The Core of the Four
These are tough times for the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. The Fantastic Four are conspicuous by their absence from Marvel’s next big reboot, and their new movie is supposed to stink (putting it in good company with the ones that have come before). While the series has enjoyed signature runs under creators like John Byrne and Jonathan Hickman, you could argue that the Fantastic Four went into decline when Jack Kirby left the book with issue #102 in 1970 (if not earlier).
Classic heroes. Great villains. Galaxy-spanning adventures of lasting importance. A sprawling supporting cast that’s better than the headliners of many other books. And yet, today the Fantastic Four feels like a second-tier property (and maybe that’s giving them too much credit). How can Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue regain their mojo?
I’m far from an expert on this series, but on the eve of their bound-to-be-disappointing third (fourth?) film outing, I thought I’d look at key aspects of the Fantastic Four — the things that make them special, and the things I think need to be front-and-center in any interpretation of this property. I’m certain I’ll miss a few things (and overstate others), so be sure to give me your impressions, additions, and push-backs in the comments section, below.
But without further apology … here’s what I regard as the Core of the Four!
There is a special magic in the partnering of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing. They’re primal elementals … brains, heart, charisma, and brawn … husband, wife, brother, and best friend.
From time to time a member will leave the group, but the Fantastic Four just don’t feel like the Fantastic Four without their four founding members front-and-center. The team has had its share of membership changes and roster shake-ups, but while I like She-Hulk as much as the the next guy, for me the Fantastic Four has to center on the original four canonical characters. The book can and should have a robust supporting cast — but Ben, Reed, Johnny, and Susan have got to hold the center stage. Without these guys, you don’t have the Fantastic Four.
Not Just A World — A Whole Universe
The Fantastic Four shouldn’t feel like a part of the Marvel Universe — they ARE the Marvel Universe. Actually, they’re bigger than the Marvel Universe! Anchored by their Baxter Building HQ, the Fantastic Four enjoy the same New York City playground as most of Marvel’s other characters … but they also have the limitless reaches of outer space, strange alternate dimensions, and hidden enclaves like Attilan, Latveria, Atlantis, and Wakanda as their domain.
One of the great charms of this series is that it is as at home on Yancy Street as Ego the Living Planet, and everyplace in between. From month to month, a reader shouldn’t be able to guess where an adventure is going to start, or where it is going to lead. This series should have the broadest canvas in comics.
The Fantastic Four can tackle serious threats — you don’t get much more serious than Galactus trying to eat the planet! — but this is a sunlit series long on adventure and … well … fun. It is a rational world where science can solve anything (and cause a few problems along the way); it’s a trivial world where the Fantastic Four are celebrities at the heart of the world’s biggest reality show; it’s a childish world where the Thing and the Torch wreck their headquarters over some silly prank; it’s a flexible world where characters like Doctor Doom and the Impossible Man can share the same stage.
At the core, the Fantastic Four is an unapologetic Silver Age adventure story, a kitchen sink of space gods, bank robbers, killer robots, villainous landlords, mad science, and romantic melodrama. There is angst, disappointment, and heartbreak along the way, but the Fantastic Four isn’t grim, miserable, or violent — it is the story of four optimistic souls who love each other and love having superpowers (even Ben Grimm, who over time has evolved from a wretched man trapped inside a monster into a wise old brawler who is — most of the time — comfortable in his own skin). The Fantastic Four should have fun on their adventures, and their adventures should be fun to read.
It’s not such a dirty word. Say it with me, now — FUN!
The Beating Heart of the Marvel Universe
The Fantastic Four are Marvel’s First Family — they can and should be at the center of everything that happens in the Marvel Universe. Over the decades, the X-Men and (more recently) the Avengers have grown into Marvel’s go-to teams when disaster threatens, but really, it is the Fantastic Four that you want when it is time to get things done. They’re the team with the unimpeachable reputation, with connections around the globe (and around the universe!), with the cutting-edge tech, and the unmatchable reserve of experience and talent for tackling any problem.
They can be diplomats, they can be scientists, they can be explorers, and they can be a wrecking crew with equal aplomb. They’re privately funded and committed to the public good in ways that less organic super teams cannot match. The biggest events of the Marvel Universe — from dimensional rifts to alien invasions to the wedding receptions of super-spouses — really only feel big if they happen to or with the Fantastic Four. That the Fantastic Four have been pushed to the margins of the Marvel Universe is a tragedy for the title, and an even greater loss for Marvel, as it denies the larger part of the heritage that makes Marvel great. Get this book back on the schedule! Free the Fantastic Four!
That’s your core — big adventures with intimate characters. A legacy of heroism and adventure. A sense of destiny and duty. Unbreakable family bonds. Fun! Give me those things, or you’re not giving me the Fantastic Four!
It might seem that I’m advocating for a strictly Silver Age Fantastic Four — and those hundred-odd Silver Age issues by Stan and Jack are still tops in my book — but this needn’t be the case. Sure, I’d love to see a 1960s-era Fantastic Four movie with a Mad Men visual sensibility, but there are some core elements of the original series (like the Cold War competition with “the Reds,” or the sexist portrayal of Sue Storm as a weak and superfluous member of the group) that are best forgotten.
