Not So Fantastic Four: Adapting Marvel’s First Family

In 1992, an unreleased Fantastic Four film produced by Bernd Eichinger was made, possibly so that Constantin Film Productions could retain the rights to the characters. In 2005, a higher budget Fantastic Four film, also produced by Eichinger, was released. It had poor reviews but was a box office hit, garnering a 2007 sequel, which experienced a similar reception.

Finally, in 2015, Josh Trank‘s Fantastic 4 was released to the lowest box office gross of any Fantastic Four film and was critically panned. Further, the Fantastic Four’s animation presence hasn’t been has successful as other Marvel properties.

So what’s the problem? What element is it about the Fantastic Four that makes it so difficult to adapt into film and TV? They’re called “Marvel’s first family” because they were the first superhero book released by Timely Publications/Atlas Comics, launching their new branding as Marvel Comics.

For decades, Fantastic Four was the best-selling Marvel comic, Spider-Man being the only other book that came close to the super-team’s popularity. So if they were so popular, what is it that causes their presence on screen to bomb so bad that Marvel removed all Fantastic Four comic titles from their publications? It’s time to look deep into the issue of adapting the Fantastic Four. 

If there was one thing to pin it on, it’s that the Fantastic Four is often geared as a superhero team, and they are, simply put, not. Well, at least not all the time. But, ask any comic book fan and they’d tell you that the Fantastic Four’s best stories are the science adventures of the Lee/Kirby era. The team works so much better as responders to science emergencies and explorers of alternate dimensions than crime-fighters.

Heck, the whole science adventure thing is right there in their origin; they go to space to test a new rocket ship that Reed designed, getting hit by cosmic rays and gaining extraordinary abilities in the process. A science adventure gave them powers, and now they use those powers to explore domains thats no ordinary human could withstand.

Of course, this isn’t the only way the Fantastic Four can be written, and the most famous story arch, The Galactus Trilogy, goes in a completely different direction, essentially pitting superheroes against a god who is larger than any sense or idea of morality. Regardless, A majority of the Fantastic Four’s best stories have been as science adventures/expeditions.

So, under this notion, how have the film adaptations faired?

The Roger Corman film was going to be almost a direct adaptation of the comic book origins, but would’ve turned into a full-on superhero movie in the latter acts. The 2005 films were straight-up superhero movies with a little bit of science exploration in the beginning. The Josh Trank film got the closest, adapting aspects of Ultimate Comics origin, the four getting their powers from an expedition into the negative zone. 


If 2015’s Fantastic 4 got one thing right, it was the science angle, the first act of the film focused on the team building a portal to another dimension. However, it was the worst-received of any of the Fantastic Four films and was a complete box office failure. So, does this mean that science adventure is not the angle the Fantastic Four should take? Not necessarily.

Trank’s Fantastic 4 had a lot of production issues, some which were the result of a power struggle between studio and director. This is one of the things that went wrong behind the scenes, but what’s more surprising is the fact that Fox decided to go with another origin story. Fans and moviegoers have been sick of origin stories since The Amazing Spider-Man, and plenty of superhero movies at the time of Fantastic Four‘s release were not origins.

If we’re to agree that the Fantastic Four are at their best as science adventurers, then that can’t really be done in an origin story. 2015’s Fantastic Four tried to do it, but failed completely. So, in a perfect world, how does the perfect science adventure adaptation of the Fantastic Four play out?

Simple, start in the middle.

No, don’t start in the middle of the story, but start in the middle of the Fantastic Four’s career. The perfect Fantastic Four movie should take place when the team has a good number of adventures into other dimensions (and maybe some superhero outings) under their belts. Most importantly, they’ve all gone well. There’s been conflict in their past adventures, but nothing too crazy. This is important because it establishes a pattern of smooth sailing, and the adventure they go on within the timespan of this theoretical film marks the first one that goes completely awry.

In the perfect film, the Four are overconfident, prepared for any crazy adventure after a few years of dealing with negative zone shenanigans and cosmic enemies. But now, things are different, something goes wrong and the Four have to think and fight their way out of it. The specifics of the film are up to the filmmaker, but this could be a good model to start with.

But, after so many failed films, is the big screen really the best place for the Fantastic Four? Could it be the small screen? 

Marvel’s first family might not have done well in animated television, but what about live-action? But not just network television, what about a high-budget HBO-styled science adventure anthology of the Fantastic Four? It’s ambitious and would be incredibly hard to pitch, bit it could be the perfect medium to tell a series of fun, high-concept sci-fi adventures featuring your favorite cosmically-enhanced superhumans.

Who’s to say what went on behind the scenes of every failed Fantastic Four film, maybe it was studio interference or an attempt to retain the film rights, but clearly, adapting Marvel’s first family needs to be rethought. Not just a tone change or a darker depiction either, the formula needs to be thrown out and re-written from scratch.

The Fantastic Four have had a terrible film career, but maybe that can change.

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