Fantastic Four Seeks 'Incredible' Success

The members of the Fantastic Four -- the first family of superheroes -- fight among themselves while saving the world. It may sound familiar, but the movie is not a Hollywood knockoff.

"Fantastic Four," the movie adaptation of the long-running comic book, opens today. On the heels of "The Incredibles" -- a dysfunctional family of superheroes with similar powers -- some moviegoers may believe this is an imitation. ("The Incredibles" was made by Disney/Pixar, and Disney is the parent company of ABC News.)

But the members of Marvel Comics' groundbreaking superhero group have been saving the world -- and warring with each other -- for 44 years.

"Marvel Comics really gave birth to the idea of heroes with personal problems," M. Thomas Inge, author of "Comics as Culture," has said. "It became a signature of the characters who came out of Marvel -- The Fantastic Four, The Hulk. They all had personal problems."

The Un-Cleavers

The Fantastic Four, created by Marvel Chairman Emeritus Stan Lee and artist/writer Jack Kirby, debuted in "The Fantastic Four No. 1" in 1961. The quartet ushered in the era of the tortured superhero who openly battled both personal problems and super villains. Reed Richards; his girlfriend (and eventually wife), Susan Storm-Richards; her brother, Johnny; and close family friend Ben Grimm gained their powers when a cosmic-ray storm battered their spacecraft during a test flight and altered their molecular makeup.

Their nicknames reflected both their powers and personalities. Richards, aka "Mr. Fantastic" was able to stretch his body just like he always reached for perfection; Storm-Richards often played peacemaker between bickering members of the team. But sometimes she really felt like "The Invisible Woman" to her workaholic husband. Hot-tempered, impetuous young heartthrob Johnny Storm could turn himself into "The Human Torch" by simply saying, "Flame on!" Storm's good looks and free spirit often clashed with the brooding Grimm, who saw his powers as more of a curse than a blessing.

The cosmic rays gave Grimm superhuman strength but also left him deformed, turning his skin into grotesque, granite-like scales. He always believed others would see him as a monster -- a "Thing." Grimm, an astronaut, had warned Richards against taking the test flight because he didn't believe the ship had adequate protection against cosmic rays and has resented Richards for his plight. Richards has always carried guilt for Grimm's condition.

In some ways, the Fantastic Four's feuds were more intriguing than the battles waged against villains like Dr. Doom. Their stories did not always have happy endings.

"Let's face it, happy marriages and families can be really boring," said Robert Thompson, trustee professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Trouble in paradise is a lot more interesting and dramatic than 'Hi, honey, I'm home.' The Fantastic Four was really among the first superheroes created that were made more interesting by a bit of social realism. A chink in a hero's armor gives the reader and viewer something they can identify with."

Dysfunctional Is Relative

The Fantastic Four and subsequent comic books like "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Uncanny X-Men" debuted amid the civil rights movement and as Americans were seeing images from the Vietnam War on television. Some viewers saw happy-go-lucky families depicted in the 1950s as passé and wanted a dose of realism.

"There were a lot of kids entering college [in the 1960s] who had a hard time finding their identities, what cause to get involved in," said Inge. "There were a lot of internal problems in this country, with the civil rights movement going on. A lot of kids continued reading comics after entering college, which is unusual since most teens stop at that time."

Some of the most dysfunctional families have been the most beloved in pop culture. "The Simpsons," the Bunkers from "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons," the Evanses from "Good Times," the Bundys from "Married With Children" and the core cast of "Malcolm in the Middle" are TV sitcom family icons.

However, fans also have loved the model families in "Leave It to Beaver," "The Cosby Show," "The Brady Bunch," "Growing Pains" and "Family Ties" because they represented an ideal.

"The 1980s saw a return to the kind of ideal family unit shown in 'Leave it to Beaver' with the success of shows like 'The Cosby Show,' 'Family Ties' and 'Growing Pains', said Thompson. "The Huxtables [of 'The Cosby Show'] were as ideal as you can get. But then you also saw the success of shows like 'Roseanne' and 'The Simpsons' around that time. Dysfunctional is a relative term just like the idea of a family to some people."

Slumping Hollywood Wants 'Incredible' Imitation

Comic book fans and Hollywood have high expectations for "Fantastic Four." Die-hard fans hope this movie is nothing like the low-budget, campy 1994 "Fantastic Four" movie, directed by Roger Corman, which was never officially released. (However, bootlegged copies have been available in various comic book stores for years.)

Hollywood hopes "Fantastic Four" can help reverse the five-month box office slump. "Batman Begins," "War of the Worlds" and "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" have all been commercial successes but have not been able to break Hollywood's streak of declining weekly ticket sales compared to last year. Marvel Studios and the Hollywood box office may not mind if "Fantastic Four" imitates the "incredible" success of a certain Disney/Pixar picture.