The Fourth Time Was Not a Charm…
I was in elementary school when I discovered a paperback book in my father’s collection that would change my life. It was called The Gideon Bible and… oh, wait, that’s a different article.
But seriously, folks, what I found did surprise me greatly. It was a trade paperback collection of the first six issues of The Fantastic Four, not so subtly subtitled by Marvel Comics as “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine”. These days “trade paperbacks” are thick, being collections of comics, but are the approximate dimensions of the original issues. This early collection was the size and shape of any standard paperback novel with the gridded pages shrunk to fit the smaller pages.
What was this treasure doing in this particular trove? My dad was never much of a comic book guy. Even as a kid, he tended to only read the Harvey and Dell-style kids’ funnies like Little Lulu and Little Dot, not the action packed Marvel Comics of the Silver Age. Yet there it was, emblazoned across the page edges with my dad’s own distinctive “ex-libris” initial of “J”. My guess is that he got it at a garage sale or used book sale with a box load of other cheap tomes without caring much about the content. I asked him later, he had no recollection.
It might be important to mention the real-world impact of those first six issues of The Fantastic Four. Ever hear of the Marvel Universe? It’s the continuity that has informed every Marvel Comic book for the last several decades and has, in fact, led directly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which dominates the box office today. That universe truly started right there in November 1961’s The Fantastic Four #1. That’s right. Before Beatlemania made “The Fab Four” universal favorites, the Fantastic Four were carving out their own universe for Marvel on the whole.
Oh, sure, some of the Marvel mainstays like Captain America, the Submariner and the (original) Human Torch had already made their splash in Timely and Atlas comics (precursors to Marvel), but it was The Fantastic Four #1 that first hinted at the coalescence of these characters in the Silver Age. Earlier comics touched upon each other but this was the start of the actual Marvel Universe. Ironically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe that led directly from the Marvel Universe (in print) does not (at the time of this writing) include the Fantastic Four, whose first issue launched the whole shebang!
Influential the comic most assuredly is. Was it “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine”? I soon began to think so, yes. Soon… because at first, I was a bit disturbed.
Let me clarify that it was the early ’80s when I first read these issues, and I was young and weaned on toned-down superhero cartoons and my dad’s old Richie Rich comics. My young mind believed that this team consisted of “Fireball”, “Mister Bricks”, “Plastic Man” and “That Invisible Lady” with their armored main villain clearly being “Iron Man”, right? Obviously those assumptions were completely wrong, but I was a little kid and had a lot to learn about comics.
Let me also add that by this time, The Fantastic Four #1 was already 20 years old and very hard hitting and dark. Team leader Reed Richards first appeared in shadows holding a gun and making ominous promises about how the world would soon come to know his new team. Once summoned, car fanatic Johnny Storm becomes The (new) Human Torch spontaneously, melting the hot rod he and his (now endangered) friend have been working on, his sister Sue Storm turns invisible during a department store visit, freaking out her fellow shoppers to the point that they believe the place might be haunted and the gigantic Ben Grimm, dressed in a trench coat, fedora and dark glasses reveals himself to be a rocky-skinned Thing and rampages through the city.
I initially thought the members of this team were the villains of the piece. Such was the edge that writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby brought into these first six issues (and beyond). Never was The Fantastic Four a team of “Super Friends”. They were a family, sure, but Ben was constantly trying to beat the hell out of Johnny and Johnny was constantly burning things. Reed and Sue had their romance, but even that was often strained by what went on around them. Jealousy, infighting, taunting and sabotage occasionally marked and marred the team’s early adventures.
The oft-imitated cover that launched the Marvel Universe.
As the first six issues rounded out the team fought an invasion from the center of the Earth (led by the Mole Man whose main monster led to one of the most iconic and imitated covers in comics history), faced another invasion by the alien race known as the Skrulls, introduced the dangerous and disfigured armored villain Doctor Doom, reintroduced the Golden Age’s Submariner, traveled through time to the pirate age and journeyed into outer space… twice. The “Super Hero Team” didn’t even put on their first real costumes until the third issue (with Reed frequently going into battle wearing a suit and tie until that point).
