The writing was on the wall, but even amid downgraded expectations, Fantastic Four managed a spectacular belly-flop over the weekend. Dismal reviews and bad word of mouth—the movie got a C- from CinemaScore—led to a dismal $26.1 million opening weekend. With a production budget of $122 million, plus untold tens of millions in marketing, that’s not even close to acceptable. And it’s not getting an overseas bailout, either, as the foreign market numbers are equally bad—you’re in the sh*tter when the foreign box office can’t rescue your turd. This is the worst opening for a superhero movie since Seth Rogen’s similarly disaster-flavored The Green Hornet in 2011, and the worst opening for a movie featuring Marvel characters since 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Whatever the opposite of “illustrious company”, that’s what this is. A garbage heap, I guess.
The movie is bad and it’s tanking accordingly, but we’re now beyond talking about a mere bomb. Now we’re talking about behind the scenes drama because director Josh Trank opened the door to a dark place when he tweeted—and promptly deleted—about his “fantastic version” of the movie the day before it came out.
When things break down on a movie, the knee-jerk reaction is to blame the studio (see also: Edgar Wright v. Marvel Studios), but I’ve seen it happen over and over—movies are just f*cking hard to make. What ends up on the big screen is less than 1/4th of potential projects, to give you some scale, and a movie’s failure, or success, never rests solely with one person. But it feels better to blame the big corporate machine than the director, that artist struggling alone in the wilderness and against all odds and walking uphill in the snow—both ways!—in order to share their vision with the world. So we blame the studio, the corporate overlords, when in reality there’s enough blame for everyone.
Entertainment Weekly has a comprehensive overview of the mess behind the scenes on Fantastic Four with blame flying in all directions. Some sources paint Trank as moody, uncommunicative, combative, and particularly cold toward Kate Mara, whom he did not want to cast. Other sources blame Fox for undermining, overriding, and blatantly distrusting Trank, allegedly going so far as to ban him from the editing room to finish the movie without him. We’ll never know the whole truth, but it’s abundantly clear that a lot of things went wrong on both sides of the line. The amazing thing is that Fox didn’t simply let Trank go when it became clear they had incompatible ideas for the film. It’s not like directors haven’t been replaced on superhero projects before (see also: Jenkins, Patty; MacLaren, Michelle; Wright, Edgar), so why Fox felt they had to gut it out with Trank is a mystery.
Another big question mark is what happens next. Fans hope the rights to revert back to Marvel, but I talked to an entertainment lawyer familiar with licensing deals, and it’s not that simple. The character rights for the Fantastic Four actually belong to a German production company, Constantin Films, and Constantin is in partnership with Fox to distribute the movies. That means Fox can’t bargain with the rights without Constantin being on board. For instance, they can’t barter the Fantastic Four back to Marvel in exchange for TV rights to make an X-Men TV show unless Constantin agrees, and it’s not terribly likely that Constantin will agree.
Based on the history of the franchise, Fox/Constantin have about six years in which to act to retain the rights, which is plenty of time to figure out their next move. Maybe they go ahead with the slated 2017 sequel, treating it like a Jurassic World-style “soft reboot”, or maybe they sit on the license just long enough to see Kevin Feige’s contract at Marvel expire and offer him a chance to revive the franchise he watched crash and burn. The failure of 2005’s Fantastic Four was a big part of the push by Marvel to open their own studio, with Feige at the helm. I’m not convinced he’ll leave Marvel when his contract is up, but a carte blanche offer to produce a Fantastic Four movie and save the franchise might be hard to resist.