The Fantastic Four Are Jerks

They’ve always been elitist, reckless, and mean. No wonder their movie flopped.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) wear sunglasses.  

Photo courtesy Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox/Marvel

Mere minutes into the disastrous new Fantastic Four movie, a young Reed Richards—who will later become an elastic-limbed superhero—borrows a child’s model airplane. Eager to demonstrate his brilliance, he inserts it into a machine that temporarily teleports it into another dimension. When the toy returns, it has been damaged beyond repair, one wing partially broken off and the chassis pitted with mysterious scars. Oblivious, he hands it back to its owner, who barely hesitates before blurting out what everyone must be thinking. “You’re a dick,” the child tells Reed. And he is not wrong.

Perhaps that child can take some comfort in the weekend box office: Fantastic Four brought in a mere $26.2 million from its domestic screenings, ceding first place to the fifth film in a 19-year-old franchise. This dismal showing comes as little surprise, given the film’s poor reviews and its similarly poor reception from the few viewers who made it to the theater.

Some suggest the film floundered thanks to those reviews, to its lack of real movie stars, or just to audience fatigue after years of superhero films. But that throwaway line in this latest fantastic flop speaks to a weakness running deep through the franchise’s history, one that will trouble any future adaptation as it’s troubled them all up till now: The Fantastic Four themselves really are elitist, reckless, privileged dicks.

It’s not just Reed Richards, though it starts with him. Our supposed hero is the kind of person who’s willing to experiment on his fellow humans in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. In his debut in 1961’s Fantastic Four #1, Richards and three friends—none of them scientists—steal a military rocket and launch themselves into the heavens, despite his failure to research “the effects of cosmic rays.” As Ben Grimm, who will pilot the craft, puts it, those rays “might kill us all out in space.” Undeterred, Richards plots a course directly into the “cosmic storm area,” subjecting his fellow travelers to an astral bombardment that sends the ship plummeting back to Earth.

Panel from Fantastic Four No. 1.

Courtesy Marvel Comics.

While they survive, the rays profoundly transform them, turning them all into victims of Richards’ profound lack of scientific ethics—and somehow making them into superheroes entirely by accident. Faced with the abject failure of his work, he is not humble. “I’ll call myself … Mr. Fantastic,” he exclaims to the friends he has just permanently mutilated. Presumably still addled by translunar radiation, they do not object to his unearned, self-congratulatory hubris. In another sort of story, he would be the villain. Here, for some reason, he is a hero.

The new film has Reed launching his friends not into the stratosphere, but another dimension. Though it changes this detail, director Josh Trank’s take preserves a critical element of the original: Reed is still a dick. Though he is egged on by his lab mate, Victor Von Doom, it’s ultimately Reed’s own inexplicable charisma (he’s played by Miles Teller, who is also a bit of a dick, apparently) that impels his friends into the dimensional breach. As in every prior incarnation, they suffer for his arrogance.

In the comics, other members of the team are little better than Richards. After becoming the Thing, Ben Grimm openly complains that Reed’s girlfriend, Sue Storm, “love[s] the wrong man,” and starts a physical fight to prove the point. In another scene in the first issue, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, carelessly melts a pair of Air Force jets, just one example of the havoc the Four wreak in the name of heroism.

In their earliest days, the Fantastic Four’s douchebaggery was part of what made them stand out. Querulous and clumsy, they were somehow human, in spite of their great gifts. And yet, in retrospect, they were also models of uncommon superheroic privilege. Possessed of seemingly unlimited resources, they owned an entire Manhattan skyscraper, the top floors of which were—according to a diagram in the third issue—tricked out with a hangar for their “orbit plane,” a private projection room, and a launch pad for long-range passenger missiles.

Unlike many other superhero teams, the Fantastic Four were also a surprisingly exclusive clique. In one of his first stories, the well-meaning but perennially broke Spider-Man attempts to join the group, explaining that he thinks he deserves their “top salary.” Despite their apparent wealth, they laugh him off, explaining that they are “a non-profit organization” that pays “no salaries or bonuses.” (A dejected Spider-Man never asks how they manage to live in a luxury high-rise if they “just keep enough money to pay [their] expenses.”) What’s more, unlike virtually every superhero, they also live openly under their own names, seemingly unconcerned that anyone would try to harm them or those they love. Seen in this light, the Fantastic Four aren’t just dicks, they’re entitled dicks.

Other artists and storytellers have known this for years. In Warren Ellis and John Cassady’s terrific series Planetary, for example, members of a thinly masked version of the Fantastic Four are the villains. Known simply as the Four, they greedily hoard the world’s secrets in selfish pursuit of their own transcendence, sacrificing countless lives in the process. The animated Venture Bros. offers a more self-consciously comic parody of the characters, reimagining them as a dysfunctional band of squabbling, if mostly harmless, losers. Both versions capture what the new film can only tacitly acknowledge: The Fantastic Four have always basically been the worst.

In this, our heroes mirror their creators. According to Sean Howe’s history of Marvel, Stan Lee claimed that he was responsible for “the new characters and the somewhat offbeat storyline” of the Fantastic Four’s first appearance, even though the Four, like virtually every Marvel product, emerged from a collaboration.  (Unsurprisingly, Lee sometimes identified himself with Mr. Fantastic, the group’s de facto leader and its most intelligent member.) Decades later, fans would argue that Lee denied due credit to the artists he worked with, especially the prodigiously talented Jack Kirby. Of course, Kirby—who sometimes depicted himself as the cantankerous Thing—arguably wasn’t that much nicer. Howe reports that Kirby claimed more or less total credit for the Fantastic Four. Before he intervened, he said, “Marvel was on its ass, literally… and Stan Lee was sitting there crying.”

The earliest comics found a generative frisson in the struggles between the members of its creative team. By contrast, the film’s more technical failings were likely a product of conflict in and around its production process. Director Trank blames Fox, claiming that he had “a fantastic version” that the studio rejected. Some reports suggest Trank was a dick. Others suggest that Fox only filmed the movie because it would have lost the rights to the characters if it failed to do so. If they’re truly more interested in maintaining control of a valuable property than in making something valuable from it, Fox’s executives are no better than Reed Richards and his pals. They’re not alone in this: The Fantastic Four seems to bring out the worst in film executives. In the early ’90s, a German producer hired Roger Corman to make a movie about the characters for a mere $1 million, once again to maintain rights. He never finished the film, leaving the young actors who’d thrown themselves into the project with next to nothing.

In the end, “dick” may not be an idly chosen insult in this film. In fact, Fantastic Four is almost literally a film about dicks, given how few women have speaking parts. I counted two, and one of them is invisible: Sue Storm, who has traditionally been the least dickish of the Four, though she’s also sometimes been the silliest. Brought to life by Kate Mara, she’s not unpleasant—especially relative to the men around her—but she mostly confines herself to the background, even when she’s visible. It’s tempting to tie this to the long history of comic book sexism, but maybe there’s a simpler reason. Maybe she knows it’s best not to be seen in such company.