Not only was the team often at each other’s throats, but they also faced real-world strife and temptation. Sue is entranced by the returned Submariner and considers leaving Reed for him. Johnny gets fed up with superhero life, abandons the family and goes on his own (which Reed blames on Ben). As for the team possibly being villains, at one point the government and army hunt and imprison the Four and they become fugitives. In that time travel issue, Ben becomes drunk with power and assumes the mantel of Blackbeard, turning against Reed and Johnny to embrace a life of seafaring crime. Meanwhile, Doom proves to be the old best buddy of Reed and is, in fact, a much more honest and trustworthy person, in spite of his villainous ways, than even Reed himself proves to be.
And that’s just the first six issues. Action, intrigue, science fiction, domestic troubles, defections, deceptions and changing sides. Can you imagine how amazing that could be in a movie?
I did. Every day. For years.
At the time of this writing I’m 41 years of age. I’m a father myself and I have my own admirable collection of books and movies. In fact, by the time of this writing there have been no less than four Fantastic Four feature length films… and not a single one of them has been “Fantastic”.
That very question has baffled movie studios and comics fans for a long time, right up to the August 2015 critical and financial fiasco that was Josh Trank’s Fant4stic. This reboot follows Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), its prequel Fantastic Four (2005) and the infamously never-released The Fantastic Four (1994). All four Fantastic films share one major thing… they are all critically reviled
So how could “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” lead to such awful movies? Could it be that the team simply cannot be adapted to the screen?
Well, no, that’s probably not the case. There have been four Fantastic Four animated television shows, including the limited-animation but accurate 1967 series, the more modern 2006 series, the 1994 series, which sported a critically reviled first season and a critically acclaimed second season and the notorious 1978 series The New Fantastic Four which featured H.E.R.B.I.E the Robot instead of the Human Torch for a full 13 episodes. The Thing even had his own series in 1979’s Fred and Barney meet The Thing (don’t worry, he never actually teamed up with the Bedrock boys).
The Four on film faced its first false start back in the late ’70s.
Why was Torch replaced by 1978’s answer to Jar-Jar Binks (in H.E.R.B.I.E.)? The urban legend is that NBC was afraid kids might try to emulate the hero by setting themselves on fire. This wasn’t actually true. In fact, NBC not only wanted The Human Torch for The New Fantastic Four but also for the 1981 animated series Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. Much as The New Fantastic Four replaced the Torch with H.E.R.B.I.E., Amazing Friends was forced to create another flame-based hero in “Firestar” to complement Iceman and Spider-Man in their adventures. No one was worried that little girls would set themselves alight to emulate her embers.
The real answer as to why The Human Torch was unavailable has to do with the first Fantastic Four misfire (if you’ll pardon the pun) on its way to film. Universal Studios began making deals with Marvel to license its characters for TV movies and pilots. Thus, we were given Universal’s successful series The Incredible Hulk that launched in 1978 and ran for five seasons (and a string of follow-up TV movies) as well as two Captain America TV movies, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979) and 1978’s Dr. Strange, featuring Marvel’s “Sorcerer Supreme”. Universal also bought the rights to The Human Torch but his TV movie/ pilot burned in development hell for years, forcing his replacement in the NBC shows.
Ironically, NBC and Universal are now the same company.
It’s worth noting that although today nothing seems hotter at the box office than a Marvel Comics Movie (2015’s Fantastic Four excluded), at the time, Marvel was selling off rights to its properties piecemeal. There was no hope of making a big screen bow like DC’s 1978 smash Superman, and even Marvel’s flagship Spider-Man was relegated to a low-budget live-action 1977 TV show on CBS. Marvel’s then most recent appearance on the big screen was the 1944 serial Captain America. Its next big screen attempt would be the universally panned 1986 film Howard the Duck. (For more on this and other Marvelous big screen evolutions, check out “The Rise Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film“.)
As the Human Torch solo project burned itself out, other suitors came sniffing around. The real push for the full Fantastic Four on film started in 1983 when German producer Bernd Eichinger met with Marvel’s own Stan Lee about obtaining the rights and making the film. Those rights would not be fully available (thank you, Torch), until 1986, but by that time Eichinger’s Neue Constantin film company had successfully produced and released 1984’s hit The NeverEnding Story and things looked bright for a Fantastic Four flick. Today the struggle between Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox over Marvel’s characters (both Fantastic Four and X-Men) is a multi-million dollar war, back in 1986, Neue Constantin reportedly nabbed the rights to the Fantastic Four for only $250k.
