According to Variety, the deal between Disney and 20th Century Fox is scheduled to be completed in the next few months. In anticipation of this, Marvel Comics has been ramping up promotion of the Fantastic Four. For those out of the loop, along with the X-Men franchise, the FF were among the Marvel properties that were still under license to 20th Century Fox. The Fantastic Four has been cinematic Kryptonite for years. A dismal pair of films in the 2000s led to an even more wretched reboot in 2015. Depending on who you ask, these dismal box office returns, combined with Marvel wanting their properties back, decided to mothball the Fantastic Four in 2015, cancelling the series in June of that year, and then burying the characters following the Secret Wars event of that summer. Only the Human Torch and the Thing were seen kicking around in various Marvel books. That was until February of last year when Marvel revived Marvel Two-In-One, which saw the Thing and Human Torch together again in their own series, this ultimately led to the rival of the Fantastic Four title this past summer. The title was also given to Dan Slott, one of Marvel’s big name writers who spent the past decade breathing new life into Spider-Man. So they’re taking it seriously this time around.
With Marvel’s 80th Anniversary approaching this October, Marvel is celebrating many of their milestones titles and characters. Particularly the Fantastic Four. Over the past few months references to the group started appearing in Marvel video games, the most recent being the popular Spider-Man video game on PS4. However, the sudden push for the Fantastic Four is also likely due to the almost-set-in-stone deal with 20th Century Fox.
Watching the slow ramp up and promotion, these moves are not unlike when Marvel started boosting the profile to other properties such as the Inhumans, and the “Marvel Knights” who saw a few favourable years on Netflix. Already, speculation as to how the Fantastic Four will make their debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, I think it’s a safe bet to predict that a Fantastic Four movie will be announced sometime this year makes sense.
However, after three awful movies, how can Marvel Studios breath life in this struggling franchise? Well that’s a good question. As someone who has read every Fantastic Four comic book ever published, I have a few thoughts on the subject. Particularly where the films went wrong, and where I think they could fix these issue.
Problem #1: Origins
The Fantastic Four’s first issue was published in November of 1961, and it was certainly a product of its time. In the original story Reed Richards built a rocket ship in order to get to the moon. The central motivation? To beat the Soviets in the space race. Since this story was published 8 years before man first walked on the moon, a plot line like that was the stuff of science fiction. There’s also the fact that, back in 1961, nobody really knew the effects that cosmic rays would have on the human body. We do now, and well it’s one of the reasons why we haven’t gone to Mars yet.
Back then you could sell a story about astronauts being exposed by cosmic rays and coming back with fantastic powers. You couldn’t tell this story in a modern context without it sounding astoundingly bad. Attempts at modernizing the origins of Marvel’s First Family has always been an experiment in futility. In the 2005 film, the origin was completely revamped. In it, the Fantastic Four got their powers after being struck by a “space storm” while aboard a space station.
The whole concept was underwhelming and devoid of any suspense that it didn’t really feel like there were lives at risk. In hindsight, you can almost forgive this movie for having a crappy origin story. Going back and re-watching the first X-Men and Spider-Man films and comparing them to their MCU successors are almost quaint in how simplistic and single layered they were.
Then there was the 2015 reboot….
That film attempted to adapted the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book. The problem with that was they adapted the original story arc written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Miller. While, by themselves, the pair are phenomenal writers who have created some of the greatest stories of the past 20 years in comics. Bendis knocked it out of the park with Ultimate Spider-Man while Millar killed it with Ultimate X-Men and the Ultimates. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same thing about their re-imagining of the Fantastic Four. It was a forced and plodding affair that tried, in vein, to recapture the elements that made the other Ultimate Books more successful. In this version, the Fantastic Four got their powers by travelling across dimensions into a realm called the N-Zone. On it’s face, it was a half-assed origin story that tries to give a modern origin story as quickly as possible. As you can imagine, when it was translated to film, it was awful.
Problem #2: A Place to Fit In
The other problem with a Fantastic Four film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that we’ve already got over a decade of films firmly establishing the Avengers as the premiere superheroes of that universe. Adding other heroes through supplementary material — Such as Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Agents of SHIELD (and related spin-offs) and the Netflix shows — all work because these characters work on different levels. The Netflix crew and Spider-Man deal with street levels threats, while the Avengers deal with global ones. Doctor Strange deals with mystical threats, while the Guardians deal with galactic ones. Then you’ve got Agents of SHIELD and it’s spin-offs which deal strictly in the really boring plots.
So where do you fit the Fantastic Four? Explorers who deal with planetary and intergalactic threats?
To just throw the Fantastic Four into the mix as though they are “new comers” to the MCU puts them in a position where people just aren’t going to give a shit. When you’ve got a world with the Avengers running around saving everyone from Thanos and the Infinity Stones, are the Fantastic Four really are going to be equally impressive? They won’t be special, they won’t be unique, and they will flop hard.
How to Do It Right
Solution #1: The Origin
As I said above, attempts to modernise and retell the Fantastic Four’s origin story in the present day have all failed. Every. Single. Time. Why even attempt to do it again?
