Home Culture History The strange history of the Fantastic Four movie franchise

The strange history of the Fantastic Four movie franchise

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This weekend’s new superhero movie is Fantastic Four, not to be confused with Fantastic Four


or Fantastic Four

Or even The Fantastic Four


The 1978 cartoon version famously substituted a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E for the Human Torch. Although the reason given for years was that networkexecs children would set themselves alight during play, given everything else on cartoons before and since this makes so sense. The real reason, according to Mark Evanier, was that the Human Torch was already tied up with a development deal at Universal and they would not let the Torch be used in the NBC produced cartoon.

This rights battle is a recurring theme in looking at the FF’s media history. 10 years ago, a young, optimistic world saw Ian Gruffyd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis step out in blue suits to diminishing returns in a sequel. This film now seems like an excellent babysitting movie, cheerful for the kids. As underwhelming as it was, it was still preferable to the 1994 version starring Alex Hyde-White, a film so dreadful it was held back from release by Roger Corman, a company that was in the business to release schlocky movies.

However one theory has it that the film was never meant to be released and served solely as a means for producer Bernd Eichinger to hold on to the rights. Eichinger actually served as a producer on the 2005 version, so those 80s era movie deals continued to bear fruit for a long time. The entire story, whatever it is, is teased as the basis for a documentary, DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, which itself remains unreleased. Here’s the trailer:

If this production maneuver sounds familiar, it’s because a lot of these superhero movies are still being made just to hold onto the rights. If Sony stops making Spider-man films, Marvel gets the rights back; ditto the FF, and hence all these undercooked and somewhat unnecessary reboots every 10 years or so. (Fox has no such problem with The X-men where they can just keep mining the long history of the mutants, replace Wolverine every 15 years or so and keep chugging along.) There have been a few captive superheroes reluctantly released into Marvel’s wild: Lionsgate let go of the Punisher year ago, but he’s been dormant ever since; Fox let go of Daredevil and Marvel snapped it back up for its acclaimed Netflix run; and Fox also said “no mas” to Ghost Rider…but it seems no one was clamoring for that franchise to get a reboot.

While a sequel to this FF has already been announced for 2017, and the box office remains to be seen, it’s hard to see much critical support for another film in this series. Our own Kyle Pinion spotted the studio conflicts that made the film a non-starter

Josh Trank, before taking over the Fantastic Four series, surely had a good deal to learn from, including the missteps of the Tim Story directed 2005 effort, which treated the material in an almost camp fashion. The filmmaker known for the found-footage critical darling Chronicle clearly had an original approach he wanted to imbue the material with. His idea: highlight the sci-fi and body horror aspects at the core of the FF, a la David Cronenberg.  While this isn’t my ideal version of the Fantastic Four,  it’s an approach that could work if the studio was on board. As it turns out, Fox probably wasn’t. Whether Trank lacked the support or the skill to execute that vision (or both) – it’s easy to see that something went wrong.


Other reviews have been even more unenthusiastic, with the Rotten Tomatoes rating at 8%, and the Telegraph’s critic writing of “a lot of time moping on gantries.”

While the success of the MCU means that a failure here and there won’t spell the end of the superhero movie era for a bit, these movies are doing one thing; destroying the franchises in the comics. As widely reported, Marvel comics creators are generally banned from creating new characters in FF or Spider-Man books since any new character might be fodder for a Fox or Sony film. And many of the characters owned by other studios have been removed from Marvel licensed products, and even reprint covers. While these seem like spiteful movies by Marvel COO Ike Perlmutter, they are just the visible part of a behind the scenes movie studio battle as fierce and intense as anything on screen. Now THAT would make a good movie!

9 COMMENTS

  1. At the moment it’s rating on RT is worse than the Corman version and about the same level as Catwoman.

    Really interesting to see how the box office holds up.

  2. my biggest problem with the FF movies is that none of them were fun or fantastic in any way. They were entertaining enough to watch but highly forgettable… Just more of the same blockbuster boredom. This franchise could have been what Guardians of the Galaxy turned into a mega hit.

  3. What’s the deal with Sue Storm not going on the initial mission to the new dimension. She gets left behind and is replaced in the Four by Dr Doom? That’s just not right, no respect for the first lady of the MarvelU. Thanks for nothing Fox!

  4. From the look of all the reviews I suspect that Disney will be picking up the rights to the Fantastic Four at a good bargain price. The House of Mouse will only be missing the X-Men from the movie quiver at this rate.

  5. I saw “Fantastic4” last night, and Sucktastic4ever was not worth it…

    Isn’t that a mark of today’s anti-culture, as we are consumers that pretend to be ‘Americans’ / ‘humans’, saying “…You’ll probably never see it. Thant’s reality though”? Here we are as everything is made to break down and take our money, instead of work and last, while we sit in traffic, and have our dignity chipped away so we can push ‘corporate policy’ for a paycheck that has diminishing returns on purchasing power, and the concept of making even a great movie for something like LEE/KIRBY’S Fantastic Four is more about “consumer” disappointment and wasting our money, than it is about entertainment that inspires the imagination, incites intelligent conversation, and urges the viewer to want to go out and learn more about science, being around a group of people who are different and working together to have fun and adventure, and of course -the Fantastic Four.

