This weekend’s new superhero movie is Fantastic Four, not to be confused with Fantastic Four
or Fantastic Four
Or even The Fantastic Four
The 1978 cartoon version famously substituted a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E for the Human Torch. Although the reason given for years was that networkexecs children would set themselves alight during play, given everything else on cartoons before and since this makes so sense. The real reason, according to Mark Evanier, was that the Human Torch was already tied up with a development deal at Universal and they would not let the Torch be used in the NBC produced cartoon.
This rights battle is a recurring theme in looking at the FF’s media history. 10 years ago, a young, optimistic world saw Ian Gruffyd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis step out in blue suits to diminishing returns in a sequel. This film now seems like an excellent babysitting movie, cheerful for the kids. As underwhelming as it was, it was still preferable to the 1994 version starring Alex Hyde-White, a film so dreadful it was held back from release by Roger Corman, a company that was in the business to release schlocky movies.
However one theory has it that the film was never meant to be released and served solely as a means for producer Bernd Eichinger to hold on to the rights. Eichinger actually served as a producer on the 2005 version, so those 80s era movie deals continued to bear fruit for a long time. The entire story, whatever it is, is teased as the basis for a documentary, DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, which itself remains unreleased. Here’s the trailer:
If this production maneuver sounds familiar, it’s because a lot of these superhero movies are still being made just to hold onto the rights. If Sony stops making Spider-man films, Marvel gets the rights back; ditto the FF, and hence all these undercooked and somewhat unnecessary reboots every 10 years or so. (Fox has no such problem with The X-men where they can just keep mining the long history of the mutants, replace Wolverine every 15 years or so and keep chugging along.) There have been a few captive superheroes reluctantly released into Marvel’s wild: Lionsgate let go of the Punisher year ago, but he’s been dormant ever since; Fox let go of Daredevil and Marvel snapped it back up for its acclaimed Netflix run; and Fox also said “no mas” to Ghost Rider…but it seems no one was clamoring for that franchise to get a reboot.
While a sequel to this FF has already been announced for 2017, and the box office remains to be seen, it’s hard to see much critical support for another film in this series. Our own Kyle Pinion spotted the studio conflicts that made the film a non-starter
Josh Trank, before taking over the Fantastic Four series, surely had a good deal to learn from, including the missteps of the Tim Story directed 2005 effort, which treated the material in an almost camp fashion. The filmmaker known for the found-footage critical darling Chronicle clearly had an original approach he wanted to imbue the material with. His idea: highlight the sci-fi and body horror aspects at the core of the FF, a la David Cronenberg. While this isn’t my ideal version of the Fantastic Four, it’s an approach that could work if the studio was on board. As it turns out, Fox probably wasn’t. Whether Trank lacked the support or the skill to execute that vision (or both) – it’s easy to see that something went wrong.
Other reviews have been even more unenthusiastic, with the Rotten Tomatoes rating at 8%, and the Telegraph’s critic writing of “a lot of time moping on gantries.”
While the success of the MCU means that a failure here and there won’t spell the end of the superhero movie era for a bit, these movies are doing one thing; destroying the franchises in the comics. As widely reported, Marvel comics creators are generally banned from creating new characters in FF or Spider-Man books since any new character might be fodder for a Fox or Sony film. And many of the characters owned by other studios have been removed from Marvel licensed products, and even reprint covers. While these seem like spiteful movies by Marvel COO Ike Perlmutter, they are just the visible part of a behind the scenes movie studio battle as fierce and intense as anything on screen. Now THAT would make a good movie!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.