It took 20th Century Fox 14 years, but with last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, they finally delivered the movie that X-Men fans had been impatiently waiting for since 2000. Now, in 2015, Fox hopes to revive their other, more desperate, superhero franchise with this summer’s Fantastic Four. Using the same apocalyptic tones and brooding masochism made famous by Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Fox is hoping that their third go-around with the oft-troubled franchise will prove to be the charm. But, based on the failures of previous Fantastic Four films, the barrage of trailers and press releases for the new flick, and the entire history of the comic book series, Fantastic Four may inevitably be doomed from the start.
As a series, The Fantastic Four has proven to be one of Marvel’s more inconsequential title to readers, as well as one of its most inaccessible to writers. Ever since Stan Lee left the title with issue 114, the series has watched helplessly as other titles such as The Amazing Spider-Man, The Uncanny X-Men, and now, The Avengers, have skyrocketed past it both in terms of popularity and relevance. Once the crown jewel of the Marvel Renaissance of the 1960s, the initial success of The Fantastic Four: fleshed out characters reflective of the times, brilliant sci-fi adventures, and over-the-top, inhumane villains, soon became major detriments to the series. As time went by, the quartet seemed to be stuck in the 1960s; the Human Torch was still being treated like a moronic intern, the Invisible Girl didn’t get her due until the 1980s, and Mr. Fantastic was still the omniscient leader belittling his wife for being a hysterical woman.
Their villains, battles, and adventures have all become stale as well over the past 54 years. Besides Dr. Doom and Galactus, no other villains have been fleshed out to add further dimension, nor have the likes of Annihilus, Blastaar, or the Wizard shown any aspiration beyond domination or wanton destruction. The adventures that the Fantastic Four go on: trips to the Negative Zone, Microverse, and alien planets yield the same results that they did back in 1961. It’s the same explorations and extrapolations over and over again. Instead of innovating and creating new locations and investigations for the quartet to explore, as Lee had done, subsequent writers merely replay everything that had been done during the Lee/Kirby years. Until John Byrne came aboard as writer/artist, the series was gasping for new ideas and updated character examinations.
Since Stan Lee left the series in 1972, there have only been three noteworthy runs: John Byrne, who modernized the title in a much needed way, Mark Waid, who personalized the title in a way that no one had done before, and Jonathan Hickman, who delivered one of the best runs of the 21st century while writing both The Fantastic Four and FF. Creators who have failed on the title do so because they either don’t know what to make of the team, struggling to rectify whether they are superheroes or explorers first, or they fail because they simply rehash the same ideas as previous writers (Marv Wolfman), or in some cases repeat previous stories (James Robinson). Writing The Fantastic Four is the comic book equivalent of pushing Sisyphus’s rock. Because the resigned, yet false idea exists that everything on the title has been done before, it becomes almost impossible to deliver an original story that still stays true to who the characters are. Not only are current and future writers struggling to come up with engaging storylines, they have to do so in a way that doesn’t repeat the past, while at the same time not conflicting with the continuity.
If for no other reason, that is why this summer’s Fantastic Four will fail; just as the Fantastic Four themselves haven’t translated very well through the generations in their own comic book, translating them across different media platforms is, as of 2015, unfeasible. There has never been a fun Fantastic Four video game, nor a good movie starring the Fantastic Four. Growing up in the early 90s, kids were wearing t-shirts and sneakers with Venom and the X-Men on them, while paraphernalia featuring the Thing or the Human Torch were noticeably absent. During the comic boon of the early 90s, where comics crossing over to every other medium imaginable, franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman all produced memorable and beloved animated series, whereas the Fantastic Four languished behind and gave way to the lamest superhero cartoon besides Captain Planet.
The animated series from the 1990s shared the same flaws and was plagued by the same problems as were the first two Fantastic Four movies. All three renditions were campy and stymied by a half-hearted attempt to recreate the greatest storylines of the 1960s. The executives didn’t try to update or adapt any of the storylines in a way that seemed modern (Evil C.E.O. Dr. Doom) or at the very least not stupid (giant world eating cloud anyone?). The cartoon and the first two movies tried too hard to draw upon the wealth of ideas created by Stan Lee from the 1960s that they came off as cartoonish and campy, despite the fact that back in the 1960s, The Fantastic Four was not a campy title. Any camp or silliness only arose because of a failed attempt to translate the source material unto a different medium.