The problem was that creating a convincing movie about a behemoth made of rocks, a man who can mold himself into any shape, a teenager who can burst into flames and fly and a woman who can turn invisible and create force fields was, to say the least, a quite expensive prospect. This was arguably a taller order than Superman’s filmic promise that “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly”. Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures both showed interest in co-funding and distributing the potential picture, but the budget remained prohibitive and most studios balked at having to share the potential profits with rights holder Constantin.
The bigger problem was that if Eichinger didn’t start production on a Fantastic Four film by the last day of 1992, the rights would return to Marvel and Eichinger’s company would also be fined $5 million for breach of contract. Eichinger asked Marvel for an extension but none was granted. Not only did Eichinger not have the $40 million it would take to make a big Fantastic Four film, he didn’t even have the $5 million for the fine. So what was a producer to do?
In Eichinger’s own words “They didn’t say I had to make a big movie!” Thus Eichinger spent a mere $1 million to produce (with B-Movie Maestro Roger Corman) an unconvincing and low-budget film called The Fantastic Four just to keep the rights to the film.
Why didn’t you see it? Because it was never released. Rumors have abounded that Constantin never intended to release the film, as the contract stipulated that the film must be started and completed, not necessarily released. However, although Marvel and Lee himself helped spread that very rumor, other factors seem to belie this story. Corman and crew clearly believed that this film was going to be released and, although it’s terrible, they gave their all. So did the cast who did promotional tours and appearances to help popularize this movie-to-be. Most tellingly, trailers for the film were released in theaters and on VHS copies of Corman films like Carnosaur (1993). Why bother spending the money on marketing something that was never intended for release?
What Happens When Visions Don’t Match?
The answer is that it was intended for release, but Eichinger pulled the plug virtually at the last minute. This was after an announcement of a world premiere set for 19 January 1994 intended to benefit charity.
What happened? Not long before the planned debut, Marvel’s financial troubles had led it to the brink bankruptcy over which it soon fell. As part of its recovery, Marvel merged with Israeli millionaire Avi Arad’s Toy Biz Arad was already heavily involved with Marvel’s screen properties, producing the animated Iron Man and Fantastic Four series in 1994. As his control of Marvel Comics consolidated, Arad feared that the low quality The Fantastic Four movie would tarnish the brand, not so much in the flagging comic title itself, but in other licensed properties like cartoons and, most especially, toys.
Reportedly, Arad doubled Eichinger’s money and bought out The Fantastic Four for $2 million and had all prints destroyed. So ultimately it was Marvel that both killed and saved The Fantastic Four on film for the time being. However, before that could happen, bootleg copies of the film were made and it’s now readily available all over the Internet. Check it out on YouTube if you want a good laugh.
It’s hard to say that Arad was incorrect in his prediction. Even though the plot kicks off with some interesting points straight out of the Silver Age comic by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee himself (much more accurate than later versions), it’s hard to deny that The Fantastic Four is FANTASTICally bad! The Invisible Woman’s antics resemble something from the 1940 Universal horror/ comedy The Invisible Woman. The Thing’s costume is actually a step below the mockery intended for a musical Fantastic Four staged by drug addicts in the most recent season of Arrested Development. The Human Torch is a cartoon (’nuff said). Mr. Fantastic’s contortions couldn’t have been less convincing if they had used a Stretch Armstrong doll as a double. Worst of all, Doctor Doom closely resembles (and sounds remarkably close to) the indecipherable villain Darph Nader from Hardware Wars (1978).
What became of Doom (and what did he say) in 1994’s The Fantastic Four?
In short, it would be easier to list what went right about this movie than to slide too much farther down the slippery slope of what went wrong.
The Fantastic Four (1994) may well be a joke, but it’s a joke that worked for what it was intended to do. By making and completing the film (whether it was released or not), Eichinger fulfilled his contract with Marvel and thus kept the rights to make Fantastic Four films. If it weren’t for that 1994 film that wasn’t the ever-lovin’ blue eyed Fantastic Four would probably be part of the MCU today.
