Synergy killed the Fantastic Four

Why space, inclusivity, and franchise filmmaking pushed Marvel's flagship superteam to the sidelines


Marvel's Secret Wars, the long-anticipated, continually delayed comics mega-event from creators Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic, concluded last week with the release of its ninth and last issue. It destroyed the entire Marvel Universe of the main comic line, along with the 15-year-old branching Ultimate Marvel Universe, the direct inspiration for most of Marvel's new movies. Both universes were eventually restored and merged (with a few important differences to set up new storylines). So from the start, Secret Wars was overflowing with ideas, scenarios, and moments for which there wasn't time nor space to properly resolve. But since one of the biggest themes of Secret Wars was the conflict between what we can dream for our world and the practical limits of reality, it feels appropriate that the comic's embattled production and release mirrored exactly that.

The most significant change for Marvel after Secret Wars is the end of the Fantastic Four. The core group is no longer a team, and the Fantastic Four title, which has published nearly 700 issues since 1961, will not continue. Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, is now featured in the movie-boosted Guardians of the Galaxy; Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, has joined the Inhumans, whose profile in the Marvel Universe is rising (they were introduced on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season and the Inhumans movie is scheduled for 2019). For the near future, the Richards family proper (Reed and Susan, aka Mister Fantastic and Invisible Woman, and their children Franklin and Valeria) will not appear in a Marvel comic.

Fantastic Four was arguably the perfect comic for a time that's now passed. Its themes of family, exploration, and a scientific approach to the impossible often gave way to regression, nostalgia, colonialism, and a continual circling around the same conflicts and plot lines. Endings in comics are always provisional, but for now, Secret Wars is the last Fantastic Four story. The whole series is an enormous and bittersweet sendoff to Marvel's first family, marking the end of an important era in popular entertainment.

Nothing brought all of Marvel's themes together like the Fantastic Four

"Fantastic Four was the flagship Marvel title," says Tom Breevort, Marvel Comics' executive editor (and editor of Secret Wars). "It was the first [of Marvel's new superhero titles] and it remained the vanguard all throughout the 1960s." Fantastic Four served as the primary idea lab for the Marvel Universe, led by Jack Kirby, who co-created the characters with writer / editor Stan Lee and drew the first 102 issues and is generally recognized as being the series' primary visionary. Key Kirby-created characters like Black Panther, the Inhumans, Galactus and the Silver Surfer, the Molecule Man and Doctor Doom (both of whom are primary movers in Secret Wars),and Ronan the Accuser were all introduced in Fantastic Four.

But "the World's Greatest Comic Magazine" gradually lost readership, with a brief boost during Hickman's run on the title between 2009 and 2012, quickly fading after. "Of the people who are complaining the loudest about the series sunsetting, most of them haven't read the title regularly in years," Breevort observes. The Fantastic Four films produced by Fox in 2005 and 2007 were solid but uneven, nowhere close to breakout hits like the Avengers, Spider-Man, or X-Men franchises.The 2015 reboot was a bona fide critical and commercial flop. Instead of pushing out the comic for a sure sales bump from the movie, Marvel canceled it.

Last fall, Marvel was reportedly negotiating with Fox to either buy back the FF movie rights or work out a partnership similar to the Sony-Marvel deal later announced for Spider-Man. When negotiations with Fox turned sour, Marvel CEO Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter is said to have called for the series cancelation rather than help promote a non-Marvel movie. Perlmutter is also said to have tried to ban writers and artists creating new characters in cases where another company might be able to claim the movie rights. Or it was simply a decision to stop throwing good ideas after bad, and to put the company's best resources behind its most successful or newly promising characters. One way or another, synergy killed the Fantastic Four.

This was probably inevitable. But it's also a shame. To understand why, you don't need to read every issue of the series (although about half of them are as good as anything in the history of comics); just look at Secret Wars.

Warning: extensive spoilers of Secret Wars follow.

