Why Fox's 'Fantastic Four' Needs to Ignore Its Comic Book Past (Analysis)

Purists may be outraged, but that's fine. There's no way to make a "Fantastic Four" movie that remains faithful to the original comic today.
Jack Kirby/Marvel Enterprises
Purists may be outraged, but that's fine. There's no way to make a "Fantastic Four" movie that remains faithful to the original comic today.

Let's get the most obvious thing out of the way first: a core cast of Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell and Miles Teller suggests that whatever problems Fox's Fantastic Four reboot might have, the quality of the acting won't be one of them. Unfortunately, that just leaves everything else to worry about.

Fantastic Four has historically proven to be, against all odds, a difficult property to get right. The comic book has been, at best, a mid-level seller for Marvel for decades now, no matter the writers and artists attached -- the most recent series written by New York Times bestseller Matt Fraction ended its run with an estimated 28,000 orders in the U.S. at a time when successful titles sell four times that amount; for comparison, Avengers World #1, the big Avengers release from the same month had 86,000 orders -- and previous attempts to take the team into other media have met with middling critical and commercial success at best.

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On the one hand, this shouldn't be the case. The core concept of the characters, as created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961's Fantastic Four #1, is that of a family of adventurers constantly exploring in search of novelty, of new adventures and discoveries. As an engine for stories, that should be almost inexhaustible, with the interpersonal relationships within the group -- a scientist, his girlfriend (later wife), her brother and a curmudgeonly best friend to all three -- balancing out however esoteric and theoretical the "new" McGuffin ends up being. Something for everyone, right?

Except that, in execution, Fantastic Four has consistently been plagued by the very opposite of its concept. While the team search out the new, the concept has become haunted by its past, with every new incarnation of the idea continually compared with Lee and Kirby's original stories and, worse, found wanting.

For comic book fans, the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four is an almost holy text. Running 102 issues of the monthly comic book (and six accompanying annuals), it was an endlessly inventive comic book that threw out new characters and ideas with a restlessness that seems almost impossible to imagine today. New villains, allies, alien races and alternate dimensions appeared fully-formed each issue, with the series offering a compelling momentum that consistently drove everything forward.

(Whereas Sony has to mine the ranks of villains to build out multiple franchises from its Spider-Man license, the problem Fox faces with expanding Fantastic Four into a series of movie series is more likely to be which concept to choose for exploration. The Silver Surfer? The Kree or Skrulls, a pair of warring alien races? The Inhumans, the Negative Zone, the Microverse? That's saying nothing about such characters as the Black Panther or Adam Warlock, both of which the studio may be able to lay claim to considering their first appearances in issues of Fantastic Four.)

The problem turned out to be, Lee and Kirby did their jobs too well. No-one and nothing that has followed the pair on a Fantastic Four property has managed to come close to matching their invention, nor their wit and verve in execution of the storytelling. Worse still, fans have responded most favorably to versions of the characters that hew closely to the template that Lee and Kirby created. Somehow, without anyone wanting it to happen, the characters who should be about seeking out new frontiers have become a nostalgia act.

It runs counter to everything we've come to expect from super hero films -- especially Fox's super hero output, which differs from Marvel's, Sony's and Warner Bros' in that the studio has started to directly adapt existing comic book storylines outside of origin stories -- but the best chance of true success that the Fantastic Four movie has is to ignore the comic book as much as possible. Take the basic template and the spirit of those first 100-odd issues, but otherwise start afresh and try something new.

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Purists may be outraged, but they're already there, complaining about a black Human Torch or an Invisible Woman who's older than the rest of the team. That's fine. There's no way to make a Fantastic Four movie that remains faithful to the original comic today, anyway; the team's original origin centered around the characters trying to beat the Russians into orbit with one character saying "We've got to take that chance… unless we want the Commies to beat us to it!" with worrying sincerity.

We've already seen what a Fantastic Four movie that tries to recreate the comic book is like, in 2005. We've also seen what director Josh Trank can do with superhero tropes when he doesn't have to worry about pre-existing continuity or expectations. The best thing Fox can hope for from the Fantastic Four reboot is that Trank follows his instincts, and doesn't try and give the audience what it thinks it wants.

If nothing else, he's got a cast that can back him up, no matter what.