Comics on Film: The Tumultuous Trouble With the Fantastic Four

Comics on Film: The Tumultuous Trouble With the Fantastic Four

Aug 04, 2017

One of the most iconic properties in the entire stable of Marvel Comics characters, the Fantastic Four -- often rightfully called Marvel Comics' "first family" -- has had several chances to break out from relative isolation in Marvel's ongoing superhero adventures published in comics and move onto the larger stage of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, where many of the FF's superheroic colleagues have managed to successfully transition. For whatever reason, though, the Fantastic Four's efforts have just, simply been unable to "stick" in any manner resembling the likes of Spider-Man, the X-Men, or the Avengers.

While a lot of unconfirmed rumors have been cropping up over the last couple of years concerning the FF's cinematic future, the past of their development into a movie franchise is also a really interesting one. So, this week, we thought it would be fun to take a look at the past, present and future options concerning the Fantastic Four on the big screen.

 

What Makes the Fantastic Four Beloved by Comics Fans?

Originating during the comic book renaissance of the 1960's, the Fantastic Four is a creation of the legendary writer/artist duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Responsible for the vast majority of Marvel's most popular and iconic characters, the FF was developed partially due to the recent success of rival DC Comics' breakout superhero team, the Justice League of America. While the specifics of the comparison between the two teams have been called into question by comics historians, the ultimate result was that Stan Lee was directed by then-Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to create a superhero team to rival the JLA.

Stan Lee recounted his line of thought in creating this superhero team in the 1974 book Origins of Marvel Comics by saying: "For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading. [..]. And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and -- most important of all -- inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay.Jack Kirby would go on to dispute Lee's specific recounting of events, but regardless of what actually happened, the result would still prove to be game-changing, with both creators likely deserving an equal amount of credit in the creation of the team.

The philosophy of creating characters with human flaws and foibles would serve Lee and Kirby well in the future, but in this instance, the writer and artist's close collaboration in creating the team proved groundbreaking for the comic book medium going forward, innovating the "Marvel Method" that would help to distinguish the publisher's books from their rivals for years to come. The result was a team of four superheroes who, bound by the single event that tied them together as now-superhuman, forged the first legitimate family in the history of the superhero genre. Over the last fifty-plus years, FF stories have delved deeply into the cosmic, science fiction side of the Marvel Universe, but at its core, the family unit builds itself up by demonstrating a reliance on each other that, in the best cases, is truly inspiring.

The characters were a stretching, unrivaled genius, a fierce and confident powerhouse, a brash but loyal pyrokinetic and a superstrong, lovable rock-monster. Together, the Fantastic Four make up the beating heart of Marvel Comics for millions of fans all over the world.

 

What Roger Corman and Tim Story Did

In an age when several popular characters have been rebooted and re-presented to the public on multiple occasions, it seems that the characters of the Fantastic Four had accomplished this before it was "cool." While an early effort spearheaded by renowned B-movie producer Roger Corman was seemingly only made on a shoestring budget to keep the rights to the characters with the film's producer at the time, the now-legendary unreleased 1994 film The Fantastic Four would not see a newer, more legitimate effort made until a decade later. Before online video consumption became the norm, you could often find bootleg VHS copies of the unreleased film at comics conventions; later, it was widely distributed on the internet.

The more legitimate effort had roots going as far back as 1995 and nearly gained Home Alone and future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. Instead, an early cut of the 2004 remake of French film Taxi starring Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah convinced 20th Century Fox to hand the reins of the superhero film to director Tim Story.

Story, who worked off a script written by Michael France, Mark Frost and Simon Kinberg, cast Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd as Reed RIchards/Mr. Fantastic, Jessica Alba as Sue Storm/Invisible Woman, Chris Evans (the future Captain America) as Johnny Storm/Human Torch, and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/the Thing. Julian McMahon was cast as Doctor Doom, and Fantastic Four was ultimately released in the summer of 2005 to a decidedly mixed critical reception. While Story made a perfectly serviceable and somewhat traditional superhero film, it failed to make a significant impression, especially considering that its release arrived just a couple of weeks after Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.

