The new Fantastic Four movie ends with a showdown where the Four must stop Dr. Doom (known simply as Doom in the film) from destroying the earth. Doom wants to wipe out all life on earth for reasons that aren’t exactly clear. He also summons an enormous amount of hatred for his arch-nemesis Reed Richards for even more reasons that aren’t exactly clear. The entire finale is generic and sold on the basis that it is supposed to happen because this is a superhero story.
That is probably one of the major reasons this movie has been so poorly received. The central conflict of the film is a paint-by-numbers summer blockbuster. Doom destroying the earth would certainly seem like a big deal if he were sucking up our planet into a plot-portal, but he’s not. It’s a fictional world that will have no bearing on the rest of our lives whether or not it survives. The film presumes the size of its stakes will make the battle seem important, but that’s not how we relate to fiction.
We don’t care about stories because of how many lives are at risk, but because of how much we have invested in those lives. As readers and viewers, we can come to care about characters through the art of storytelling. Seeing their lives unfold before us can provide reasons to relate, sympathize, and empathize with them, sometimes becoming so emotionally attached that we cry simply at the thought of them suffering a defeat or dying. It’s the sort of wonder you can find in the first ten minutes of a movie like Up or in almost every issue of the comic Daytripper.
And so conflicts become important to us because of what they mean, not how big they are. Battles, whether they be external or internal, are defined by what we feel is at stake. They can also help define what is at stake, clarifying the reasons we care and invest ourselves in a story. While the battle at the end of Fantastic Four may be a poor example of this, another tale about the same quartet presents one of the best modern examples of how conflict can convey character: Fantastic Four #67-70 and #500, “Unthinkable” by Mark Waid and Mike Weiringo.
In Fantastic Four #67, Dr. Doom kills his childhood sweetheart in exchange for immense magical powers. Having failed to defeat Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four for so long using science, he decides to take the path he denied as a child and use the arcane arts to vanquish them. In quick order he captures Reed and Sue’s daughter Valeria, sends their son to hell, and imprisons the Four in horrible traps. It is grandiose supervillainy with Dr. Doom exacting vengeance as horribly as he can.
Waid and Weiringo created one of the best Fantastic Four runs ever put to paper, ranking alongside Kirby and Lee and Byrne. They understood the attraction of this family unit and each of its distinct elements, making it easy to care about each member of the team. Seeing all of them put through such immense trials alone is enough to concern readers based on the legwork found in the first few issues of their run. Yet the brilliance of “Unthinkable” doesn’t come simply from putting these characters in danger, but in the way this specific trial reflects both its hero and villain, revealing who Reed Richards and Doctor Doom are at their core.
Before Doom enters the picture in Fantastic Four #68, Waid and Weiringo take the time to remind readers of a driving conflict within Reed: science vs. magic. While on an inter-dimensional mission, Sue reminds him of an unexplained phenomena in Valeria’s nursery and states that it could be magic. Reed’s response is telling. Not only does he deny that it is magic, but he denies its very existence despite knowing characters like Dr. Strange and Ghost Rider. He is so confident in his own faculties and ability to explain the universe that the very idea that there is something he cannot understand and explain leaves him aghast.
Reed has always been the brain of the Fantastic Four, and his intellect is simultaneously his greatest strength and weakness. It is what allows him to find solutions to impossible problems, fund his family, and regularly save the day. It also leaves him aloof and distracted. As Sue notes in Fantastic Four #68, “you’ve had your nose riding the grindstone for weeks now.” It is his intelligence and dedication to science that also drives a wedge between him and his family.
Doom’s use of magic is Reed and his family’s undoing. When a portal opens to Hell and Doom possesses Valeria, Reed has no way to combat him. His rejection of magic has left him utterly defenseless. It is in this way that Doom completely defeats the Four in the course of a single issue. The trap is sprung at the end of #68, and defeat is evident by the end of #69. At the end of that issue, Doom hovers over the group triumphantly unable to even be affected by their combined powers and gadgets. The Thing shouts at Reed to think, but the look on his face shows that he has been beaten.
When Doom traps Reed, he doesn’t implement any direct forms of emotional or physical torture like he does to the rest of his family. Instead Doom subjects him to a far more nefarious trap. Reed is locked inside of a library filled with magical tomes, aware of the atrocities being visited upon his family and that only he can help them. Doom even tells him what he must do in order to escape the room, “This door can be opened by an enchantment a four-year-old can learn.”
This is the one trap that Doom believes Reed is incapable of escaping and for good reason. They share many traits including a love of knowledge, immense intellect, and the hubris that can come with both of these qualities. In a monologue delivered to the imprisoned Reed, while holding his baby daughter, Doom speaks about a weakness that defines both himself and Reed (although he would only admit to the latter).
Reed is left alone in a room of books that he cannot understand incapable of saving the people he loves, and arrives at an important conclusion. Anger creasing his brow and tears welling in his eyes, he declares, “I’m sorry. I can’t save you. I’m not smart enough.” This trap exploits the conflict at the core of Reed Richards and reveals why he is ultimately a hero. His obsession with and confidence in science has allowed him to be placed in a position where the thing he cares for most cannot be saved. The prioritization of his work and his family has always been a struggle, and here it is made clear which is more important. Yet all of his dedication to the former cannot help the latter. This death trap both clarifies Reed’s internal struggles and his choices. Despite his seemingly implacable commitment to science and the pursuit of knowledge, he recognizes that it is meaningless without the love of his family.
It is that recognition which ultimately allows Reed to free himself and save the day as well. With Dr. Strange’s astral help he attempts to learn magic, but cannot master even simple spells attacking them as if they were formulae. His salvation does not come in the form of learning magic though, but in a deus ex machina that functions based on Reed doing the most un-Reed-like thing imaginable: admitting he is a fool.
When he says “I’m an idiot” and “I can’t figure it out”, the device comes to life and gives him the power to save the day. Reed’s confidence that he could solve everything left him trapped, but he is freed by the wisdom that he knows nothing. Ultimately, this tool reflect the importance of power to Reed. His intelligence had always allowed him to feel in control, the master of any situation. It is this sense of self-empowerment that lies at the heart of Doom’s criticism. Reed wins the day by admitting that he is powerless, a fool, without his family. And so it comes that his moment of triumph comes not from his.
Reed is shown to be heroic, not because he is perfect, but because he is capable of recognizing and making the right choices. He is easily obsessed and distracted from his family, but his core strength lies with them, and he is willing to give everything else up to protect them. All of his ego and self-importance is washed away by his truly selfless actions here.
This battle clarifies who Doom is as well. His defeat comes when he is challenged by Reed to admit that he gained his new powers with the help of three lords of Hell. Doom refuses to acknowledge this, breaking his deal with the infernal powers, and causing them to drag him down below. Unlike Reed, he is incapable of admitting that anything holds power over him. His pride and arrogance are fundamental to who he is, leading him to initiate this conflict and resulting in his demise.
The conflict in “Unthinkable” is based purely around the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom. There are only a handful of lives at stake. It is all very personal, but it feels earth-shaking because it is about the souls of two men who we are brought to know very well. We come to care about them through their struggles, and their challenges and decisions reflect who they. Conflict and character reinforce one another, so that each helps us to care more about the other. The battles in “Unthinkable” aren’t an excuse for action, but an integral part of the story helping us to understand and love Mr. Fantastic. It’s in this way that Reed Richard’s saving his family feels far more important than any fight to save the earth.