Lesson learned: Four observations from the Fantastic Four fallout

fantastic-4

It will go down as the biggest bomb of the year, with the studio, actors, and even the director totally disowning it. In an era where comic book movies are frequently at the top of the box office charts, an adaptation of one of the original comic book teams, as well as the first Stan Lee/Marvel superhero property, had no reason to do so poorly. Yet here we are, at the end of August, after almost a month in theaters, and Fantastic Four is sitting at about 50 million dollars in domestic gross (with another 80 million or so in international markets). On the last Wednesday of the month, it made only 250,000 dollars. It’s one-month Friday totals have dropped from 11 million to 2 million to 1 million to half a million. That’s a staggering drop, particularly from the first weekend to the next.

For comparison, the biggest movie of the year (pre-Star Wars), Jurassic World, opened to an 80 million dollar Friday, then pulled in 30 million on its second Friday. It made 14 million on its third Friday and it wasn’t until it’s second month in theaters that it–on it’s fourth Friday–made as much as Fantastic Four did on its opening night. Jurassic World had it’s last million-plus day in theaters on August 2nd, a full two months after release. Fantastic Four stopped pulling in over a million dollars on August 24th, seventeen days after release.

Months ago, before the troubles in the film’s production started to dominate the trade papers, Fox announced a sequel to Fantastic Four was already greenlit and would be released in 2017. That seems beyond foolish at this point, and though the studio has not revised its schedule, it’s likely they haven’t publicly changed their plans as a face-saving move. Fox’s deal with Marvel means that the studio must release a movie based on the F4 property in a seven year window or the rights to the characters will return to its parent company. It doesn’t seem likely, however, that there will be any money in Fantastic Four any time soon, and certainly not within the seven year window that Fox has to work with.

Looking back at the disaster that the movie was, there are some lessons that can be learned. Fox was not the only party responsible for the failure of this production, both they and director Josh Trank share the burden. Nevertheless, the collapse of Fantastic Four reveals some hard truths that all studios in the comic business (namely Disney, Fox, and to a lesser extent Sony) need to realize going forward…

LESSON ONE: THERE NEVER WAS A COMIC BOOK MOVIE NOVELTY

Studio executives are a predictable lot: They are desperate to find something that will bring them a huge hit, but terrified to try anything new. They are quick to run down their competition, but they’re even quicker to copy the latest trend. Comic Book movies used to be a joke in tinseltown. Kevin Smith, who worked for a time on the ill-fated Superman Lives project, once remarked that Warners should bring in some of DC’s best writers to adapt Superman into a screenplay. The logic was sound: Warners owns DC, has access to all the best Superman stories and writers, so why not put them all together to make the best “Superman” movie possible? The studio’s response? “Yeah but those are comic book guys…” As though a comic book writer would be out of his element in writing a comic book movie. Times have changed, and that change happened because someone had the courage to do something different.

When Marvel studios launched Iron Man, and with it, their own film-making studio, the response from other studios was one of derision. No one had ever taken comic books so seriously before. Marginal improvements had been made, certainly (Fox’s X-Men movies were at least a “serious” take, and Sony made billions with their bright and lively Spider-Man movies), but nothing to the scope of Marvel Studios’ ambitions. Fox had already tried to launch a Fantastic Four series, with two films in the mid-2000’s, but their lukewarm response was shrugged off at the time (those were the pre-MCU days). It was assumed X-Men was the exception to the rule that comic book movies wouldn’t work. Iron Man and Marvel proved otherwise.

Once Iron Man became a success, suddenly everyone was on the superhero bandwagon. DC finally got off the pot and decided to kickstart their own universe, Sony rebooted Spider-Man, and Fox dreamed of their own shared universe between their properties: Fantastic Four and X-Men. No one stopped to consider the diminishing returns that come with derivative works. Chris Nolan’s Batman movies were hugely successful because they were well made movies. Marvel’s movies have likewise followed the pattern of “quality=profit.” A lesser movie like “Thor: The Dark World” under-performed compared to the sublime Guardians of the Galaxy, despite the former property being much more well known. Fans weren’t paying big bucks to see “comic book movies;” they were paying big bucks to see “GOOD comic book movies.”

It is a myth to say that comic book movies were a novelty that has now worn off. No. Comic book movies were never popular just for being comic book movies. Green Lantern, the aforementioned Fantastic Four and F4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man films are proof of that. If anything has worn off, it is the derivative “they did this, let’s do that too” mindset from lazy studio executives. Buyers never saw comic movies as a novelty; studio heads saw them as a novelty. And despite the aforementioned lesser failures over the years, it has taken the huge failure of this movie to show that you can’t just toss out a movie with the title of a comic property (in the last year you have the rights to that property) and expect ticket buyers to shell out money to see it.

It doesn’t work like that. You need a plan. You need a focus. You need a vision…

LESSON TWO: IF YOU HIRE A GUY WITH A VISION, YOU ARE HIRING A VISION

So Fox, seeing the dollars being generated by Marvel’s films,  as well as seeing Warners and DC begin their own cinematic universe, decided to resurrect the only other major Marvel property they had. Because Fox actually hates their properties (more on that later), they hired a director with the express purpose of shaking up the Fantastic Four concept and giving viewers something “different.” To that end, they hired Josh Trank, a small time director with only one major film credit, the well made “Chronicle” film, which put a spin on the “superhero” genre by attaching a found footage trope to it (another concept that Hollywood has run into the ground) and mixing in some emo angst.

By all accounts, Fox brought in Trank and offered him Fantastic Four. They sought him out. Trank (an admitted non-fan of the property) pointed to Chronicle and said “I want to do that.” Fox gave him the thumbs-up and off he went. To his credit, Trank had a defined vision. That’s more than can be said for Fox. All Fox had was a deadline: By 2015 the movie must be released or the rights go back to Marvel. Trank set out to make a small, confined, dour film, about young people who are infected with warped abilities and used by the government before discovering their own potential and going out on their own. It sounds like a great sequel to Chronicle, but it doesn’t sound like a very good Fantastic Four film.

And yet, in an earlier time, this is the kind of movie that would have been encouraged. Look at Tim Burton’s proposed take on Superman: It was nothing like the comic, because in those days no one wanted to be like the comics. Even Burton’s adored Batman movies took huge departures from the source material, nevermind the work Joel Schumacher did with the character. That was the era. That was normal. Trank’s idea of a F4 movie would have fit right in back in those days. In those days superheros on film looked like this:

batgirl-batman-robin

These days they look like this:

ben-affleck-batman

But worse than hiring a guy with a vision, is hiring a guy with a vision and then fighting he and his vision every step of the way. Having a focused idea is good to give the movie an identity. Even if fans reject that identity the larger audience can still appreciate the film if it is well made. Even if the movie is not like the source material (more on that later), if the movie has a vision and executes that vision with confidence, it’s rarely a “bad” movie. Having a vision worked with Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Are there complaints about how it deviated from the source material (by making it extremely grounded and science-based)? Sure, you can find complaints online, but the proof is in the pudding: Nolan turned a dead franchise into a billion(s) dollar enterprise. On the other side of the coin there is Jon Favreau and his MCU-defining Iron Man movie. Favreau went into the movie knowing exactly what kind of identity it would have and he carried it out perfectly. The reward was a movie that grossed three times was industry analysts were expecting. Having a vision is good, but if the studio fights it (despite the fact that they asked for it) the film will collapse.

Never mind the fact that you still have to make sure the vision you ask for (and the vision you’re getting) is the one you actually need…

See page 2 for lesson three…

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  • Delsin Rowe

    Good article.

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