The comics artist Alex Ross, probably best-known for his painted work in books like Marvel’s Marvels and DC’s Kingdom Come (with writers Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid, respectively), published his very first stand-alone graphic novel this month, a short volume called Fantastic Four: Full Circle. It is, more or less, exactly what you’d want from a Fantastic Four comic: 64 pages of brightly-colored sci-fi fun starring reliable stock characters and featuring a journey into FF creator Jack Kirby’s gorgeous chaos dimension, the Negative Zone, where entropy has defeated pretty much everything and an omnipotent creature called Annihilus is forever trying to trick our heroes into helping him open a door to their own, non-negative dimension. It reminded me a lot of another realm ruled by an omnipotent despot, namely Marvel Entertainment, which has officially announced that it will try for a fourth time to make a decent Fantastic Four movie.
By definition, the Marvel Cinematic Universe can’t last as long as the Marvel Comics Universe. Alex Ross can make a Fantastic Four comic decades after Kirby’s death and it comes off as a tasteful homage because the characters whose lives he’s prolonging are drawings, not actual human bodies. That’s not a feat anyone can duplicate on the silver screen, as Disney demonstrated so forcefully with its horrifying computerized golems of Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in Rogue One. Actors and directors—and yes, even superproducers like MCU maestro Kevin Feige—get old, run out of ideas, and eventually die. The question is less whether Marvel’s grand experiment in interlinked superhero films can continue forever than how long it will take for the experiment to run through all of the MCU’s interesting configurations of living actors and familiar characters, and how long after that it would take for people to get sick of them. (We’re not there yet! Even Eternals made $400 million.) Lately, the Marvel movies have felt as though they’re winding down, even as each of them grows more desperate to impart some vital bit of trivia that the consumer can carry to the theater on their next outing.
Some of this is accelerated by the Disney Rot that infects every property the company buys and then micromanages to death—when was the last time you were truly hyped about a new Star Wars movie? Or Pixar? Or—and I’m genuinely sorry to remind you of this—anything involving the Muppets? The homogenizing impulse that has destroyed so much else that Disney owns has not totally eaten Marvel Comics yet, probably because, even if you’re hiring the hottest comics artist alive and working—a title to which Ross has at least some claim—it’s just cheaper to make a comic book. (That’s what Ross’s graphic novel is, incidentally. It’s the same page count as an old DC Comics annual, never mind that it’s hardcover, printed on heavy paper, and available in an edition that comes slipcased with a commemorative print in a vellum envelope glued inside the front cover. It has been packaged for grownups with disposable income, but it is still very much kids’ stuff.) Narratively, Full Circle is perfectly attuned to the needs of industrially managed intellectual property: The story takes place in the temporal pocket between Fantastic Four nos. 51 and 52, revisiting the tragic protagonist of Kirby classic “This Man, This Monster.” In that alone, it’s a perfect project for the Disney era of non-movie storytelling, which studiously avoids anything that might invent or expand upon established content. Instead, the company and its imitators prefer the artists in their employ to fill in the narrative gaps, increasing the already granite-like density of the interconnected plot structure.
Visually, Full Circle is a different story. Ross is the perfect artist for this kind of project. The work from his most popular period, the mid-1990s, is such realistic superhero fare that reading it is like meeting Santa Claus in person. It seems designed to convince readers that they are seeing something they used to believe in, but had forgotten or dismissed as they grew up. (There’s a fascinating section in the back of some of the fancier editions of Marvels showing photos of Ross’s pals in cardboard headgear and makeshift capes, leering at the camera or kneeling on the carpet, ready to be repurposed in paint as giants or mutants or rock monsters.) But as he evolved, and as he developed the leeway to do whatever he felt like doing, Ross’s work grew profoundly, wonderfully weird. Check out his covers to Grant Morrison’s run on Batman; they are some of the greenest, orangest, pinkest Batmen DC Comics has printed since Detective Comics #241. It’s this Alex Ross who gets to take over the Fantastic Four, and if you haven’t been paying attention, you might feel that he’s doing remarkably un-Rossian things, leaving grainy pencils on the page rather than filling them in, giving all colors a neon flare, and eschewing gray, “normal” realism in favor of bright blue shadows and chalk effects at every turn. It’s as if Marvel Studios hired Steven Spielberg to direct an Indiana Jones-style MCU adventure film, and he came back with something that looked more like Empire of the Sun.
Of course, Marvel Entertainment would never let a director run away with a movie like that, lest they wind up with a final product that is recognizably their own. I don’t say this as a particular MCU hater. I’ve seen every Marvel movie and I probably like them more than they deserve; even the bad ones have interesting moments of trying to top their immediate predecessors, and some of them, like Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, are genuinely worth watching more than once. I’m even responsible for at least one friend spending 18 of his own dollars on Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, a weird, lumpy B-movie made by a genuine B-movie director, Sam Raimi, with an absolutely inexcusable 20-minute lore dump smack in the middle of it.
That Multiverse of Madness sequence is where Marvel appeared to lay the groundwork for incorporating the Fantastic Four into the MCU, a merger made possible by Disney’s 2019 acquisition of Fox. In a parallel universe, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a truly other-dimensional Noo Yawk accent) is captured by the Illuminati, a kind of superhero super-group whose hijinks suggest that Marvel is in the process of stealthily adapting Jonathan Hickman’s highest-possible-concept simultaneous runs on multiple Fantastic Four and Avengers comics series. (The team itself is the creation of Brian Bendis and Steve McNiven.) One Illuminatum is Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic himself, with John Krasinski wearing the classic blue jumpsuit and looking Very Serious, which is the main character note for Reed. Reed’s sudden appearance is tailor-made to elicit squeals of comic-book glee at the prospect of such an auspicious addition to the Universe (I like to think mine was more of a manly grunt of approval), and to suggest more broadly that the MCU has exciting frontiers yet to explore.
