Fox carved out dates last week for six more untitled Marvel films, providing the first hints to its plans for the X-Men franchise beyond 2018, and raising the specter of, yes, another Fantastic Four reboot. Let that sink in for a moment.
Despite the hopes of passionate fans and the occasional refuted rumor, the studio isn't going to relinquish the film rights to Marvel, where (so the dream goes) the Fantastic Four will finally be treated right. Fox remains "very interested" in producing another installment of the troubled franchise -- it must do so in order to maintain the rights -- leaving the crucial questions of what form it might take, and when it might arrive in theaters. That studio's announced dates may offer a clue to the latter, of course, while Marvel Comics (surprisingly enough) may have just provided a solution to the former.
Spread out between 2019 and 2021, it's likely three of the announced dates are for intended sequels to The New Mutants, Deadpool 2 and X-Men: Dark Phoenix, targeted for release next year. The introduction of Cable and Domino in Deadpool 2 lays the foundation for an X-Force spinoff, which probably accounts for the fourth date, and, despite delays and difficulty keeping a director, the studio appears to be sold on Gambit with Channing Tatum. The sixth opening could belong to another X-Men movie, of course, but the constraints of the rights agreement with Marvel point in the direction of the Fantastic Four.
Decades-old deals grant Fox the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four, and most of their related characters, in effective perpetuity, as long as the studio has a new film in active development within so many years of the previous franchise release. (Details aren't publicly known, but that window is thought to be somewhere around seven years.) If those terms aren't met, the rights revert to Marvel. Hence, the mad dash in 2012 to get a Daredevil reboot off the ground; Fox was unsuccessful, permitting Marvel to regain the rights and, ultimately, begin work on its Netflix television dramas.
Given that director Josh Trank's disastrous reboot was released in 2015, the announced date of March 5, 2021, seems like prime territory for another Fantastic Four. Although Fox was pleased with the cast, if perhaps not the director, that planned revival of the franchise was a commercial and critical failure, earning $168 million worldwide and three Golden Raspberry Awards.
Whereas the 2005 Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel found commercial success with their straightforward, if a little silly, approach to superhero fare, the reboot leaned heavily into science fiction, combining Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's characters with elements of the updated origin from Ultimate Fantastic Four to create something that was barely recognizable as either. A 100-minute prologue to what was undoubtedly envisioned as a new trilogy, the 2015 film placed most of the emotional burden of the story on Miles Teller's Reed Richards, and depicted the four young heroes, rather mundanely, as superpowered "freaks" weaponized by the government. In keeping with tradition, however, it struggled with its portrayal of classic villain Victor von Doom, here an angry scientific prodigy with unrequited feelings for Sue Storm and a hatred for ... something. Like so much about the movie, that's unclear.
Still, the greatest sin of 2015's Fantastic Four isn't its abrupt shift from the promise of an Amblin-esque sci-fi adventure to the delivery of a bleak sci-fi action film but rather in its failure to understand that the relationships among the four characters, and not CG renderings of their abilities, form the foundation of the property. That's perhaps best illustrated by the transformation of Jamie Bell's Ben Grimm into little more than Reed's faithful sidekick, who's happy to bask in the reflected glory of his achievements. Well, that and depriving audiences of any real rivalry between Ben and Johnny Storm, undoubtedly the highlights of Tim Story's earlier films.
That brings us to Marvel Comics, which canceled Fantastic Four in 2015, a move some theorized was spurred by tense relations with Fox, but which the publisher attributed to flagging sales. With that, Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, The Thing and The Human Torch were scattered across the Marvel Universe, with the latter two appearing in Guardians of the Galaxy and Uncanny Inhumans, respectively. A reunion of Marvel's First Family appeared unlikely, at least until the company announced as part of its sprawling Marvel Legacy plans a revival of the 1970s series Marvel-Two-in-One, this time with The Thing and Human Torch.
By re-teaming the Marvel Universe's original Odd Couple, the publisher may have inadvertently provided the solution to Fox's Fantastic Four problem. Marvel and its readership recognized the charm of the sibling-like rivalry between Ben and Johnny virtually from the moment of their introduction in 1961. They were Groot and Rocket Raccoon decades before the breakout stars of the Guardians of the Galaxy films struck up a friendship on the comics page. Indeed, The Thing and Human Torch, whose interactions could escalate from an insult or a prank to wholesale destruction in a matter of moments, were so popular that, beginning in 1964, they shared the cover of Strange Tales for 10 issues as the anthology transitioned from sci-fi monster anthology into the superhero age (they were supplanted by Doctor Strange and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
With Marvel Comics apparently intent on recreating the novelty of Marvel Two-in-One, which teamed The Thing with an every-changing motley crew of heroes, and the spark of the Ben/Johnny dynamic, Fox would be well advised to take notes. It's probably safe to say the only thing desired less than another franchise reboot -- by studio executives or audiences -- is a sequel to 2015's joyless Fantastic Four. That leaves Fox with few options, the best of which may be a Thing/Human Torch team-up.
Branded with the recognizable "4" logo, which may not yet carry a stigma among mainstream audiences, the film could move past the updated origin, past the baffling characterizations of Doctor Doom and all the other elements that have vexed writers and directors, and focus on what they tend to get right (or at least mostly right): Ben and Johnny. Forget the sci-fi melodrama, forget the global stakes; make a buddy film about two superheroes with a tendency get under each other's skin. Think Lethal Weapon, only with cosmic rays.
Although Fox doesn't control the rights to Sub-Mariner or the Inhumans, the studio has a vast array of the Fantastic Four's supporting characters and villains at its disposal, and a Thing/Human Torch film could provide a perfect platform for their introduction. The old Strange Tales stories depicted the duo crossing paths with the likes of Paste-Pot Pete, Puppet Master, The Watcher and even the Beatles. They also met up with Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, providing a tenuous link to the far more successful X-Men franchise, and one of its breakout stars, that Fox might find difficult to resist.
While most of the other Hollywood studios, from Warner Bros. to Universal Pictures to Paramount Pictures, have set their sights on vast cinematic universe in an attempt to replicate Marvel's success, Fox has kept its 17-year-old X-Men franchise relatively focused. It stumbled with its first divergence from the main series with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but recovered with the likes of The Wolverine, Deadpool and Logan; a further expansion of the brand lies on the horizon with The New Mutants and X-Force.
A Thing/Human Torch film could be to the Fantastic Four franchise what 2011's First Class was to the X-Men: an inventive course correction that permits Fox to rebound from a cinematic error without scrapping everything that came before it. The basic elements are already in place -- they're a "family" of scientific adventurers who gain superpowers -- so there's little need to rehash the origin, again. What is required can be established through a flashback or an opening-credits sequence; we don't have to pay another visit to the Von Doom Industries space station, or (gulp) Planet Zero.
Free of much of the baggage of the previous films, Thing/Human Torch could help to rebuild the foundation of the franchise, exploring its wonderfully weird world, returning the characters to their roots and, if successful, opening the door to other FF-branded spinoffs and, eventually, another full-blown Fantastic Four film.
Just please, for the love of Latveria, leave poor Doctor Doom alone. At least for a little while.