To judge by social media, the most exciting thing about Walt Disney buying 21st Century Fox is the likelihood that Marvel Studios will gain the rights to the X-Men from 20th Century Fox Studios, which has held the property since the release of Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men movie. While that’s good news for everyone who feels under-served by the last 10 X-Men movies—yes, Deadpool counts—there is far more of a silver lining available for Marvel: the return of the Fantastic Four.
Those only familiar with the F.F. through their ill-fated movies might doubt the idea that Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing could ever match up to, never mind surpass, the cinematic potential of the X-Men—and they’d have good reason to. Even ignoring the infamous 2015 flop helmed by Chronicle’s Josh Trank, the stars of what was once subtitled “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” have hardly had the most successful time at the multiplex. Who even remembers 2005’s Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, for anything beyond Jessica Alba’s unconvincing hair?
(That’s to say nothing of the first attempt to bring the Fantastic Four to the big screen, a mid-‘90s adaptation produced by Roger Corman that Marvel ended up buying the negative of in order to prevent its release.)
Nonetheless, the Fantastic Four is an essential part of Marvel history. It was the series that, in 1961, literally launched Marvel’s comic book universe in the first place. Yes, characters like Captain America predated them, but they were long mothballed by the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby teamed up to create the F.F., and it was the success of that then-new book that prompted the creation of Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, the X-Men, et al. Without the Fantastic Four, there would be no Marvel as millions of people know and love it today.
More concretely, Fantastic Four was the series that introduced a number of concepts and characters currently in use in the MCU; the Black Panther’s debut was in Fantastic Four No. 52, recent TV stars the Inhumans came from Fantastic Four No. 45 and the alien race the Kree—central to the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie and the upcoming Captain Marvel—came from Fantastic Four No. 65. Even Adam Warlock, featured in a post-credit scene tease of what’s to come at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, was a Fantastic Four creation. (He shows up under the melodramatic name “Him” in Fantastic Four No. 67.)
If that sounds as if the series was filled with the kinds of ideas ready-made for movies—well, it’s true. Outside of the obvious ones already used in previous flicks (Doctor Doom, Galactus, the Silver Surfer), the Fantastic Four is a treasure trove of potential movie fodder: The Molecule Man! The Impossible Man! Diablo! The Skrulls! The Negative Zone! The Microverse! The Red Ghost and His Super-Apes! (No, really; they’re an actual thing, and they’re amazing.) The Watcher! Each of these concepts, as well as the countless others featured in the series and currently tied up as part of Fox’s licensing agreement, is as strong as those central to movies like Ant-Man or Thor: No One Can Even Remember What The Second Movie Was Called Because Oh Wow It Was Bad.
And, at the heart of it all, are the Fantastic Four themselves: characters whose names and origins seem dated today (they got their powers because they… were trying to fly to the moon…?), but who provide something that the current MCU sorely lacks: explorers. A group who isn’t trying to save the world, deal with rogue business partners or take down spy agencies, but instead trying to go new places and discover new things and make the world a better place by expanding everyone’s horizons.
Done right, the Fantastic Four could take the feel-good vibe from Spider-Man: Homecoming and expand it, adding in the family dynamic of Pixar’s The Incredibles—indeed, that animated movie is referred to by comic fans as the best Fantastic Four movie ever made, given how much it owes to the F.F. books—and a dash of old-school Star Trek optimism, for flavor. It would be something different not only for Marvel, but for superhero-movie audiences in general, and as the success of movies like Deadpool, Logan and Wonder Woman have shown, breaking from the superhero formula tends to pay off more often than not, when done well.
With all this in mind—and the chance to scoop up the gratitude of generations of comic book fans—it can only be hoped that Marvel execs see the potential of rebooting the Fantastic Four for one more go on the big screen. If that really doesn’t do it, there’s always the ultimate trump card: bragging rights for this year’s successful Spider-Man film was one thing, but imagine being the studio that finally breaks the Fantastic Four curse!