How Marvel Can Finally Get 'Fantastic Four' Right
Marvel’s first family is finally coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Phase 4 announcements took center stage at Marvel Studios’ Comic-Con panel this past Saturday, Marvel president Kevin Feige was not without some promises for the future, notably a Fantastic Four film. While Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Thing and the Human Torch were squandered at 20th Century Fox and left with a bad reputation, Marvel Studios has a chance to finally show some respect to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creations, which started the modern Marvel era as we know it back in 1961. But in a cinematic universe, and film landscape in which superheroes rule, the Fantastic Four can’t simply be approached as just another team of Earth-bound costumed heroes. For the Fantastic Four to live up to its namesake, its film is going to venture into uncharted territory, literally.
One of the key factors that worked for the Fantastic Four in the comics is that they were the start of something and the rest of the Marvel Universe was built around them. Timely Comics characters like Namor and Captain America were brought from the Golden Age into the Silver Age because of the success of the Fantastic Four, and repercussions of the team’s earliest exploits can still be seen in even the most recent of Marvel’s comics.
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But the Marvel Cinematic Universe is already well established. Those characters, like Spider-Man, Black Panther, the Skrulls, the Kree, Ronan and the Avengers, whose way was paved by the Fantastic Four in the comics are already firmly established in the movies. So the question begged by an introduction of Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm into the MCU is what can they add that isn’t already present? Marvel Studios has done well at expanding its cinematic universe, giving each independent franchise the opportunity to carve out its own corner and mythos. Phase 4 looks to heighten that factor by giving us entries that are not necessarily working in conjunction to give us a new team of Avengers. This lack of an evident Avengers-centric narrative provides a means for a new team to come to the forefront, a team whose mission goes beyond avenging the Earth.
Of the four Fantastic Four movies, The Fantastic Four (1994), Fantastic Four (2005), Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Fan4stic (2015), each one has failed to take to concept beyond Earth and look at these characters as more than superheroes. The 2015 film attempted to do so during the last act, but the behind-the-scenes conflicts left us with a film that feels like a collection of loose ideas, none fantastic on their own. The ever-popular term attached to modern big-budget genre flicks, “grounded” couldn’t be further from who the Fantastic Four are. There’s a reason why Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s monumental 102 issue run introduced so many core concepts into the Marvel Universe. These characters weren’t simply NYC heroes, they were explorers, bridge-builders between worlds, travelers of the realms of science and magic, whose celebrity status and branding allowed them to operate with little interference or oversight. They were undefined by genre, and represented everything beloved about comic books. The MCU, while not grounded in broad terms, does occasionally opt for more grounded first entries. Thor (2011), Ant-Man (2015) and Captain Marvel (2019), are all a bit more guarded and safe than need be. Fantastic Four doesn’t need a grounded approach in the MCU, nor does it need to be relegated to one genre. Science fiction, fantasy, political thriller, horror, western, comedy and romance, have all had their place within a Fantastic Four story at one point or another. Oh, and there’s been pirates too. There’s no need to shy away from any of that.
There’s been some discussion online about the exact method with which the Fantastic Four could be introduced into the MCU, with many suggesting that they time travel from the 1960s into the present. But we’ve already seen that time jump story in several forms, first with Captain America, then with Captain Marvel, and now with all of those displaced by the aftermath of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. The team out of time idea seems too safe and commonplace for the Fantastic Four. Likewise, so does Peyton Reed’s pitch for the 2002 film, which social media has rediscovered and gravitated to. That film would have been set in the 1960s and taken A Hard Day’s Night approach to the Fantastic Four as celebrities in Manhattan. While Reed is said to be hoping to land the Fantastic Four director’s gig, a long-term dream, and it’s likely that pitch has evolved within the context of the MCU, a Manhattan-based film set in the past seems like a massive misunderstanding of the characters’ potential. Yes, it’s visually easy to imagine a 60s-set film because the comic book began in the 60s, but the Fantastic Four have always sought out the future, and leaned into the next great thing. To fix them to a point in the past, and keep them Earthbound, only makes the characters seem dated when they are anything but.
As Mark Waid and the late, great Mike Wieringo explored in their excellent run on Fantastic Four (2002), they are a family of “adventurers, explorers and imaginauts.” With Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness breaking open the doors to Marvel’s multiverse, the Fantastic Four have a new reason to exist in the MCU. While the Sorcerer Supreme is already the designated protector of the multiverse, he’s only one man, called into action when an emergency occurs. The Fantastic Four have the potential to be there before the emergencies happen, charting unknown regions of space and time and tapping into new discoveries to solve the world’s problems by means that aren’t always under the same moral constraints of superheroes. This was the central idea of Jonathan Hickman, Dale Eaglesham and Steve Epting’s run on Fantastic Four and Future Foundation, which saw the foursome expand their ranks to include the Richards’ children Franklin and Valeria, among others, in order to further their impact on changing the world. Perhaps the absence of the Fantastic Four in the MCU thus far could be explained by the fact that they have been traveling the multiverse in search of answers to the world’s problems, only to arrive after Thanos’ death and find a world beset by new issues.
When we meet the Fantastic Four in the MCU, we’ll hopefully see fully formed versions of these characters, not Ultimate Universe-inspired young adults struggling with their abilities, or outdated versions of superheroes, but adults who have already done their share of exploring, and have a fully functional family unit that can’t be torn apart by spats or the Thing’s frustration with his appearance. Spider-Man: Far From Home made it clear that the Earth is in need of new heroes and eager to give them a celebrity status. It would be interesting to see the FF take up the guise as celebrity superheroes in public, taking down the Mole Man and his monsters, while behind closed doors exploring the secrets of the Negative Zone, and alternate realities not meant for general consumption. If a FF adaptation can get risky, get weird, build worlds and break rules then we may finally have something fantastic on our hands.
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