Instead, Eichinger (now with Avi Arad producing by his side for safety) teamed with 20th Century Fox in 1995 to bring the film to big-budget life, and Chris Columbus was approached to direct, produce and write the film. But Columbus soon dropped out amid the chaos surrounding his equally aborted Planet of the Apes reboot.
This started a carousel of writers and directors who might or might not be attached to the project at any point. Columbus’ screenwriter for the aborted Apes project abandoned that baroque ship in favor of writing The Fantastic Four, but was replaced in the continuing turmoil behind the scenes. Fox and Eichinger had already spent a ton of money by 1999, so they (this time successfully) lobbied Marvel for an extension until 2001. Somehow this lasted until 2004 when production on Fantastic Four (2005) finally began.
Ultimately, Tim Story was given the director’s chair after Fox viewed his rough cut of 1998’s Taxi. It’s somewhat telling that Fox hired the director of their next big, planned blockbuster superhero franchise based on the potential success of a comedy film starring Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon. Not exactly superhero royalty, am I right?
Please note that this was a full three years before Marvel’s Cinematic Universe made its first bow with 2008’s Iron Man, and Fox was doing pretty well by 2005 with its X-Men Franchise, which debuted in 2000. How could it lose?
You might be expecting the answer to be “spectacularly”, but that isn’t the case (or wouldn’t be for another decade). Superhero movies had only recently shed their collective reputations as “kids’ stuff” and the distancing from the source material seen in X-Men (2000) and Blade (1998) was absent. Fox cast 2005’s Fantastic Four with up and comers like Chris Evans (as the Human Torch), and Ioan Gruffudd (as Mister Fantastic/ Reed Richards) along with established TV stars like Jessica Alba (as The Invisible Woman), Julian McMahon (as Doctor Doom) and Michael Chiklis (as the Ever-Lovin’, Blue-Eyed Thing).
Jessica Alba fades away in Fantastic Four (2005)
While the film may have been fun, it was also often silly and dull and although it made over three times its budget back, Fantastic Four failed to win the hearts of critics, most of whom were enamored by another superhero film, the much more serious and influential Batman Begins, which hit theaters just one month prior to the Foursome’s debut.
Still, the returns were good enough to warrant a sequel in 2007 and McMahon, Gruffudd, Chiklis, Alba and Evans all teamed up again with Story (and, of course, rights holder Eichinger) for what could have been a great follow-up. Perhaps taking cues from Batman Begins, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) took a decidedly darker tone than the first film with the team attempting to avert apocalypse at the jaws of the planet-devouring entity called Galactus. Along for the ride is the big, bad world-eater’s erstwhile herald The Silver Surfer, played by the man who has made a career out of being behind masks, Doug Jones (with the voice of Laurence Fishburn).
Hopes were high for this franchise and plans for further sequels (as well as a Silver Surfer spinoff) were promised. Although things looked promising when the sequel’s opening weekend outgrossed its predecessor’s, the film experienced a 66 percent drop in its second weekend and a 54 percent drop in its third weekend of release. Critics were kinder to this improved second film, but at best the reviews were mixed. Both reviewers and audiences complained about many of the same things they had before, including the overall silliness of the film compared to its subject matter.
Further, although the budget increased to $130 million (up from the first film’s $100 million), box office receipts were down with the final count amounting to $298 million (down from the first film’s $330 million). Plans for sequels and spinoffs were abandoned and Fox set their sights on a reboot.
Chris Evans later returned to Marvel as Captain America starting with Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
That reboot wouldn’t come until 2015, years into Marvel’s own Cinematic Universe’s dominance of the box office. Fox was still having successes with its X-Men franchise, which had experienced something of a resurgence with the prequel X-Men: First Class (2011) and the second spinoff film of the franchise, The Wolverine (2013).
In the month of May 2014, no less than three of the top ten films at the box office (X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Captain America: Winter Soldier) were based on Marvel Comics. Needless to say, Marvel was no longer in dire straits. The House of Ideas was such a money maker that Disney bought the company, making it a part of the House of Mouse. Marvel has been eager to consolidate its characters into a single universe, but the continued successes of the films outside of the MCU banner caused the companies that had licensed the characters to want to tighten their grips all the much more.
