If you were to ask most comics readers to name their favorite Marvel villains, Doctor Doom would likely be at the top, or at least somewhere in that vicinity. But if you were to pose that same question to moviegoers, Doctor Doom probably wouldn’t even be on anyone’s radar. Given Marvel’s issue with giving their villains the short-shaft in many of their studio-owned and outsourced films, it really says something that Doom should be so unmemorable within a catalogue of unmemorable villains. I mean we’re talking about a villain who has served comic event after event, operating as Marvel’s big bad before Thanos even entered the picture, a villain who inspired Darth Vader, a villain who has his own roller coaster at Universal Studios. So what’s the problem here? Why is it so hard to translate Doom’s iconic status and backstory into film?
No Fantastic Four movie has understood what makes Victor von Doom a compelling figure, a character worthy to face the Fantastic Four, hell, a character deserving of his own solo-movie. Born poor to Romani parents who practiced medicine and magic, Victor grew up a disciple of both science and sorcery. It is these dueling ideologies which synthesized within Victor, creating a villain unlike any other. Moving past the sheer awesomeness of the character’s design and scarred visage, it would seem that a dictator with delusions of god-hood, a master of science and magic, would be a no-brainer for movies. He’s a means for both big-budget effects battles and easily explicable themes to be delivered on a Latverian-silver platter. But somehow, Doom got tied to screenplays that went the easy route, ones that eschewed character development and backstory for narrative convenience. Thus Doom was damned.
As much as I love superhero movies, I recognize there is a certain laziness imbued within many of the film’s plot-constructions, especially ones made during the early 2000s. A number of these films saw many of the villain’s origins tied to the hero’s in ways that were too simple to be interesting. In some cases, they worked out alright (Spider-Man), but most of the time, they stripped a compelling element from the villain, removed a threatening autonomy. Fantastic Four (2005) fell prey to this issue of convenience by tying Victor’s origins to the Fantastic Four’s, in order to give his powers and look a sense of “realism” and give the film more time to spend on something that kind of passed for humor instead of development. So sorcery and inventions became lightning powers and armor to hide shame and disfigurement became metal skin by way of cosmic clouds.
I’ve yet to see Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, and I could be pleasantly surprised, but everything I’ve seen and read about the film suggests that this latest iteration of the character falls prey to the same mistakes as Tim Story’s, albeit without the attempts at humor. Once again we have the metal skin, weak motivations, and ill-defined powers that don’t stem from intellect or a desire to understand the larger universe. Whether Doom is a sinister CEO or an anti-social computer genius, the modernization of the character never works in his favor. In fact the modernization of the FF never seems to work in their favor either. Doom is simply a casualty by default.
The problem with the film’s portrayal of Doom is that Fantastic Four was never a comic based on realism, but based in the extraordinary and the weird. Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben are not a traditional team of superheroes, but a group of explorers who push the boundaries of science. Based on this principle, Doom isn’t a traditional supervillain, but a man whose own exploration to push the boundaries of the physical and mystical world are not bound by morality. Out of all the Fantastic Four movies, Oley Sassone’s unreleased 1994 film comes closest to understanding these principles. Looking past the bland performances and shoddy special effects, the Roger Corman produced version is the film that doesn’t attempt to forcibly insert pseudo-real-world science or unify all of the origin stories. It’s not a good movie, but it at least understands the basics of the property and Doom fares a little better because of it.
Well, what about Ultimate Fantastic Four? The somewhat hard-sci-fi based, alternate-reality set comic which debuted in 2004 served as the inspiration for the most recent film portrayal of Doom and the Fantastic Four. In this version, Doom’s origin is tied to the Fantastic Four’s too, but the sorcerer and dictator-status is kept in-tact (he also has goat-hooves because…I don’t know). While this version of the character isn’t half as successful or interesting as the one created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this iteration still maintains the core character elements. Ultimate Fantastic Four isn’t great, but it’s three times more imaginative than anything the films have delivered. It’s one thing to claim that a character is based on a specific comic iteration, but it’s a whole other thing to actually deliver on that promise.
Fantastic Four fans are still waiting for that delivery to happen, for Doom to be done right. Because when he is, it will really be something to behold. The millennium set us on an unfortunate course for genre films feeling like they have to justify their weirdness, alter names, strip away color, and justify costumes and codenames. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four launched the Marvel Universe as we know it today, it’s a property entrenched in its comic book mindset and Dr. Doom is the kind of old-school mad-scientist/monster/communist ruler that stemmed from that era. Whoever tackles Dr. Doom next in however many years from now, be it 20th Century Fox or Marvel Studios, let’s hope they do so with the understanding that the best cinematic comic book villains are the ones who need very little alteration or rationalization. Simply let Dr. Doom be Doom and the rest will fall into place.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox