jamie Bell just fine).
Josh Trank’s trailer piques my curiosity for an alternate-reality, Christopher Nolan-like take on the Fantastic Four, but I’m not alone in having wanted the gang as I know them to have gotten a great movie before a radically different take. This version pushes any likelihood of that hypothetical classic film further and further away…and THAT, dear mainstream pundits, is why so many fans are upset*, to the extent that they are (again, there probably are a handful of racists, but we’re better off all ignoring them). As far as I’m concerned, the 4 could all be black, or Asian – since these movies aren’t star-driven anyway, why not? – but I’d prefer it if they could be the characters I grew up with in every other way, and it really doesn’t look like that’s happening.
At least until they reboot the property again in five more years.
[* yes, I know some are upset that it’s a movie made to hold on to the rights, but my feeling on that is that the trailer shows us at the very least, it isn’t half-assing anything]