Wednesday, April 9, 2014

From Strip to Screen 3: The Fantastic Fox-Men

So far in this series I’ve talked about Marvel and DC Comics’ respective film franchise, two universes almost equally populated with big name superheroes. What follows is a summing up of the first of two other players in this arena suffering from, what The Hollywood Reporter drily dubbed “Marvel envy”, Fox Studios. For simplicity’s sake I’m sticking to the movie franchises, as Fox themselves appear to have no TV commitments to superheroes outside of their joint venture with DC toward the forthcoming Gotham series. In other words, it’s Fox’s Marvel universe.

Fox’s Marvel output to date includes:
The X-Men (now excluding the character Quicksilver, who will soon be added to Marvel’s Avengers) – five movies to date
Wolverine as a solo property – two movies to date, and
The Fantastic Four (including the Silver Surfer) – two movies to date, with a reboot in pre-production

Recently Fox gave away their rights to Daredevil and its spin-off Elektra after two respectively underperforming movies.

Even so, that’s an impressive roster, but shaping them into a shared universe with some key connecting players (Spider-Man and the Avengers) vetoed makes for an interesting challenge. I think this is Fox’s biggest obstacle, in that both of their prize movies properties don’t appear to mesh too well. On the one side, the X-Men and their fight for human rights, their struggle for a long time co-opted as a comic strip playing out of several real world civil rights campaigns. On the other side: the Fantastic Four – vividly coloured high adventure on Earth and in space, often involving some very far out extra-terrestrial foes. I reduce both sides a little too much, but my point stands.

In a way you may never see two such diametrically-clashing comic movie styles; in the comics the X-Men compliment the Fantastic Four much better – they’re gaudier in costume and much less brooding, and indeed the two families have merged in the past and share characters, if not actual members (rather neatly, Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s child is a mutant due to their exposure to space radiation, and is thus a player in the X-men story.) On the big screen since the early 21st century, however, the look for the mutants has been a dogged black leather ensemble, which the Four were still their comic-originated, peppy blue and orange outfits; indeed the first FF movie predated Batman Begins, which itself ushered in a grittier, more solemn take on superheroes, the stylistic change effectively dooming the now-dated looking FF sequel.

The X-Men movies, continuity glitches aside, have spun along for around ten years with very few casting changes – younger versions of Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, Beast and Cyclops notwithstanding, only the first movie’s Sabretooth has been replaced. But it’s now a long-lived franchise, and the two Wolverine spin-offs had mixed responses. Is the X-Men mutant angle played out now, as a movie through-line? It strikes me that the convoluted dynastic angle of the X-Men movies is a strong identifier, but effectively contains the universe to being all about mutants and their extended families and non-mutant society. With X-Men Apocalypse (referencing 2012’s X-Men: First Class) set to screen in 2016 it’s still some time before that theme might change.

I’m curious to see how blending these properties will work out – especially when both the X-Men and the Four number so many, and the current X-Men series, a sort of ‘from there to here’ time-travelling history of the group, takes in two generations of mutants. Large-cast match-ups have a very third-act feel to them, and perhaps the simplest answer is that Fox intends their superhero universes to merge organically. It seems to me that the best way for both the X universe and the FF universe to be ‘shared’ is a re-tooling of the franchise which will handle a dramatic reboot, and that outside the issue of rights this is what we are seeing, with the remounted Four the ‘Ultimates’ version providing necessary points of difference (the Four are younger, have different origins, personalities and dynamics) with the earlier franchise. Regarding Michael B Jordan cast as Kata Mara’s brother, I find with every bone-headed fan braying online about his skin colour and ethnicity being irreconcilable with his character and the Caucasian Sue Storm being blood siblings, the less I care about the perceived disjoin.

The Fantastic Four seems to me a good franchise to revive, and perhaps enough time has passed to sweep the earlier iteration under the carpet. They have some fun, outlandish villains – Dr Doom is recognisable, Galactus… may be realised a little better this time around, and the shape-changing Skrulls have another tenuous X-Men connection. Doom appears to be the villain for the forthcoming movie, however, and a sequel has already been greenlit for 2017, so off we go.

Could Fox make a bid for other heroes not currently licensed to Marvel – e.g. Universal’s Namor, who has a strong X-Men and Fantastic Four connection? If I were sitting around the boardroom table, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest it.


  1. Nominally, the Skrulls have turned up in Avengers, so Marvel may already have them... although Quicksilver shows that some IP can be shared...

    What is interesting to note of the FF movies is that: they are only 90 minutes each! These days, you'll be lucky with anything under two hours, but back then they tried for this thing called 'economy of storytelling'...

  2. 90 minutes? Surely another sign that those movies were working along a nineties paradigm.

    Skrulls, Kree - you know I can't tell the difference! But I would agree that their inclusion could be an issue.