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Trapped in the Negative Zone: The Fantastic Four on Film

The dust has cleared on the fourth attempt to bring The Fantastic Four to the big screen. Why is this team of comic characters so important? What keeps going so horribly wrong?

The Fourth Time Was Not a Charm...

I was in elementary school when I discovered a paperback book in my father’s collection that would change my life. It was called The Gideon Bible and… oh, wait, that’s a different article.

But seriously, folks, what I found did surprise me greatly. It was a trade paperback collection of the first six issues of The Fantastic Four, not so subtly subtitled by Marvel Comics as “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine”. These days “trade paperbacks” are thick, being collections of comics, but are the approximate dimensions of the original issues. This early collection was the size and shape of any standard paperback novel with the gridded pages shrunk to fit the smaller pages.

What was this treasure doing in this particular trove? My dad was never much of a comic book guy. Even as a kid, he tended to only read the Harvey and Dell-style kids’ funnies like Little Lulu and Little Dot, not the action packed Marvel Comics of the Silver Age. Yet there it was, emblazoned across the page edges with my dad’s own distinctive “ex-libris” initial of “J”. My guess is that he got it at a garage sale or used book sale with a box load of other cheap tomes without caring much about the content. I asked him later, he had no recollection.

It might be important to mention the real-world impact of those first six issues of The Fantastic Four. Ever hear of the Marvel Universe? It’s the continuity that has informed every Marvel Comic book for the last several decades and has, in fact, led directly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which dominates the box office today. That universe truly started right there in November 1961’s The Fantastic Four #1. That’s right. Before Beatlemania made “The Fab Four” universal favorites, the Fantastic Four were carving out their own universe for Marvel on the whole.

Oh, sure, some of the Marvel mainstays like Captain America, the Submariner and the (original) Human Torch had already made their splash in Timely and Atlas comics (precursors to Marvel), but it was The Fantastic Four #1 that first hinted at the coalescence of these characters in the Silver Age. Earlier comics touched upon each other but this was the start of the actual Marvel Universe. Ironically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe that led directly from the Marvel Universe (in print) does not (at the time of this writing) include the Fantastic Four, whose first issue launched the whole shebang!

Influential the comic most assuredly is. Was it “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine”? I soon began to think so, yes. Soon… because at first, I was a bit disturbed.

Let me clarify that it was the early '80s when I first read these issues, and I was young and weaned on toned-down superhero cartoons and my dad’s old Richie Rich comics. My young mind believed that this team consisted of “Fireball”, “Mister Bricks”, “Plastic Man” and “That Invisible Lady” with their armored main villain clearly being “Iron Man”, right? Obviously those assumptions were completely wrong, but I was a little kid and had a lot to learn about comics.

Let me also add that by this time, The Fantastic Four #1 was already 20 years old and very hard hitting and dark. Team leader Reed Richards first appeared in shadows holding a gun and making ominous promises about how the world would soon come to know his new team. Once summoned, car fanatic Johnny Storm becomes The (new) Human Torch spontaneously, melting the hot rod he and his (now endangered) friend have been working on, his sister Sue Storm turns invisible during a department store visit, freaking out her fellow shoppers to the point that they believe the place might be haunted and the gigantic Ben Grimm, dressed in a trench coat, fedora and dark glasses reveals himself to be a rocky-skinned Thing and rampages through the city.

I initially thought the members of this team were the villains of the piece. Such was the edge that writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby brought into these first six issues (and beyond). Never was The Fantastic Four a team of “Super Friends”. They were a family, sure, but Ben was constantly trying to beat the hell out of Johnny and Johnny was constantly burning things. Reed and Sue had their romance, but even that was often strained by what went on around them. Jealousy, infighting, taunting and sabotage occasionally marked and marred the team’s early adventures.

The oft-imitated cover that launched the Marvel Universe.

As the first six issues rounded out the team fought an invasion from the center of the Earth (led by the Mole Man whose main monster led to one of the most iconic and imitated covers in comics history), faced another invasion by the alien race known as the Skrulls, introduced the dangerous and disfigured armored villain Doctor Doom, reintroduced the Golden Age’s Submariner, traveled through time to the pirate age and journeyed into outer space… twice. The “Super Hero Team” didn’t even put on their first real costumes until the third issue (with Reed frequently going into battle wearing a suit and tie until that point).

Not only was the team often at each other’s throats, but they also faced real-world strife and temptation. Sue is entranced by the returned Submariner and considers leaving Reed for him. Johnny gets fed up with superhero life, abandons the family and goes on his own (which Reed blames on Ben). As for the team possibly being villains, at one point the government and army hunt and imprison the Four and they become fugitives. In that time travel issue, Ben becomes drunk with power and assumes the mantel of Blackbeard, turning against Reed and Johnny to embrace a life of seafaring crime. Meanwhile, Doom proves to be the old best buddy of Reed and is, in fact, a much more honest and trustworthy person, in spite of his villainous ways, than even Reed himself proves to be.

And that’s just the first six issues. Action, intrigue, science fiction, domestic troubles, defections, deceptions and changing sides. Can you imagine how amazing that could be in a movie?

I did. Every day. For years.

