Home » Coming Attractions » Fantastic Four (prelude)
         

Fantastic Four (prelude)

Let’s talk about comic book history.

In April of 1954, the comics industry was forever changed when psychiatrist and author Frederic Wertham published his infamous book. “Seduction of the Innocent” was equal parts witch hunt and smear campaign, accusing comic books of glorifying violence, sex, drug abuse, homosexuality, and other such uncivilized behaviors, thereby warping the fragile minds of America’s youth. In hindsight, the accusation seems almost quaint. In the past several decades, we’ve seen so many activists point fingers at so many different forms of media, claiming that kids are being pushed into juvenile delinquency by video games, rap music, message boards, and God knows what else.

However, it bears remembering that “Seduction of the Innocent” came at the height of McCarthyism and the early days of the Cold War. Never mind that Wertham’s work was based on bad research and outright lies, Americans were on high alert for any sinister forces lurking in the shadows to corrupt American values. Paranoia was the order of the day, and so there was a backlash.

The comics industry responded in September of 1954 with the creation of the Comics Code Authority. The idea was simple: Comics publishers would censor their own material, making sure that every comic published was “up to code”. If it didn’t meet the code, it didn’t get published.

This meant that no comics could portray anything that was the least bit homosexual, or really any kind of sexual (to the point where romance comics were completely verboten). There could be no gore, no vampires, no werewolves, no zombies, no ghosts, and no monsters of any paranormal kind (so long, horror comics). All figures of authority in government — policemen, judges, politicians, etc. — had to be portrayed in a positive light, always obeyed and never killed off, lest a comic somehow encourage sedition (there go the westerns). And of course, good always had to triumph over evil, and there could never be any doubt which side was which (bye bye, noir thrillers).

Basically put, it was absolutely impossible for any comic to hit the shelves unless it was 100 percent kid-friendly from start to finish. To put this in perspective, imagine if movie studios were forbidden from releasing any films that weren’t rated G by the MPAA. Think about all the films from 1954 onward that never would have been made, how cinema history would have been changed, and what cinema today would be like.

The Comics Code was so stringent that the only viable comic book genre left was the superhero genre. And because no comic could get made unless it was kid-friendly, there was no motivation to write comics for anyone other than kids. Thus we have the so-called “Silver Age”, that infamous time when the comic book industry became flooded with superheroes in campy, goofy, colorful adventures specifically crafted with kids in mind. This led directly to the stereotypes of comics fans as overgrown children and comics themselves as an inferior art form, both of which were so deeply cemented in the ’50s and ’60s that they continue to this day.

Of course, the arrival of the Comics Code was such a huge industry shakeup that not every comics publisher went through unscathed. One prominent example was Atlas Comics, a company that thrived on producing comics of several different genres. Which meant that Atlas’ entire IP stable was pretty much completely wiped out by the Comics Code, leaving only a scant few superheroes. But then, in 1960, National Periodical Publications (later known as DC Comics) introduced the Justice League to tremendous success. The founder of Atlas saw this and thought “Hey, a team of superheroes! Let’s try that!” So the founder handed the assignment off to his wife’s cousin, one Stanley Lieber. He wrote the project in collaboration with artist Jacob Kurtzberg, then a freelance artist after his own comics company went belly-up.

So it was that in November 1961, Atlas Comics — now rebranded as Marvel Comics — published The Fantastic Four #1, written by Stan Lee with art by Jack Kirby. And it was such a tremendous success that the company gradually rebounded into one of the only two media giants keeping the comics industry afloat today.

Just take a moment to think about that, ladies and gentlemen. Almost everything that we know and love from Marvel came about as a direct result of the Fantastic Four. Without them, we’d have no Avengers or X-Men. No Spider-Man and no Wolverine. There would be no Iron Man, no Hulk, and no Daredevil. Thor would only be a figure of Norse mythology. Only Captain America and Namor would be left, both likely banished to obscurity along with The Whizzer and Powerhouse Pepper as Atlas Comics folded.

Even within the Marvel universe, the impact of the Fantastic Four can hardly be overstated. The Black Panther, Silver Surfer, Galactus, and several other prominent Marvel characters were first introduced in the pages of a Fantastic Four comic. More than that, the Fantastic Four pushed the boundaries of the Marvel Universe to the furthest star, introducing such pivotal alien races as the Kree and the Skrulls, to say nothing of the Inhumans.

All of that aside, just who are the Fantastic Four? Well, they’re a group of astronauts who were bombarded by some weird space radiation. Which is why one of them can stretch his body, another one can turn invisible and create force fields, one of them can burst into flames, and another one is made of solid rock. And those are the heroes.

The rogues gallery includes a mad scientist who controls a race of mole people, a guy who controls people with puppets made of radioactive clay, an alchemist who sold his soul to the devil, and the evil cybernetic tyrant of a microscopic universe. That isn’t even getting started on their most famous archnemesis, easily the greatest example of an archetypal cartoonishly evil mad scientist/tyrant since goddamn Fu Manchu.

The point that I’m trying to make with all of this is that the Fantastic Four were very much a product of their time. Everything about them — their origins, their powers, their villains, their adventures, pretty much everything — was based on this optimistic and magical view of science that’s very specific to the Space Race. More importantly, the Fantastic Four thrived on the kind of unrepentant goofiness and brain-dead, fanciful absurdity that defined the Silver Age of Comics.

