Zack Stentz knows plenty about adapting a comic book for live-action, having worked as one of the screenwriters on both Thor and X-Men: First Class, followed by a stint writing for The Flash. On top of that, he also wrote a Booster Gold screenplay for Warner Bros. and, it turns out, co-wrote an early version of what would become the 2015 Fantastic Four movie that Josh Trank directed.
That FF screenplay was a topic of conversation when Zack joined us as our guest this week on the latest installment of Fandom’s new interview series, Hey Fandom!
Trank and Stentz recently had a friendly exchange on Twitter about Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller’s Fantastic Four screenplay, discussing how Trank had discarded their version and started over from scratch. As Stentz told Fandom, “The problem was that the studio had Ash and I writing the movie while Josh was still in post-production on Chronicle, his big breakthrough hit. He didn’t know that we were doing it! They didn’t tell him, ‘Oh, we’ve got the writers of X-Men: First Class working on this, you’re going to love it.’ So when they were like, ‘Okay, you ready to do Fantastic Four? Here’s the script!’ Josh, in his own words, his reaction was, ‘No, I want to do my version of it. I want to work with a writer that I know,’ so our script did not end up getting used. At the time it was a really heartbreaking thing because we had really poured our heart and soul into that Fantastic Four movie. Since then, Josh and I have become friends and we’ve moved beyond that. It’s always nice to kind of put old bad blood behind.”
When it came to what he and Miller were doing with the Fantastic Four characters in their version, Stentz said, “I will say our approach was very different than the one you saw on screen. It was similar in the sense that we used the Ultimates as the basis much more than the original continuity. Kind of our two big things that we drew on were the first run of [Ultimate Fantastic Four] and then the Ed Brubaker Books of Doom. And I would say it was a lot more similar in tone to X-Men: First Class.”
On the story side, Stentz explained, “I like to say the script was the tragedy of how the Fantastic Four were nearly the Fantastic Five. That originally, even though he was this dark, difficult guy, Victor von Doom was a dear friend of Reed, as in the original continuity, but unfortunately, due to the events that we depicted, he was too wounded, too damaged, and too angry of a character to accept his own heroism and he made the choice to go down the very dark path to become the armored megalomaniac we all know and love. You’re supposed to enjoy the team coming together, but there’s also a certain degree of sadness and tragedy in the fact that they have to fight someone who decided that power was more important than friendship. I’m very proud of the script, very bummed that it didn’t get made, but that’s show business you know?”
Read on for more highlights from our chat with Zack Stentz, as he delved into how Thor and X-Men: First Class came together.
CUT FROM THE CLASS
X-Men: First Class went through many revisions, from a few writers, and Stentz recounted, “During the drafts that Ash and I wrote of X-Men: First Class, we went through so many different mutants. I mean there was always going to be the core of Erik and Charles and Raven and Beast, but the supporting characters, there were so many different variations on them. Probably my favorite came from a draft before we started working and I will say the writer did a really clever thing. He had Banshee and he had Dazzler and he had them combine their powers because Dazzler makes light out of sound and his sound was so intense that she made it into lasers. And I was like, ‘That’s really cool and clever and that might be fun to do!’ But I think they were saving Dazzler for the Studio 54 years of the X-Men so we ended up with the team that you saw.”
Stentz noted, “On the villain side, up until late in the game we were going to have Sunspot, which was really cool because there’s something neat about the idea of Sebastian Shaw showing up and he’s got Emma Frost and he’s got Sunspot, he’s got fire and ice on either side of him. There’s something that would have been cool about that but I think that they couldn’t figure out how to do the Sunspot effects so they went with the tornado dude instead.”
DECIDING WHAT TO USE
Adapting a comic book can be daunting, given there is often decades of material to work with. With Thor, Stentz recalled, “There was a lot of discussion on whether we were going to use the Donald Blake persona for Thor because that’s very like, back in the 1960s, when Thor was invented, everyone had the alter ego and everyone had the disguise. But in Thor’s case, he had like a completely different physical build, and that was before they figured out how to do the wimpy Steve Rogers into Captain America thing. And it would have essentially been the same effect if you had used the same actor. So we very early in the game decided that the Donald Blake thing was just too complicated and that was a writer who came subsequent to us, the late great Don Payne I think, who came up with the little way of putting the Donald Blake [reference] in as the Easter egg. So even when you can’t incorporate areas of the mythos, it’s fun to have the little hand wave.”
Stentz was there near the beginning of the MCU and remarked, “Honestly, the central genius of Kevin Feige, who is in charge of the MCU, when he came along was simply not being embarrassed by their own material and not feeling like they had to apologize for it. If you look at a lot of the comic book adaptations that had come before that there’s a lot of either kind of winking at the material that it’s based on or even condescending to it. I very much liked the first X-Men movie but probably the most dated thing about it is that they’re all in like the black leather Matrix gear and Cyclops is like ‘What, you’d rather we have yellow spandex?’ But now that we’re in 2020, I think audiences are like, ‘Yeah, we would! We would like the yellow spandex.’ One of the things that we’re proud of in First Class is that we were able to kind of work in something that looked more like the classic uniforms in a way that felt organic more than just kind of silly.”
HANDING OFF THE BATON
While Stentz was adapting previously-created characters when he worked on Thor, he did help hone their onscreen personas, and one fan asked if it is difficult to see other creators than take on these characters in sequels, who may go in directions Stentz never would.
