Trapped in the Negative Zone: The Fantastic Four on Film

The dust has cleared on the fourth attempt to bring The Fantastic Four to the big screen. Why is this team of comic characters so important? What keeps going so horribly wrong?

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?

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