But of course, times change. The Space Race and the Cold War are long since over. Gwen Stacy died and the Green Arrow’s sidekick got addicted to heroin. The Comics Code Authority began steadily losing relevance in the 1980s until it was finally discontinued for good in 2011. “Watchmen” happened. “The Dark Knight Returns” happened. The Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel’s Civil War happened. We’re living in a world after Mark Millar, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison. Hell, we’re living in a world after Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder.

The concept of superheroes has come to mean something very different, compared to what it was in the 1950s. Though of course, it’s not like all of the Silver Age creations have failed the test of time — just look at The Flash and Spider-Man, for instance. But all of the enduring Silver Age heroes had something timeless that the Fantastic Four didn’t have. Nothing about the Four was socially relevant or emotionally gripping — certainly nothing that other heroes haven’t done far better. These characters were defined from the very beginning by their Silver Age trappings, which have only grown more dated with time. More than that, they started out as a ripoff of the superhero team-up concept, and how long has it been since that was a new thing in comics?

All of this is most likely why no one seems to have any idea of what to do with the Fantastic Four. Among mainstream audiences and comics fans alike, they’ve either been ignored completely or outright disrespected for years.

For exhibit A, consider the movie adaptation by Constantin Films in 1994. Made for a paltry $1.5 million, with the legendary Roger Corman producing, The Fantastic Four (1994) was never intended for release. Seriously, Constantin Films purchased the film rights in 1983, so they pushed a film into production just before the rights expired, thus extending the contract by another ten years.

The film was completed and canceled just before release. Constantin Films then allegedly paid Corman not to release the movie (as per his contract). Reports differ on whether the negatives were sold to Marvel or outright burned. In any case, bootleg copies of the movie have been circulating for years and it’s become widely known as one of the most notorious so-bad-it’s-good movies in history.

Constantin Films then partnered with 20th Century Fox to develop the big-budget extravaganza that was promised all along. What followed was a solid decade of tortured development with a revolving door of writers and directors. The rights were just about due to expire again when Fox looked at an early cut of a Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah disaster and said “He’ll do! Get him a contract and put him to work right now!”

This led to Fantastic Four (2005) under the direction of Tim Story. Despite the fact that it was a complete wreck of a film, lambasted by critics and moviegoers alike, the picture raked in $330.6 million against a reported $100 million budget. Likely because 2005 was a notoriously godawful year in cinema, and it’s not like anyone was going to spend time and money on Herbie: Fully Loaded after seeing Batman Begins for the fifth time.

Still, box office success meant a sequel. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer came in 2007, and it was the second verse of the same song. Not only was the film excoriated by critics, but the inclusion of the Silver Surfer begged the question of whether the Fantastic Four were capable of supporting their own franchise. Even more baffling, what the hell did they do to Galactus and why did they even bother?

You might think that a third movie would immediately be put on the fast track, since the second made $289 million worldwide. But the domestic take only barely made back the reported $130 million budget. Also, there was a very notable downward trend with regards to the franchise’s profitability, and no one — NO ONE — was asking for a follow-up. And anyway, there didn’t seem to be anywhere else for another sequel to go.

Then came news that Disney was going to buy Marvel. And literally the very same day, Fox announced that they were rebooting the Fantastic Four. No director, no cast, no release date, just the announcement that Akiva Goldsman was exec producing the reboot and Michael Green was writing the script.

So naturally, Marvel responded gracefully and in the spirit of good sportsmanship. By which I mean they cancelled all Fantastic Four comics, bringing fifty years of history to an end in one swoop. Of course the brass at Marvel and Disney cited low sales for the decision and claimed that there was absolutely no spite or malice directed toward Fox.

Though if that’s true, then I’d love to hear why they arranged for the Punisher to burn the reboot’s cast in effigy. Like I said: No respect for these characters.

But let’s back up a bit: The reboot was first announced when the Marvel buyout was first made public. When did that news break? Oh, right — back in August 31st of 2009. SIX FUCKING YEARS AGO.

To put that in perspective, the development of Iron Man 3 was first confirmed to be in development in December of 2010. Which means that Marvel went through all six movies of its Phase II lineup — from the announcement of Iron Man 3 to the release of Ant-Man — in less time than it took Fox to make this one movie. Fuck, The Amazing Spider-Man was first announced in January 2010, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released in May of 2014!

And it’s not like the film was stuck in any kind of development hell, either. Fox just took their sweet time bringing Josh Trank on as the director in 2012, and as far as I can tell, things more or less went smoothly after that. I can’t find a single decent reason why this movie needed six years to make when the turnaround time for a CGI blockbuster is normally two to three years.

So either this movie is so incredible and so gleaming with polish that it needed half a decade to be done right, or the development process was drawn out as long as possible so Fox could keep hold of the rights for that much longer. Hm. I wonder which one it is.

I guess we’ll all find out when Fantastic Four (2015) hits theaters next week, on August 7th of 2015.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Fantastic Four (2015) » Movie Curiosities:

    […] to put my thoughts on the Fantastic Four to keyboard. And before I knew it, I had already typed out a whole blog entry before I had even seen the movie. So I guess I don’t really have a […]

Leave a Reply