Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Fantastic Four

It's not uncommon these days for people to like superheroes. Particularly now that we have comics, novels, television, video game and film versions aplenty. I was mainly raised on DC heroes, watching Batman the Animated Series on weekdays and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on Sunday night. But I did happen to notice one Marvel property I really wanted to get into.

Mainly from ads in the few Marvel comics my dad did buy (their licensed Disney titles) and the few glimpses of the animated series on Saturday morning Fox programming (we mainly watched ABC shows), I wanted to get into Marvel's first family.

The amazing thing about the Fantastic Four is that they were really what kicked off the Marvel we know today. Shortly after they came on the scene in 1961, readers of Marvel comics were introduced to Spider-Man, Ant-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and the X-Men. Later, many of the characters Marvel had introduced formed The Avengers and revived Steve Rogers, the original Captain America who had been originally introduced in 1941. So the Fantastic Four was really the beginning of the modern version of Marvel.

The strange thing about the team is that they didn't really start off as a superhero magazine. I've heard this explained that National Comics (now known as DC Comics) were distributing titles by Atlas Comics (which was transitioning to Marvel Comics). As Atlas was better known for comics about monsters, the first issue of The Fantastic Four featured the heroes wearing street clothes and battling a giant monster. This way, it wouldn't appear that Timely was trying to compete with National's popular superheroes such as Superman and Batman.

The Fantastic Four also had an origin firmly rooted in the 1960s. Reed Richards was working on a spaceship to get the US ahead in the space race, except it lacked enough shielding to protect them from cosmic rays. Regardless, his pilot, Ben Grimm, agreed to fly the ship anyway, and Reed's fiancee Susan Storm and her brother Johnny came along on the test flight. They were affected by the cosmic rays, which forced them to crash-land the ship, and then they discovered they had been granted some unique abilities.

For anyone who might have become with the Fantastic Four after reading more recent comics featuring the characters or watching some of their film or TV adaptations, going back to the original comics written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby can be a shock. The stories start off as cookie cutter man vs. monster tales and the characters feel darker and grimmer. But that changed with the third issue.

In that third issue, the Fantastic Four finally became full-fledged superheroes with costumes, their "flying bathtub" Fantasticar, and a base called the Baxter Building.

One thing that quickly became part of the Fantastic Four was crossovers with the rest of the Marvel universe. In the fourth issue, Lee and Kirby revived Namor, one of Marvel's first superheroes, only now giving him reason to become a villain. In the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, the titular hero visited the Baxter Building to see if he could join the team before discovering that they didn't actually pay. (No bad on Spidey as he mainly wanted to earn money so Aunt May wouldn't have to worry about it.) The first black superhero the Black Panther and the Inhumans first appeared in The Fantastic Four, and the team would have notable stories where they'd meet the Hulk and Daredevil, and at different times, She-Hulk and Scott Lang's Ant-Man were replacement members of the team.

And then, of course, there's Doctor Doom.

Doctor Doom first appeared in the fifth issue of the magazine with a brief origin that would get expanded on in time, as often happens in comics. Basically being a man with extensive knowledge of science and technology and a huge interest in black magic and sorcery, what made Doom so interesting was that with no powers of his own, he was able to pose not just a threat to the superpowered Fantastic Four, but also to many other heroes in the Marvel Universe.

Other notable Marvel rogues would first appear in The Fantastic Four, such as the shapeshifting alien race the Skrulls, the planet-devouring entity Galactus and his herald (and later spinoff hero) the Silver Surfer, and Annhilus of the Negative Zone.

As time went on, the Fantastic Four would find its feet being a comic that went very much into science fiction while having a core group of main characters who were very much a family. Sue and Reed have children, and have their problems, and there have been times they've even taken time apart. Ben and Johnny both have romantic relationships and they share a relationship where they are basically brothers who squabble and prank each other and even fight, but at the end of the day, they care very much about each other.

Time would go on, and while new details about the crew would turn up, they largely stayed the same. (Although at one point, they changed to FF: the Future Foundation.) Recently, though, due to declining sales (and possibly some movie rights issues we'll discuss in a bit), Marvel cancelled The Fantastic Four. The characters are still very much in the Marvel universe, but no longer have their own magazine.

In recent years, Marvel heroes making the jump from the comic book page to the big screen has become a huge trend, particularly as Marvel themselves began making their own movie adaptations of their stories under the auspices of Marvel Studios. Marvel's series of films has become popular because they shared an interconnected universe from the start, and has now branched off into television and Netflix shows.

However, Marvel Studios does not have the exclusive film rights to every Marvel hero as many of them had been licensed out during the 1990s in order to keep Marvel afloat. Many of the licenses have expired or deals have been struck so Marvel can use those characters in film. Currently, Universal has the exclusive rights to distribute films starring the Incredible Hulk, and seemingly Namor as well, while Marvel can use those characters in their films. Sony had the exclusive rights to make and distribute films based on Spider-Man, but has recently partnered with Marvel to let Spider-Man appear in their movies. Fox retains rights to the X-Men franchise and due to their relationship with Constantin Film, the Fantastic Four. (Rights to the Punisher, Ghost Rider, Daredevil and Elektra were licensed out, but have now returned to Marvel.)

So far, four films have come from Constantin Film's ownership of the Fantastic Four movie rights. The first was a 1994 film directed by Roger Corman. Updating the origin story to change it from the space race to do an experiment with a powerful comet called Colossus, the movie actually wove a fairly decent story around the origin and Doctor Doom's origin. However, the script was not great and the low budget glaringly obvious in the special effects and overall production design. It was never officially released, believed to either be an "ashcan" production made to only satisfy extending Constantin Film's option on the film rights and never to be released anyway, or that Avi Arad of Marvel Studios was afraid of the film damaging the brand and bought up the film, cancelling its release. However, bootleg copies of the film are widely available for free viewing online.

