Thursday, April 2, 2015

Concerns before the 2015 "Fantastic Four" film adaptation

Fun fact: in Portugese, Doctor Doom is called 'Doutor Destino.'

Apart from the fact that it simply doesn't look like it's going to be very good, I'm reasonably convinced that the next attempt to realise Marvel's First Family on the silver screen is going to be little more successful than the one before. We already know that the reason this is going ahead is largely so that Fox can avoid losing its film option, which makes this 2015 production in some respects a high-budget reiteration of the 1994 ashcan copy which, if anyone's seen it, occupies an uneasy space between "so bad it's good" and "actually just very bad." The best thing that can be said of that rare cinematic experience is that Doctor Doom's costume is quite good, although the actor, Mister Joseph Culp, is partially muffled by the mask. Did they not put a microphone inside? Anyway, it's Doom I wanted to talk about.

Sorting out the Fantastic Four themselves is never going to be a huge stretch of the imagination for filmmakers. Inevitably, Reed will be the stretchy smart guy who lacks certain social graces or takes life too seriously, Sue is the strong core of the group who can turn invisible and project force fields, Johnny is a hot head who can fly and set himself on fire and Ben is the tormented one who's been turned into a monster. I'm not saying that's all there is to the characters, but that's what filmmakers are going to see.

The reason why Doom works in the best of the comics, and the reason why he's never worked in a film, is because he functions most successfully as a dark reflection of the Fantastic Four: a Jungian shadow or nemesis figure, as attested on the website The Great American Novel which analyses the comics from the 60s to the 80s. Doom is never used this way in the films, and as such he doesn't work at all. To be specific, Doom reflects each of the four heroes individually and as a whole:
  1. Like Reed, Doom is an intellectual, but he is not a purely rational character. He supplements his scientific expertise and technological resources with magic, injecting an element of superstition into the framework. The fact that Reed does not dwell on his own genius is also reflected by Doom's arrogance and pride.
  2. Sue's conviction and strength of character are reflected by Doom's stubbornness, obsessive nature and warped code of honour.
  3. Johnny's extroversion and passionate, energetic behaviour is shadowed by Doom's grandiosity and his short temper (as well as his showy costume).
  4. Like Ben, Doom is deeply insecure about his appearance, but while Ben tends to confront the world openly and dares the world to react, Doom hides behind a mask and an elaborate costume intended to inspire dread and awe.
  5. The Fantastic Four are intrinsically a family. Doom is ultimately alone, emphasised by his tendency to surround himself with robot duplicates made in his own image. His closest confidant, his seneschal Boris, fears him, his adopted son Kristoff is forced to become him in case of emergencies, and his childhood sweetheart, Valeria, rejected him when she discovered what a tyrant he had become as an adult.
  6. The Fantastic Four are something of a capitalist-democratic success story, embodying how hard work, talent and a little luck could allow one to achieve prosperity, freedom and happiness (apart from all the villain-fighting). Doom is an autocrat who used his skills to seize control of his homeland and rule it. How benevolent Doom is seems to depend very much on the author, but Doom contrasts to the Four in that while their lives are about gaining power over themselves and their own lives, Doom is interested in power over other people.
I'm not claiming to have some particular insight into the character of Doctor Doom that other people lack, but I think that gives at least a sense of why Doom is so successful in artistic terms as the archenemy and sometime begrudging ally of the Fantastic Four. Obviously the reason he's been a villain in other comics, the Avengers and the like, is because he looks cool, is powerful and has reasonably clear motivations, but that's why Doom works in the best Fantastic Four comics.

The reason why Doom doesn't work in adaptations is because they always change him to such an extent that he becomes irrelevant. In the 1994 ashcan he wants the FF's powers because he believes that the cosmic radiation, which he was studying in the film with Reed, should have been experienced by him but the accident got in the way. In the 2005 film he's made similarly irrelevant because, like his form in the Ultimate Comics, he actually gains powers in the same way as the FF, in the same incident, which means that instead of being a reflection of them, he just is one of them, but evil. One facet of Doom's character which also makes him an effective foil to the Four in the comics is that he doesn't have powers, but has gained power through his study of science and magic. As a combatant, Doom is basically the same as Iron Man, a human being in a powered suit of armour that can fly and shoot lasers out of his hands. The FF are about dealing with and managing the powers they received by accident, while Doom is focused on giving himself more power intentionally.
Approved by the Comics Code Authority.

