Superhero movies live and die according to hype. In the current box-office climate, movies with the names “Marvel” or “DC” attached to them aren’t interested in building audiences based on post-release word-of-mouth. But instead in guaranteeing attendance months and years in advance via sprawling interconnected universes that always have one eye firmly fixed on the next film in the sequence. Hence, the hype. Hence, Comic-Con.
So what about “Fantastic Four?”
In a recent LA Times feature, director Josh Trank was interviewed about the way his film is being received by fans so far, which has ranged from apathy to downright hostility. In that same piece, producer Simon Kinberg goes as far as to say some of those fans have “a chip on their shoulder.”
Of course, no one has seen the film yet. Even just one month out, the promotional machine for “Fantastic Four” has been much quieter than those touting films from other studios like “Batman v. Superman” or “Suicide Squad,” both of which are roughly a year away. In fact, superhero films from the same studio as “Fantastic Four” — namely, the upcoming slate of X-Men films such as “Apocalypse” and “Deadpool” — are getting plenty more attention.
To his credit, Josh Trank sounds like he expected this.
“I made every single choice knowing that people would question it,” the director told the LA Times. “And what better reaction than to have people then go see the movie and understand it and feel like maybe they have learned something about the world, to not question the next thing they think is going to be stupid or weird.”
That’s the sort of quote that makes you think Trank is the perfect guy to adapt the “Fantastic Four”, a team all about learning and discovery. But no matter how thoughtful Trank sounds, it seems like he just can’t shake the ghost of movies past.
As ScreenCrush notes, the previous “Fantastic Four” movies, while blockbusters, are not fondly remembered. Even though the last film, “Rise of the Silver Surfer,” came out in 2007, it feels like the product of another era with its kitschy family-friendly approach that you wouldn’t see today.
Still, there’s that chip on fan’s shoulders. While the second “Fantastic Four” film was legitimately terrible, the first one wasn’t awful. Sure, it got some characters wrong (Dr. Doom), but mostly it was a case of a film attempting to appeal to everyone and really appealing to no one. But the strange thing about the failure of that first film franchise is that it seems to be projected onto the property as a whole — as if the Fantastic Four just aren’t inherently interesting.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
As Vulture’s Abraham Riesman explains at length, if there’s anything you love about Marvel comics or modern superheroes, they wouldn’t exist without the Fantastic Four. They’re also still relevant. “It has a core idea that never gets old,” writes Riesman, “the struggles, compromises, joys, and agonies of being in a family.”
That, right there, is what makes the Fantastic Four special. It’s something that, frankly, the marketing behind the forthcoming film is pretty lousy at conveying: They’re a family. Susan and Johnny Storm (played by Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan) are siblings, while Sue and Reed (Miles Tellar) get married and have children.
This all happens extremely early in Fantastic Four history, by the way. The team debuted in 1961, and the marriage of Reed and Sue occurs in the fall of 1965. Franklin Richards, their first son, then shows up in 1968. So, for almost the entirety of their existence, the Fantastic Four has had a married couple at its core, with Sue’s brother Johnny serving as a source of youthful energy and Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm, aka The Thing, fulfilling the role of clear-eyed, blue-collared heart of the team.
Granted, Trank’s film seems to be adapting “Ultimate Fantastic Four,” a newer take on the characters that significantly changes their origin, makes them all younger, and never has Reed and Sue marry. Still, family was important to that run too, albeit a more dysfunctional, Joss Whedon-style “found” family rather than one centered around matrimony.
The idea of family is so timeless and versatile that it gave us a hit Pixar film and transformed the “Fast and Furious” movies into one of the best crowd-pleasing franchises in existence. It’s also something that the current crop of superhero movies refuses to come anywhere near — meaning that a good “Fantastic Four” movie has room to be truly unique, and not just a remix of things we’ve all seen before.
This works on a visual level as well as a thematic one. The Fantastic Four go to impossible places and see incredible things. They’re the relatable center of stories that take us to mind-bending places. They showed just how far superhero comics could take us, how much heart was hidden away in the comic books that were so often ignored by mainstream media.
The Fantastic Four matter. Let’s hope they get a movie that treats them that way.
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