For years, the Fantastic Four immodestly bore the title “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” Introduced in 1961, the title ushered in the age of Marvel Comics, inaugurating the creative explosion of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, which has been compared in musical terms to John Lennon and Paul McCartney during the Beatles’ heyday.
All of that makes the rather tortured history of the franchise onscreen, especially given the current ascent of comicbook blockbusters, all the more perplexing — most recently with Fox’s reboot “Fantastic Four,” which comes eight years after the last live-action “Fantastic Four” effort, a sequel subtitled “Rise of the Silver Surfer.”
Not only has the newest project been bludgeoned by critics, but the director, Josh Trank, responded by implying that the studio, 20th Century Fox, was responsible for its failings. Whatever the underlying truth, for comicbook fans it raises the specter of the bad old days, when studios abused comics by refusing to take the source material seriously.
Granted, a lot has changed since then. “The Avengers” assembled and exploded, “Iron Man” took off, even “Guardians of the Galaxy” went into orbit. Yet while the Fantastic Four held its own against alien races like the Skrulls and the Kree, it has yet to win a battle with Hollywood.
So why hasn’t anybody been able to successfully tackle “Fantastic Four,” which was not only a groundbreaking comic — predating Spider-Man, the Hulk and a host of Marvel titles that followed — but arguably more enjoyable to read than most of them? For those reasons, it’s a question that rankles comicbook fans more than most, despite Marvel’s other cinematic triumphs.
Of course, the fact that Fox is distributing the movie speaks in part to the property’s complicated past, having been parceled off (along with X-Men and Spider-Man) during a period in the mid-1990s in which Marvel declared bankruptcy. Ill-conceived rights deals yielded a low-budget 1994 Roger Corman movie that was never released, and a 1978 Saturday-morning animated series that had to make do without the Human Torch, since the character had been separately optioned for a movie. The replacement, padding out the foursome: comic-relief sidekick H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot, which, in terms of teeth-gnashing names in comicbook and genre circles, was an early precursor to Jar Jar Binks.
Notably, many of the perceived hurdles to adapting Fantastic Four have been overcome elsewhere. Both “X-Men” and “Avengers” demonstrated it was possible to do movies featuring super-powered teams, after comicbook-based projects devoted to relative loners like Batman and Superman. The characters in “X-Men” and “Avengers” also squabbled and dealt with personal issues, a hallmark of the Lee-Kirby collaboration, which as a consequence felt more real and relevant to young readers when their work took the industry by storm.
The Fantastic Four were also notable in that, unlike most superheroes, they didn’t bother with secret identities. Indeed, the fact that everyone knew who they were — and that they suffered occasional indignities and intrusions associated with fame — was a regular aspect of the stories, and a frequent source of humor. If ever a superhero group seemed well suited to the age of TMZ, it’s this one — not that you’d know it from the latest movie, which is heavily rooted in the quartet’s origins.
The obvious argument is that Marvel, since taking control of its own destiny, has simply done all this better, exhibiting a love for and respect toward the source material that was, historically, often lacking. The studio’s interlocking world, its Marvel universe, has become an organic entity that supports and buttresses even the lesser titles.
Even so, “X-Men” has managed to flourish without that umbrella. And Fantastic Four possessed a rich-enough array of ancillary characters that it should have had the heft to stand on its own.
In hindsight, the crucial breakdown might have come not so much with director Tim Story’s 2005 movie, which did just well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, but that second film. Afforded the opportunity to incorporate the Silver Surfer and the Galactus saga — as good a comics arc as Marvel might have produced during that period — the filmmakers fumbled, compounding errors from the first film as opposed to cleaning them up and improving them.
So instead of the “Fantastic Four” movie that Marvel fans had long anticipated, they had to settle for another disappointment, followed by this eight-year wait to see a reboot that falls short, creatively speaking, for an entirely different list of reasons.
Some have spoken of “Fantastic Four” as a cursed property in terms of its screen life, but that gets at the “what” without really answering the “why.” What does seem clear is that barring an unforeseen outpouring of interest from those who can’t readily recite the Thing’s battle cry, the ship for this signature Marvel property appears to have sailed.
While comic books can — and frequently have — hit the reset button, exploring alternate scenarios and universes, when it comes to movie franchises that cost more than $100 million to produce, there are only so many bites at the apple or trips into orbit. Just ask Green Lantern. Because whatever the complicated mix of factors that has hobbled Fantastic Four, the bottom line is that Hollywood has once again made the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” look perfectly ordinary.