The FANTASTIC FOUR has not had a lot of luck in Hollywood.
During the period of its bankruptcy, Marvel sold the movie rights to several of it's properties to various studios. The first film version of FANTASTIC FOUR, directed by the legendary master of quick 'n' dirty film-making, Roger Corman, was cranked out solely to prevent the rights from reverting back to Marvel and so that the license-holder could sell the license to 20th Century Fox; something which no one bothered to tell the cast and crew. All prints of the film were destroyed, except for the inevitable bootleg copies which quickly surfaced at sleazy dealers' tables at comics conventions next to unauthorized VHS tapes of the 1990 CAPTAIN AMERICA and un-dubbed nth-generation copies of DIRTY PAIR.
The 2005 movie had it's good points, and introduced the public to Chris Evans, whose Johnny Storm was one of the better things about it, and who later did an excellent job as Steve Rogers in CAPTAIN AMERICA and AVENGERS. On the whole, though, it was uneven. The character bits with Johnny and Ben were good, but Reed came off as boring and Sue... well, to be honest Stan Lee wasn't always sure what to do with Sue either. And as for Doctor Doom... but I'll be getting to that.
The recent reboot had a rocky relationship with the fans even before it was released, and not rocky in a good, Ben Grimm sort of way. I didn't really care much when fans howled about a black actor being cast to play Johnny Storm, because I remembered how they howled over Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in THOR, and before that over Michael Clarke Duncan being cast as Kingpin in DAREDEVIL, (of all the things wrong with the Ben Affleck DAREDEVIL, a black Kingpin was far from the worst), and before that over the rumors that Eddie Murphy would be cast as Robin the Boy Wonder in the 1989 BATMAN; (which turned out to be untrue, but made me wonder what Batman would be like with an all-black cast: Michael Jackson as the Joker? Scatman Crothers as Alfred?)
The notion of a black Johnny didn't bother me in the sense of taking a character who was white in the comics and making him black; (The 2005 FF did that with Alicia Masters, and frankly she was one of the more interesting characters in the film); as much as I was afraid it would wreck the sibling chemistry between Johnny and Sue. The sense that the Four are a family has always been a big part of the comic's identity. The trailers did much to reassure me that family would indeed be a theme in the movie. Yet I couldn't help but wonder, if they absolutely had to make the team more racially diverse, why they had to make the hot-headed wise-cracking kid be the black one. Making Reed Richards black would have been interesting.
But the fan anger over the non-caucasian Human Torch was nothing compared to how they reacted when Tony Kebell, the actor playing Doctor Doom made this startling revelation:
“He's Victor Domashev, not Victor Von Doom in our story. And I'm sure I'll be sent to jail for telling you that. The Doom in ours – I'm a programmer. Very anti-social programmer. And on blogging sites I'm 'Doom'”
Well, in the final version his name was changed back to “Von Doom”, but this points to a problem I think the most recent film incarnations of the team has had: How do you take a guy in armor and a cape calling himself “Doom” seriously?
Granted, George Lucas managed to pull it off when he called the character “Darth Vader”; (I've read that when STAR WARS was first released, more than one comics fan looked at Vader and said, “It's Doctor Doom!” and that Lucas has admitted to have used the character as a visual inspiration). And the Roger Corman version stayed pretty close to the classic Doctor Doom. But that might be the problem: a straight comics-to-film adaptation of the FANTASTIC FOUR would look as cheesy as, well, the Adam West BATMAN.
So how should the movies handle Doom? As I see it, there are four essential problems with Doctor Doom.
First off is the name. Victor Von Doom. Even the Marvel Ultimates comic book, which the latest movie used as its inspiration, tried to distance itself from the cheesy name by calling it's villain “Van Damm.” But you know, sometimes you just gotta embrace the cheese. If I were writing a Fantastic Four movie, this is how I would have it play out:
Early on, we would have a scene in which Doctor Doom is mentioned. Perhaps there's an item on the TV news about the King of Latveria coming to New York to address the UN or something. Johnny mocks the name. “What kind of a name is 'Von Doom?'”
“Actually, it's a fairly common name in Latveria,” Reed explains. “I had a roomie in college from Latveria, and his name was Doom. You remember Vic, don't you Ben?”
Ben snorts. “Yeah. What a horse's patoot he was! Didn't he get kicked out of school when he blew up that lab?”
Then later on, the group's adventures would lead them to Latveria where they would meet Doom in person.
“Richards! We meet again at last!”
“What...? Wait... Vic? Is that you, Vic? Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle. Hey, gang, this is Vic! I was telling you about him. So, Vic, how's life been treating you?”
The Ruritanian country of Latveria actually works better today than it did back in the Silver Age. In a modern setting, I could envision it as a breakaway Soviet republic which suffered a period of political instability following the end of the Soviet Union until a brilliant technological genius assumed control of the government and revitalized its economy. True, his record on human rights leaves something to be desired, but he has brought a new level of prosperity and prestige to his tiny nation. Even the castles and the cheesy Old World costumes can be seen as a nationalistic revival after decades of Soviet domination.
Then there's the armor. Why would a tin-pot dictator go around in public wearing a... well, a tin pot? Here the movies were working under a distinct disadvantage. The obvious way to address this issue would be to have somebody, probably Johnny, comment that this guy must think he's Tony Stark or something. The 20th Century Fox films, naturally, could not invoke characters from the Avengers corner of the Marvel Universe, but comparing Doom to Stark would give the audience a point of reference. The mask is another problem. In the comics, Doom wears the mask because his face is hideously scarred and he refuses to let anybody see it. Hasn't he ever heard of plastic surgery? They're doing wonderful things with skin grafts these days, you know. I don't really have a good fix for this, other than just establish it as a given and move on to something else.
The biggest problem the most recent movies have had, in my opinion, is that they feel a need to combine Doom's origin story with that of the rest of the group. Perhaps the film-makers feel that the audience will be confused if they have more than one origin in a movie; perhaps they felt that giving him a connection to the Four would strengthen the narrative. I think they were wrong.
Doom does not have super-powers in the same sense that the other do; his body was not altered to give him extraordinary abilities. Doom's power is his super-intellect; his super-technology. Giving him metal skin instead of armor and bogus “powers” instead of gadgets lessens him.
In addition, the Four are already a distinct unit. They're a family; Doom's an outsider. As others have noted, their powers are inspired by the four classical elements: Earth, (Ben); Fire, (Johnny, of course); Water, (Reed is sort of fluid, isn't he?); and Air, (okay, Sue's not a perfect fit but she's close). Doom doesn't fit the theme. He's a fifth wheel. Okay, in Chinese philosophy there is a fifth element, Metal, but having a metal suit doesn't give him metal powers.
No, I think trying to graft Doom onto the Four's origin is a mistake. Better to let him be his own man with his own background. He already has a personal connection with Reed; they knew each other back in college. That's enough of a narrative link between the two. If we really want to push it further, we could find a parallel between the hubris which led Doom to the lab explosion which disfigured him, and Reed's recklessness in bringing his friends on an experimental voyage without proper radiation shielding. Lots of possibilities for angst there without feeling a need to invent metal powers for Doom.
It will probably be a long time before we get another cinematic look at Doctor Doom; possibly not until Marvel regains the movie rights to the Fantastic Four, if that ever happens. And if it does, the studios certainly won't go looking to me for advice.
But for what it's worth, this is my advice. Yes, the Fantastic Four comic can be cheesy; but being embarrassed by it makes the cheesiness only more evident. Sometimes you just gotta embrace the cheese.
So speaks Doom.