You want to make a good Fantastic Four movie? Have it take place in 1961. You get a Fantastic Four movie. You get to keep the original space race story. It creates an element of danger for the character. You can also tell the story with modern knowledge of space travel to create an origin story for the Fantastic Four that would work for a story taking place in 1961 and it not being dated or lame.
However, when it comes to the origins of the Fantastic Four, I think they should do the usual “keep it fast and loose” like other Marvel films. We’ve already seen enough Fantastic Four origin stories. Less is more. Get it out of the way as painlessly as possible and get on with an actual story.
Solution #2: Setting
The idea of setting a super-hero film in another decade is not outlandish either, there is major precedence. Since the release of The Watchmen, super-hero films have been dipping their toes in different eras. Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Ant-Man are all super-hero films that have major plot points (if not whole films) taking place in other eras. To date, Marvel Studios have only dabbled in World War II in Captain America, the post-war era in Agent Carter, and the 80’s in the Ant-Man films. On top of that, the upcoming Captain Marvel film is set in 1995.
What is becoming clear to the people at Marvel Studios is the fact that constantly having new heroes appear in the "present” is just too disruptive to the cinematic universe they are crafting. Going into the past is the smart move, it allows them to wave in characters into eras that have yet to be explored that supplement the “modern day” movies.
It also gives the writers an opportunity to write a super-hero story set in the 60s. You could write plots that appeal to every demographic. You could have a sub-plot about Sue Storm struggling in a world in the middle of the Women’s Lib movement. If they decide to make any of the members of the Fantastic Four African-American (which, by the way, wasn’t a bad idea and not one of the things I say was wrong about the 2015 film), you could also tell a compelling story about the struggles of the Civil Rights movement as well. Making a period piece and having half of your team being marginalised individuals makes for some powerful story telling potential.
Solution #2: Give Doctor Doom a Rest
The other thing that they need to stop doing, at least for now, is starting off these movies by creating Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom rivalry. If you include the 1994 unreleased Fantastic Four film 3/4 of the films have had the Fantastic Four going up against Doctor Doom. In each rendition, especially the 2015, he looked laughably bad. Now, I have enough faith in Marvel Studios to actually create a good Doctor Doom, I think that they need to save it for a later film.
The Fantastic Four has a plethora of villains in their rogues gallery that would make for more compelling foes. Doctor Doom should definitely take a back seat for other villains. I’d be okay with Victor von Doom appearing in this movie, just no Doctor Doom. Build him up for later movies, just like they did with Thanos.
I writing all this, I can’t help but put my thoughts on what would make an compelling Fantastic Four story, at least to me. So allow me this moment of self-indulgence for a minute and tell me what you think of this in the comments section.
My ideal Fantastic Four film would take place in the year 1961, it would also be a combination of the Fantastic Four origin story and Fantastic Four #13. In that story, the FF make it to the moon and clash with the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes. There they meet the Watcher who decides to use the battle to determine whose nation is the the better. It was total classic Cold War era Marvel story telling. However, instead of Red Ghost and the Super-Apes, the villains of the film would be the Frightful Four, because a Russian guy fighting four Americans with three super-powered apes is absurd. Changes to the Frightful Four roster to fit the plot would be necessary as well.
Allow me to explain my plot:
It’s 1961 and Reed Richards is rushing to complete his rocket for the United States government and beat the Soviets in the space race. Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, Victor von Doom has been commissioned to build a Soviet rocket to beat the Americans into space. Getting wind of this, the government forces Reed, and his crew of pilots (Ben Grimm, Sue Storm and her brother Johnny) to go on the mission before Reed can fully test the shields that will protect them from cosmic radiation. Learning of this advance flight, Doom sends up his own shuttle — however — not willing to risk exposure to harmful radiation, Doom sends subordinates:
Ivan Kragoff: A Russian scientist appointed by the Russian government to work with Von Doom.
Bentley Wittman: An American defector who fled to Russia during the Communist witch hunts of the 50s. Jealous of Reed Richard’s work.
Esteban Diablo: His family supported the Communist Party and fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to a Communist nation.
Harvey Elder: A timid scientist who was shunned by his peers due to his looks. Was abducted by Communist agents. What’s worse, nobody seemed to care that he went missing. This embitters him into siding with the Soviets.
Both ships reach Earth orbit, get bombarded by cosmic rays, but instead of crashing and burning. Both parties are saved by the Watcher, who pulls them to the moon. All eight humans find themselves transformed by cosmic rays. The Fantastic Four all get their trademark abilities, as does the Red Ghost. To fit this origin story, the others would have Cosmic Ray based powers. Wittman is given the power of telepathy and telekinesis, Diablo can transmute matter with a touch, and Elder is transformed into a hideous Mole Man (So instead of a pint-sized runt with bad vision, he’s a serious match for the Thing). In order to learn more about the nature of humanity, the Watcher sets the two sides against each other, the “prize” being the technological marvels hidden within his Citadel.
Without saying anything more about it, my story would have one of those science fiction twists regarding this “prize” that was the stuff of Marvel’s science fiction stories of the 60s.
This is probably not anywhere close to what Marvel will eventually pull out of their hat when it comes to show time, but sometimes it’s good to imagine what could be someday.