    This goes for everyone from the people who walk around high school tracks and football fields for some charity cause to gain money and recognition for curing cancer (while companies like Monsanto have patents on genetic sequences, but will not use them as it is more profitable to treat than cure diseases, along with the congressmen they have in their pockets), to the lame corporate tools like us as we just sit in traffic, and have the nerve just to tell ourselves success is based on attitude, and ‘think positive’ (while we have no urge or idea as to how to enable cooperation and tolerance at work or in our neighborhoods, have no idea how to tell someone how to meet their city council members, how to have a peaceful non-violent protest against things like how we use gerrymandering or out-sourcing jobs instead of training Americans, or how to be involved in town hall meetings), to the ‘consumer’ that is willing to pay over $2.00 for a “comic book” that is mainly about “super heroes” band names (instead of cutting edge, and just plain quality sequential art / story telling) -Remember this when you make a decision fellow ‘Americans’, and overall Fantastic4 ticket buyers / ‘consumers’ / chumps :

    Live like a consumer, then get treated like a ‘consumer’.
    Yuuu-p, thaz riiii-ite, I said it and I’z says it agains, cuz it’s time to DRAXX THEM SKOUNST, as we treat these mammajamaz from Fox like sum kinda “terries” onz’tha wallet t n $h!+ -I mean is get’n waaay too froggy, and we’z gotta be prepared to blast up on these wallet-terries know’msaynz… :
    Live like a consumer, then get treated like a ‘consumer’.

  6. “While the success of the MCU means that a failure here and there won’t spell the end of the superhero movie era for a bit, these movies are doing one thing; destroying the franchises in the comics. As widely reported, Marvel comics creators are generally banned from creating new characters in FF or Spider-Man books since any new character might be fodder for a Fox or Sony film. And many of the characters owned by other studios have been removed from Marvel licensed products, and even reprint covers. While these seem like spiteful movies by Marvel COO Ike Perlmutter, they are just the visible part of a behind the scenes movie studio battle as fierce and intense as anything on screen. Now THAT would make a good movie!”

    The thing is that none of these are spiteful moves. People forget that Marvel Entertainment breaks down into Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, and Marvel Licensing all as separate bodies. Comics and Studios may produce material involving different characters, but they don’t actual manage those characters as properties – that’s what Licensing does, and Licensing is who has the long-term deals with Sony and Fox, as well as is involve with all the ancillary material for characters (toys, posters, video games) in both their comic and cinematic forms. The concern that comes out of that is that the licensing agreements for the characters in the Fox deals aren’t only in their appearance in the movies, for example: there’s sharing of licensed-material profits for those characters (regardless of iteration; it’s where the character appears, not what he/she’s wearing that’s important – Wolverine is Wolverine is Wolverine as far as the license agreement goes, hence why there’s no slightly-different version of him in the Avengers); there was some brouhaha a while back when Disney Interactive had to cough up money on the Marvel Heroes game because of the license agreements.

    That’s why you see a dearth of X-Men or Fantastic Four licensed products (including the changed art on SECRET WARS-inspired tee shirts, for example), because of how profit margins run on those type of products and how Fox’s licensing department hasn’t worked with Disney/Marvel the same way that Sony’s has (the Spider-man agreement has adjusted product terms, the better for everyone that more Spider-man goods will keep coming out). Similarly, because of how licensing for new characters is designated based on first appearances, it makes total but unfortunate economic sense to not have those characters appear in Marvel Comics titles that Marvel Licensing considers pursuant to the Fox or Sony deals (remember that Sony still has creative control of the Spider-man films). I imagine that you’ll see more new characters created in other books done by the same writer or artist and then appearing in a contradicted title as a workaround, or else the recurrence new characters in annuals/specials by those guest creatives who would otherwise be introducing those characters in those titles, but it’s a matter that an issue of long-standing contracts, corporate structure, and the tight profit margins of multiple industries; to just assume that it’s all a matter of spite because fans are angry is horribly simplistic and the worst sort of hack journalism.

  7. @Brian
    >>
    “..While these seem like spiteful movies by Marvel COO Ike Perlmutter, they are just the visible part of a..”

    Actually, to my eyes, the paragraph which inspired your article DID seem to imply that what might appear to be spite was probably not – why otherwise include words “seem” and “visible”– but thanks all the same for your detailed and interesting overview about why some things inside different parts of creature make it what it is and make it work with other parts (or other things) the way it does.

  8. The Incredibles, which came out in 2004, is still the best Fantastic Four movie to date. It is about a family with super powers and it has adventure, drama and fun in equal measure. We care about these characters because they care about each other, plus the story is imaginative. It even ends with an obvious shout-out to the FF in the form of the Underminer. As I understand it the 2005 Fantastic Four movie went through some changes because of what The Incredibles demonstrated was possible. But none of the following Fantastic Four movies seemed to learn anything from this. The second FF movie was even roundly panned, most notably for featuring Galactus not as a character, but as a big cloud! Big Hero 6 was clearly influenced by The Incredibles in that it had drama, adventure and humor with a team of superheroes (plus the extended cameo by Stan Lee in the after credits sequence). All the FF film makers have to do is pay attention, and stop trying to reinvent Doctor Doom (who is still the most popular villain in comics for more than 50 years).

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