At Disney’s 2020 Investor Day event, the media giant announced a huge slate of announcements involving Star Wars, Pixar, Disney+, and — of course — Marvel Studios.
Along with trailers for Loki — a series following Tom Hiddleston’s Norse god of mischief — and the bizarre throwback sitcom Wandavision, Marvel announced plans for a movie starring “Marvel’s first family,” AKA the Fantastic Four. There’s only one problem: Fantastic Four movies are always terrible.
This is not a matter of personal taste. It’s an undisputed fact.
Since 1994 there have been four attempts to adapt Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s first comic collaboration for the big screen. Not one has managed to receive even a 40% positive rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
2005’s star-studded version with Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis holds a 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. Its lackluster sequel, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, fared slightly better with a 37%.
Most recently, 2015’s Fant4stic , starring Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Miles Teller was plagued by rewrites, reshoots, and interference from executives at 20th Century Fox — the studio that had purchased the Fantastic Four film rights long before the MCU was a thing.
Josh Trank — the young director who had made a name for himself in 2012 with his acclaimed found-footage superhero movie Chronicle, ended up disowning Fant4stic. In a since-deleted tweet, he wrote that he’d made “a fantastic version” of the movie that audiences would “probably never see,” effectively ending his relationship with 20th Century Fox.
The final mess earned three Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture (tied with 50 Shades of Grey) Worst Remake, and Worst Director, and received an abysmal Rotten Tomatoes rating of 9%. By contrast, the worst of the MCU movies — 2013’s Thor: The Dark World and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk — are neck and neck with 66% and 67% approval, respectively.
So what is it that goes so wrong with Fantastic Four movies? Why does a comic series that has been beloved by fans for nearly 60 years translate so poorly to film?
The answer may be found in the abandoned marketing for the unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four, which has become an underground hit among connoisseurs of terrible cinema.
The Fantastic Four 1994 – Caravan Of Garbage
The tagline reads, “Part muscle. Part elastic. Part fire. Part invisible. Together, it’s clobberin’ time!”
That might be the worst possible pitch for the superpowered quartet, but it also captures the very silly essence of the Fantastic Four. A stretchy guy, a rock guy, a fire guy, and a woman who can turn invisible fight a robo-Stalin who calls himself Doctor Doom. At a fundamental level, the Fantastic Four is goofy.
In comic book form, that goofiness can be part of the fun. The Thing — a man made of orange rock — fits much more easily in a cartoon universe than he does in live action. Likewise, the fun of stretchy limbs can get kind of creepy and nauseating when it’s applied to a real actor.
Of course, there was a time when all superhero movies were thought of as goofy, childish fun. Most people in the movie industry looked down on comics, so there was a sense that you weren’t even supposed to try to make them good — just flashy, expensive fan service.
That sense has changed gradually in recent decades, with directors like Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan bringing a sense of gravity — with touches of tragedy and horror — to superhero stories (though Raimi definitely preserved the goofiness).
But Marvel Studios is responsible for the true rehabilitation of a genre that once ranked alongside video game adaptations as cinematic poison.
These days the MCU is basically synonymous with blockbuster movies. And while they’re still derided by many cinephiles, they’re generally well regarded. With comic book nerds like Kevin Feige and the Russo brothers at the helm, they manage to capture what’s great about the comics without so much of the silliness.
They blend serious superpowered action with witty humor that is pretty universally enjoyed. It’s such an effective combination that it has somehow turned a Norse god/alien with a silly helmet and a lightning hammer into a beloved movie icon.
Of course, casting gorgeous, charming actors like Chris Hemsworth doesn’t hurt, but Captain America himself — AKA Chris Evans, AKA Buzz Lightyear, AKA Johnny Storm — is proof that casting alone won’t do the trick.
I don’t even have the words. https://t.co/GHC8X6Yp7n
— Chris Evans (@Chris Evans)1607647499.0
So, now that Disney’s 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox has brought the Fantastic Four into the fold with the Avengers, can Marvel and Disney work that same magic to overcome the cinematic curse? Or is the series’ persistent failure to translate an indication of a fundamental flaw?
Maybe Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early work was a little rough around the edges. Maybe it’s wholly impossible to work a catchphrase like “It’s clobberin’ time,” into anything other than a terrible movie.
Maybe the new Fantastic Four movie will finally break Marvel’s unprecedented streak of hits. Or maybe in a couple years Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, and the Human Torch will be everyone’s favorite Marvel heroes.
We’ll just have to wait to find out. Spider-Man Homecoming director Jon Watts has been tapped to direct the film, but since they have yet to announce a cast or a release schedule, we may be waiting a while.