In late 2014, 20th Century Fox was in production of the movie reboot to Marvel Comics’ first family, The Fantastic Four. Unlike the previous adaptations from 1993 and 2005, this new take was much darker and more deconstructionist in its approach to re-imagining the dysfunctional family story of Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm aka The Thing. Fox felt so strongly about the film that they even announced a sequel before any trailers or publicity photos were made public. While the studio and the film’s cast made statements about the demand for dark comic book films, the audience, however, had a different motion: Give the rights back to Marvel. Almost two years after the reboot underperformed at the box office, those words still cry out all over the world wide web. This writer’s take is that it’s much closer to reality than ever.
Of all popular Marvel properties, why is Fantastic Four so much troubling to adapt as a film? Prior to 2000, the simple answers were lack of groundbreaking special effects and a movie industry that had no respect for comic book movies outside of Batman. Marvel had a case of constant bad luck because of the cheap deals they made with lesser known producers and studios that turned out low grade adaptations of Punisher and Captain America with little chance of theatrical releases. Despite their bad luck in film, Marvel’s comic sales were pretty strong and they had big successes in their toy lines, trading cards, and of course their animated TV shows. Fantastic Four did well in most of these areas and that did not get lost on producer Bernd Eichinger of Constantin Film who would buy the film rights for an estimated $250,000 in the mid 80s.
Eichinger unsuccessfully pitched Fantastic Four to the major studios for several years until his option was set to expire at the end of 1992. So he turned to B-movie legend Roger Corman to produce a low budget Fantastic Four film with music video director Oley Sassone at the helm. The entire cast was full of unknowns working with Corman’s crew in his Venice, CA studio for less than a month. Even with the budget limitations, B-movie special effects, and accurate costumes in bad spandex, there was great care put into a script that was faithful to the comic and the cast went out of their way to promote it at comic conventions across the country. I personally recall some excitement as a kid when I purchased an issue of Wizard Magazine which featured stills and a small write up about the film. What we as comic fans and few in the production did not know until the last minute, however, was that Corman’s Fantastic Four was intended to be unreleased.
Though there were disputes between Eichinger, Corman, and the man himself Stan Lee over the intent of releasing the Corman movie, one thing that was true was how Marvel executive Avi Arad bought out the movie to prevent its release so that the Fantastic Four name would not be tarnished. Arad and Eichinger held out for the right Hollywood studio to bait when Chris Columbus entered the picture. The Spielberg protege who made Fox a billion dollars on the Home Alone movies wanted in on the Marvel Universe and he pushed for the studio to purchase the rights and to house at his 1492 Pictures banner. Though Columbus would ultimately settle on producing the film, Fox still perceived Fantastic Four as a big tentpole property for them once the Marvel movie boom started happening in the early 2000s with Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man.
As written and promoted by Fox, the Fantastic Four was depicted like a rock star group. Unlike other superheroes who conceal their real identities or have issues of angst, Reed Richards and the others were in the public spotlight as they have to save the world from the iconic Marvel villain, Dr. Doom. The studio was in a massive rush to meet its summer release date. So rather than hiring an established director with credits in special effects films, the studio chose to go the comedic action-adventure route when they hired Barbershop director Tim Story. He reportedly got the job because his previous film Taxi scored high with test audiences. The studio also went the flavor of the month route in casting ‘the it girl’ of the day Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, Michael Chiklis of The Shield fame as Ben Grimm, and Nip-Tuck’s Julian McMahon as Dr. Doom. Then there were the up-and-comers like Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards and future Captain America Chris Evans as Johnny Storm. There was some fan backlash to the casting, the hiring of Story as director, and the depiction of Dr. Doom as a rich European jerk; however, fans praised Evans’ performance and the decision to put Chiklis in a prosthetic suit instead of being a full CGI character after the critical backlash of Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003. As one of the better Marvel movies of the period after Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Fantastic Four made over $300 worldwide in the summer of 2005.
Two years later, Fox quickly jumped into the sequel. Not only was the Fantastic Four license good for the title characters and villains, but it was also good for big name Marvel characters who had their debuts in Fantastic Four title comics. Fox used this opportunity to introduce the Silver Surfer in a premise that saw the team trying to prevent him from destroying the planet under the bidding of Galactus. Fans were hyped to see the Surfer in action against Johnny Storm in the trailer. Unfortunately, the trailer was the only good part of the full movie. The rest of it was bad comedy, bad dialogue, and lackluster payoffs. This time, the backlash was against the depiction of Galactus as a storm cloud instead of his full body form and also the decision to have the voice of Surfer actor Doug Jones be dubbed by Lawrence Fishburne. It made significantly less than its predecessor, preventing any further sequels and spin-offs moving forward.
