Why Is Fox Hiding The Fantastic Four?

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Fox’s next big superhero flick is coming to theaters next year… so why hasn’t Fox released so much as a movie poster?

Fox had a pretty damn good Summer, especially if you’re talking about superhero movies. With X-Men: Days of Future Past they’ve handily established themselves as the only game in town who can open a comic book movie to huge box office, audience enthusiasm and good reviews not named Christopher Nolan or Marvel Studios. And that’s after weathering two movies everyone hated, a movie people mostly liked but didn’t exactly pack theaters to see, a movie people went to see but forgot about a week later, and a pretty serious-sounding legal scandal.

Now, imagine you’re Fox, and you just made all the money off a Marvel-based team-superhero movie. If you had another movie in that same genre that had finished shooting, was in post-production, was the big-budget debut of the director of a cult-fave superhero flick and was coming out before X-Men: DOFP’s sequel is even halfway through shooting. You’d probably want people to know about it, right?

You’d probably at least have one of those logo-only early posters. Maybe even a brief teaser cobbled together from whatever footage you had. Pop out a still or two of the actors standing around, perhaps? “Leak” some snaps of random actors setting up in front of a green screen to one of the traffic-thirsty lower-tier nerd blogs who’ll run anything? “Look the other way” when your more social media-addicted stars Instagrams a prop? If absolutely nothing else, you’d surely show up at Comic-Con and pitch the film to a rabid, eager-to-be-pleased fanboy crowd that won’t mind a “trailer” of unfinished FX and animatics, wouldn’t you?

Of course you would. Who wouldn’t? By even the most tortured pretzel-logic of the least gifted C-student MBA with a cherry executive gig by the most nepotistic of uncles knows that nobody buys a ticket for a movie nobody told them about.

So why isn’t Fox telling anyone about Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four?

In case you hadn’t heard, that movie finished shooting a while back. And unlike some other studios, it can be safely assumed that most of the important non-CGI work is in the can, ready for assembly and a final polish. But there was barely any publicity — certainly not the kind we’re accustomed to in an era where a dutched-angle snap of Paul Rudd dressed like Colin Farrell on his day off qualifies as a “reveal”and even infamously-secretive J.J. Abrams has been drip-feeding the press Star Wars – Episode VII hints at a pace that qualifies as a torrent — for J.J. Abrams.

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But not only is it likely you didn’t hear that Fantastic Four was nearly finished, it’s entirely possible you weren’t aware it was being made at all outside of a by now safe assumption that every drop of ink ever typed or scrawled by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is probably “in development” at one stage or another somewhere.

So what’s the deal?

It’s not as though rebooting The Fantastic Four is a small deal for Fox. It represents a chance for a second bite at the once-again juicy X-Men apple, with another globetrotting superhero team this time comprised of younger, less-expensive stars. It represents a plum merchandising opportunity (The Thing is famously popular with children). And more than anything, it means keeping rival Disney/Marvel (the two studios are infamously intense in their respective dislike) from getting their hands on another bi-annual money-printing franchise to muscle Fox (and others) out of the multiplex.

And it’s certainly not like the project holds no obvious interest in its own right: a rising-star indie director most-recently know for a deconstructionist superhero drama getting called up to the majors to do the real thing? That’s the same backstory as Guardians of The Galaxy, a “risky bet” that’s now on its way to being one of the biggest hits of the year. The cast is a who’s-who of hot up and coming talent: Miles Teller, Jamie Bell, Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara? Is this a superhero movie or the nominees for the next Spirit Awards?

So why does Fox, apparently, not want you to know it exists?

It’s possible that they’ve been scared cautious. Despite gargantuan hits like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Guardians holding up the tent, 2014 has been a year of costly disappointments. Expendables 3? A dud. Hercules? Decidedly mortal. Even a sure bet like Amazing Spider-Man 2 underperformed, and while it (eventually) turned a small profit and will likely be solid on video the optics of its stumble (a presumed multi-week smash that everyone else had cleared the deck for getting curb-stomped a week later by a http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/134398-Friday-Box-Office-Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Drops-Big-in-Second-Weekend ” title=”” target=”_blank”>cheap fratboy comedy) were terrible. So, sure, maybe Fox is playing for caution — trying not to create an “overhyped” backlash on release.

It’s equally possible that they’d hide it for the old-fashioned reason: They don’t think it’s any good. With the film already mostly shot, the film’s producers likely have a good idea of how it’s coming together. Perhaps they don’t like what they see? If so, going with a soft rollout and an “Oh, sure. It’s good. Yup. Uh-huh.” straight-faced grin-and-bear-it pitch is probably the best play: A delay tells the press there’s blood in the water, to say nothing of rival studios who — after the Spider-Man vs. Neighbors debacle — will be looking for any sign of weakness in comic blockbusters to score a counterprogramming hit.

And remember: Fox is less concerned with building a strong franchise here than they are with depriving a box-office rival of material for another Guardians-sized hit. So they lose comparatively little by having a so-so to awful Fantastic Four film come out and do middling business, secure their license on the property for another cycle and announce a “soft reboot” (aka “the sequel will go in a new direction”) shortly thereafter. That’s more-or-less what’s reputed to have happened with Sony midway through production on the first Amazing Spider-Man — they decided the original “smaller-scale Twilight-style teen romance but for superheroes” angle wasn’t working, so huge amounts of that film got retooled to fix with “fixes” already being planned for a sequel.

