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The promotional push for the new Fantastic Four movie is hitting full steam as we near its release date of August 7th. It’s still a little too early for reviews to come in so it’s hard to tell whether there is a good movie in store or not. As most know, this is a reboot of the previous two Fantastic Four movies released by 20th Century Fox, ones that made decent money but had bad reviews and have aged poorly. Perhaps, though, the problem is not the studio but the property – do fans still like the Fantastic Four?
Once upon a time, the Fantastic Four was Marvel Comics’ signature title. It was the title that ushered in Marvel’s Silver Age thanks to the clever concepts of Stan Lee and the art and passion of Jack Kirby. The Lee/Kirby run on Fantastic Four still probably ranks as their best collaboration and one of the best runs in Marvel history. Although it has gone through ebbs, the Fantastic Four remained a pretty successful title for the first 30 to 40 years of Marvel, thanks to creative talent like John Byrne, Steve Englehart, and Walter Simonsen.
However, the Fantastic Four has not fared as well in the 21st Century. The X-Men overtook the FF as Marvel’s flagship title in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Then in the early 2000’s, Brian Michael Bendis rebooted The Avengers and their popularity soared, enhanced by their central role in Marvel Studios’ rise. Suddenly, most of the major Marvel events concerned Avengers, X-Men or Spider-Man. The Fantastic Four, long called “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” became a second- or even third-tier title.
Marvel recently cancelled the Fantastic Four outright, something that had not been done without a relaunch in mind since the title’s debut. When “All-New, All-Different Marvel Now” debuted, the Fantastic Four was not clearly evident. The Thing is now a part of Guardians of the Galaxy. Some felt that the cancellation was Marvel’s way of punishing Fox, the studio that holds the characters’ film rights. The only problem with that logic is that Fox also owns the X-Men’s rights and has been doing well lately with those films. While the X-Men might not be the center of the Marvel Universe like it once was, there are still many X-titles coming out in “All-New, All-Different Marvel.”
The more direct explanation for the cancellation of Fantastic Four is that the book has not connected on a large scale with fans for quite some time. Its sales numbers were not the worst for Marvel, but they were not very impressive, especially for what should be a top-tier book. Fan-favorite creators have worked on the book, including Matt Fraction, but the title couldn’t become a real hit again. Mark Waid and Jonathan Hickman’s runs since 2000 are often cited as among the best written for Fantastic Four. Indeed, Reed Richards, Sue Richards, and Dr. Doom are central players in Hickman’s universe-altering mega-event Secret Wars.
So it is an interesting time for Fox to be rebooting the Fantastic Four film franchise. The characters are not nearly as popular as they once were and not as popular as Avengers or X-Men. Josh Trank received some acclaim for his super-powers found-footage movie Chronicle, and he seemed like a promising choice to direct the movie. The previews so far have been okay though hardly thrilling. Plus, it is difficult to get a read on the film’s tone (something that was so off in the previous FF movies). Although I don’t have any metrics for this, there doesn’t seem to be as much fan excitement for Fantastic Four as even something like X-Men: Apocalypse, which is a year away.
Fox could be in a tough situation if Fantastic Four under-performs. As seen with Spider-Man, you can reboot a character multiple times, but Spider-Man remains a super-popular property that has simply been mishandled by Sony. The Fantastic Four, on the other hand, is not nearly as beloved in comics, let alone popular culture right now. Would Fox give up the characters if Fantastic Four is not a box office or critical success? It doesn’t seem likely since there seem to be real plans for a Fantastic Four/X-Men movie crossover.
At the same time, maybe the movie will over-perform. At present on Rotten Tomatoes, Fantastic Four has a 98% “want to see” rating. The movie could be a surprise hit and possibly restart interest in the characters (such as with unheralded characters who received a movie boost like Vision and Ant-Man). Marvel might have mixed feelings about this, as they probably would like to get the film rights to the characters back, but they also wouldn’t mind people demanding new Fantastic Four comic books and merchandise. Fan passion for the Fantastic Four will get a good test over the next couple of weeks, and it might be a make-or-break time for “Marvel’s first family.”