Over the past 30 years, Marvel's risen meteorically. The company's gone from pawning off its most lucrative superheroes to keep the lights on to hedging untold millions on D-list characters even the most obsessive fans barely remember. And now that Black Widow's finally hitting theaters, Cracked's looking at the past (and future) of the studio that revolutionized the modern superhero narrative. Check out parts one, two, three, four, and five.

While Marvel Studios has done a solid job She’s All That-ing some of their less popular superheroes (such as Iron Man and Thor) into the prom queens of the box office, following Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, now many of Marvel’s most iconic comic characters are finally able to join the MCU. In addition to the X-Men and Deadpool, now Disney has control over the so-called “First Family” of Marvel: The Fantastic Four. 

But despite the fact that Disney bought Fox way back in 2017, they have yet to play with these potentially-lucrative characters. Which is … kind of weird. But in the case of the Fantastic Four, it makes perfect sense for Marvel Studios to take things a bit slow, considering that pretty much every previous Fantastic Four production has been about as smooth as a Sasquatch’s bikini zone.

The original disaster (that has presumably cursed the franchise forever) was the 1994 film produced by Roger Corman, which received as wide a release as that movie where Brad Pitt, Werner Herzog, and TV’s Wendy Williams fight cybernetically-enhanced zoo animals in an abandoned, post-apocalyptic IKEA which we just made up right now. That’s right, the original Fantastic Four movie somewhat famously, never saw the light and/or darkened rooms of movie theaters and was promptly buried by Marvel.

Why? It’s a whole thing. In 1983 Stan Lee sold the rights to German producer Bernd Eichinger, who went on to make The Neverending Story, Resident Evil, and Downfall, the much-memed Adolf Hitler biopic. But back then, superhero movies were less appealing to studios than, say, wacky comedies about literal sex crimes so Eichinger couldn’t get anyone to make the film. With the rights set to expire, his only chance to retain said investment was to make … something. So he approached B-movie legend Roger Corman in November 1992 and proposed throwing together a dirt-cheap Fantastic Four movie -- one that would have to start shooting by December 31 in order for his plan to work. They ended up rolling cameras on December 26 so it wouldn’t be too “obvious” what they were up to

So Corman took a script that was written for a $30 million budget and made it for just $1 million which, unsurprisingly, didn’t go great. Sadly, a lot of the folks involved with the movie worked super hard on the doomed project; the cast (who weren’t wise to the scheme) spent “months promoting the still-in- postproduction film at comic-book shops and sci-fi conventions,” the director booked a premiere screening that would benefit children’s charities, and the composers invested $6,000 of their own money recording the score and, according to the director, they “never got paid.” 

While there seems to be some debate as to whether or not the film was ever intended to be released, then-Chief Creative Officer for Marvel, Avi Arad, “bought the film for a couple million dollars in cash and burned it” then “ordered all prints destroyed” despite the fact that he had never actually watched it, something you can do right now for free on YouTube any time you want.

According to Corman, Eichinger then took the Fantastic Four to Fox with machinations to release the cheap-o version as a prequel once the big-budget one proved to be a hit -- something Fox caught wind of, leading them to add “a rider in the contract that he would not release the $1 million picture.” 

The new, less student film-y Fantastic Four movie then bounced around development hell for a while, before eventually leading to the 2005 movie, co-written, oddly, by Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost. Sadly this didn’t lead to a freaky adventure where Reed Richards and company obtain their powers in a red curtain-filled pocket dimension, but rather, a painfully harmless adaptation seemingly made to capitalize on the successes of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. Even the follow-up, Fantastic Four: Rise of Silver Surfer was surprisingly boring for a movie starring the future Captain America and a flying cosmic beatnik with metal skin.