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Of course, those are both (however plausible) “fan theories” in a sense, as they’d both serve to embolden the resolve of fans who’re already pulling for the film to succeed and be a big hit. Alternately, fans who aren’t as enthused and would like to see Fox take a black eye and let the franchise slip back to Marvel Studios so that Reed Richards can turn up and chat with Iron Man in the post-credits scene of Avengers 3. “Cosmic rays, huh? Kind of a stretch if you ask me.” “Funny you should that, Stark…”

Not that that’s especially possible. Fox isn’t in the business of giving these things back — any studio that releases X-Men Origins: Wolverine without demanding a whole department’s worth of development VP’s commit seppuku in penance is clearly beyond the point of shame. But either way, I’m of late given to wonder if it’s fans that are the reason for Fox’s trepidation. Not because they don’t have faith that the product is good — but because they don’t think fans will give it a chance.

Does Fox think they’ve made a Fantastic Four movie that fans will bury before they’ve even seen it?

Real talk: No one is happier with the mainstream pop-culture dominance of onetime fanboy-centric material — and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the monarch of this new entertainment kingdom — than me. I’m a complete mark for this stuff, particularly Marvel’s “the comics were already good, so just get as close to that up onscreen as possible” approach.

But while Marvel has mastered the art of turning their comics into “authentic” movies, what they’ve perfected is the art of drawing favorable responses from the “ascended fanboy” press (think Badass Digest, Hitfix, AICN, Latino Review) that dominates the coverage of this genre and thus (at present) the entirety of the blockbuster scene. What they’ve exposed (and mined greedily) is the dirty secret that, for all the talk of “hard to please” fans, that audience is actually pretty easy to “work” if you know what you’re doing… and what Marvel knows is that simple details like comics-accurate costuming or background teases for obscure fan-favorites or reminders that, yes, continuity has finally come to the movies, can get fans “rooting to like you” to a powerful degree.

And now that fandom has a studio in Marvel that so frequently delivers on its most common immediate desire — “Just make it like the comics, because that’s what we’ve based most of our hopes around!” — that I’m noticing fans as a whole becoming a lot less open to even the possibility that a filmmaker might have a divergent idea that’s as good in a different way (or maybe even better!) as flipping to the relevant page of The Official Handbook, pointing to a George Perez drawing and saying “do that.” “Make it just like the comic version!” and “Do what Marvel would do!” express roughly the same sentiment, but the second one has the appearance of being backed up by financial evidence.

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Let’s be clear: Man of Steel was a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad movie. But I didn’t know it was bad until I’d seen it. To hear some people talk, they “knew” just by virtue of the Nolan-esque (and thus very anti-comic-bookish) color palette and Superman’s lack of classic red trunks. And as much as Zack Snyder’s film was a (conceptual) departure from the traditional Superman, Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four looks to be even moreso from its Silver Age Lee/Kirby roots.

From what’s known thus far, this new Fantastic Four probably won’t wear costumes. They might not call themselves The Fantastic Four. Instead of a surrogate family unit (Reed & Sue as Mom n’ Dad to Johnny and Ben as rowdy kids) of space-explorers like the iconic originals, they’ll be college-age kids working as lab assistants to their scientist parents. The Human Torch is black. Doctor Doom is… actually, nobody seems to know yet. But all told, it sounds closer to Ultimate Fantastic Four than anything — which I’ll admit gives me no small amount of pause since Ultimate FF was pretty awful even by the wildly-inconsistent standards of the Ultimate line, and only approached being interesting once it started indulging in fan-fictiony nonsense like making Ultimate Mr. Fantastic evil.

Still, some of that sounds interesting to me. And some of it sounds iffy. But what it all sounds like is a project whose first trailers could send fans more preoccupied with fidelity (to the Silver Age wacky-wonderment currently fueling the MCU films in particular) into an apoplectic fit of “They’ve ruined it!!!” hysterics, which will in turn be seized upon and amplified to pure ugliness by the vocal minority who’ve been spitting acid ever since it was announced that Johnny Storm was now black.

If so, it’s an unfortunate turn of events. But to my mind it’s the most likely scenario: Fox is facing a fandom/press-management landscape that has become almost wholly binary in the way it processes reactions: “OMG it’s like they jumped right out of Issue #183 perfect!!!” (Marvel) or “F***! That’s NOT what his hat looks like they’ve ruined it!!!” (everyone else — with only DoFP excepted by virtue of “Wow! All the old people came back!” carrying a nostalgia thrill for a sizable substrata of fans.

If I’m being honest, what I do know about Fantastic Four doesn’t fill me with confidence. I like the idea of Josh Trank working with a studio war-chest, but it doesn’t feel like he’s the right fit for the project and there’s no indication that Fox cares what the finished product is beyond finished and releasable. I’m sure that whenever we do see the trailer, I will not be getting the same “Holy Mary mother of God!” thrills I got from the first Captain America trailer, or even the “This… could be interesting…” chills of seeing Henry Cavill’s Kal-El take his first flight. But I’m also sure that I won’t know for sure until I see the damn movie.

Again: I get where fandom is coming from. We’ve seen plenty of projects go bad because a filmmaker decided they knew better (or were better) than the material. But we’d do well to remember that it wasn’t too long ago that Drax, Groot and Rocket Raccoon would never have made it to theaters for fear of being too outside the narrow standards of a mainstream audience. We would do well not to become just as narrow ourselves.

…even if it is impossible to conceive of a universe where Miles Teller is good casting for any role apart from Miles Teller.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.