Fantastic Four, Secret Wars, and the End of the MCU

The Fantastic Four and the X-Men are exactly what the MCU needs right now, but the beginning of the end could be in sight.

The Fantastic Four
Photo: Marvel Comics

This article contains MCU spoilers

I can’t say how long the superhero movie bubble will last. I’m not some authority that can tell you when the Marvel Cinematic Universe will run out of steam or come to a narrative close. They’re still cranking out multiple movies a year and have transformed the streaming TV shows from throwaway side-stories to important gears in the greater Marvel machine. They’re making money hand over fist. Disney just built their second theme park thrill ride based on Guardians of the Galaxy. We have a long way to go before the wheels come off.

Meanwhile, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has introduced, and then mercilessly killed off, the Illuminati from another reality. It was a hell of a roster reveal, showing us different ways you can have fun with an alternate universe superhero tribunal. Mordo was depicted as a wild card. Captain Carter was a callback to the first episode of What If…?, and the Maria Rambeau Captain Marvel was a treat in a similar vein. Black Bolt of the Inhumans gave us a new, more accurate look at one of the MCU’s biggest failures. Patrick Stewart appearing as Charles Xavier was a delightful moment of fanservice.

John Krasinski appearing as Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four was probably the most important cameo. The others play with how we’ve seen those characters in the past. Krasinski represents the future. Whether he was just there for this one bit or he’s in for the long haul, Mr. Fantastic’s appearance is the harbinger for major things yet to come in the MCU.

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Marvel’s Incomplete Toy Collection

To get some context, we of course need to rewind back to how this situation came to be. In the 1990s, in order to make a quick buck, Marvel started selling movie rights to various studios. Some movies never came to be. Some movie runs only had one or two entries before becoming defunct. A scant few became successful enough to stretch into decades.

When Marvel decided to make Iron Man and came up with the idea of doing a shared universe, they did not have a full playset of superheroes. Universal held onto the Hulk’s film rights so that there could only be a Hulk solo movie if the studio allowed it. Sony refused to loosen their hold on the Spider-Man franchise, even if it meant having to do a reboot so quickly after Spider-Man 3. Fox was regularly releasing X-Men-related films, plus had released Fantastic Four movies just enough to hold onto the rights.

For the MCU to succeed, it was probably for the best. They really needed to hold back on the familiar and the mainstream. Going gung ho with Spider-Man and Wolverine, or even giving us such early expectations on them would have pushed everything into a very different direction and I’m not sure if that would have worked out well. The public needed to learn about Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, and learn to love them. They needed to see why comic fans through the decades connected with them so much.

By the time Sony was open to doing business with Disney and allowing Spider-Man to be part of this continuity, they were already years in and about to start Phase 3. The Universal red tape appears to be cut through at this point and we’ll soon be seeing a She-Hulk TV series. By the time Disney bought Fox, we were a month away from Avengers: Endgame bringing this whole universe full circle.

At a time when Marvel is able to make successful projects out of the likes of Shang-Chi and Moon Knight, we’re able to look into the future and know that the first big superhero team is still to be introduced and will bring some big ideas along with it.

Greater Than X

I for one am all excited about getting to see what the X-Men in the MCU entails. I want to see how Deadpool shows up and stays the same. I’m curious about how they explain the existence of mutants. I want to finally see Wolverine rock the yellow spandex. Gambit might finally get his due. I’m pumped for the possibility of some Omega Red action.

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The problem with X-Men is that while a good writer can make it seem fresh, it’s a franchise that has worn out its welcome. Between X-Men: Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix, and New Mutants, there was this exhausted feeling like we’ve seen them hit the same points over and over again. Yes, there’s a repetitive nature to the MCU in general, but when Magneto made that cutting line in Dark Phoenix about how Xavier is always sorry and always has a speech – and then Xavier proved him right – I just felt spent.

There are good stories to be mined from MCU X-Men, but it lacks the luster because we’ve seen X-Men work well (and not-so-well) in a long-term cinematic setting. With Fantastic Four, there’s some real excitement because FINALLY, they might really do this property justice.

Making a Good Fantastic Four Movie

As it is right now, there are four Fantastic Four movies. The Roger Corman one from the mid-90s is infamous due to its cheap nature and how it was made with the intent of never being released to begin with. For years, this movie was considered the B-side to The Star Wars Holiday Special in terms of obscure sci-fi schlock that you’d score a bootleg from at a convention.