Fox even engaged in a lawsuit with Marvel over which company was allowed to use the speedster character of Quicksilver. Short answer: “both of them”. Fox utilized the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past, where he was simply known as “Peter”, in accordance with the settlement, and Marvel featured the character in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), where he was called “Quicksilver”, but could not be referred to as a “mutant” (a term which Fox claimed to own based on their license). Both films were wildly successful.
Naturally, Fox recognized that the iron was hot enough to strike and it was time to expand its own Universe by bringing back The Fantastic Four (who could soon cross over with the X-Men once the pre-ordained success had been achieved).
Again, there seemed to be no way it could possibly lose. Look at all of the Marvel properties. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe had changed the way Hollywood looked at Franchises. An interwoven saga of standalone films hadn’t been seen since Universal’s Classic Horror films. Even Fox’s own two (to date) Wolverine films featured Hugh Jackman, the main box-office draw of the main franchise, so these were more likely to be winners.
As Fox circled its wagons and began developing its new film, called Fantastic Four (and stylized as Fant4stic), it seemed to have picked up some of the more obvious “lessons” about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but missed much of the double edged sword thereof.
Marvel hired experienced filmmakers to helm its films, like Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon and James Gunn. All have their visions, all have their great creations, but none had a history of making blockbusters. Even Thor: The Dark World (2013) was made by Alan Taylor in his big screen directorial debut (up until the Thor sequel, he had “only” directed episodes of TV shows). Fox missed the point and hired Josh Trank to direct Fantastic Four.
Trank had television experience and one feature film under his belt. Chronicle (2012) was a small film (made on a budget of $12 million) that managed to get relatively big (earning over $126 million for Fox). Fox invested almost all of those earnings back in Trank when tapping him to relaunch its newest and most hopeful franchise.
So the director of one small movie that got big was given a huge movie with the future of the franchise on its shoulders.
With a budget of $122 million, Fox and Trank definitely had their eyes on future sequels, hoping to continue the rise of their own shared superhero universe, much as Marvel did when it released Iron Man in 2008.
The difference is that Marvel and Jon Favreau also concentrated heavily on making Iron Man a good and crowd-pleasing film that had the potential to cause those same crowds to keep coming back. Fox and Trank did not quite make that happen. Marvel also shepherded its directors along, allowing creative freedom, but maintained control over the arc that must touch multiple other films in the extended franchise.
What happens when visions don’t match? You get Edgar Wright, hired director of 2015’s Ant-Man who ultimately had to leave the project due to creative differences. Ant-Man went on to make $410 million against a budget of $130 million. Wright received a screenwriting credit (shared with three others).
Fox and Trank were much more concerned with the future of the franchise than the individual film.
At first everything seemed to be coming up cosmic roses. The closest thing to a “negative” reaction to the plans was the announcement that African American actor Michael B. Jordan would be playing Johnny Storm while his sister Susan Storm would be played by white actress Kate Mara. In the comics, the pair had always been blood siblings, but hey, who cares if the actors are good, right?
How Do You Make a Superhero Movie?
Then more plans for the film began to surface. Just as the cast revealed in interviews just how close the film would hew to the source material, other announcements belied these reports gravely. There was to be no journey to space (where the Fantastic Four gained their powers). In fact, almost the entire film would take place indoors or the dreary (and aptly named) “Negative Zone”. Reed Richards/ Mister Fantastic would be less the professorial genius of the comics and instead would be played by Miles Teller, the drummer kid from Whiplash (2014).
Things seemed somewhat promising for Jamie Bell’s The Thing in that the rocky monster would finally be motion-capture-based CGI, but fans were outraged at plans for Doctor Doom. Instead of Victor Von Doom, the learned scientist from Latveria, Trank’s film would replace the character with Victor Domashev, an angry computer hacker who goes by the internet handle of “Doom”. Fan backlash was so strong that the name had to be fixed in post-production.
Considering the lukewarm reception the trailers received, the change wouldn’t help much. The film’s dreary poster similarly failed to excite, with all four team members looking so lost that they seemed to be saying “What the hell am I doing in a Fantastic Four film?”
