Sixty years of the Fantastic Four — how Marvel's first family went from trailblazers to uncool – ABC News

Sixty years of the Fantastic Four — how Marvel's first family went from trailblazers to uncool
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Yes, their movies have been bad, but without the super team of the Fantastic Four, Marvel would not be the powerhouse it is today.
The comic book superheroes were launched 60 years ago, sparking a change not only in the way Marvel created comics, but in the way all superheroes were made and portrayed. 
But for all their significance, Marvel's "first family" do not hold the same level of respect and esteem as their fellow comic book counterparts — you're more likely to see a kid dressed up as Hawkeye this Halloween than wearing a blue and white super suit with a "4" emblazoned on the front.
So why are the Fantastic Four so important, and what went so wrong?
Prior to the arrival of Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961, Marvel Comics was trying to rebuild after the collapse of its predecessor Timely Comics. 
It was focused on sci-fi and monster anthologies and teen-friendly comics but was being left in the dust by its competitor DC, which had been enjoying great success with superhero titles including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and their superteam, the Justice League.
Marvel's own superheroes from the 40s and 50s such as Namor the Sub-Mariner and Captain America had fallen out of favour, but the success of DC's caped crusaders couldn't be ignored any more.
It fell to Marvel writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby to create something to rival the Justice League.
What they made was a "family" – super smart scientist Reed Richards (AKA the highly stretchable Mr Fantastic), his partner Sue Storm (AKA The Invisible Girl — later Invisible Woman), Sue's brother Johnny (AKA The Human Torch), and Reed's best friend Ben Grimm (AKA the rock-monster labelled The Thing).
Despite getting their powers from "cosmic rays" while travelling in space, the FF were refreshingly realistic, according to arts and culture writer Cassie Tongue.
"They were not just straight-up heroic characters," Tongue said.
"They had character flaws and foibles — they were first superhero team that bickered and had differing opinions.
"This idea of heroes being flawed, three-dimensional people — like we are — kind of started with the Fantastic Four."
The birth and instant success of the FF sparked a whirlwind of creativity from Lee and Kirby, as well as artist Steve Ditko — within two years they had also created The Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Dr Strange, and the X-Men.
They all followed the FF template. The characters were imperfect, and their powers had downsides — the X-Men were persecuted and feared in a thinly veiled metaphor for the civil rights movement, Spider-Man struggled to balance his life as Peter Parker with the whole 'with great power comes great responsibility' thing, and the Hulk had anger issues (to put it mildly).
Former comic bookshop owner Garry Fay said the Fantastic Four also stood out because they didn't "set out to be superheroes".
"They were explorers that just happened to become involved in things that were bigger than them," Fay said.
"They had much more of a science fiction bent than the 'superhero saving the world' thing; they were going into unknown places.
"They really promoted science to a lot of kids. 
"Reed Richards has been listed as the smartest of all the Marvel characters — his brains were as much a weapon or a tool as much as his ability to stretch.
"But being a family, made these characters relatable … even to the point where the postman who delivered their mail became a recurring character.
"(Unlike other heroes) they interacted with everyday Americans."
Tongue agreed, noting the Fantastic Four were the first major superheroes not to hide behind alter egos, a la Batman/Bruce Wayne or Superman/Clark Kent.
"This idea that they were just people and that they would be public-facing and not have a secret identity (was new)," she said.
"They didn't ask for the powers; they didn't really want them.
"Ben Grimm would be angry (about becoming The Thing), and maybe he could become a bad guy because he was so angry.
"That tension between being a real person versus just being a hero was such a shift for Marvel and comics at the time because everyone else was just a really good guy all the time."
The Fantastic Four kicked off Marvel's participation in what is now known as the Silver Age of Comics and helped turn Marvel from an also-ran into the iconic comic book company it is today.
Through the 60s, Lee and Kirby kept the FF among Marvel's best-selling comics, but through the '70s and '80s comic sales dropped in general as other forms of entertainment gained in popularity, including TV and, later, video games.
Between 1986 and 1996, Marvel optioned off the film rights to a range of characters in a move to help boost the company financially.