At the time of this writing I'm 41 years of age. I’m a father myself and I have my own admirable collection of books and movies. In fact, by the time of this writing there have been no less than four Fantastic Four feature length films… and not a single one of them has been “Fantastic”.


That very question has baffled movie studios and comics fans for a long time, right up to the August 2015 critical and financial fiasco that was Josh Trank’s Fant4stic. This reboot follows Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), its prequel Fantastic Four (2005) and the infamously never-released The Fantastic Four (1994). All four Fantastic films share one major thing… they are all critically reviled

So how could “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” lead to such awful movies? Could it be that the team simply cannot be adapted to the screen?

Well, no, that’s probably not the case. There have been four Fantastic Four animated television shows, including the limited-animation but accurate 1967 series, the more modern 2006 series, the 1994 series, which sported a critically reviled first season and a critically acclaimed second season and the notorious 1978 series The New Fantastic Four which featured H.E.R.B.I.E the Robot instead of the Human Torch for a full 13 episodes. The Thing even had his own series in 1979’s Fred and Barney meet The Thing (don’t worry, he never actually teamed up with the Bedrock boys).

The Four on film faced its first false start back in the late '70s.

Why was Torch replaced by 1978’s answer to Jar-Jar Binks (in H.E.R.B.I.E.)? The urban legend is that NBC was afraid kids might try to emulate the hero by setting themselves on fire. This wasn’t actually true. In fact, NBC not only wanted The Human Torch for The New Fantastic Four but also for the 1981 animated series Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. Much as The New Fantastic Four replaced the Torch with H.E.R.B.I.E., Amazing Friends was forced to create another flame-based hero in “Firestar” to complement Iceman and Spider-Man in their adventures. No one was worried that little girls would set themselves alight to emulate her embers.

The real answer as to why The Human Torch was unavailable has to do with the first Fantastic Four misfire (if you’ll pardon the pun) on its way to film. Universal Studios began making deals with Marvel to license its characters for TV movies and pilots. Thus, we were given Universal’s successful series The Incredible Hulk that launched in 1978 and ran for five seasons (and a string of follow-up TV movies) as well as two Captain America TV movies, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979) and 1978’s Dr. Strange, featuring Marvel’s “Sorcerer Supreme”. Universal also bought the rights to The Human Torch but his TV movie/ pilot burned in development hell for years, forcing his replacement in the NBC shows.

Ironically, NBC and Universal are now the same company.

It's worth noting that although today nothing seems hotter at the box office than a Marvel Comics Movie (2015’s Fantastic Four excluded), at the time, Marvel was selling off rights to its properties piecemeal. There was no hope of making a big screen bow like DC’s 1978 smash Superman, and even Marvel’s flagship Spider-Man was relegated to a low-budget live-action 1977 TV show on CBS. Marvel’s then most recent appearance on the big screen was the 1944 serial Captain America. Its next big screen attempt would be the universally panned 1986 film Howard the Duck. (For more on this and other Marvelous big screen evolutions, check out "The Rise Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film".)

As the Human Torch solo project burned itself out, other suitors came sniffing around. The real push for the full Fantastic Four on film started in 1983 when German producer Bernd Eichinger met with Marvel’s own Stan Lee about obtaining the rights and making the film. Those rights would not be fully available (thank you, Torch), until 1986, but by that time Eichinger's Neue Constantin film company had successfully produced and released 1984’s hit The NeverEnding Story and things looked bright for a Fantastic Four flick. Today the struggle between Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox over Marvel’s characters (both Fantastic Four and X-Men) is a multi-million dollar war, back in 1986, Neue Constantin reportedly nabbed the rights to the Fantastic Four for only $250k.

The problem was that creating a convincing movie about a behemoth made of rocks, a man who can mold himself into any shape, a teenager who can burst into flames and fly and a woman who can turn invisible and create force fields was, to say the least, a quite expensive prospect. This was arguably a taller order than Superman’s filmic promise that “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly”. Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures both showed interest in co-funding and distributing the potential picture, but the budget remained prohibitive and most studios balked at having to share the potential profits with rights holder Constantin.

The bigger problem was that if Eichinger didn't start production on a Fantastic Four film by the last day of 1992, the rights would return to Marvel and Eichinger’s company would also be fined $5 million for breach of contract. Eichinger asked Marvel for an extension but none was granted. Not only did Eichinger not have the $40 million it would take to make a big Fantastic Four film, he didn’t even have the $5 million for the fine. So what was a producer to do?

In Eichinger’s own words “They didn’t say I had to make a big movie!” Thus Eichinger spent a mere $1 million to produce (with B-Movie Maestro Roger Corman) an unconvincing and low-budget film called The Fantastic Four just to keep the rights to the film.

Why didn’t you see it? Because it was never released. Rumors have abounded that Constantin never intended to release the film, as the contract stipulated that the film must be started and completed, not necessarily released. However, although Marvel and Lee himself helped spread that very rumor, other factors seem to belie this story. Corman and crew clearly believed that this film was going to be released and, although it's terrible, they gave their all. So did the cast who did promotional tours and appearances to help popularize this movie-to-be. Most tellingly, trailers for the film were released in theaters and on VHS copies of Corman films like Carnosaur (1993). Why bother spending the money on marketing something that was never intended for release?

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