I think I’m in the wrong movie.
Still this was a big-budget movie based on a Marvel Comic. Fox would be practically printing money after its release and Trank would surely go on to superstardom (he had already been announced as the director of a standalone Star Wars movie).
Sadly, as Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny slouched morosely toward the box office, everything began to fall apart and fan fears seemed to come true.
For one thing, Fox was displeased with Trank’s edit of the film and demanded revisions. Yeah, I know, I know, How Dare They? right? Well, it’s hard to say that Fox is blameless in this, but most of the time studios demand changes at the 11th hour, it’s because the film in question is either not so good or not so profitable or both. It may be unfair to pin this totally on Trank, but one frequently cited report is that Trank was erratic on set, which led to multiple clashes with the studio. For Trank’s part, the story is that Fox’s recut eliminated major plot points from Trank’s original vision.
If true, this is nearly unconscionable. But one must note that the studio had to work with what had been shot and was desperately trying to save not only the film itself, but also the expected franchise that was to come.
Although Eichinger and his company Constantin were no longer in the picture, Fox, too, would lose the rights to the franchise if it failed to continue making films. If Fantastic Four was not a success, how could the studio make sequels? In short, Fox had to get this right or it would lose the property. Thus, the studio was desperate.
Let’s not forget that Fantastic Four is ostensibly a superhero movie and not just a franchise reboot. One of the big issues with the film is the fact that very little truly “super” goes on for much of the runtime. Instead we get long, drawn out expository sequences that retell (once again) the origin story of the team (albeit not the way you might expect). Did we really need this again? Could it have been shortened?
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Star Wars (1977) are both hugely successful films with large backstories that are only hinted at. This lends an air of mystery to the sagas and arguably the intrigue this caused helped to make them much more popular. Not close enough for you? Then let’s look back at Marvel Studios, shall we? We had a long expository Incredible Hulk film in 2003, but when Marvel Studios decided to reboot the franchise as part of its Cinematic Universe what we got was almost a sequel. In The Incredible Hulk (2008), how Bruce Banner actually became the big, green monster is hinted at in a series of flashbacks, not retold over two-thirds of the film. This is what we got in Fantastic Four.
Admittedly, they all laughed when The Thing decided to go streaking around the set.
There’s a big difference between “intelligent exposition” and “slowing the plot down painfully”. Moviegoers want to see an intelligent Superhero film, not a bunch of people in a drab laboratory looking unhappy. When Doctor Doom is finally unveiled as Doctor Doom, the only real danger is the fact that the credits are about to roll.
But that’s the Fox recut that we got, right? Well, sure, but let’s look at Trank’s approach to the film. Trank described Fantastic Four as something of a prequel to the upcoming sequel (which seems to no longer be upcoming). Trank announced at Comic-Con that the story revolved around “a group of friends” whose story takes place “before they become the iconic version of [The Fantastic Four].”
So we aren’t buying tickets to see the characters from The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine, but what they were doing before the Four were, in fact, fantastic? Why should we bother seeing it?
That’s right. Instead of focusing on making a good, action packed Superhero movie (in which Superheroes do super things), Trank (and Fox, probably) treated this film as little more than the foreword or preamble to a potentially exciting film that actually contained what movie fans want to see.
So Trank’s attitude was that audiences were looking for the Superhero equivalent to The Phantom Menace? Yeah. Imagine if that was the only Star Wars film and tell me if you think that would have been a success.
By way of comparison, let’s revisit the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Launchpad, 2008’s Iron Man. Imagine 100 minutes of Tony Stark being a jerk and hanging out in a laboratory, then taking a trip to the Middle East, you know, maybe sometime near the 45-minute mark. Then he gets captured and spends the rest of the film making that prototype armor instead of the weapon the terrorists really want. Then the makeshift Iron Man has one gun battle with the bad guys, then flies a few miles away and crashes… then the credits roll. You get the idea, leave the actual exciting “Iron Man” stuff for the sequel.
Now ask yourself, if that had been the story of Iron Man, would Iron Man 2 have ever been made? Well, guess what? That was the approach to Fantastic Four.
