‘Fantastic Four’ Screenwriter Spills Super Secrets

Doug Petrie talks casting idea, plot outlines, special effects.

How’s this sound as an opening sequence? Adoring groupies cram New York’s Fifth Avenue, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic, played by Charlize Theron and “Angel”‘s Alexis Denisof. The Thing, voiced by John C. Reilly, rips the top off an armored car and yanks out two would-be robbers. Paul Walker shouts, “flame on!” as his Johnny Storm character ignites into the Human Torch, saving a female fan from another thief’s rocket launcher.

Two hours later, just before the credits role on “The Fantastic Four,” New York’s favorite superheroes buzz away in their Fantastic Car, with Johnny dropping 8×10 photos to fans in a scene shamelessly lifted from the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

That’s what audiences will see if all goes according to plan for “Fantastic Four” screenwriter Doug Petrie, who together with director Peyton Reed (“Bring It On”) is bringing one of Marvel Comics’ most beloved properties to the big screen.

“The big debate between everybody was giant monster or no giant monster,” Petrie said of the flick’s proposed opening scene. “I wanted the poster for the movie to be the cover for the first issue, where basically you do a live-action version of a giant monster ripping through Fifth Avenue and Fantastic Four kicking its ass. For budget reasons, it went to something else, but it’s still a giant opening scene. It’s ‘A Hard Days Night.’ It’s everybody going to watch the Beatles.

“The big reason I got hired was that the scripts that were done before, by pretty big-name guys, were origin stories,” explained Petrie, whose credits include several episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“[The other scripts] were very big on ‘these are astronauts that go to space’ for the first, like, half-hour,” he said. “It was something like ‘Armageddon.’ I just kept saying it’s got to be like ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ ”

In the established Marvel Comics mythos, the Fantastic Four — Dr. Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), wife Susan Storm (the Invisible Woman), her brother Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) and Benjamin Grimm (the Thing) — gained superpowers after an experimental rocketship ride bombarded them with radiation. Together as the Fantastic Four, they live together in the Baxter Building and battle supervillains like the Mole Man and their arch-nemesis, the metal-masked Dr. Victor Von Doom.

Casting hasn’t begun on “The Fantastic Four,” and Petrie of course is no casting director, but in addition to his hopes of grabbing Reilly, Denisof, Theron and Walker, he’d love to see Jude Law as Dr. Doom.

“We had a huge, huge series of discussions on the look of Dr. Doom,” Petrie said. “We really had to focus on the Fantastic Four, and Victor’s origin had to be tied into their origin. We played him as the Pete Best of the Fantastic Four. He gets screwed out of the superpowers, so he made himself who he is. … The Marvel guys were very high on showing the actor’s face. … I hope I’m not spilling too many secrets. But I got caught up with how to show his face but keep the scariness of a guy in a mask.

“I wanted the big reveal to be [that] the mask is a high-tech thing that can separate and retract off his face when he wants it to,” he continued. “You see that he’s unbelievably handsome. … But it doesn’t end there. When he’s handsome, he’s lying. When his real character comes out, his face starts to sag and melt and scarify in this horrible way. And what you learn is that his face got so smashed upon his re-entry — he was one of the original astronauts — he’s literally falling apart. And the mask is the only thing keeping him together.”

“The Fantastic Four” movie will mostly skip the back-story and begin in a New York where the team already exists — in a world where, unlike “X-Men,” they are anything but antiheroes.

“They’re the biggest celebrities in New York City,” Petrie explained. “To the world outside, they are the world’s coolest superheroes. [But] when they get home, they just fight with each other about everything. They order pizzas and argue about who gets the better costumes and stuff like that. It’s a family comedy when they get behind closed doors.”

With Mr. Fantastic’s elastic ability, the Thing’s rocky orange hide and the Human Torch’s fiery body, budget constraints have kept a decent “Fantastic Four” movie from theaters (most fans cringe at the widely bootlegged but never officially released 1994 “Fantastic Four”). But now, thanks to the success of “Spider-Man,” the big-budget “Fantastic Four” is going ahead at 20th Century Fox.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to get this movie made,” Petrie said, “and to get it right and to cash in on the mania that obviously exists out there and the need for superhero stories.”

“The Fantastic Four” is scheduled for a 2004 release.