Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four was released a few weeks ago and it’s shaping up to be an epic failure for both the newbie director and Twentieth Century Fox. The studio poured at least 120 million into this trainwreck and that doesn’t include prints and advertising. So far it’s made a little more than 100 million worldwide with only around 40 million coming from domestic sales. Studios get less than 50 percent of every foreign dollar so even with the overseas take, The Fantastic Four is a certifiable flop.
So what happened?
Well… a lot of things actually.
I’d guess the root of the problem begins with Fox’s corporate thinking. To them, The FF is just another intellectual property to be exploited. They’re not wrong. All of these things were created to make money. Back in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby didn’t just give away copies of The Fantastic Four #1. They wanted to earn a little coin from it. And to be fair, so does the current cinematic rights owner. No, the problem surfaces when you don’t understand the property. That’s not to say that Fox should have produced a more faithful adaptation of the book. There was no guarantee that approach would have worked either. Fox should have chosen their production team better. As bad as their ultimate choice ended up being, I get how and why he was chosen.
You have to remember, Fox is part of a larger corporation run by glorified accountants and marketing people. Every situation is viewed through the prism of the certainty of numbers, or more precisely, formulas. Josh Trank was a newcomer, a young guy with a hit film. More importantly, Chronicle was a low budget hit film from the same genre as The Fantastic Four. He’d come cheap, and eager to work with a huge budget and recognizable franchise, malleable to studio demands. This formula worked for them before. Tim Story only had a couple low budget comedies under his belt when they hired him for their 2005 iteration. While not very well received critically, and far from being a blockbuster hit, the film made enough money to warrant a sequel. 2007’s FF: Rise of the Silver Surfer ended up stalling the franchise, barely making back its production budget. Story’s sequel wasn’t a spectacular failure, but certainly not successful enough for the studio to spring for a third outing.
Now is where corporate politics come into play and those are perhaps more important than box office tallies. Marvel sold off the screen rights to The Fantastic Four back in the late 1980’s and they were scooped up for a song by legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman. The rights would revert back to Marvel after a certain number of years unless Corman produced a film. Which is what he did. The micro-budgeted film would ultimately never see the light of day… officially anyway. Producer Avi Arad would buy Corman and company out and have all the prints destroyed. Now Fox has the rights, and as per the original deal (The X-Men and Spider-Man have similar deals), has to produce a film every few years in order to hold on to the property. Which is what they did. With time running out after the 2007 film, they had to get another production rolling. Now even though they lost money with Surfer, they couldn’t also lose face and have the FF go back to the now hugely successful Marvel Studios. The new studio had shown time and time again that they know their characters and they know how to sell them. Even difficult properties like Thor were box office hits. They even knew how to make hits of almost completely unknown C-listers like Guardians of the Galaxy. It would be a major embarrassment if Marvel made a hit FF film when Fox couldn’t get it right even after two attempts.
Here’s where Trank comes into the picture. Fox sees his film Chronicle, a serious-minded little found footage film about a group of friends who gain superpowers, and figure this kid may be the new Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers had had incredible success with that director’s mature and grounded take on The Batman. One of those films even received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, not to mention a cool billion in worldwide box office sales. Trank had a similar dark and grounded vision for The Fantastic Four. That it was a major tonal and visual departure from Story’s bright and comedic version had to be a major selling point as well. Longtime fans of the book would whine, but they had also whined about Bryan Singer’s rendition of their other Marvel property, The X-Men and that series brought in major cash. Trank wanted a younger cast and Fox execs had to think that grabbing that valuable youth market would translate into even more tickets sold, right? So it looked like they had it all sewn up. Young, visionary director, kiddie cast, grim ‘n’ gritty tone. Money in the bank.
What Fox may not have banked on is Josh Trank not only being an auteur, but completely unprepared to helm a big budgeted studio feature. At a paltry twelve million dollars, Chronicle was made cheaper than many modern day romantic comedies. The Fantastic Four film probably spent that much just on catering. By Chronicle having a modest budget as well as completely original characters, Trank was given almost complete autonomy. But now he’s playing with someone else’s really expensive toys. The studio system is notoriously restrictive and understandably so. The stakes were high and it looks like Trank was unable to make the climb.
In Trank’s defense, it seems like he just folded under pressure. Not everyone is cut out to make blockbusters or even work in the studio system. Tales of his bizarre on set behavior started about halfway through production. It’s not uncommon for studios to replace problem directors but they had gone so far down the rabbit hole with Trank that replacing him would only add to the problems. The cut he eventually turned in was reportedly hated by Fox execs and they ordered extensive reshoots… without Trank.
The studio trying to salvage the film clearly didn’t do it any favors as the finished piece is truly a mess. But where does the fault lie? Trank’s original version couldn’t be much better than the studio’s cut as most of the reshoots make up the latter half of the movie. There are serious problems early on, starting with every actor giving a completely flat performance. Initially, I just thought Trank had cast some lousy child actors. Then when the adults take over and the line readings are just as lifeless, I knew this thing was in trouble. And it just gets worse as the film unspools before our eyes.
Fantastic Four 2015’s failure has to rest on Trank’s shoulder. It’s not the first film to be made under the oppressive hand of an overinvolved studio and it won’t be the last. He was hired to do a job. He wasn’t qualified for the position, but he took it so he has to take the L.
Twentieth Century Fox hired him. They knew they wanted this to become a tentpole film. They knew they wanted to keep it out of Marvel’s hands. With so much riding on the film’s success, you’d think they would’ve done a better job vetting their director. Now FF is a bona fide flop. No amount of questionable Hollywood math or phony sequel announcements is going to change that. At best, they try to work a Sony-like deal where they “share” the property with Marvel, but after three poor showings, they have no leverage. Marvel has proven that they don’t need the Fantastic Four. Fans begged for Spider-man to be included in the MCU. Ditto the X-Men. No one is asking about The Fantastic Four.