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This year is shaping up to be a low point for the Fantastic Four.
It’s not just the unfortunate fate of the Marvel property’s latest movie that’s behind that statement, although director Josh Trank essentially disowning the movie as it gets released is a bad sign for the movie’s long-term prospects. There’s also the poor reviews and underwhelming opening box-office results.
Although those involved with the movie have talked about potential plans for a second movie, or possible crossover with Fox’s X-Men movies, it’s beginning to look a lot more likely that this version of the First Family could be absent from the big screen after this misfire.
Fantastic Four is not only expected to have the lowest opening of any of the three released FF movies to date, but the lowest of any superhero movie in recent memory. Even Green Lantern, the go-to “flop” of the genre, made $53 million back in 2011; The Amazing Spider-Man 2, last year’s loser in terms of superhero movies, opened with $91 million, and still fell into a reboot and partnership with Marvel Studios. In other words, things really don’t look good for the current Fantastic Four.
In comic books, Fantastic Four is also in its death throes. The series came to an end in May, and isn’t listed as one of the titles to be relaunched as part of the All-New, All-Different Marvel lineup this fall; indeed, its cast is being split between different series, with the Human Torch joining the Uncanny Inhumans series, and the Thing launching into space with the new Guardians of the Galaxy title. Both Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman have yet to appear in any previews of the new series, lining up with rumors that they’ll meet their deaths in the current Secret Wars comic book event.
As much as fans — myself included — feel that a Marvel line lacking a Fantastic Four comic is something close to heresy, it’s hard to argue that Marvel could happily continue without the title. Indeed, Fantastic Four hasn’t been a top-seller for the publisher for some time (barring sales stunts like pretending to kill one of the leads), and the series has gone through multiple relaunches and “new directions” that have continued to fail to grab readers’ attention and imagination. The most recent series that ended was the third such attempt in the last four years, to put things in some perspective.
Additionally, there has been a long-standing rumor that Marvel is disinterested in supporting any potential Fantastic Four project because Fox owns the movie and merchandise rights to the property. Marvel officially declines to comment on the rumor, although executive editor Tom Brevoort is on record as saying it doesn’t sound plausible, nor make any sense. It is worth noting that, although Fantastic Four is currently not in line for relaunch as part of the All-New, All-Different schedule, the series was outselling other titles which will receive relaunches, including current and future Marvel Studios properties Hulk, Inhuman, Captain Marvel and Daredevil, before its cancellation.
Maybe it’s that Fantastic Four is an idea out of sync with the current climate. There’s something to that idea. At its core, FF is a concept based around optimism and self-determination, where the team is made up of characters who refuse to bow to bad luck — the accident that remade them as superhumans — or the constraints of the world around them. It shares a New Frontier attitude with Star Trek, another genre concept that’s stumbled in recent times. (Star Trek Into Darkness‘ flirtation with being “grim and gritty,” signaled by its very title, fit almost as poorly as the grounded nature of the new Fantastic Four movie.) Perhaps today’s movie audiences would rather watch the slyly self-aware humor of Marvel Studios’ output or the dark take on Superman and Batman, given the choice.
In terms of comics, that’s a harder case to make; many of failed relaunches have purposefully tried to work the “brand new, you’re retro” angle to little or no success. But with the critical and sales success of series like Batgirl, Ms. Marvel or even something like the relaunched Archie, which was one of the top 10 comics of last month, it’s hard to imagine that readers wouldn’t be receptive to a lighter, more upbeat version of the characters if done well.
If it is the case that audiences aren’t looking for the “classic,” optimistic, FF, that’s a shame. Fantastic Four history is not only filled with some of comics’ most memorable characters, but a pulpy sense of adventure and fun that’s closer to something like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future than any of the current superhero movie output, and that could — and should, maybe — be a selling point. (Arguably, Disney’s Big Hero 6 comes closest of the recent batch, although really, The Incredibles remains the movie most true to Fantastic Four in spirit.)
A faithful adaptation might be out of step with current trends, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would fail, if done well. Indeed, it might be exactly the breath of fresh air the superhero genre needs — and, given that we’ve seen how the alternative performed, it couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve already gotten. If there’s one thing that’s true in the superhero genre, it’s that everyone always has a comeback when it’s least expected.
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