In Hollywood, some intellectual properties just seem to be snakebit. Superman hasn’t had what you’d call a worldwide success since 1980. The Universal monsters have not seen real film success since the ‘40s. And the Lone Ranger? Well, let’s just . . . not.
But the Fantastic Four, the so-called “first family” of Marvel Comics, as beloved as they are in print, have yet to enjoy big-screen success. In twenty-five years, three filmed iterations of the heroic team have been attempted – one of them, amazingly, producing a sequel – and all have been deemed failures by critics and fans alike. To make matters worse, another movie, also about a family of superheroes (an homage of sorts, in fact, to the FF, among other comic tropes), has garnered so much success in that same time, that those unfamiliar with comics history might mistakenly think the FF was a rip-off of Pixar’s The Incredibles.
Recently a studio transaction has been greenlit which would see Fox Studios selling the entirety of their feature film properties to Disney. Since Fox has long held the film rights to the Fantastic Four, as well as the X-Men (a property which has enjoyed its share of success for the studio), and since Disney is the parent company of Marvel Studios, this would mean that the last of Marvel’s signature characters will at last be “coming home;” the FF and the X-Men would finally be allowed to play in the same sandbox as the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A similar deal was struck between Disney and Sony a few years back regarding the use of Spider-Man in the MCU, though Sony still retains their film rights to the web-slinger, and the result, as many know, has been, well, spectacular.
So, as you can imagine, fan anticipation for the homecoming of these latest iconic heroes has been palpable. But while speculation has run wild regarding how exactly Deadpool’s R-rated antics will jibe with the larger MCU, or whether Hugh Jackman can be persuaded to resurrect Wolverine once again, rumblings about the possibilities regarding future appearances of the Fantastic Four remain somewhat muted. As any profit-conscious studio executive, or any casual moviegoer might ask rhetorically, Can you blame them? To reiterate: three attempts to bring the FF to life on the silver screen have gone down in flames. Consider:
Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, produced in 1994 for Constantin Film, never even made it into theaters. But here’s the thing: no one involved with the film ever expected it to debut; the production (made for a measly $1 million) was done simply as ceremony, as the studio needed to show they were doing something with the FF, lest the film rights revert back to Marvel. The result is a sadly threadbare “movie” with laughable visual effects and costumes that looked store bought. Distributing company New Horizons never released the movie to theaters and buried the final product, making it unavailable for purchase on home platforms; you can only find the movie in bootleg form. However, the film is notable if only for the fact that it is the one FF film adaptation unafraid to portray Victor Von Doom, and his antagonistic relationship with Reed Richards, exactly as it was told in the comics. Still a horrible, amateurish production, but it at least was the most faithful to the comics.
Fox released the next Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story, in 2005, and this one comes the closest to being entertaining. It nails the team’s bickersome banter, but it is loaded with lazy, dumb humor, which is especially egregious since this is a story about geniuses and exciting scientific discovery. It also seriously tinkered with the characterization of Dr. Doom, making him unrecognizable in motivations and temperament from the classic comics character. It made just enough money, however, to justify a sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which has a more coherent story, but was undone again by juvenile humor and reinventing a classic villain, in this case Galactus, who was now a destructive space cloud (file under #wtf?). These two are notable mainly for their top scene stealer, future Captain America Chris Evans, as the cocky Johnny Storm. Honorable mention also goes to Michael Chiklis for nicely capturing the attitude and vocal stylings of Ben Grimm.
The last FF attempt came in 2015, directed by Josh Trank. This version is possibly the most reviled, as it possesses almost zero entertainment value. It is cinematically inert, and the culprit this time was a combination of micromanaging by the studio, along with Trank’s alienating presence on set, especially toward star Kate Mara, whose casting as Sue Storm he had strongly opposed. What’s notable about this one is Trank’s ambition with regards to how radically he had reinvented the characters. Instead of the bright, corny aesthetic the comic is known for, Trank took things in a much different direction, interpreting the team’s emerging powers as dark, creepy body horror. If the movie had worked, it likely would have been compared to one of David Cronenberg’s classic horror films, like The Fly, but would likely still have been rejected by diehard fans for straying too far from the comics’ sensibilities.
