Fantastic Four was the big superhero misfire of 2015. It killed the hopes for a franchise reboot, threw Josh Trank in director’s jail, and only succeeded in helping 20th Century Fox hold on to the rights to the characters.
But it didn’t have to be this way. While we’re still untangling the why and how of Fantastic Four’s wreckage, if we go all the way back to the earliest drafts of the script, we can see a very different picture emerge. Jeremy Slater, who was the first screenwriter to be hired for Fantastic Four, spoke to Screen Crush about what his original vision for the film was. Slater wrote about 10-15 drafts of the screenplay, and says he was an “ubernerd” brought into balance Trank’s more grounded approach to the story.
Slater says that while the overall outline remains the same, what changed over time was the structure and tone (only one line of Slater’s screenplay made it to the final cut: young Reed Richards saying, “Don’t blow up.”). For example, both Slater’s screenplay and the finished film have young characters going to the Baxter Foundation, but in the finished film, it’s never really explained what the Baxter Foundation is. If it’s a school, why are there no classes or teachers? And why do most of the students seem to be in their late 20s? In Slater’s screenplay, the Baxter Foundation “was envisioned as a sort of Hogwarts for nerds: a school filled with young geniuses zipping around on prototype hoverboards and experimenting with anti-gravity and teleportation and artificial lifeforms.” The young Reed would befriend a “‘damaged young Latverian scientist’ named Victor, who ‘slowly seduced Reed into bending the rules,’ damaging his friendship with Ben.”
There’s still a portal that sends the kids to an alternate dimension (dubbed the “Negative Zone” in Slater’s draft as opposed to the “Planet Zero” of the finished film):
where they would have fought Annihilus (described by Slater as “a pissed-off cybernetic T-Rex”). Annihilus appears to kill Victor, and the rest get zapped with radiation on their return home. giving them their powers. Later, Victor returns from the Negative Zone, “having killed Annihilus and reshaped his Control Rod into a sort of living body armor.”
Slater says he liked the stuff with “lots of humor, lots of heart, lots of spectacle,” while Trank preferred something “grounded, gritty, and as realistic as possible.” And while these events basically take up the entirety of Trank’s movie with a rushed third act climax, Slater’s draft had a lot more material that was far more faithful to the comics:
In addition to Annihilus and the Negative Zone, we had Doctor Doom declaring war against the civilized world, the Mole Man unleashing a 60 foot genetically-engineered monster in downtown Manhattan, a commando raid on the Baxter Foundation, a Saving Private Ryan-style finale pitting our heroes against an army of Doombots in war-torn Latveria, and a post-credit teaser featuring Galactus and the Silver Surfer destroying an entire planet. We had monsters and aliens and Fantasticars and a cute spherical H.E.R.B.I.E. robot that was basically BB-8 two years before BB-8 ever existed. And if you think all of that sounds great…well, yeah, we did, too. The problem was, it would have also been massively, MASSIVELY expensive.
For his part, Slater doesn’t hold any ill will towards Trank or the studio, and he understands the studio economics at play:
“Would you spend $300 million on a Fantastic Four film?” he asked. “Particularly after the previous two films left a fairly bad taste in audiences’ mouths? … It’s understandable that everyone involved would take steps to minimize their risk as much as possible. Unfortunately, those steps probably compromised the film to a fatal degree.”
While it will always be nice to imagine “What If?” with Slater’s screenplay, perhaps one day down the road someone will take another shot at Fantastic Four, and this time they’ll try following the more lighthearted path Slater laid out rather than the dark and gritty one attempted by Trank.