Nonetheless, the relatively solid financial success of the 2005 film got a sequel into production on a fast track, and the follow-up, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, was released quickly in the summer of 2007. Bringing all of the principal cast back and adding Doug Jones as the Silver Surfer (with Laurence Fishburne providing the character's voice), the sequel was a little more recognizable to comics fans by employing both the Surfer and his master, the world-eater known as Galactus. Galactus himself was a bit of a departure from the original material, but the film was widely seen as an improvement when compared with the 2005 film...just not much of one.

 

2015...Yes, That One

With the cast for Story's films having originally signed on to a three-picture deal, some of the actors were discussing how they were excited for the potential a third film would bring to their characters. Jessica Alba spoke openly about hoping the new film would introduce Franklin Richards, the first child of Reed and Sue. Michael Chiklis talked about how he was under the impression that a third film would increase its focus on Ben Grimm's relationship with girlfriend Alicia Masters, played by Kerry Washington.

Story was hoping to make at least two more FF films, and screenwriter Don Payne had even openly talked about his love of Marvel characters like the Inhumans, the Skrulls, Annihilus, and introducing the concept of the Negative Zone. Unfortunately for all of them, Fox opted to take things in a decidedly different direction.

Just two years after Rise of the Silver Surfer's release, Fox announced their intention to reboot the series. Announced with accomplished writers and producers, the film didn't begin to take significant shape until the release of 2012's Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank. Trank's work on that well-regarded take on the superhero genre helped earn him the job of directing Fox's new effort with the FF, which was met with a positive level of curiosity at the time. Unfortunately, this was all a forerunner to what we now know was a signifcantly troubled production that resulted in one of the worst-regarded superhero films ever made.

Even though Trank was handpicked by the studio, apparently a lot of significant disagreements cropped up between 20th Century Fox and Trank. After seeing Trank's original cut, studio dissatisfaction reportedly resulted in demand for changes not approved by the director. Other sources claim that Trank exhibited "erratic behavior" on-set, which caused the studio to treat him negatively. One day before the film's theatrical release, Trank tweeted and then subsequently deleted a message that read, "A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would've received great reviews. You'll probably never see it. That's reality though."

2015's Fantastic Four went on to gross $168 million worldwide on a $155 million budget, with only $56.1 million coming from domestic screens. While a sequel was on Fox's release schedule for 2017, it was unceremoniously canceled and removed from the release docket in November of 2015, just a few months after Trank's film was released.

 

The Future

Even after multiple efforts, 20th Century Fox has yet to crack the greatness of the Fantastic Four in a movie. While the Tim Story films likely hold up more kindly than you might think, now that we're 10-12 years after their initial releases, the truth is that the meaningful ways in which the FF has captured the imaginations of decades of comics creators and readers just simply has yet to be translated effectively. The only hint at the future of the Fantastic Four film franchise we've seen this year is that acclaimed Fargo and Legion writer Noah Hawley has expressed his intent to develop a film based on Doctor Doom -- easily one of Marvel's best characters, period -- into a solo film of some kind.

Of course, very much like Spider-Man before them, a sect of fans are clamoring for the FF to be incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Kevin Feige recently stated that there were no plans for such an incorproration, its hard not to think of how much more enriched the MCU could be with access to the characters. Even Stan Lee has expressed a desire to see the FF incorporated into the MCU, but he of course has little control over the situation.

As fans, it's hard not to get excited at the mere possibility of some future movie that sees the likes of Tony Stark, Peter Parker and Reed Richards try and think of a way to repel an invasion by Galactus, but until that time comes, we'll just have to wait and see what future curveballs await the rocky road of finally getting to a Fantastic Four film that the characters most definitely deserve.


Chris Clow is a comic book expert and former retailer, and a writer with work having appeared in the Huffington Post, Fandango and others. He also hosts the podcasts GeekPulse Radio and Comics on Consoles. You can find his weekly Comics on Film column every week here at Movies.com, and you can follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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