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That Fantastic Four is a movie property outside the reach of Marvel Studios — Josh Trank‘s reboot comes from 20th Century Fox, which also released the 2005 and 2007 Tim Story-directed efforts — is a fact that feels, on some level, simply wrong. Fantastic Four wasn’t just the comic book series that built the Marvel Universe, but also the series that built Marvel as fans of both comics and movies know it today.
When Fantastic Four debuted in 1961, Marvel literally didn’t exist — the company wouldn’t officially adopt that name for a number of years — and creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were simply following an instruction from publisher Martin Goodman to come up with something similar to the best-selling Justice League of America from competitors DC. The result was something inspired by Kirby’s recent past — the series Challengers of the Unknown, which he’d co-created for DC a decade earlier, also featured four adventurers in jumpsuits who survived an accident to become a team investigating the outlandish and unusual. And Lee’s experience on melodramatic monster comics as much as DC’s square-jawed (and just square) superheroics made it far more exciting to the readers for its weirdness.
The first Fantastic Four issues are strange things to revisit from today’s perspective. You can see the rough edges as Kirby and Lee work out what they want to do in public, story logic slips, character motivation is often self-contradictory or entirely absent and pacing is uneven at best — but any and all problems are accompanied by an energy and excitement of discovery. As the series continued, Lee and Kirby introduced new characters that would go on to become cornerstones of the comic book universe — Doctor Doom! The Silver Surfer! Galactus! — but also Marvel’s own Cinematic Universe (Black Panther and the Inhumans both debuted in the Fantastic Four series, less than a year apart).
Perhaps more importantly, Kirby and Lee’s constant innovation and refinement created what could be termed the Marvel aesthetic — not merely a visual look that defined the publisher for decades (Arguably echoing through the company’s pages for two decades after Kirby left the series), but a narrative voice that exists today in Marvel’s television and movie projects. The self-conscious, self-depreciating humor mixed with stories that are epic in scale and intimate at heart is a pattern created by Fantastic Four; without the work done on that comic book series, Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark would lack his trademark quips, Joss Whedon‘s Avengers wouldn’t be able to find space in the middle of an Ultron attack to deal with Black Widow and Bruce Banner’s relationshi, and Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki would likely be more of a moustache-twirling bad guy instead of the faintly-tragic character he is today.
It took the combination of Lee, Kirby and their work on Fantastic Four to discover just the right combination of soap opera, comedy and melodrama that gave Marvel its voice and the edge over its competitors; although other characters would take that formula to greater success — Spider-Man being the most obvious candidate — everything had its start with Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm… or, as they’re better known by Marvel’s comic fans, the First Family of the Marvel Universe.
Marvel is the Fantastic Four and vice versa. All the more strange, then, to see the characters return to the big screen divorced from their comic book brethren. Fans can but hope that, one day, Fox and Marvel reach a content-sharing deal in similar to the one that allows Sony’s new Spider-Man to show up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe during next year’s Captain America: Civil War. It is, on a primal level, exactly where they belong.
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