The Fantastic Four were launched in 1961, known as Marvel’s First Family – the super-team whose sales success led to the Marvel Age of Comics. In film, they’ve been the focus of two movies by Fox, with a relaunch due in August this year. And yet, in the very same year Fox are hitting the cinema screens with a reboot, Marvel have actually cancelled the Fantastic Four due to poor sales! They may be a legend, but something’s very wrong in the world of the Fantastic Four…
According to Marvel, at the bottom of their decision is sales performance. During its long run, Fantastic Four has seen many legendary writers – since 2000, writers have included Jeph Loeb, Mark Millar, J. Michael Straczynski, and Jonathan Hickman. To give an idea of the scale of those writers, Jonathan Hickman is the architect of two of Marvel’s recent events, “Infinity” and “Secret Wars”. And yet, no matter who was helming the book, sales just never improved.
Let's move to the big screen. The two Fantastic Four films were never really a success, with Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer basically shutting down the franchise. And the reality is that Fox is only really pushing Fantastic Four now because they basically have a ‘use it or lose it’ right with Marvel – if they don’t produce films, the rights revert to Marvel. It’s hardly the most auspicious context for Marvel’s First Family.
What’s gone wrong for the Fantastic Four?
I think that every superhero has an irreducible core – a central theme or concept, something that they represent. Some heroes wear their irreducible core on their chests – think Captain America. For others, it’s more subtle; Spider-Man’s irreducible core is power and responsibility, or, most of the time, power and guilt. What is the irreducible core of the Fantastic Four?
To me, the clue is in the name: Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four are about voyaging to the unknown, about exploring fantastic realms like the Negative Zone or traversing the wonder of space. They flourished under the creative skills of Jack Kirby, who rejoiced in insane and exotic landscapes.
The original Fantastic Four confronted this vast universe with, more than anything else, a sense of wonder. There was a constant, breathtaking sense of discovery behind the Fantastic Four – a sense that a universe of wonders was there, just out of reach, and that the Fantastic Four were striving to touch it.
Modern comics have rarely reflected this sense of wonder. The Fantastic Four have ceased to marvel as they cross dimensional boundaries, as they visit alien cultures across time and space; instead, it’s all become rather old-hat for them. Jonathan Hickman, one of Marvel’s most insightful and creative writers, recognised this and added another lens in FF, a book focused on the children of the Fantastic Four.
But here’s the catch; there’s still a place for wonder in modern comics. This is proven by Dan Slott’s ongoing Silver Surfer series, which rejoices in the banner “Anywhere and everywhere – hang on!” The Surfer – who falls under Fox’s movie licence as part of the Fantastic Four franchise – has been accompanied by a teenage girl (with whom he’s falling in love). And the sense of wonder as the two travel the cosmos is palpable, not least because Michael Allred has basically been channelling his inner Kirby.
What does this mean for the Fantastic Four movie?
Which brings me to the forthcoming Fantastic Four movie. Marvel may have cancelled the ongoing comic, but it’s entirely possible that Fox may have cracked it. Take a look at the second trailer:
The intro-sequence – with the young Reed Richards striving to discover, and with the line about exploration being a responsibility – is close to the heart of the matter. And in travelling to the Negative Zone, we may well have moments that express the irreducible core of the Fantastic Four. Now, I’m actually disappointed that the story then seems to become rather more ‘Earth-bound’, but it promises to return to the Negative Zone for the final battle.
I started out as a sceptic, but I'm beginning to wonder if Fox have finally found the irreducible core of the Fantastic Four. If they have - August 2015 may be a better month for superhero fans than I'd thought!