Among the first characters sold were the Fantastic Four, with the German producer Bernd Eichinger buying them in 1986 for a rumoured $250,000.
But getting the film made proved tricky due to the large special effects budget needed to showcase a man who could stretch his body to insane lengths, another who burst into flame, a woman who made forcefields with her mind, and a character who looked like he was made of rocks.
As time ticked down on Eichinger's agreement and with no major studio interested, the German producer did the unthinkable — he made a cheap version for US$1m with B-movie king Roger Corman.
Stan Lee claimed the film was never intended to be released and was only made to ensure Eichinger kept the rights.
The movie was mysteriously pulled from release just days before its premiere, and future founder of Marvel Studios Avi Arad reportedly paid a couple of million dollars to have all the prints destroyed to "protect the brand". 
This has given the film the dubious honour of being one of the few films believed to be so bad it wasn't released (after much bootlegging, the film can be seen on YouTube).
But Eichinger's ploy worked, and he managed to hold on to the rights, and after some false starts, a new Fantastic Four film with a more sizeable budget (close to US$100m) was released by 20th Century Fox in 2005.
Although critically panned (it's rated 27 per cent fresh on critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes), it took about $333m at the worldwide box office, which was enough to get another critically panned sequel made and released in 2007.
The following year Marvel rolled the dice on bankrolling and making its own movies, starting with Iron Man.
A critical and commercial success, it kickstarted the media franchise we know now as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in response 20th Century Fox began looking at rebooting the Fantastic Four into something more like the MCU.
As the MCU grew, the film rights to some Marvel characters returned to Marvel, including Daredevil, the Punisher, and even Howard the Duck. 
But 20th Century Fox clung to the Fantastic Four, convinced they could build a franchise out of them to rival the success of its own X-Men series or Sony's Spider-Man movies, or the MCU itself.
In 2015, Fox tried again with a reboot of the Fantastic Four, needing to do one before 2022 or else the film rights would revert to Marvel.
Despite a talented young cast, it bombed hard, failing to cover its budget and marketing costs, and rating just nine per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the lowest ranked film made from a Marvel property. It also won three Razzie Awards, including Worst Film.
The Guardian called the Fantastic Four "the most mismanaged superhero franchise ever", and fans clamoured for the rights to be handed back to Marvel.
Not only have the Fantastic Four movies failed at the box office, they've also disappointed fans.
There are a range of reasons for this, but Cassie Tongue says some of them lay with the characters themselves.
"They're not cool," she laughed.
"You get new generations of superheroes coming up and they're more violent or they're funnier, or they deal with more relatable issues than the Fantastic Four, (who have) these old-fashioned views of the world, which is a bit cheesy."
She noted the Fantastic Four comic book series had undergone significant revamps over the years in an attempt to make them relevant to a new audience.
"They don't have the same driving purpose as say Spider-Man, (who) has to use his powers for good, because of the lessons that he learned when he didn't," Tongue said.
"These guys are just like, adventurer-celebrities."
She said introducing their origin story is also tricky on screen.
"You have to spend so much of a movie introducing them, getting them into space, giving them the cosmic rays," Tongue said.
"And then you have to find a villain because they don't fight the cosmic rays — how they get their powers has nothing to do with the kind of evil they face.
"Even in the first Fantastic Four comic, we learn about them getting their powers in a really brief flashback — it's not the point of the story."
Twentieth Century Fox probably would have held on to the rights of the FF forever and rebooted them ad infinitum, but Disney (which owns Marvel) bought Fox's intellectual property in 2019, bringing Marvel's first family (and the X-Men) back into the fold.
The brand damage done by the FF movies is immeasurable, but Garry Fay says Marvel fans are holding out hope their introduction into the MCU, expected in 2023 or 2024, will restore them to their rightful place.
"I think if Marvel had made the Fantastic Four movies, they probably would have got the praise that they probably deserved," Fay said.
"When we get down to brass tacks, the budgets were terrible (though) the casts seemed pretty good.
"I just don't think (Fox) ever had the same love for the characters (that Marvel does)."
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