Following the success of X-Men: First Class (and later Days of Future Past), which reinvigorated 20th Century Fox's mutant movie brand to compete with Marvel and DC's modern shared comic book universes, it was no surprise to hear that the studio was developing a new take on their other superhero film franchise Fantastic Four. Despite mixed (to-negative) reviews, Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movies performed well-enough, earning 20th Century Fox over $500 million at the global box office on a $230 million investment - meaning that while Fantastic Four wasn't likely to challenge The Avengers or upcoming Batman V Superman for box office records, there was still plenty of potential for an above-average return on production costs.
Unfortunately, creative differences between director Josh Trank and 20th Century Fox resulted in a bizarre reboot that, after a promising first act, takes a drastic shift midway through, descends into generic comic book movie cliche, and limps in with an underwhelming finale (read our Fantastic Four review).
Thanks to global ticket buyers, where many viewers will be more more forgiving than domestic cinephiles (who get to choose from three new studio releases a week), it's possible that Trank's film won't be a total failure for the studio - and might eve recoup its money. Still, after Days of Future Past pulled in $750 million, is a risky property like Fantastic Four even worth the studio's time and money anymore?
After two decades at Fox, is it finally time for the studio to sell Fantastic Four back to Marvel Studios?
Fantastic History and Who Owns What
Unlike DC Comics characters, all of which are owned by Warner Bros. and can appear in the same film universe, Marvel movie rights are spread across several studios. In the 1980s a cash-strapped Marvel sold the film rights to many of its most beloved characters, long before superhero films were box office record-breakers, including Spider-Man (first licensed to Cannon Films), Blade (at New Line Cinema) and X-Men (20th Century Fox). Under the creative hand of director Bryan Singer, X-Men established a new framework for comic book movies - one that both fans and casual moviegoers could enjoy. The success of X-Men and, shortly after, Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man, paved the way for a steady stream of superhero adaptations - including Tim Story's 2005 Fantastic Four movie (starring Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, and Jessica Alba) as well as its sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer (with Doug Jones in the titular role).
Many of Marvel's initial licensing agreements include a sunset clause which prevents rights holders from sitting on a particular character or story too long. Specifically, if the studio can't or won't make a franchise film within a specific time window, subsequent character rights revert back to Marvel. Over time, certain studios have allowed particular rights to expire (which is why Punisher can now appear in the Daredevil TV series) and, in that time, Marvel Studios has reacquired licensing rights to most of its characters.
After The Amazing Spider-Man 2 dashed Sony's plans for a shared universe centered on the wall crawler and his Sinister Six adversaries, the studio worked out a joint partnership with Marvel Studios - to bring Peter Parker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe without entirely handing over the character's film rights. A few other Marvel properties exist in a grey middle-ground (such as Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Namor), but most are now either owned by Marvel or fully-licensed to non-Marvel studios: Man-Thing (Lionsgate Entertainment), the X-Men and related mutant characters (20th Century Fox), as well as the Fantastic Four (20th Century Fox) and support characters (such as Silver Surfer).
That's all to say, even though Trank's Fantastic Four wasn't an overwhelmingly successful reboot of the franchise, Fox isn't required to hand back the team's film rights for another decade (roughly 2024).
Fans clearly aren't satisfied with the latest iteration of the characters but there are still valid reasons why the studio (as well as moviegoers) would not want Marvel to reacquire Fantastic Four's film rights.