It’s no secret that the big screen Fantastic Four has been one dreadful mistake after another. In the four attempts to tell a compelling, dramatic story of the First Family of superheroes, Fox failed on every turn. From the campy, cult classic from 1994 that was just a thrown-together production so Fox could keep the rights to the 2015 box office flop that saw the Fantastic Four gain their powers so they could….spend a year learning to use them so they could battle Dr. Doom for all of about three minutes, all F4 attempts have fallen fantastically flat.
The Fantastic Four
The prevailing thought these days, however, is that once the MCU took possession of the Fantastic Four, all things would eventually become right with the world. Kevin Feige and crew would wield their Midas touch and integrate the team into the existing universe in a smart and actionable way. The House of Mouse won’t find a way to screw up the heroes that started it all with Marvel in Fantastic Four #1 and will find the right methods to weave them into the existing arcs.
Not so fast my friend.
This is just one man’s opinion, but I believe the MCU has a major hurdle to clear if they want to make the first family work within the MCU – a hurdle that Fox continually tripped over in its multiple attempts over the years.
The Inseparable Four
The origins of F4 are universally known. The team was exposed to cosmic rays while on an outer-space mission, which we know granted them their respective superpowers. But we know from the earliest visions Stan Lee had for the group, the F4 was supposed to be as much of a family dynamic story as it was a superhero one. Right off the bat, we have Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Sue Storm (Invisible Girl), who are romantically involved and eventually get married in Fantastic Four Annual #3. Sue and Johnny Storm (Human Torch) are siblings and soon after the series begins to have to deal with the death of their father, Franklin Storm, as he sacrifices his life to protect the rest of the family in Fantastic Four #32.
Ben Grimm (Thing) is lifelong best friends with Reed Richards and the two remain close especially as Grimm holds close the promise his best friend made to him – that he would one day discover a cure that would remove the rocky characteristics from Grimm forever. It is also Sue who persuades Ben to fly the rocket that eventually leads to their rendezvous with the life-changing cosmic rays.
This is all a long way of saying the F4 is a story of four people, inexorably intertwined where removing one part of the house of cards would cause the entire thing to collapse. It is a story that can not be told without each of its members. Just as a family is not complete without all of its members. Can the MCU work within that construct? Maybe.
The MCU Formula
Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Why didn’t the MCU open its universe with an Avengers movie? It was one of the top movies ever when it came out in 2012? Why were there five different movies over more than three years before we got a sniff of an Avengers movie? We got two for Iron Man, one for Captain America, one for Hulk, one for Thor, and we were introduced to Black Widow in the second Iron Man.
Marvel could have thrown an Avengers movie at us first and then created multiple successes through spin-offs, but they didn’t. Why? I believe it is because Feige and Co. understand the nature of effective storytelling and what J.J. Abrams calls the Mystery of the Magic Box. In this analogy, the box of magic tricks is so powerful because of the appeal of what’s inside. You can rip it open and learn all of the magic secrets in a matter of a few minutes. Or, you can wait and ponder what’s in the box and how it works. Maybe look at one trick at a time until you comprehend the full power of the mystery inside.
This is the Way
This is the MCU way. Much more than just creating kick-ass end-credit scenes, each of these movies and each of these characters helped us understand that the universe was building towards something. We knew we were headed towards some version of Avengers #4, of course, from the first time Nick Fury shows up in the end credits of Iron Man, but how it got there, what would be included, the journey itself was the most important part. The MCU chose to slowly open and reveal the magic box, instead of ruining everything at once. So by the time we got Avengers we were all salivating waiting for it to happen.
It continued this formula after Avengers. Introducing Bucky Barnes as a villain before he became a team member. Then, introducing Spider-Man as a Tony Stark recruits before he ever had his own movie. Introducing T’Challa and the anguish of losing his father that allows him to take up the mantle of Black Panther. They prefer the slow burn approach as opposed to throwing it right in our face.
That’s why The Eternals is such an ambitious move for the MCU. So many characters introduced all at one time have only been done through Guardians of the Galaxy and one might say that it was the brilliant ensemble of that cast that allowed its soft landing into the MCU.
Can the Fantastic Four Break the Mold?
Here’s the problem I predict they have: In an ideal setting the MCU slowly builds the Fantastic Four into a team, culminating with their famous flight to the cosmos. Perhaps there is an MCU movie where we are introduced to Reed and Sue as brilliant scientists and aerospace engineers. They work with some existing factions of the MCU to solve some cosmic problems. Or what if there was part of a movie that involved the military or SHIELD – where Ben Grimm spent so much time – and we see his mix of bravery, humor, and intelligence come through in some way on a mission that Nick Fury sends him on like in Ben Grimm and Logan #1.
This would be the MCU way of introducing us to these characters. But the Fantastic Four don’t really lend themselves to being split up. You can’t have any of them without the others. Even though it might move along the story in a meaningful way.
I guess my issue is how do you tell an effective Fantastic Four origin story, battle some evil force, AND also integrate it into an existing MCU arc at the same time? If we already had them up and ready to go, it would be no problem. But, the predicament is we have to create them first. And, if it turns out that they already exist due to some space-related accident, why don’t we know about that? (This is also commonly referred to as the Mutant Problem. If they already exist, why don’t we know? If they don’t, how do you slow build them?) The MCU has been cosmic for some time now, so don’t you think that type of accident would be something Captain Marvel would check on?
For my money, the biggest problem Fox had with the franchise was how much they had to cram into one movie to develop the characters, introduce the conflict that requires them to be in space, have the accident, discover and develop powers, and still have time to fight some kind of bad guy. Seriously, in the 2015 version, we see Dr. Doom for less than 10 minutes after barely getting to know the dark and aloof Victor Von Doom. The story is so much for a two-hour movie. I mean we don’t even see Dr. Doom until Fantastic Four #5 in the comics!!
Still, I’m Hopeful
As a Marvel fan and an MCU faithful follower, I am still very hopeful. There have been very few times that Feige has steered us wrong (cough, Dark World, cough). Rumors are already heating up. John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as Reed Richards and Sue Storm? Sign me up. Joss Whedon will direct the film? Bring it on. Christoph Waltz will play Doom? Be still my beating heart.
But to succeed, the MCU is going to have to do something they have not done much in the past 12 years. Learn how to rapidly develop four new characters (amazing, dynamic characters with sprawling backstories) while giving them their super-story and weaving them into the existing world, all within one movie.
I will, of course, be in the theater to see it opening weekend. But to look at the past three F4 movies and just say, “oh, that was just Fox screwing it up” is the lazy way out. Fox developed seven ensemble X-Men movies and multiple spin-offs with overwhelming success. The F4 are a tough road for anyone who drives it.
That first family is special, and not just in their uniqueness, family dynamic, or origin. They represent the beginning. The birth of not just their team but all that we now know in comics and the MCU.
How is the MCU going to do it? Can they do it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
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