Doom also doesn't work in the 2005 film because he has no motivation beyond revenge. While Doom in the comics is partially motivated by transferred self-loathing which manifests as resentment towards Reed, a major part of his characterisation is that he desires rulership, initially over the world and later merely over Latveria so that he may order it. In the 2005 film I suppose you could say that Doom represents, however blandly, the corporate world which only values profit while Reed represents purely scientific academia, but it's hardly borne out through the film. He is also motivated in the 2005 film by a lust for Sue, which means that he fails as a foil for the team: Doom in the comics is a loner by choice because he has such contempt and mistrust for the world around him.

So what does any of this have to do with the 2015 film, I hear you ask? Well let's take what we know about Doom in the new film, derived from some websites I saw: supposedly Doom is a "very anti-social programmer" who is known on blogs by the username "Doom."


Y'know, I don't want a big fanboy about it, because they're just film adaptations. Fantastic Four is a comic. That's kind of an issue with this whole superhero film market at the moment. Comic book characters work best in comics because that's their medium. And there are a bajillion good comics with good, proper Doctor Doom in, many of which I have read. But the thing is, I'm very sceptical about this being a good direction in which to take Doom.

Doom is the shadow of the FF. He's the fifth member of the Fantastic Four. He needs to reflect them, to be like and yet unlike them. If he's doing that, then he's doing his job, and it doesn't matter if he's a programmer or whatever. But the thing is, this situation seems to me like they want Doom to be "modernised," and I think this isn't the way to go.

One of the important elements of the Fantastic Four is that they embody forward-looking attitudes, optimism and futurity. Doom is a monarch, and represents a different kind of society. He's a scientist who also uses magic, which suggests something both old-world and new-world about him. This is also embodied in the fact that he is European while the Four are American. A good example might be in the classic "This Land Is Mine" issue of John Byrne's run on the comic, in which Doom is simultaneously the enemy of the Four (who represent capitalism), the enemy of Zorba, the King of Latveria who seized the throne from Doom by claiming inheritance from his brother, and the enemy of the Soviets - one of the reasons he wishes to rule Latveria is to better protect it from being absorbed into the Eastern bloc. So Doom is an anti-capitalist, anti-communist and anti-traditionalist. Possibly this makes Doom a fascist, if anything. At the same time Doom is Romany, and therefore naturally an enemy of racist fascists like the Red Skull.

What this means is that in a sense Doom embodies that idea which lurks inside of many people which is a form of introspection bias: "I can see how the world should work, but no one else seemingly can. If only I was in charge, everything would be put right." In that sense it might be appropriate for Doom to be an "anti-social programmer." But the point of Doom is that he's anti-everything, except Latveria and himself. For this reason I think putting Doom into this modern mould risks rendering him irrelevant, because it makes him part of an existing cultural structure - internet culture. Another reason Doom is the shadow of the Four is because the Four are about forging a path, and about freedom, while Doom achieves this not in his actions but in his attitude: while he achieves a great deal, he is interested in rejecting, denying and belittling all existing structures. This is obviously represented in how regularly Doom tends to abuse his diplomatic immunity when he's in the United States.

"Only one of us has enough fanboys to triumph!"
On the website I mentioned previously, The Great American Novel, it's argued that Doom's fundamental motivation is simply that he wants to feel important. Now this again seems like a reasonable idea to be applied to an online figure, given the notion that many trolls and online commentators do so because yelling uselessly into the void of cyberspace is the only way they can deal with their crushing feelings of unimportance and irrelevance (the irony is not lost on me incidentally). This is a fact borne out every day, of course: the people at the top of the chain in most online "controversies" - that is, multinational corporations and their decision-making bodies - have probably no knowledge and certainly no interest whatsoever in the demands or arguments of online nobodies. But Doom is not a character ruling over a petty little online kingdom of misery but a man who wishes to impose himself upon the world in a public and spectacular way.

