Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase – The Fantastic Four

July 22, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

About a year ago, Fox Studios released their Fantastic Four reboot onto the world. One of the biggest financial bombs of the year, that film has an unfortunate yet well-deserved reputation as the worst superhero film of this decade (2010 on). I remember that the astounding failure of the movie caused some people to wonder if there was any way that Marvel’s first family could ever make a successful transition to film. After all, last year’s movie was the fourth attempt to bring them to the big screen, and the others didn’t have a lot of success either.

Obviously any property can be ruined with the wrong creative team and a studio that doesn’t care. But when something fails that many times, it forces some of us to ask the question; are the Fantastic Four even worth bringing to movies? Are they that great to begin with? Or are they simply a relic of a bygone era, holding on past their expiration date simply because they used to be a big deal in the comics industry? Are the Fantastic Four actually all that fantastic?

To answer that question, we must first acknowledge that the Fantastic Four have an undisputed and critically important place in the history of superhero comics and comics in general. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the team debuted in November of 1961 in the first issue of their self-title series. Stan threw out the established rulebook for the genre and created superheroes that he wanted to read about; the brilliant yet socially inept Reed Richards, the shy yet preening Sue Storm, her cocky younger brother Johnny, and the boisterous and tragic Ben Grimm. The four characters were scientists, explorers, and most importantly, a family. The drama of the comic came as much from the interpersonal relationships as it did from the high-concept sci-fi adventure or the superpowered battles with nefarious villains.

The Fantastic Four was an innovative series that made an immediate and lasting impact on the comic book industry. The success of the series paved the way for Stan Lee and others to create a new batch of superheroes throughout the early 1960’s, kicking the Silver Age into high gear. The Fantastic Four are the DNA of the Marvel universe. The youth and arrogance of The Human Torch paved the way for the Spider-Man and the X-Men. The scientific brilliance of Reed Richards carried over to characters like Iron Man and Ant-Man. Ben Grimm was a tragic monster of a man before Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk. And Sue Storm set a precedent for other female characters like Jean Grey and the Wasp to be essential members of their own teams. Simply put, outside of Captain America, there isn’t a single Marvel hero that doesn’t owe a debt to the Fantastic Four and their success.

Marvel’s quirky quartet of heroes set the standard for how superhero teams were written. They had a wide variety of powers that were strong individually, but worked better as a team. Reed Richards was the super elastic Mr. Fantastic, Sue Storm was out of sight as the Invisible Woman, and Johnny Storm caught fire as a reinvention of the Human Torch. The Thing, the monstrous alter ego of Ben Grimm, is one of the most unique and iconic of Jack Kirby’s creations. None of them could do what the others could, leading to dynamic action scenes and creative problem solving. This variety carried over directly into the X-Men, and even DC teams like the Teen Titans.

But what was truly important was the character’s personalities and their interpersonal dynamics. Reed and Ben were best friends that were as close as brothers; Sue and Johnny were actual siblings. Reed and Sue were in love and eventually married; Johnny and Ben also became as close as brothers. They all have distinct relationships with the others and no dynamic is exactly the same. But why they all care for each other, they don’t always get along. In fact, most of the time they are butting heads; Johnny in particular had a reckless, loud and often abrasive personality that put him at odds with the other, older members of his team. Reed’s intelligence and socially ineptitude makes him frustrating, while Ben’s short fuse and tendency to run from problems are also a source of drama. Only Sue seems to be emotionally stable, and she is essentially for making sure the four function as a team and a family.

It’s this aspect of the Fantastic Four that really defines them. Other than possibly the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I don’t think any other team in comics so effectively presents the family dynamic as this team. The X-Men come close, but they are more of an extended family, while the FF are very close-knit and much more dependent on each other. While all four are good characters individually, the real magic is having them work off of each other. Yes, The Thing and the Human Torch are popular enough to guest star in other comics or in their own series, but they work best as a group.

Specifically, they work best as this group. Over the years, there have been a few attempts to change the roster of the Fantastic Four to keep it fresh, which is understandable considering the very long run of the comic. Some have worked: She-Hulk replacing The Thing not only gave an underrated character a bigger spotlight, but she worked well with the group. Others didn’t quite click for me; there was a very brief period of time in which the Human Torch was dead and replaced with Spider-Man. Conceptually, I can understand the idea, but this was a case of star power overwhelming the rest of the team. Spider-Man as a character is bigger and more interesting than the entire group, especially when they are missing one of their own. Having the wallcrawler work with the FF is great, but having him be part of the team doesn’t work in my opinion.

Speaking of things that don’t work; let’s talk about the unfortunate history of the Fantastic Four on the silver screen. I haven’t seen enough of the early 1990’s movie to comment on it, but I have seen the other three. While the first two are not good movies, I have never quite had the revulsion for them that some have. Reed and Ben feel pretty spot-on, and I enjoyed the family sitcom aspects; the problem is that the scripts just aren’t particularly good and certain major elements fall flat. Victor Von Doom was awful, Galactus was a giant cloud, and overall the films just feel bland and forgettable. Of course, they tower above last year’s failure of a film, which just seemed embarrassed to be a comic book movie and settled for being tediously boring in the first half and laughable inept in the second.

With that many failures in a row, several have asked; are the Fantastic Four just unsuited to the medium? Are their characters too bland to carry two hours of plot in one setting? Are their adventures just too strange and require more budget than can possibly be justified for the small audience? Does anyone care enough to bother going?

My answer is that a good movie can be made about anything. The solution to me is really simple; go back to the comics and see what made the characters and their world work in the first place. Don’t be afraid to have strange elements like giant monsters or shapeshifting aliens or interdimensional travel. Yeah, they did that in last year’s film, but it was the execution and the presentation that failed, not the idea. And for the love of Jack Kirby, let Doctor Doom be Doctor Doom. The Fantastic Four may not be the cream of the crop when it comes to comic book franchise and even their most devout fans will admit that, but one of their biggest advantages is that they have arguably the greatest comic book villain of all time as their central antagonist. Let Victor Von Doom rule Latveria instead of making small nods. Let him delve into sorcery and technology instead of giving him vague powers that nobody understands. Give us Doombots and elaborate traps; go all the way with the wackiness and you will find an audience that wants to see that. This isn’t 2000 anymore and things don’t have to be gritty and realistic; The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and even Deadpool have proved that fans are willing to let comic book movies be weird.

But even if you can’t manage to go that route, it shouldn’t matter; the Fantastic Four are great characters, and they have really interesting contradictions. Reed is the most flexible person in the world physically, but he’s got a big stick up his butt and doesn’t work well with other humans most of the time. The Thing is a giant rock monster, but he’s also a warm, cuddly human being with a ton of emotions who is always in emotional pain. Johnny Storm is young, irresponsible, and reckless and turns into the most volatile, dangerous element. Sue is a preening would-be beauty queen whose power is to be invisible. She’s also the team mom, and that’s something that hasn’t been done very often. Between these and the afore-mentioned character dynamics that make the FF who they are, there should be at least a couple of screenwriters who know how to make this work.

I mean, if one comic book writer can make those characters compelling for over a decade, surely some professional screenwriter can make them compelling for two hours. Right?


Come Out From Under A Rock!

Check out the other column I write for this site, From Under A Rock. Michael Ornelas and I take turns introducing each other to films the other one hasn’t seen. Last week, Michael and I watched the original Ghostbusters and I couldn’t keep characters’ names straight. This week, Michael sees Spider-Man 2 for the first time.