Marvel Secret Wars

Here's the gist: Reed Richards and a small group of similarly gifted (and morally compromised) genius superheroes are trying to stop the collapse of the many universes of Marvel. They fail, destroying universes and alienating their superhero peers along the way. The only person able to figure out what is happening and how to stop it is the villain, Doctor Doom, who manages to combine the destroyed realities into a new, fragmented world where he sets himself up as the ultimate ruler, hero, and God figure. (For unexplained, probably psychological reasons, the only thing his power cannot repair is his own damaged face, which he continues to hide behind a mask.) Doom also replaces Reed as Susan's husband and Franklin and Valeria's father, remaking his arch enemy's family as his own. Meanwhile, Reed and a small group of other superheroes manage to survive the end of their universe to discover that Susan, the children, and the other superheroes weren't destroyed, but live on in a patchwork parody of their former lives.

If you think that sounds like a crazy blend of cosmology, metafictional self-commentary, and a complex, moving human drama, you're absolutely right. But it's not unique to Secret Wars — these are exactly the elements that the Fantastic Four brought to comics from the beginning, completely reshaping the pop culture that followed. DC's The Flash interjected fantastic science and kicked off the Silver Age, Spider-Man went deeper into everyman angst, and S.H.I.E.L.D. and Doctor Strange went into full psychedelia. But nothing pulled all these themes together like Fantastic Four.

As both a conclusion to the story and a commentary on the problems of managing a world of imaginary heroes, Hickman and Ribic's endgame is remarkably elegant. And it culminates in a fight between Reed and Doom — a physical and psychological battle where every line exchanged has double or triple meanings.

Doom wants Reed to appreciate all that he saved from total destruction. "Your entire life, you have been distracted with the modern concerns so precious to you and your kind... when all that matters is survival." "Nothing has ever been easy." Reed responds, "you know what's not easy? Having your life erased because someone wants to indulge themselves." It's an argument about the realities of business weighed against values and loyalty. But Doom wants to be loved, too. He wants Reed to admit that Reed has always thought himself better than Doom. Reed's response is perfect: "I've always believed that you could be better than what you are."

Doom's sin, which Reed identifies and Doom eventually confesses, is that he is "so afraid of losing the things you've saved that you hold them too tight." He may as well be talking to Marvel fans. Doom's imagination is too limited to be a leader: as Black Panther tells him earlier, "raising up a new [Marvel Universe] would require a vision you just don't possess." The metafictional message is obvious: a world needs to grow and evolve, not simply cycle through every conceivable permutation of conflict between existing properties, like a child bashing action figures together. Doom finally admits that with the same power, tempered by compassion and guided by imagination, Reed would have done a better job at saving everything. At this, the Molecule Man transfers his power from Doom to Reed, and everything changes.

With Molecule Man's power — which literally and metaphorically, is full creative control of the Marvel Universe — Reed, Susan, and their children work to restore reality. It's not a Crisis on Infinite Earths-style condensation into one timeline and continuity. The Marvel and Ultimate Universes are merged into a new Prime Universe, but the possibility of exploring other dimensions remains. And that's the cause to which the Richards family chooses to devote themselves.

When Franklin Richards asks his dad, "are we not superheroes anymore?" Reed responds, "it's doing good that counts, not necessarily how you do it... So, no... No more superheroes for a while, just science. And no more Mister Fantastic, just Dad." Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm have their own adventures to come, adding legitimacy to newly viable franchises. But Reed's family remains a family. These explorers have the opportunity, away from the prying eyes of movie studios and entertainment companies looking to exploit them, to continue greater explorations than anything imaginable in a comic book not titled Fantastic Four.

"Great societies are crumbling around us, and the old men who run them are out of ideas."

The first character to return to the newly restored Prime Universe is T'Challa, the Black Panther. He returns to the moment just before the collapse began, in New Avengers Volume 3 Issue 1, a Hickman-written comic that was released more than three years ago. He briefly seems to remember what's happened, but resumes where he left off on this timeline, meeting with a group of teenage Wakandans to plan their exploration of a distant solar system and launch a new satellite. It's a passing of the torch. T'Challa takes Reed Richards' mantle as the preeminent scientist superhero who solves the problems no one else can. Meanwhile we see Peter Parker and Miles Morales, two generations of Spider-Man, begin to fight crime and meditate on power and responsibility. The fact that T'Challa and Morales are characters of color is not an accident. The old and new are joined and reconciled.