After years of dissatisfaction with the handling of their properties under the major studios, Marvel invested into creating its own studio, exploded out the gate with Jon Faverau’s Iron Man in 2008, and marked the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The other studios that housed other Marvel films were determined to not lose their licensed properties at all costs. In the case of Fantastic Four, Fox opted for a hard reboot which they announced in 2009. Numerous screenwriters came and went as Fox sought after a darker tone loosely based on Marvel’s Ultimates series. Part of the plan was to cross over the team with the X-Men in a future project, though that would be contradicted repeatedly by the filmmakers. Development was slow until the studio had a profitable hit with Josh Trank’s found footage thriller Chronicle and hired him to direct.
The overall scope of the Fantastic Four would change dramatically. Trank wanted to make a semi-Chronicle sequel with heavy influence from the films of David Cronenberg. The premise was less glamorous than the Story films and more about a military experiment gone horribly wrong with the characters depicted as freaks of nature as opposed to high profile superheroes. The studio and Trank made many out-of-the-box casting choices including Whiplash’s Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Fruitvale Station’s Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm. The latter drew the most controversy over a traditionally Caucasian character played by an African-American as well as the concept of Sue Storm as his adopted sister. There was also the addition of Toby Kebbell as Dr. Doom who was re-conceived as an angry computer technician.
Of all the summer releases for 2015, the Fantastic Four reboot had more mystery than hype to show for it. Months went by with little publicity. When the trailer finally hit in January, its Cronenberg-style tone intrigued the public. But in the months to follow, however, reports were leaking about tensions between director Trank and Fox. Rewrites, recuts, reshoots were all done due to the studio’s dissatisfaction with the product Trank delivered. There were also reports of Trank’s difficulties with the actors (specifically Kate Mara who was not his top choice for Sue Storm) and disturbing behavior in public as well as on his Twitter account. As hard as the cast tried to promote the film, they could not escape the tough scrutiny from journalists about the controversies with the production nor could they fully disguise their own issues with Trank. Between poor test screenings, a review embargo, and a bleak box office forecast, Fantastic Four (or as some people mock it Fan4stic due to the bizarre spelling on all advertisements) could not clobber its way to number one.
In the wake of the reboot’s failure at the box office as well as the constant finger pointing between its filmmakers, calls for the Fantastic Four film rights to revert back to Marvel grew louder than ever. Producer Simon Kinberg (who also wrote the 2005 version) would make statements in interviews about his intent to make a sequel happen, but only with a new director continuing in the Josh Trank direction. Though Kinberg felt a sequel would set things right, all other signs pointed to the contrary. The initially announced 2017 release date was pulled just months after the reboot failed. Some actors still expressed interest in a sequel while others such as Toby Kebbell expressed reluctance and Michael B. Jordan would cross over into the MCU when he signed on as the villain in Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther film.
As far as we know publicly, the production of the Fantastic Four reboot allowed Fox to retain the rights for another several years; however, the brand name is clearly devalued in the eyes of those important key figures. One of them is Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch who blamed the bad company stock numbers on the film’s failure. This led to numerous rumors of an under the table deal for Fox to give Marvel back the rights which they have repeatedly denied. Yet, Marvel has the upper hand because shortly after the reboot was released, the comic book was pulled from circulation which means Fantastic Four is irrelevant in the storylines until the day the movie rights return. Fans also continue to hold out hope that Marvel’s recent deal with Sony Pictures to bring Spider-Man to the MCU would influence Fox to do the same with their licences. Unfortunately, the Marvel/Fox relationship is far more difficult because of the egos in suits as well as the number of characters until the Fantastic Four license that Marvel clearly wants in the MCU, specifically Dr. Doom, Galactus, the Skrulls, and the Silver Surfer. Also, Fox is limited in tentpole franchises with X-Men, Planet of the Apes, The Maze Runner, Alien, Predator, and Avatar.
If Fox continues to hold on to the Fantastic Four license, what can they possibly do better next go around? At this point, the studio is likely clueless about how to re-tell the same story about a team consisting of a stretching man, an invisible woman, a man on fire, and a man made of rock. The public is smart enough to know the difference between an MCU project and a licensed Marvel property that cannot crossover with the Avengers. Even the possibility of making a spin-off film for Silver Surfer or any other character under the license could be difficult when Fox does not employ the likes of Marvel’s Kevin Feige who has the creative mindset for making these properties exciting and unique. No matter what, Marvel holds the leverage in approving any TV rights or minimal characters that Fox wants in any X-Men-related projects. Ultimately, the suits have to listen to what fans want to see. With a new year and potentially some bombshell announcements about the MCU’s future after its current phase with Avengers: Infinity War, the next phase has to be another monumental breakthrough. Hopefully that will involve Marvel’s first family while Stan Lee is still with us.