The wildest excesses of the Silver Age can and should likewise be tempered for contemporary audiences. But the soul and spirit of that era should proudly remain at the heart of the Fantastic Four. This is a great property … a great series with a great heritage. All that really remains is for the Fantastic Four (and Marvel!) to recognize that greatness — and embrace it. Depict the Fantastic Four with confidence and swagger and prove they aren’t a relic of a bygone age, and that their greatest adventures are yet to come.
I’m ready to join them! How about you? Give me your own reboot ideas in the comments section, below!
NEXT MONTH: #151 Fantastic Four Annuals #1-3
Posted on August 5, 2015, in Conspectus and tagged Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics, Stan Lee. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.
Nailed it with “big adventures with intimate characters.” Ever since Lee & Kirby hit their stride and realized just how limitless the possibilities were for this family, character interaction within beyond-awesome settings has defined the high-water marks for this title. Even “Ultimate FF” preserved that tone in the stories by Bendis, Ellis, Millar, and Carey, along with some stellar artwork. Those stories showed the creative teams knew what made FF work from the get-go.
But, it seems a bit sad when we can decide a movie sucks before it’s even hit the theaters. I’ll probably go see it because it seems I prefer the superhero movies everyone else considers second rate, and don’t care for the ones everyone raves about.
I haven’t seen the movie — I was just passing along the dire review news from Rotten Tomatoes. It may defy the odds but the signs aren’t good … the director and the studio have been feuding, and Fox tried (with little success) to embargo reviews until after the film came out. If critical consensus is your reverse weather vane, though, this may well prove your favorite film! Let me know what you think of it, Mars!
(And thanks for reading and commenting, as always!)
Follow-up: After seeing reviews of how Doom was handled in the movie, I just couldn’t bear to see my favorite villain butchered on screen again. I’d rather re-read some Doom classics like the Shooter/Mignola graphic novel about going to hell with Dr. Strange, the Millar/Hitch story about Doom’s master, the first Doom limited series, or the original Secret Wars before seeing a terrible movie revision. [Insert rant that never ends about Doom classics.] Anyway, I spent my movie time watching a Korean movie about pirates instead, and was not disappointed!
I always felt that they suffered from the medium of big film. Their story needs a long term format like a serial on Netflix so that you had time to develop the characters and plots. And with todays’ CGI, why not?
Trying to squeeze everything into 90 min to 2 hours never worked for them (or Spiderman for that matter). It would be great if they had a Netflix-type series and then worked up to a huge big budget film where they tackled Galactus or something else cosmic. Maybe they could build a large fan base (like I think DD/Netflix will do) and then bust out a Mega-film.
I recently read J Hickman’s take on FF and thought it was great. I also enjoyed the few books I bought of Ultimate FF. So I think revamping the FF for today’s audiences is also doable and not that necessary to remain so faithful to the original (of course hewing closely to the core elements you pointed out).
If you make a retro FF then it would only serve a small segment of the movie-going population. And as you pointed out: what are they going to do with Sue? I always admired how she started out as a weak female and progressively grew into her role as a superhero and strong character (just like a lot of mothers including my own–well, I think she’s a superhero…anyway). Again, that type of development needs time, not that believable in 2 hours.
I wish they could do FF right because their world(s) and galaxy of characters is just too rich and too cool not to bring to life in film or TV.
A series approach does seem the best venue for the melodramatic and sudsy elements of the book, too. The interpersonal drama would work well in a six or twelve hour format … but I have to think the CGI would break the bank.
A Mad Men-style Netflix series set in the 1960s would be super-cool, but as you note it would only serve a niche of the audience, and I expect budget would be an issue. Daredevil’s effects requirements are relatively modest compared to what the Fantastic Four would demand.
But I can dream! And retro-settings for superhero shows aren’t such a taboo subject any longer. The first Captain America film was set in the past, and X-Men First Class was a success for Fox. I think Agent Carter had middling success for ABC. And I recall reading that the Wonder Woman stand-alone film is being floated as a period piece. So maybe a 1960s Fantastic Four movie isn’t as far-fetched as it seems (and is considerably more likely than the 1930s-era Superman film I’d love to see!)
Great write-up! While the FF was never my favorite superhero group, I by and large agree with your assessment. Mostly, I think that the FF should be FUN, and capture the spirit of the fun, adventure, and sense of wonder of the Lee/Kirby FF, while updating the group for modern sensibilities.
Seems like fun is out of style, sadly. This new film looks pretty dour. But trailers can be deceiving. I suppose I will see it, sooner or later. This one does scream, “wait for cable,” though!
Yes, I’m in no particular hurry to see this one.
Great article. I hope the movie is better than it appears at first glance. I think those ’60’s stories were great. “This Man, This Monster” – one of the best comics ever written. I think today’s FF suffers from too many characters. All those kids in their school – send a few to boarding school :). They need to focus on the Fantastic FOUR and their immediate family.
Just my opinion.
Hi, Paul- This is a great article, I love the Fantastic Four but they never do well on screen. I never questioned why no one gets it right, but you hit the nail on the head!
There has actually been one GREAT Fantastic Four movie … it was called The Incredibles.
(And we may need to wait for Incredibles 2 before we see ANOTHER great FF movie!)
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That is SO TRUE!
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