With 20th Century Fox’s third foray with the Fantastic Four, they’ve decided to abandon any semblance of light-heartedness for fear of falling into past failures. Instead the upcoming Fantastic Four draws its inspiration from Ultimate Fantastic Four, an alternate universe from the main Marvel Universe. This version of the Fantastic Four is much darker and moodier than their mainstream counterparts. Despite this attempt to portray a different version of the Fantastic Four, it’s not one that people are accustomed to, nor is it a version that people particularly care for. Ultimate Fantastic Four was the last title to be added to the Ultimate imprint, and it was consistently the weakest selling title out of all the Ultimate series. In the Ultimate universe, the source material for the new movie, the Thing is suicidal, Reed Richards eventually goes insane, and the Human Torch has to shed his skin every so often…Oh, and Dr. Doom has hooves. The reason why Fox is drawing on these comics is simply because it’s the complete opposite of everything that didn’t work with previous renditions of the quartet. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie will be good because of it though.
Just as The Fantastic Four was never a campy book, it also has never been a self-serious book that broods and menaces over its own existence. From the trailers, it doesn’t seem like the movie understands this truism. It seems that the movie is so focused on distancing itself from any previous and whimsical incarnation that it’ll obsessively try to go overboard with its moody overtones and gritty presentation. This obsessive need to not be something else could lead to the film’s ruination. Even something as simple as describing Mr. Fantastic’s powers have become overly muddled and confusing in an attempt to downplay the perceived silliness of a superhero with the powers of Stretch Armstrong. Originally the film’s official website listed Reed Richards as having the power to “warp space around him, and appear to stretch his body to impossible forms and incredible lengths”. Because of the (totally valid) fervent fan outcry at this needless alteration to a rather straightforward power, Fox updated the film’s website to include a more faithful description of Richard’s power, “he can stretch his body into impossible forms and to incredible lengths”. If Fox is taking frivolous liberties like this, it raises concern as to what else they’ll alter in the vain attempt to make Fantastic Four too similar to the X-Men film franchise.
From what we already know about the characters, Richards seems more like an accidental genius than the world’s smartest man, Johnny Storm seems like a third rate James Dean knock-off, and Dr. Doom is really just a disgruntled blogger. Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy took certain liberties with the source material, all the characters stayed true to their roots; Heath Ledger’s Joker embodied the spirit of the Joker, Aaron Eckhart became Harvey Dent, and Christian Bale performed the best iteration of both Bruce Wayne and Batman that has ever seen. Looking at all previous and current renditions of the Fantastic Four, the same can’t be said. In an attempt to make characters who aren’t easy to modernize more hip, the changes that are made have seemed to change the very essence of the characters. In an attempt to prove that the Fantastic Four aren’t a silly, campy, and sickeningly wholesome family of superheroes, Fantastic Four is trying to do a complete 180 so that these characters seem better suited for a David Fincher movie.
The characters presented in Fantastic Four are so far from the recognizable versions of them that they seem invalid. They’re flawed renditions of characters that have failed to make the jump across different mediums. Every version of the Fantastic Four that has failed, has failed because people try to capture the same tones from the 1960s into today’s culture. That is what has led to the falsified canon that the Fantastic Four are out of date and campy.
Characterizations, and plots that were original and groundbreaking back in 1961 have lost their meaning and currency in 2015 and instead of revamping those ideas in a way that keeps the characters or storylines true to their core, what’s been done with the Fantastic Four, across all mediums be they comics, video games, cartoons, or movies, has either validated the flawed belief that the Fantastic Four are a relic from a bygone era, or conveyed the idea that the only way for the Fantastic Four to be successful is to make them gritty and impersonal. What it ultimately comes down to, is that if some of the best comic book writers can’t crack the Fantastic Four and breathe new life into the franchise, should we expect that anyone else can?