"Great societies are crumbling around us," says Black Panther, "and the old men who run them are out of ideas. So all eyes turn to you, our children — to build us something better."

We learn from T'Challa that in light of the rest of the world abandoning exploration, "Wakanda now possesses the preeminent space program on the planet." Hickman's played with this theme before: in Fantastic Four 579, Reed Richards shocks attendees of a TED-like event called the Singularity Conference for their narrow vision and warnings of global calamity. "The future of man is not one billion of us fighting over limited resources on a soon-to-be-dead planet, but one trillion human beings spanning an entire galaxy," he says. "The future of man is not here. It is out there. Because it's our new horizon. Because it's what's next." Mister Fantastic and the Fantastic Four can't exist in a world resigned to its own destruction, content with merely holding onto whatever's left.

Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby

Fantastic Four was first published in 1961. It was a time of both apprehension and optimism, particularly for science, and for which space exploration was the ultimate symbol of progress. The four characters get their powers in a space flight accident. They become heroes; they become monsters. They remain scientists and explorers, above all of the farthest reaches of outer space. The Kree, the Skrulls, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, Thanos, even later the Inhumans, and the entire cosmic backdrop of Guardians of the Galaxy all appear in Marvel Comics because of the space exploration of the Fantastic Four (and sometimes the Avengers. The fundamental assumption of Fantastic Four is that human space exploration would continue, that it would be led by heroes, and the places, creatures, and objects they encounter would enrich all of our lives.

This assumption is no longer viable, both in real life and in fiction. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to depict the human exploration of space that characterized so much of the early franchises. (Guardians of the Galaxy's Peter Quill is a half-human, half-alien, and he was kidnapped by aliens rather than electing to become an intergalactic traveler.) Outer space, and encounters with aliens, are threatening enough to give Tony Stark symptoms of PTSD, and prompts his and Bruce Banner's creation of Ultron as a first line of defense. [Spoiler: that doesn't work out.] Outside the Marvel Universe, movies like Interstellar, Gravity, and The Martian all emphasize the dangers and inhumanity of space, almost certainly more accurately than the classic Fantastic Four, but with a corresponding imaginative cost. Even Star Wars, a direct descendant of Jack Kirby's work on Fantastic Four for Marvel and New Gods for DC, is necessarily set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

Our human heroes are now rarely explorers in a conventional sense, and technology and inequality have largely replaced science and the unknown as the fundamental problem explored in superhero stories. Our heroes are soldiers like Captain America, inventors like Iron Man, or gifted-but-ordinary people solving problems at a smaller scale, like Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones. The Marvel Universe is more earthbound than it's ever been, and that's why the Fantastic Four can no longer interact with the universe they founded and shaped — it's no longer big enough to contain their ambitions.

In Breevort's eyes, this is just a part of an ongoing cycle. "At different points in time, different characters and concepts have struck sparks in the public consciousness, when at other times they haven't been so successful." But, he points out, the MCU is slowly becoming less bound by realism, with Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, and the Black Panther and Inhumans movies around the corner. Science, mysticism, alternate dimensions, secret cities, outer space: the Marvel Universe is getting bigger, weirder, and more fantastic in a hurry. "We live in a world in which Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are blockbuster movies," says Breevort. "So I think it's only a matter of time until we see [the Fantastic Four] again."

"Nostalgia by itself isn't enough."

But if the Fantastic Four are to return, they have to returned transformed. As Breevort says, "nostalgia by itself isn't enough." The very real threat of nuclear apocalypse might have pointed an earlier generation's imagination to the stars, but our apocalypse is here, in the form of climate change. The futurists Reed chastises for focusing on the world's immediate economic needs are not entirely wrong. Even Doctor Doom is not entirely wrong. Reed and his family had to be erased from existence for him, and for the readers, to recognize that.

"I've learned that the difference between living and dying is managing fear," Reed Richards tells his wife Susan, shortly before they are ushered off stage, possibly forever. "Not being so afraid of losing the things you love that you hold them too tight." The final act of the Fantastic Four is both an indictment of our failure of imagination, and a testament to its power. "I'm letting go," Reed says. "Because now I believe in expansion. I believe we endure."

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