The Fantastic Failure

Reading audiences have been fascinated by fantastic flights of fancy since the beginnings of literature. Jules Verne gave the world the adventures of Captain Nemo on the Nautilus and H.G. Wells produced amazing journeys that took heroes to unimaginable lands far away. For younger audiences, comic books brought forth heroes who were set apart from normal people by extraordinary abilities of super strength or flight or invulnerability. These comic heroes have been part of pop culture for more than 50 years. The abilities of these heroes have been so fantastic that the technology to depict them visually has only recently been developed. This is why the super hero has become the big box office draw for the past 20 years or so. With every new movie, the public’s appetite for fantastic visual effect-laden comic based movies has only grown and every movie has satisfied that appetite. Until now.

The Fantastic Four opened Friday to tepid public response. Expected to fetch $50 million on its opening weekend, the film barely made half that, only garnering $26 million. Public reviews have given the film a low C, the lowest score for a major Hollywood backed superhero film franchise. Even the dismal Green Lantern scored higher.

While many “experts” will offer their ideas on why this latest reboot of the Fantastic Four, one of Marvel Comics’ most famous titles, I doubt anyone will lay the blame where it really belongs: squarely on the shoulders of those who think that by reimagining the franchise, it will increase its appeal. This is sorely incorrect thinking.

The story of any of these heroes is one that was born on the pages of the comic book. Writers labored over the back story, the origin of the hero, the birth of the super to make them engaging to the audiences. They succeeded. Not every time, though. Garbage piles are full of failed comic book titles that didn’t connect with audiences, much the same way that, over in the next garbage heap, is a pile of celluloid from bad movies. No, the titles that have lasted for decades work for the audience. Now, if you have a successful franchise, why mess with it? Why try to fix that which is not broken? Why reimagine it?

Some have said that the first two Fantastic Four films were not as successful as they could have been, so the studio felt a change was needed. They probably went to their consultants, people who probably never opened a Fantastic Four comic book in their lives, and asked them how could they make a more successful film. These consultants probably opened an issue of the comic and said “Oh! Look! There are no black people in the team! You can’t have that. Statistics have shown that X number of audience members self-identify with being African American. You should really have one person on the team represent that demographic.”

They probably followed that up with, “Oh, look! These characters are too old! You can’t appeal to the younger audiences by having heroes in their 30’s and 40’s (Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, has always had graying temples). No, these heroes need to be high school aged. Yes! That’s the ticket. Make them younger.”

So what we end up with is a movie based on a successful story that was consulted to death. In defense, the movie was purportedly based not on the original Stan Lee comic book, but on the revamped title “Ultimate Fantastic Four,” part of the Ultimate series that Marvel foisted on the public in 2004. But then again, the ultimate series was a mistake for the same reasons.

The original story of these heroes begins with Reed Richards, one of the most respected and established scientists on Earth, building a rocket ship to explore space. Along with his crew, Sue Storm and her biological brother Johnny, and Ben Grimm, a mechanical engineer, they are accidently subjected to cosmic radiation that alters their bodies, imbuing them with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. They are all adults. They are all capable of rational thought, and they are all respected professionals. Not kids. Sue and Johnny are brother and sister. There is no need to create some convoluted back story of how a black man adopted a girl from Kosovo just to explain how Johnny Storm is black. Johnny Storm doesn’t need to be black. The character was introduced in 1961 as white. Even in the Ultimate series, he is white. Why change it? Unfortunately, this isn’t the only super hero character getting a historical makeover either. The comics have introduced other racial identities for some heroes, but those heroes are different people. While the new comic version of Captain America may be black, Steve Rogers is still white. While Spiderman may be Hispanic, Peter Parker is white. While Green Lantern may be any number of races, Hal Jordan is white. This is consistent.

Marvel’s hands are not entirely clean in this debacle either. Several years ago, Marvel needed cash so they sold the rights to some of their most famous titles to other studios. Spiderman went to Sony, X-Men and the Fantastic Four went to 20-Century Fox and the Hulk went to Universal. Because of these deals, multiple studios can develop multiple production teams to develop any number of movies based on the characters involved in the deal. Disney bought Marvel outright in 2009 and set to developing what has become known as the Marvel cinematic universe. This has led to the highly successful series of films with the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Marvel got the rights to the character of the Hulk back in 2008, and Spiderman is now a shared property with Sony, so both of those characters can also appear in the Marvel universe. 20-Century Fox has decided that they don’t need to play nice, however. Since their X-Men films have been so wildly successful, they don’t see a need to work with Marvel in developing their properties. This is why none of the Marvel studios movies mention mutants, X-men or the Fantastic Four.

Marvel has developed their titles using material developed from the original comic books. Stan Lee, the progenitor of almost every title in print, had a hand in the development of the cinematic universe and more to the point, the creative people he hired at Marvel are working on these movies. This is the biggest reason why they are so successful. Even a little known minor character in the comic books, Ant-man, had a successful movie. I don’t even want to think of how Fox would have tried to make that one work.

So, Fox, listen up: Sell the Fantastic Four back to Marvel, or at least partner with them. You don’t know how to make that movie. They do. Besides, those characters can be important to the upcoming Infinity War series of movies and you know you will want a piece of that action.

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