Marvel Cinematic Retrospective: The Fantastic Four

Marvel Cinematic Retrospective

Fans today are living in a Golden Age of movies based on comic books. Kids, teenagers, and adults have grown up on the exploits of superheroes since the 1910's, and more recently in film as well. Among the various comic book producers, few were as prominent and beloved as Marvel Comics. It was small wonder that they began to produce movies of their own. 

This is a multi-part examination of that effort.

One of the first Marvel properties to get attention by film studios was one of Marvel's best known properties. Popularly known as Marvel's First Family, I am talking of course about the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four originated in 1961, at the height of the space race. Not long after DC Comics had created the Justice League of America, Marvel executives directed Stan Lee to create his own team of superheroes to compete with the popular Justice League. Teaming up with artist Jack Kirby, the two created the Fantastic Four, a team of astronauts composed of Reed Richards, Benjamin Grimm, and siblings Susan and Johnny Storm. 

The super team of the Fantastic Four quickly rose to prominence in comics. Eventually, they were joined by many more Marvel superheroes, working solo or in teams, some of whom we have already discussed. While not the first movie to be pitched either for the big screen or on television, studios did eventually start seeking out Marvel Comics for film rights to the Fantastic Four. The first deal came about in 1986 when Constantin Film acquired the rights. After a few years of delays and mismanagement, Constantin Films forced the creation of a movie strictly to maintain their rights. The result was a B-tier movie produced, funded, and advertised but never officially released, called The Fantastic Four, opens a new window.

Why the film never released remains a controversy. While Constantin Films wished to retain the film rights to the characters, Marvel Comics worried that the film would fail to due their characters justice. Allegedly, Marvel bought the film negatives and all existing copies of the film. Despite a single screening in 1994 and some dubious bootleg showings, the film has never officially seen the light of day.

With the drama behind them, Constantin and Marvel renegotiated to produce a new movie, to be distributed by 21st Century Fox. In the mid-90s, Fox procured several comic book rights from Marvel to be used in films, including the X-Men, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and the Fantastic Four. After the success of X-Men, 21st Century Fox greenlit production for Fantastic Four, with Constantin producing with a much larger budget.

Fantastic 4

The 2005 Fantastic Four film covered nearly the same story as the earlier unreleased movie: the origin of the Fantastic Four, how they got their powers, meeting their nemesis Dr. Doom, etc. To fill the roles, 21st Century Fox casted Ioan Gruffudd as Reed, Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, Jessica Alba as Susan Storm, and famously Chris Evans as Johnny Storm, nearly a decade before he became Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Finishing the cast was Julian McMahon as Victor Von Doom, the infamous Dr. Doom.  On a $100 million budget, the film made nearly $334 million and secured the chance for a sequal.

Production began on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer almost immediately. Released in 2007, the film featured the entire returning cast as well as the addition of Lawrence Fishburne voicing the title character, the Silver Surfer. Fans and critics divided over the film, some enjoying the better action pieces while others decried the poor production choices (such as Galactus, the Space Hurricane). Despite having a larger budget, the film did not perform nearly as well, and Marvel and 21st Century Fox postponed future installments of the series.

Fantastic 4

It was not until 2015, a decade after the original movie released, that Fox tried again. After an announcement in 2009, production actively began in 2012 with the hiring of Josh Trank to direct. Filming first began in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2014 and the movie was done and released in fifteen months. The movie reimagines the origin of the Fantastic Four, casting them as teenagers and notably changing Johnny and Susan Storm into adoptive siblings rather than biological. 

Unfortunately, the movie was not a hit. Against a budget of $155 million, the movie made only $170  million, not even making a dent into the advertising used above and beyond the cost to make the movie. Additionally, critics and fans alike panned the movie, citing various issues ranging from character design to story to special effects and even lighting. Needless to say, 20th Century Fox cancelled plans for a sequal. 

In the aftermath of the movie's failure, 20th Century Fox returned to the drawing board. Before plans could be finalized on future movies, Disney procured 20th Century Fox. The purchase, in addition to various television channels and the 20th Century Fox movie catalog, also included the various Marvel properties 20th Century Fox had licensed, such as the X-Men, Deadpool, and the Fantastic Four. Reacquiring these films allows Disney and Marvel to integrate them into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the deal finalized in 2019, Kevin Feige of Marvel officially announced an upcoming Fantastic Four film, release date pending.

Additionally, there are existing plans for movies based on both Dr. Doom and The Silver Surfer, potentially to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Dr. Doom film saw limited work in 2017 under Noah Hawley, but plans were put on hold with the Disney-Fox merger, and it remains to be seen if this film will go any further or be scrapped. The Silver Surfer has been worked on since 2018 by Brian K. Vaughan, and Marvel Studios is now directly working on bringing that project to life.

Stay tuned next month for coverage on the Invincible Iron Man!

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