Some of the greatest superhero stories happen when the titans of the universe drop their gloves and combine forces to become a super team.
Today's modern-day franchise filmmaking is the result of a series of successes and misses, with two of the biggest successes from the turn of the century - the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movie franchises - setting the tone for the shape of Hollywood to come. As movies became more episodic, expectations began to change and audiences no longer viewed going to the movies as a self-contained experience. These days it's not enough to simply leave a movie's ending open for a potential sequel; in order to stay ahead of the game, studios have begun planning ten steps ahead.
Starting in 2008 the new kid on the block, Marvel Studios, dropped a series of solo franchises with Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor, before combining them into a mega-event with The Avengers. Since then, Marvel has continued to grow exponentially and intrigued competitors have attempted to recreate the studio's formula, like Hydra trying to recreate the Captain America super-soldier serum.
The theory of escalation holds true in the movie business as much as it does in the comic book world. Over the past decade or so, the superhero genre has continued to grow with increasingly ambitious team-ups and crossovers, recently culminating in a deal between Sony and Marvel that allowed Spider-Man to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the debut of a brand new Spider-Man (played by newcomer Tom Holland) in Captain America: Civil War proving to be a resounding success, there have since been rumors that Fox has shown an interest in following suit by approaching Marvel and combining their cinematic worlds. While all of this remains strictly unofficial for now, such a partnership could mean great things for both studios (and Marvel fans).
How Marvel Lost Its Marbles
Back in the 1990s Marvel was in its most dire straits after filing for bankruptcy, and was selling off the film rights to its characters all over Hollywood. The biggest acquisitions were Universal claiming the Hulk, Sony getting the crown jewel that was Spider-Man, and Fox obtaining the entire X-Men universe. While the fine print varies with each project, essentially each studio was permitted to keep their characters in perpetuity, as long as a movie was made every set number of years. The company was then rescued by a merger between Marvel and Toy Biz, which also served as the introduction of Avi Arad and Ike Perlmutter, resulting in Marvel Entertainment. The unclaimed rights of Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man remained at Marvel while they created Marvel Studios on the back of some huge investors... and the rest is history.
While Blade should be rightfully credited as the first Marvel-based comic book movie to find success, it was X-Men director Bryan Singer who kicked off the 21st century's new wave of superhero domination. Taking a more grounded approach to the concept of superpowers and how contemporary society might respond to them, Singer jettisoned the mutant team's brightly-colored spandex in favor of more utilitarian black jumpsuits. Next up was Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, which embraced the whimsy and color palette of the comics while also becoming the biggest sensation since the 1989 Batman era. At the time, these contrasting approaches to comic book adaptations were seen as a strength by fans and audiences, but this would not always be the case.
Doomed From the Start
At last year's San Diego Comic Con, 20th Century Fox made a strong impression by assembling Marvel legend Stan Lee, Deadpool's Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, The Wolverine's Hugh Jackman, and the entire ensemble cast of X-Men: Apocalypse in a show of force at their memorable panel. Jackman is currently shooting his (supposedly) final installment of the Wolverine franchise, and Deadpool defied all odds to become the highest grossing X-Men related film yet. However, not everything went as planned for Fox.
Last August, the spectacular crash and burn of the Fantastic Four was a huge impetus for a change in direction. The reboot of the classic Marvel franchise was a disaster in every sense of the word, as the production was marred with rumors of in-fighting, sabotage, and studio meddling.
The movie had an anemic $25 million dollar opening, and managed to total just $56 million dollars domestically by the end of its run. Even with the superhero genre hotter than it had ever been before, Fox couldn't scrounge up an audience for Mr. Fantastic and his friends. While the Fantastic Four may not be the most popular Marvel Comics property right now, the team was Marvel's first family of superheroes and has plenty of residual prestige, which meant added scrutiny for the failed production.
Back in 2014, hot off the heels of his success with the 21 Jump Street franchise, actor Channing Tatum began publicly campaigning for the role of Gambit in the X-Men universe. Things quickly became serious, as producer Lauren Shuler-Donner enthusiastically hyped up the Gambit solo film and a release date was announced for October 7th, 2016. Director Doug Liman was brought on board, while reports leaked that the production budget was floating around $150 million dollars. Obviously it's clear now that Gambit isn't going to make that original planned release date, though producer Simon Kinberg recently said that the project is still alive and kicking, with plans to begin filming by spring 2017.
Does X Still Mark the Spot?
Though X-Men has long been one of Fox's trademark properties, the franchise may not be in as strong a position as one would assume. The series has taken an interesting path since its inception in 2016, having been notably derailed by 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, which disappointed fans and critics alike and was followed by the equally reviled X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. Things got back on track in 2011 with Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, which kicked off a fresh slate of prequel movies, but now the X-Men may be on rocky ground once more
This May's release of X-Men: Apocalypse has not yet managed to cross the $157 million dollar domestic total that the original X-Men grossed in 2000 - a shortcoming made more stark by the fact that 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past finished up its domestic run at almost $234 million, also achieving a series-high worldwide gross of $747 million. However, it should be noted that Days of Future Past emptied the toy chest by bringing together all of the series' past and present stars. While this allowed the studio to briefly re-energize the franchise, Fox is clearly beginning to encounter diminishing returns for the X-Men brand as a whole.
Looking ahead, the X-Men franchise is on the verge of losing one of its keystone performers: Hugh Jackman. Since we were introduced to Jackman's Wolverine fighting in a cage in Canada in 2000, he has come to personify the X-Men movie universe with roles (however small) in all of the main series entries and lead roles in two solo movies of his own. Before filming began on the untitled upcoming Wolverine sequel, Jackman publicly announced his intention to retire from the role after his third solo appearance. While there have been recent reports of X-23, the heir apparent to the Wolverine mantle, being introduced to the cinematic universe, there aren't many stars in the world who could replace Jackman's presence in the franchise - all the more reason for Fox to start piecing together a new battle plan.
What's In It For Marvel?
While it's clear that Fox could benefit from a partnership with Marvel Studios, what does the seemingly bulletproof titan of comic book movies have to gain from such a deal? It's highly unlikely that Marvel would be interested in rebooting the Fantastic Four as another solo film within the MCU; no iteration of the Fantastic Four has received a score higher than 37% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the failure to launch two consecutive Fantastic Four movie franchises has drained a lot of public goodwill towards Marvel's first family. However, the franchise could hold infinitely more value in Marvel's hands.
At this point, the Fantastic Four is damaged goods on many levels. But just because a car is in the junkyard, it doesn't mean that its parts are worthless. The value for Marvel is in the pieces that make up the Fantastic Four's world. Up until this point, the entire narrative of the Marvel cinematic universe has been building up to an intergalactic battle with Thanos that is expected to take place in the still-untitled Avengers 3 and 4, and many are expecting the face of the MCU to be dramatically different in phase four. Once the decade-long story arc of Thanos and the Infinity Stones is wrapped up, access to Marvel heavy-hitters currently owned by Fox - including cosmic entities like the Silver Surfer and Galactus - would open up vast avenues for creativity and more opportunities to faithfully adapt iconic storylines.
Two years ago the notion of Spider-Man being willingly integrated into the MCU by Sony might have seemed impossible. However, we now know that despite complex contracts, red tape, and executive posturing, anything is possible in the movie business... especially if there is money to be made. At this point a Fox and Marvel partnership needs to happen for the sake of the fans, for the vitality of each respective franchise, and for the overall health of the genre. It's time to defy the odds and to form a super team.
Doctor Strange opens in U.S. theaters on November 4, 2016, followed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp– July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel– March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2– May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020. Deadpool 2 does not have a confirmed release date.