Created back in 1961, there was a time when the Fantastic Four were #Marvel Comics superstars. Now though, things don't look great for Marvel's First Family. Fox's first attempt at creating a Fantastic Four film franchise came to a disappointing end when Rise of the Silver Surfer failed to gain fan or critical acclaim. Meanwhile, the 2015 reboot is much-derided, largely because of Josh Trank's off-brand vision and studio interference. There are rumblings that Fox is toying with another Fantastic Four project, likely more to ensure Marvel don't get the film rights back than anything else, but few fans are positive about this idea.
Over in the comics, sales had declined for years, in spite of Marvel putting top-tier talent on the books. Marvel ended the ongoing series in 2015, and Jonathan Hickman's 'Secret Wars' was essentially a Last Hurrah for the team.
What's going on? In a time when superheroes are so popular, why are the Fantastic Four struggling so badly?
An Idea Whose Time Has Gone
From a cultural perspective, the Fantastic Four didn't just come out of nowhere. In fact, you can easily argue that each character was designed to represent a different part of American self-identity.
- Mr. Fantastic: The genius who leads the team, the source of their advanced science. He represents the technical superiority that America sought, the sense of innovation and scientific discovery that would fuel the US in the Space Race.
- The Thing: The tough guy who can walk into any situation, the Thing is a representation of American military might. When the strength of America is unleashed, no force can stand against it: after all, "It's clobberin' time!"
- The Human Torch: The 1960s were a time of youthful, rebellious optimism, and carefree and headstrong Jonny Storm stands as a symbol of that.
- The Invisible Woman: Forgive the stereotypes, but these were the 1960s. The Invisible Woman stands for compassion, always seeing the best in people, and willing to work to resolve conflicts.
Viewed from this perspective, the message of the Fantastic Four — four symbols who work together against the forces of evil — is pretty clear. It is only when the United States is united, when these disparate symbolic figures stand together, that good will prevail. And yet, the message of the Fantastic Four is one of unbridled optimism; the different aspects of American identity can indeed be united, and can still triumph against the forces that threaten the world.
This Message No Longer Resonates
Here's the problem: this message, crucial to the very design of the Fantastic Four, no longer resonates with audiences. American self-identity has changed (and, frankly, fractured). Those symbols may have been very powerful in the 1960s, but they don't embody modern American culture like they did 50 years ago. As a result, young audiences today fail to connect with the Fantastic Four in the way fans have done in previous decades.
Worse still, the modern Hollywood is increasingly dependent on international markets. Symbols of an outdated American self-identity are hardly likely to perform well in the increasingly-important Chinese market, or in a Europe that's increasingly wary of "America First" rhetoric.
This is the sad truth of the Fantastic Four. They were a cultural milestone, and they deserve their place in the history books. But the world has moved on. Marvel Comics has shelved the team, sending Reed and Sue into the background and tossing Ben and Jonny into other teams. Meanwhile, 2015's Fantastic Four showed just how difficult it is for Hollywood to adapt the team for the present-day, and it's notable that Fox's latest ideas seem to be avoiding the core group altogether.
The future may be bright for superhero films, but I for one don't believe there's much in store for the Fantastic Four anytime soon.