Said Stentz, “It is tough sometimes when you introduce a character and then other people take them and run with it and sometimes they do things that you like with the characters and sometimes they don’t. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you must have been so mad at Taika Waititi making Ragnarok a comedy!’ And like, no! One, he did a great job, and two, for all of the comedy he understood more than anyone since Ken [Branagh], the first director, that the fundamental building block of a Thor movie is the Thor/Loki relationship and the weird mixture of love and anger and resentment all rolled into one. So, as a fan, it was delightful watching that movie. It was like, ‘Yeah, this guy gets it!’ I ran into [Tom] Hiddleston at the after party and I was like, ‘Yeah, he really got it! He got who Loki was in a way that maybe not all of the directors who have directed Loki have.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I know, right!?’
THE MCU’S GRAND PLAN
In the early days of the MCU, the plan was always to lead into The Avengers, but clearly the universe and scope of the films kept growing bigger and bigger after that.
Asked if he could see Feige’s vision for how big things could get back then, Stentz said, “It was clear that in their wildest dreams they wanted this to go on and on and for all of these to be a great success. They came out of the gate with the master plan for the MCU very strong with the first Iron Man, which in my mind is still one of the greatest MCU films. And then, to use a baseball analogy, they got on base with the [Incredible] Hulk movie but it wasn’t as big of a success so it was the big question at the time when we were writing on it is, ‘Okay, when there’s The Avengers, is it going to be a team of equals or is it going to be Iron Man and His Friends?’ A lot was riding on Thor and then Captain America being successful so that it could be a more balanced team.”
A key aspect to making those characters successful was, of course, finding the right actors. In terms of Kenneth Branagh casting Chris Hemsworth as Thor, all while rewrites were being done, Stentz said, “I think the thing Ken saw in Chris is that charm and that sense of humor and it was so necessary for the character. I don’t think that the writing for the character really changed a lot because of him but what he brought to it was the ability to unapologetically make Thor a jerk in the first half of the movie because he is so freaking charming that you are confident that the audience isn’t going to say, ‘I hate this guy, why am I watching him?’ When he’s in the coronation room and he goes down on his knee in front of his mom and he winks, it’s like yeah, he’s the friend who is going to get you arrested and get you into trouble, but you love him anyway. And that was the great genius of that casting, of Hemsworth, and we’ve seen that in the films he’s done since then is that he’s this amazing comedic actor in the body of a literal god.”
Regarding Hemsworth’s much-discussed body, Stentz recalled, “The funny thing is when Chris was cast he was a tall, sturdy dude but he was skinny, he was a surfer, he had a surfer build. They’re like ‘Go to the gym’ and he got so into working out that over the course of filming they had to let out his costume because he just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Of particular importance regarding the first Thor, beyond the title character, was the introduction of a certain trickster, with Stentz explaining, “There was always the plan for Loki to be the villain in The Avengers, so an executive actually told us at one point, ‘If you fail at everything else, just give us a villain as good as Magneto. We need a cool villain because we want to use him a lot and we realize our villains have not been up to that Magneto standard thus far.’ So there was a lot of attention to the whole movie but a particular amount of attention to getting the Loki character right, making him a compelling character, and probably the other big challenge was simply that Iron Man succeeded partly by being very grounded and it very much takes place in our world. And then all of a sudden, ‘Hi, here is a space Viking with a magic hammer that makes him fly!’ And making that work in the same world as SHIELD and power suits and terrorism and things like that, that was a big challenge.”
Looking back, Stentz said, “I like to think we succeeded enough that now you see the MCU and it has all kinds of different aspects. It has the very grounded science fiction street level aspect, it has the outer space adventure part, and now it has magic and the occult. That’s part of the fun of a big comic book universe is that you can play in each of those sandboxes and then you can take all your Lego sets and dump them all together and have them fight and have them interact and I think people really dig that.”
THE TRICKY NATURE OF PREQUELS
X-Men: First Class is a prequel to the earlier X-Men movies, but, as became typical for that franchise, everything doesn’t exactly line up when it comes to continuity. But Stentz said his perspective was, “I actually like that the X-Men movies kind of had a looser view of continuity and were more driven by ‘What’s the best story right now?’”
Giving an example from First Class, Stentz noted, “There’s a blink and you miss it line in the first X-Men movie about how Charles and Erik have known each other since they were 17. In the first drafts of X-Men: First Class, my former writing partner and I bent ourselves into pretzels trying to come up with a prologue scene of the two characters, at age 17, meeting each other and then not meeting each other again until 1962 when the events of the movie take place. And at some point we realized, and I think the new director realized, you know, no one except the original director remembers that line. No one really cares and it’s slowing down the story and it’s keeping us from getting started. Do we really need three minutes just to do a scene to reference one line from the first movie? So that got thrown out and the movie begins the way that it does now.”
Regarding how to approach a prequel, Stentz remarked, “You have two basic choices. One choice is to portray the characters as basically the same people but younger. It’s like, Charles is in charge but maybe he has hair and Erik is still Magneto and angry at humans and all of those things. Or, you have what in my mind is the more interesting option which is to show these characters as recognizable but different people and the story that you tell in the course of the prequel is these are the events and these are the choices that these characters made that set them on the path to becoming the characters who we know and love in the present. So you get both the kind of inevitability of knowing where that journey ends but you have the surprises of how it happens. Like, he’s walking around! Clearly, at some point in the past, he ends up in a wheelchair. ‘Oh my god, his best friend accidentally was responsible for it!’ Well, that’s pretty fraught! Those are the kind of decisions that can make prequels really fun. It was really fun to make, you know, instead of the very upright Patrick Stewart, the first time that you see him talking about genetics he’s trying to pick up a girl in a bar. He’s a good guy, but he’s a little bit on the more callow side. You get to see him start the process of growing into that wonderful authoritative teacher character who we know and love in the earlier films. So you know, those are the kind of challenges of the prequel.”
You can check out our full Hey Fandom! conversation with Zack Stentz below!