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Film

The strange case of 'The Fantastic Four' film failures

As a society, we love film franchises. Just look at the blockbusting success of any of the Batman series or the cultural juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In fact, the latter has become such a part of everyday life, releasing sensations on both the large and small screens, that it has become part of society’s daily fabric, akin to Twitter, Amazon or electricity itself.

We can be assured that if the MCU was to halt production, millennials, Gen-Z and Gen-Alpha wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. We’d be left with children, teenagers and adults without one of their best-loved and most easily accessible means of escapism. 

The MCU has shown all other production houses how to do franchises properly, as, over the years, there have been many failures that have tried to erect a movie dynasty in a way that Star Wars first did in the late ’70s. Whilst there have been many resoundingly terrible franchises such as Resident EvilTwilight and the Divergent series; there is one that has been made two and a half times that has failed miserably on each occasion but looks like it is set to be given another chance, which is remarkable. To many, it seems as if this particular series is cursed, and is doomed (pardon the pun) to live only as words and drawings. 

A staple of the Marvel comics, the case of The Fantastic Four failing is a strange one, as its characters and stories are some of the most iconic in the whole of the publication house’s extensive canon. The reason I say that it has been made two and a half times is that the first, which came in 1994, only constitutes a half measure. 

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In 1986, Bernd Eichinger of Constantin Film acquired the film rights of The Fantastic Four from Marvel, and in 1992, in order to keep the rights, he enlisted Roger Corman to produce a low-budget film, starring Alex Hyde-White and Jay Underwood. In 1994, its trailer was released to theatres, and the cast and director even embarked on a promotional tour; however, the film never saw the light of day. 

In the years following, Marvel’s Fantastic Four mastermind, Stan Lee and Eichinger, revealed that the cast wasn’t aware of the situation, believing that they were hired for an actual film, as any actor normally would. Afterwards, Marvel Comics bought the film’s negative back in order to allow 20th Century Fox to produce a big-budget adaptation, with Constantin involved, leading many to accuse the 1994 production of being an ashcan copy.

This set the scene for the two-film franchise that was released in the ’00s, which were commercial successes, but critically panned across the board. Starring Chris Evans, Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd, the first instalment, Fantastic Four, was released in 2005 and grossed $333.5 million at the box office. Its follow up, 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), whilst not as much of a commercial hit as its predecessor, still took home $301.9 million. 

What’s interesting about this duo of films is that 20th Century Fox was dismayed by the box-office performance of Silver Surfer, so plans for a third film and a Silver Surfer spin-off film were canned. This makes you wonder just exactly what the studio was hoping for in terms of commercial performance, as the films were successful, but to anyone with a pair of eyes, they clearly had a cash ceiling. Not because audience appetite metered wild success but because they are terrible films. Plain and simple.

Then we have the abomination that was Fantastic Four, the 2015 attempt by 20th Century Fox to resurrect the franchise with a new cast. Loosely based on the subject material, the film starred man of the hour, Miles Teller, as well as Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell, and on paper, it looked set to eclipse the first franchise in terms of acting quality. 

Written by Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg, with the latter having past credits on the X-Men and Sherlock Holmes films, it also looked sure to have a much better quality script than its predecessors. This hope was in vain, though. Fantastic Four failed miserably commercially and critically, and many even argue that it ranks as one of the worst films ever made. This could not have been further from what 20th Century Fox wanted. Aptly, plans for a 2017 sequel were swiftly scrapped, and that was that for 20th Century Fox and The Fantastic Four. 

In 2017, Disney agreed a $52.4 billion to acquire 21st Century Fox and its subsidiary, 20th Century Fox. Shortly after the news broke, CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, announced plans to finally integrate The Fantastic Four into the MCU alongside X-Men and Deadpool, in what appeared to many as the final piece of the puzzle in terms of classic Marvel characters being introduced into Disney’s universe. On December 10th, 2020 head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, announced that a Fantastic Four film is in development and that Jon Watts is the director, the man behind their uber-successful Spider-Man films starring Tom Holland. 

This then begs the question of whether the MCU’s iteration of The Fantastic Four will be a success. Looking at its ever-expanding course, one would argue that it will be just as successful as all of the movies it has already released under its enormous umbrella. They clearly have a plan to bring Mister Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Thing and The Human Torch to life, and if they get the casting and script right, they have the budget to do what 20th Century Fox couldn’t accomplish: doing the comics justice whilst giving a fresh twist on the iconic quartet of superheroes. 

However, it does seem that The Fantastic Four aren’t the most marketable Marvel superheroes, which slightly accounts for why the prior attempts to bring the story to life have failed in some way or another. I’d argue that the highlight of the story is the villain, Dr. Doom, who ranks amongst the most sinister of Stan Lee’s but that in terms of the heroes, they’re pretty vanilla when compared to the more violent likes of Wolverine, comedic turns of Deadpool and the ginormous power of The Hulk. 

There’s also a case to be made for the fact that 20th Century Fox’s adaptations were no way near as dark as they should’ve been, so we can only hope that the MCU has taken note of every aspect of how the previous films went so wrong, and they remove that oh-so-Hollywood sugary coating that destroyed them. 

Is The Fantastic Four cursed when it comes to films? Perhaps, but with a little bit of care, it has the potential to become one of the best-beloved parts of the MCU’s fourth phase. I am half-expecting to be picking this issue back up whenever the film is eventually released, but I just hope that the MCU prove me wrong. 

Watch the trailer for 2015’s Fantastic Four below.

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