No, Marvel Could Not Have Saved ‘Fantastic Four’

It’s a rallying cry on social media today that Fox should just give the Fantastic Four to Marvel, because Marvel does it right. But would it? If you crunch the numbers, it’s starting to look like nothing could have saved the Four.

I’ve already gone over the messy history of the team and its multidecade attempt to capture audiences outside of comics. But, to be honest, all this has me thinking about the assumption that Marvel can make any character a hit.

Let’s start with Marvel’s latest movie, Ant-Man. By the time it’s all said and done, Ant-Man‘s probably going to have between $350 and $400 million worldwide. That’s a pretty good haul for a movie with unenthusiastic reviews and a difficult concept. But it’s worth considering that Ant-Man isn’t seeing any of that fabled “Avengers bump” that Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier enjoyed. In fact, once you do the inflation calculations, it’s barely going to beat Marvel’s worst performer, The Incredible Hulk, at the American box office, and the foreign gross isn’t much of an improvement.

Speaking of, The Incredible Hulk is equally instructive. As I never tire of pointing out, Ang Lee’s Hulk and Marvel’s supposed fanservice The Incredible Hulk did exactly the same numbers. That points toward the problem being less the movie and more the character; audiences don’t care if he’s arty Freud Hulk or dumb smashy Hulk. They’re just not that interested.

What about Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie I genuinely thought would bomb? Well, find me the superhero in it. The more you look back at Guardians, the more you realize that the entire appeal was that it was a trusted brand doing something else. Guardians is more like Star Wars than The Avengers.

The next line of logic is that flops can poison the well, that there wasn’t enough time between the early 2000s cheesefests and the current reboot. But that doesn’t hold much water either. There was eight years between Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Fantastic Four. That’s the same time span between Batman and Robin, the single most reviled entry in comic book film history, and Batman Begins, and the results speak for themselves. Oh, and that movie came out a year after equally notorious bomb Catwoman. Between Superman Returns and Man of Steel? Seven years, and Man of Steel doubled its predecessor’s opening weekend.

Or how about Fox? Fox didn’t even slow down X-Men movies after two critical drubbings in a row, and they just had their most successful franchise release yet with X-Men: Days of Future Past. You can’t tell me with a straight face that audiences can’t forgive the last two FF movies, yet the franchise that gave us X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine gets a magic free pass.

Of course, the movie had a lot of problems, even when discounting nerd whining. But look again at the box office tracking: It was at $40 million, and everybody in Hollywood thought predicting anything below that was completely insane. And that figure is a third lower than what both of the original movies opened to in theaters. By the way, both Fantastic Four movies roughly equaled Ant-Man‘s opening weekend. Factor in inflation, and they both beat it.

Would a better movie have helped? Absolutely. Would better marketing have helped? Surely. But I think there’s a disconnect between what we nerds want to believe about comic books being ascendant and what audiences will pay to see, no matter how well it’s done.