Then we got the Tim Story Fantastic Four movies. They were incredibly average, carried by the casting of Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm and to a lesser extent Chris Evans as Johnny Storm. While the sequel gave us a damn good Silver Surfer, the shapeless cloud meant to be Galactus is the main sin the movie is remembered for. These movies gave us the basics in terms of the main characters, but refused to fully embrace the over-the-top sci-fi adventure of the franchise.

After that was the Josh Trank Fantastic Four (Fant4stic), which was a creative mess and gave a dark edge to a comic franchise that absolutely did not need it. Despite it being a critical and financial flop, Fox was supposedly still interested in making a sequel just to keep the rights away from Disney. Not that it mattered in the end once Disney opened up their pocketbook.

What I’m trying to say is that the unreleased Fantastic Four movie from the 90s has been made fun of relentlessly for years, but looking back, it probably seems to have the best grasp on its source material. Sure, Human Torch’s CGI is laughable and Ben Grimm really should have worn more than underwear to his best friends’ wedding, but I’ll take their version of Doctor Doom over Julian McMahon and Toby Kebbell.

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After all these years, for the MCU to finally be able to do a Fantastic Four movie, we know it’s not going to be half-assed. This is Marvel’s First Family. The big property they’ve yet to tap. Damn it, we might finally get a good one of these, not to mention the sequels.

Then we’ll get to the point where people will stop saying that Incredibles was the only good Fantastic Four movie.

The Fantastic Villains

As far as I’m concerned, while Marvel has a big roster of great villains, the true Big Three are Thanos, Doctor Doom, and Galactus. They are the stand-out final boss characters of Marvel who stand the test of time. Of course, Thanos was the one who appeared in the Avengers mid-credits scene. The other two were off-limits due to their Fantastic Four connections, so if the first decade-plus had to be dedicated to the rise of one enemy, it had to be Thanos.

Compare that to the Marvel Animated Universe of the 90s, where Doom was everywhere (well, three different shows) and Thanos didn’t appear until the Silver Surfer cartoon during the last leg of that cartoon continuity. Fantastic Four being out of Disney’s reach allowed them to go so many years without having to rely on one of THE go-to antagonists, but now we’re able to introduce him into a fully realized universe.

It’s a shame that Mads Mikkelsen has been wasted on Kaecilius from Doctor Strange (yes, I still have to look up the villain’s name), but there are still good options out there for MCU Doom. Supposedly, Keanu Reeves is finally signing to play a major Marvel role and the idea of Keanu as Doom is one of those things that starts as a joke, only I’m more fascinated and interested in it the more I think about it.

Then there’s Galactus. The MCU has already dabbled in Celestials, so that might take the wind out of Galactus’ sails, but at least we know that the MCU has no problem depicting cosmic threats as “giant dudes in crazy space armor.” Galactus has always felt more down-to-earth than the Celestials, while still being cold and emotionless enough to keep his existence unnerving. On one hand, he could make for a good final villain like Thanos was. On the other hand, perhaps he’s good for one movie as the main villain, only to be conquered and weaponized by someone else to prove an even greater threat.

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We’ve seen them do that in the comics with both Doctor Doom and Annihilius. Hey, Annihilus! There’s another Fantastic Four villain that the MCU can do something with. I wouldn’t put it past them to save him for a Nova movie, though.

Secret Wars

Not counting sequels, there are two events called Secret Wars in Marvel Comics history. While they are very different stories, they both boil down to Doctor Doom absorbing the powers of somebody much higher on the food scale than himself and going ham with his megalomania. Then a bunch of heroes have to band together on a patchwork planet to stop him.

The Illuminati stuff in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness goes into the prelude to the 2015 Secret Wars. All the stuff about Incursions and alternate realities blowing each other up, not to mention the threat of a multiversal war from the Loki series, points to a Secret Wars endgame. Perhaps in the form of Endgame 2.0.

Unfortunately, I can’t shake the feeling that such a thing would be the beginning of the end for the MCU. The Hulk/Spider-Man/X-Men/Fantastic Four movie rights situation turned the whole universe into an advent calendar and once the Fantastic Four and their corner are sucked dry, it’s going to be hard for Marvel to keep things hyped and in motion.

But if it burns out bright, then flame on!