So is this a case of three strikes and you’re out? Are the Fantastic Four unfilmable? Are they a relic from a bygone era that just does not translate to today’s sensibilities? The easy answer is yes, especially if you’re a film executive. Green Lantern, The Phantom, The Lone Ranger . . . all of them failed at the box office, and the popular “conventional wisdom” on all was that they were ridiculous, dated pulp concepts that don’t connect with a 21st century audience. “Audiences don’t care about a guy with a magical ring that lets him conjure whatever he can imagine.” The assumption underlying this argument is that the filmmakers used every last resource in their creative toolbox and created the best possible movie they could, but that the audience’s reaction cannot be predicted.
What that argument ignores is that, while those movies may depict visually cornball characters, they failed because they were bad movies, period. Their stories were weak, their screenwriting sucked, and their overall execution was cynical and half-assed. Besides which, Batman is a pretty silly character too, and yet The Dark Knight is one of the greatest action epics ever. Hellboy’s a juvenile, candy-colored knucklehead, and yet The Golden Army is a visually stunning masterpiece. Personally, I detest Wolverine and his dumb claws and facial hair, and yet I cannot deny that Logan is a stone classic. And the three movies I just described are sequels, building or improving on solid, established film iconography.
My point is that ANY subject can succeed as a movie, as long as the story is solid and told in an interesting way, and the characters are compelling and relatable. Whenever you hear a specific complaint about a movie – for example, that the CGI characters in Ang Lee’s Hulk looked horrible and incomplete – the person is, in truth, complaining about a boring story or a nonsensical screenplay. When the story is not strong, viewers get bored and start to pick apart elements that would not have mattered if the story had kept their interest. Notice that nobody complains about the obviously fake, rubbery, animatronic shark in Jaws. That’s because Jaws is a terrifying, perfectly made thriller, done so well that the obviously fake shark does not matter.
And as any comic fan will tell you, the possibilities for an amazing Fantastic Four movie are mind-boggling. Led by ridiculously brilliant scientist and inventor Reed Richards, these four can go anywhere in the known and unknown universe, and have saved our planet from intergalactic destruction more times than they care to share. Their arch-nemesis Dr. Doom is not only an evil genius bent on global domination, he’s already the iron-fisted dictator of his own country (kind of an evil Black Panther). And beyond Doom, the Four’s rogues gallery is among the most colorful and outrageous assemblages of evil in all of comicdom: Mole Man, Terrax, Galactus, Puppet Master, Mad Thinker, Impossible Man, Namor, the Frightful Four, the Skrulls, the Salem Seven . . . the list goes on, and they are exactly as out-there as some of their names imply. And yet, in the face of all this gonzo sci-fi madness, the Fantastic Four are so very human, beautifully flawed and struggling to find some happiness and normalcy amidst the larger than life circumstances they find themselves in. And, in fact, they were Stan Lee’s very first creation at Marvel Comics, their down-to-earth personalities establishing the template for all of Lee’s later creations like Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc. Considering this, they would fit right in with the established movie canon of the MCU.
Online fans have already decided that John Krasinski should play the brilliant and elastic, if often distracted Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic). Building off that, I think Zac Efron’s filmography makes the case for him to play the reckless and cocky Johnny Storm (the Human Torch). Michael Cudlitz of The Walking Dead would bring the right balance of working-class grit and pathos to rock-skinned Ben Grimm (the Thing). And Eliza Coupe of Happy Endings would perfectly embody Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman) as the exasperated voice of reason, corralling these dysfunctional men. Lastly, I’ve always thought Lord Malfoy himself, Jason Isaacs, would lend the right amount of imperious evil to Victor Von Doom.
Fan-casting aside, there’s every reason to believe Marvel Studios could knock a Fantastic Four movie out of the ballpark. Their track record proves it, and these characters and their world are just itching to be executed in the right way. Previous adaptations be damned, a fun, quality action adventure will always put butts in seats. And, seeing as how the Avengers’ time on the silver screen appears to be nigh (at least in regards to certain actors’ contracts), the MCU will need a new super group to anchor their continuing overall narrative. The popular money is on the mutants filling that void, but I’m willing to wager on it being Marvel’s First Family. Fingers crossed, and unstable molecules at the ready.