Now I might be proved wrong by the characterisation of Doom in the film. I might be, although I highly doubt it. I suppose my point in the end is this: Doom is the archetypal super-villain. One of the biggest problems in my opinion is that Marvel Studios don't have the rights to the character. I'm not one of those people who thinks that everything Marvel Studios does is gold - in fact I think a lot of it is well-presented mediocrity - but I think they would have got Doom right. I mean, he's so hard to get wrong. He's a tyrant in power armour who calls himself 'Doctor Doom.' You can basically put him in anything and he'll work - as long as you keep him that way. But I don't think many modern Hollywood studios are too interested in the subtlety which can be derived from a character like Doom. It's a mistaken impression, obviously. Look at the enduring popularity and cultural resonance of Darth Vader, a character partially modelled on Doom. I haven't even touched on another part of Doom's characterisation in this, his relationship with his parents, which is another effective element of his characterisation which remains untapped onscreen. I think it's a shame that there's all this interesting stuff happening in source material which has never survived the adaptation process, and continues to not survive. Why not try Doom in his original state? The only time it's ever been attempted is in the 1994 ashcan which was never intended to be seen by anyone.

Compelling villains have been all the rage since The Dark Knight and Doom could easily be no exception, even from a bottom-line marketing point of view: a grandiose antagonist in a fancy costume who could be the subject of any number of t-shirts, toys and internet memes. It's actually something Marvel have generally bungled in my opinion. The only villain they've come up with, across Fox, Sony and Marvel Studios who has gained any mileage is Loki (the only other memorable one is Ian McKellen's version of Magneto, and that mostly works because Ian McKellen is a very good actor). Doom needs to be evil, but also visually impressive and charismatic, the kind of guy people will quote as they're leaving the cinema. He needs to be the guy who you kind of want to win.

At the end of the day though, comic books are comic books, and not movies. One of their failings in the modern day is that they're trying to be movies, which they aren't. Doom works as a comic book villain. He especially works as a comic book villain in the 60s, 70s and 80s - these days he's practically a good guy half the time. His value could extend outside that, but only if filmmakers and the like recognise why the character is so distinctive and effective, which they rarely seem to do. It's not about treating comics that only a handful of people these days read with "respect"; they're not sacrosanct and only the fanboyism of naïve consumers treats them that way. It's about the fact that these ideas were assembled originally in good faith for an artistic reason, and for an adaptation to succeed it really needs to be making similar artistic decisions to its source material. One of the reasons adaptations so regularly artistically fail (even if they succeed commerically because the average consumer neither recognises nor cares about this problem) is because they are simultaneously trying to be one thing (the source material) and another, different thing, usually in another medium (the adaptation). But one thing is not necessarily another thing, and altering the first thing can easily mean that none of it makes sense after the alterations are made (it's one of the reasons Peter Jackson's Hobbit films don't remotely function at all as any kind of story).

If you want good Doctor Doom, read any of the following: Lee/Kirby era Fantastic Four featuring the character (you'd be surprised how much was introduced straight away: Doom went to college with Reed, he was injured in a magical experiment, he likes living in castles, he has a time machine), John Byrne era Fantastic Four featuring the character (like Chris Claremont with Magneto I'd argue he was more interested in the villain than he was with the actual main characters of the comic he was writing), the one shot "graphic novel" (more correctly known as a 'long comic book' - "graphic novel" is marketing speak for men in 80s business suits) Emperor Doom, and if you want something more modern, Ed Brubaker's Books of Doom if you want a sympathetic view of the character, or Mark Waid's run on Fantastic Four if you want a really unsympathetic view of the character (he murders his aforementioned childhood sweetheart and makes a suit of magic armour out of her skin). There's also Super Villain Team-Up from the 70s but while that's essentially Doom's comic (he was the main character for most of it) it's mostly just him acting like a moustache-twirling villain and most of the "teaming up" actually involves him having slap fights with other villains with whom he can't get along. Maybe that was the point.

Long story short, "Fantastic Four 2015" probably won't be very good and their modern take on Doom, whether it's good or bad, will probably never be as good as making an attempt to actually use the original character as he is, which has never been done and has more artistic relevance and merit. How am I able to write an article this long about a comic book character? What am I doing with my life?
The only good 'Doom' moment ever in live action.
'Nuff said.

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