And when the series was rebooted in 2015, there was somehow even more behind the scenes drama than with the version created purely to take advantage of a copyright loophole. Director Josh Trank was allegedly “abusive and insulting” to the cast and crew and almost got into a fistfight with his lead actor. His “erratic” behavior directly resulted in the movie’s crappiness too, according to one crew member, he literally told the cast “when to blink and when to breathe,” ultimately making the performances “as flat as possible.” And when the film hit theatres, he publicly disavowed it on opening day.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, Marvel CEO (at the time) and all around garbage guy Ike Perlmutter petulantly tried to cancel the Fantastic Four comic series since they didn’t have the film rights -- which is a little like if Jim Davis euthanized Garfield because he wasn’t a fan of memes. So now that, thanks to their abjectly terrifying power and money, Disney and Marvel do have the rights to the Fantastic Four, what do they do next?

Obviously we can glean a few lessons from these past failures -- “don’t try to make an action movie for 1/30th of the budget” being the real stand-out. But the soaring popularity of the original comic didn’t happen in a vacuum, it came smack in the middle of the space-race, released in November of 1961, just six months after JFK publicly pledged to send an American to the moon. The Fantastic Four’s origin story tapped into the zeitgeist, giving our heroes their freaky powers after an encounter with cosmic rays during a clandestine space expedition.

Marvel

But while the movies devote an inordinate amount of time to the Fantastic Four’s backstory, in the first comic, the crew’s origin story is merely a brief flashback that doesn’t even come up until page 9 -- but it works because their powers were an extension of the world’s cultural fascination with space travel, a manifestation of the tantalizing mysteries that lay beyond our planet. By 2005, no one cared about space travel with even a fraction of the enthusiasm of the ‘60s. Then the 2015 film swapped out space travel for a matter transporter built by teenagers which somehow goes wrong. And perhaps because the only other movie about inventing a matter transporter is The Fly, 2015’s Fantastic Four depicts our heroes’ transformation as a straight-up Cronenbergian nightmare.

It’s not surprising that adding body horror and gritty melancholy to the movie yielded pretty much the opposite of what a Fantastic Four story should be. It’s like trying to make iced tea by mixing pepto bismol and a paperback copy of Dianetics -- it’s just not going to work. Since we live in jaded, wonder-less times, perhaps there is no modern equivalent to ‘60s space-mania -- so why not just set the movie in the 1960s? That would at least give audiences a second-hand taste of what made this franchise so astonishing when it debuted. 

Arguably the best Fantastic Four movie dispatches with the origin story altogether (as the original comic practically does) … and it also isn’t actually a Fantastic Four movie. When it hit theatres in 2004 The Incredibles (which also features characters who stretch, turn invisible, clobber, and burst into flames) stole whatever potential thunder the 2005 Fantastic Four had to offer. It was reported at the time that Pixar’s retro-futurist superhero family movie was “causing major headaches” for the Fantastic Four production, forcing them to punch up the visual effects and rewrite the ending.

Part of what made The Incredibles so good is also what the Fantastic Four movies need so desperately: a real sense of family. While the 2005 Fantastic Four milked stale drama out of depicting Sue and Reed as bitter exes, The Incredibles began with a foundation of a loving respect -- so when a crazy superhero plot gets thrown into that dynamic, the ensuing action is way more meaningful. 

The other advantage The Incredibles had was that it was animated. The Fantastic Four were created for the pages of comic books and have arguably never looked quite right in live action. Mr. Fantastic looks great stretching from panel to panel, but his elongated limbs look goofy as hell on screen. And The Thing is a goddamn rock monster who either comes off as a CGI cartoon character or looks like a character actor has been submerged in a bathtub full of melted Cheetos. 

Maybe it’s no coincidence that one of the best non-comic versions of The Fantastic Four isn’t a movie, it’s the 1975 radio show narrated by Stan Lee, and featuring Bill Murray as the Human Torch!

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a way for Marvel to get audiences over this hump, there absolutely is -- but the more these movies try to ground The Fantastic Four in some kind of embarrassingly ultra-serious reality, the harder it will be for anyone to buy it. 

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter! And check out the podcast Rewatchability.

Top Image: 20th Century Studios

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