The trouble is that no matter how many new faces the MCU adds, the vibe never changes. The MCU is defined by the way it sublimates the personalities of its directors into its house style. Those directors, often early-career independents, d are needed less to plot a course than to steer the ship, and because they typically have next-to-no experience in effects-heavy blockbuster filmmaking, their adventures’ climaxes are outsourced to overworked CGI artists at low-bid VFX houses. This often gets characterized as a new problem, but you can see its seeds if you look back at some of the earlier attempts to bring Marvel’s characters—especially the Fantastic Four—to the screen. In 2005, a pre-MCU Feige hired Tim Story to direct the profoundly forgettable The Fantastic Four and The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, movies most notable now for introducing Feige to his future Captain America. Story, who had directed the hugely successful low-budget comedy Barbershop and the Queen Latifah vehicle Taxi, would have seemed like an odd choice for a megabudget superhero franchise movie back then, but now he looks just like the sort of sucker Disney would be able to tempt with a high-profile job nobody else wants.
In Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four, you can see an ambitious filmmaker’s mind at work for about 55 of its 100 minutes, trying to reimagine the original super-team in the context of a Ken Russell-style body-horror film. At times, it almost threatens to become a real movie, like Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton’s Batman flicks or even James Gunn’s Suicide Squad. But that simply won’t do. Trank’s vision is unceremoniously swept away in the movie’s second half and the whole interestingly gloomy affair disintegrates in a tonally bizarre battle over something to do with green energy beams. The director Marvel has chosen for the new FF movie is Matt Shakman, who has worked primarily as a TV director (notably on Marvel’s WandaVision), and while TV showrunners have more power than they used to, it’s still usually a job where you’re trying not to make waves within a broader system. Good movie directors, even pop-sci-fi directors like Nolan, often seem to be trying to set the whole system on fire, and that’s not a thing you can do when you’ve squished all the individual agency out of your movies from the title (Marvel’s The Avengers; Marvel’s Doctor Strange; Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder) on down.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has its Stan Lee in Feige, who is apparently personally responsible for making all the Marvel films turn on one another like gears in a clock. But it has no Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, no uniting visual artist whose unmistakable style makes the individual installments worth returning for, and, importantly, whose overriding vision their successors are always trying to override or enhance, the way Ross, John Byrne, Mike Weiringo, Alan Davis, and even indie artists like James Sturm have profitably sought conflict with Kirby. Art is, after all, an argument with your predecessors, and in the MCU, visionary directors have no predecessors to speak of.
Kirby rendered his parallel dimensions as photo collages; he drew shamelessly cubist spaceships and supercomputers; he laid out splash pages and double-page spreads composed as perfectly as Renaissance paintings, but in huge blocks and planks of black ink and radioactive colors that the Third Eye poster company immediately amplified and made into stoner-culture black-light wall art. Every time Marvel seems to be on the cusp of finding its guiding artist, it tears that person limb from limb.
Like Trank, Alex Ross understands not so much what makes the Kirby comics great, but what he loves most about them. In Full Circle, Ross draws much of the Negative Zone in those same black-light-poster colors, bringing the culture the FF inspired back into the comic itself. He willfully renders Kirby’s photo-collaged Negative Zone in his own hyperrealistic gouache, just as he and Busiek made Kirby and Lee’s Galactus Saga a series of newspaper photos to heighten its surrealism in Marvels. No one else has done that, or would have thought to.
Comics and cinema are close enough kin that you could be forgiven for mistaking the former for the R&D division of the latter. Certainly, there are entire publishing imprints devoted to producing comics that are packaged conspicuously like spec screenplays or pilot scripts—Virgin Entertainment published comics at one point, and production company Legendary still does, from time to time. Netflix now owns Mark Millar’s Millarworld. Like film, comics are reliant on mass mechanical reproduction, composed of sequential images, and often sleazy or childish (sometimes sleazy and childish). Despite, or perhaps because of, these similarities, it is more or less impossible to make a “faithful” adaptation of a comic book, and the harder you try, the weirder you get. Think of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy or Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City, both overwhelmed by crazed makeup jobs and intentionally garish cinematography. In both those cases, the trick sort of works, because, paradoxically, the more they borrow panels from Chester Gould’s or Miller’s own comics, the more they look like a director’s singular vision. Of course, the best superhero comic movies actually are the product of a singular vision. Give yourself a moment to think about how wildly disparate Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s The Dark Knight are despite starting with roughly the same set of characters.
Since I show up to every single one of these things like an amnesiac, I’m going to tell myself that Matt Shakman does have a grand vision for the Fantastic Four, and that he can stare down the Marvel suits like Reed Richards telling off some guy in epaulets who wants Johnny Storm to do covert operations in Qurac. Maybe it’ll be a real ode to Kirby, with our heroes fighting space lobsters in the Manhattan subway before shooting off in a rocket to a higher plane of existence that theatergoers have to wear 3D glasses to enjoy. Maybe they’ll voyage to the second dimension and part of the movie will be a cartoon. Maybe the characters won’t sound like they just stepped out of a comforting episode of The Office, even if one of them is Jim. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Go on. Disappoint me. I’m used to it.