Then came a pair of films in 2005 and 2007, distributed by Fox, featuring Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis and Julian McMahon as Sue, Johnny, Reed, Ben and Doctor Doom, respectively. These films captured the fun spirit of the Fantastic Four's family dynamic, but the first only gave them Doom as an antagonist, and also gave him superpowers due to also being affected by the same cosmic storm that gave the heroes their powers. The film did little to make Doom a majorly formidable villain, and did not depict how knowledgeable he is supposed to be. Thus, the fight at the climax feels anticlimatic with four heroes against one villain.

The second film, Rise of the Silver Surfer, brought the Silver Surfer into film, but unfortunately reimagined Galactus as a cloud-like entity rather than the fearsome giant from the comics. (It's been suggested the cloud is his conveyance in the film, but when compared to the fantastic designs of Jack Kirby, it's very disappointing.) The film also works in Reed and Sue's wedding around the coming of Galactus, and also Doom's attempt to steal the Surfer's power. It did improve on the previous film, but once again had the team taking on one villain at a time, which does little to justify them being a team.

It was announced in 2009 that Fox was looking into another new film version which finally came out this year. Largely trashed by critics, this Fantastic Four took inspiration from the Ultimate Fantastic Four continuity, in which Marvel heroes were retold in a fresh continuity with decades of developed history to adapt into it as seen fit. This take made the heroes much younger, and changed the origin from the space race to teleportation into another dimension. The film, however, goes for a gritty, joyless revision (Ben's catch phrase "It's clobbering time!" was reworked into what his older brother would say when he beat him), which removes much of the critical family angle, and also makes Doom into a mad, overpowered being who has lost all reason and is also too quickly dealt with. The film made far less than either of the two previous films, not even making back twice its budget. Fox announced a 2017 sequel before the film's release, but given the very troubled production and low sales of this film, a cancellation of that project seems quite likely.

It's been said that Marvel offered an undisclosed deal to Fox who refused, and with the cancellation of The Fantastic Four comic book and the word that no further X-Men characters are to be created (many of the X-Men's "mutants" being re-labelled "Inhumans," to which Marvel owns the rights), it seems clear that Marvel is not interested in developing properties that Fox has sole film rights to.

With the failure of the latest film, fans have been calling and even petitioning for Fox to either give the film rights to the Fantastic Four back to Marvel or for them to partner with them, just as Sony is now doing with Spider-Man. As Marvel has done a fine job of bringing their characters to the big screen, I'm inclined to agree with them. Furthermore, I believe the property would be better served in the larger continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Regardless of whether Fox or Marvel makes the next film reboot of the Fantastic Four, here's what I think should happen.

Don't waste a lot of time with the origin
The origin story of the Fantastic Four is touchy because it requires a lot of time onscreen to build up the characters before they get their powers and then again afterward. However, their powers are supposed to subtly magnify personality traits they had. All that really needs to happen is just some dialogue that clarifies they got their powers in a failed test of an experimental spacecraft due to cosmic radiation. This way, you have to introduce the characters once, not twice.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a good opportunity is coming with the 2-part Avengers: Infinity Wars films in 2018 and 2019. As those films will feature a threat to earth coming from outer space, films following could address the need for more advanced spacecraft to monitor extraterrestrial life. As such, a company such as S.H.I.E.L.D. or Stark Industries could hire Reed and his crew to work on the next model. As they launch the craft, some of the shielding falls off (possibly due to sabotage by a potential villain), which exposes them to cosmic radiation. This could be threaded through other Marvel films so that the first Fantastic Four solo film in this continuity starts the characters off with their powers.

Don't rush out Doom right away!
We get it, Doctor Doom is the biggest villain in the Fantastic Four property. However, he is severely underserved by being quickly defeated as he has been in all three films produced with Fox. Although none of his film incarnations have been perfect, the 1994 film depicts him best by having him be cunning and actually being able to throw an army at the Fantastic Four, and also escaping at the end. It would be a better idea to build up Doom for a third film that focuses solely on him.

Furthermore, it would be a better idea for him to keep his classic origin from the comics, perhaps even depicting him getting his mask in a post-credits scene of the first film. His gaining powers along with the heroes is from the Ultimate Fantastic Four continuity, which never felt as threatening as the classic version.

The Fantastic Four has several other villains that could be used instead, so why not let one of them come to the big screen?

Make sure they stay a family!
The Fantastic Four is called "Marvel's First Family" for a reason. The family dynamic the Fantastic Four has is critical to making them work onscreen. If you were to do an entire film that led up to them launching their spacecraft, that dynamic would be what you need to make people understand that these are those characters. Without that, you might as well not even bother.

My next point for the Fantastic Four entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the crossover potential. Part of the charm of the comics is that they exist in a universe with other superheroes, and help them out when possible. Seeing Human Torch and Spider-Man team up on the big screen could be very cool, or seeing Reed Richards going head to head with Tony Stark, or maybe even Ben Grimm having fisticuffs with the Hulk! And why not add Susan Storm to Marvel's lineup of remarkable female characters? And who wouldn't want to see Charlie Cox appear as Daredevil in a big screen version of the classic story A Blind Man Shall Lead Them? And with Infinity Wars giving us Thanos as the big bad, following him with the destructive Galactus or even Annhilus would be great.

I'm sure that The Fantastic Four comic book will be relaunched in the near future, and I hope it's received much better than it was when it went on what I'm sure will just be a hiatus. As for films, who knows, but I hope the next one isn't a mess like Fox's most recent effort.