Let me stress the obvious one more time: studios don’t make sequels to unsuccessful movies. You can’t leave the actual good stuff for a sequel that might never happen. Trank and Fox were so certain that an entire franchise was guaranteed that they failed to focus on making Fantastic Four a good and satisfying movie in its own right.
Trank wasn’t alone in his complete missing of the point. Producer Simon Kinberg dismissed most of the fan unrest surrounding the revised origin story indicating that the fans of the comic have “a bit of a chip on their shoulders”. So… the movie isn’t made for fans? Then why the hell did you make it and who for?
Of course, that doesn’t truly matter if the resulting film had been exciting and fun. As I pointed out, it was neither.
They gave this same look when watching the dailies.
Things really started to fall apart right around release time when one day before the film’s debut, Trank took to Twitter to air his grievances. “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” Trank famously wrote.
Yes, the director basically told fans in the most direct forum he had that he had no faith in the film that could have propelled his career forward. Faster than Fox’s marketing group could say “ARE YOU CRAZY?” the Tweet was deleted, but the damage was done.
Audiences were not excited. Early predictions were that Fantastic Four would make up to $50 million in its opening weekend. The film made half that and floundered in second place behind the latest Mission Impossible (which was released the previous month). This is a big failure after the 2007 film’s $59 million first weekend take. However, like the 2007 film, Fantastic Four’s earnings dropped off significantly in its second weekend, falling by 69 percent. In the end, the film made $167 million worldwide, which covered its production budget, but none of the advertising, distribution or other costs.
Critics savaged the film earning it a mere nine percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes, folks, that’s significantly smaller approval than either of Tim Story’s Fantastic Four flicks. It was a disaster, earning less and rating lower than any marquee superhero title in recent memory.
Fox still missed the point, with their President of Domestic Distribution stating “I have never seen a confluence of events impact the opening of a movie so swiftly.” Those events included Trank’s Tweet and the negative reviews but failed to point out the incredibly obvious… the movie is bad.
So oblivious was Fox that immediately after the dismal box office numbers (that came amid a flurry of bad reviews) the studio announced that they were going forward with a sequel anyway. The question is, of course, who would watch it? Even if Trank was correct when he indicated that all of the actual “super” parts of this “Superhero” franchise would be stuffed into the sequel, who would want to see a follow-up to such a poorly received film (whether they had actually watched it or not).
I can’t even believe I watched it.
Thus, the future of the Fantastic Four on film looked mighty bleak and talks of a sequel soon quietly died down. Trank’s career might or might not recover. Surely a Star Wars film would have the potential to right his job prospects, but Lucasfilm removed the director from that project after hearing the way Fantastic Four was handled. Further, studios don’t want to bank on a director who publicly states that his movie is bad. Again, there’s a huge difference between directing a little movie that makes it big and a huge movie that flops.
As for the future, at the time of this writing, rumors have already surfaced that the Fantastic Four movie rights may well be going back to Marvel Studios, where most fans would argue they belong. Reportedly, Fox made a deal with Marvel for the television rights to the X-Men characters and part of the deal included ceding the rights to the Fantastic Four, Galactus, the Silver Surfer and Doctor Doom back to Marvel, where it certainly knows how to handle its own characters.
Alas, this remains just a rumor and is currently being alternately confirmed and denied by (unnamed) insiders. There is, however, a recent precedent. The character of Spider-Man joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe (with the rights being shared between Marvel Studios and Sony) after the relative underperformance of 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Then again, that film’s grosses look like an esteemed victory when compared to the flatline that accompanied Fantastic Four. We’ll see.
Will Hollywood and its studios learn the right lessons from this critical and financial debacle? That remains to be revealed. Warner Bros’ nascent DC Cinematic Universe began with Man of Steel (2013) and continues with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which features such a roster of DC Comics’ heroes and villains that the credits will read like the Metropolis telephone directory. In short, Warner is using the film as a springboard for its potential franchises over and above making this individual story a success. Marvel introduced each hero individually before teaming them up in The Avengers (2012). Lesson unlearned.
Heed the warning, Hollywood. Take a good, long look at the Negative Zone that encases the Fantastic Four films and learn something. When it comes time to ask “How do you make a Superhero movie?” the answer, thus far, is unquestionably “Not like this.”