The Disney-Fox deal finally happened. The Internet, fandom and the business pages had been speculating since early November. Almost every story mentioned the X-Men coming back to the fold. Marvel’s “first family,” The Fantastic Four, got less print. But when they got mentioned, there was some confusion. That is completely understandable because exactly who owns the rights is a bit complicated.
Even with the deal, the path back home for the Fantastic Four is not straightforward. The reasons for this go back over two decades. Let’s break it down.
In the mid-80s, superhero fair was largely confined to television. And, with few exceptions, it was animated cartoons. DC held the lead with the Super Friends cartoon being a Saturday morning staple for over 13 years. A live action Shazam! show ran Saturday mornings from 1974-77. The 1966-1968 Batman series still appeared on TV thanks to syndication and three seasons of Wonder Woman were still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Marvel wasn’t absent from the field, but it was less prolific. There were two seasons of the live-action The Amazing Spider-Man in 1977 and, of course the popular animated series in 1967. That same year, the first of 20 Fantastic Four cartoons aired. Later in 1981, the newly-created Marvel Productions Ltd. studio had released a new animated Spider-Man series. And, the last of five seasons of The Incredible Hulk had just concluded in 1982. An attempt at a live-action Captain America TV show in 1979 had only resulted in two made-for-TV movies and his only other appearance had been a single cartoon season in 1966.
Even when superheroes hit the big screen with budgets to match, they were not guaranteed success. Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, had premiered in 1978. While it had been a box office smash, its sequels in 1980 and 1983 had shown decreasing success. The Supergirl spinoff in 1984 performed poorly and the troubled Superman IV would go on to be a box-office disaster in 1987. The most recent Batman film had been in 1966 and starred Adam West in his original role. Warner Bros. had a new version in early development, but that would not open in theaters until 1989.
None of Marvel’s characters had had cinematic release.
These days, it is well known that Marvel sold off the rights to several of its core characters. Facing increasing financial difficulties in the mid-1980s, Marvel offered up rights to many of their core comic book characters. A number of independent publishers had entered the comic book market, offering fresh new ideas while the story lines for DC and Marvel felt stale. Faced with declining revenue, Marvel looked to raise money with the one thing it owned – its intellectual property.
As everyone knows, 20th Century Fox licensed the rights to the X-men. Universal got the rights to The Hulk, with Sony gaining control of Spider-Man. These were the characters that the public were most familiar with. As noted above, Spider-Man and Hulk, had been on television over the past few decades. The long-running X-Men comics had led to numerous offshoot titles and had a huge roster of mutants and villains to choose from.
The Fantastic Four was different. Marvel head, Stan Lee had a deep affection for the characters. They were his first creation for Marvel. He felt they deserved a special home that would do them justice. After an initial meeting in 1983 with Bernd Eichinger, Lee inked a deal in 1986 with his production company, Constantin Films. The German producer was best known for 1984’s The NeverEnding Story. Marvel received a relatively paltry $250,000 – the equivalent of $500,000 in 2017 dollars.
Constantin optioned the production rights for the team along with the Silver Surfer. The exact wording of the contract still remains unknown to this day. But what is known is that those rights would revert back to Marvel if a movie was not made within seven years. Unable to find a studio partner willing to invest an expected $40-50 million, Constantin hired legendary director Roger Corman to produce a low budge version for $1 million. It starred Alex Hyde-White, Rebecca Staab, Jay Underwood and Michael Baily Smith as Reed and Sue Richards, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm. Trailers promoted a 1994 release date and the actors did the usual promotional tours. But, the film never made it onto the screen or into the video market outside of some bootlegs. It is widely considered that this was an “ashcan” version made simply to retain the rights.
Having retained the rights Eichinger, approached 20th Century Fox about producing a big budget version set for release in 1998. Once an agreement was reached, Marvel bought the original movie’s negatives to clear the way. Production began moving forward in 1995 but it spent the next 10 years in developmental hell as the script was repeatedly re-written. Due to the delay, Eichinger and Fox had to negotiate an extension of the rights in 1999. The new contract stated that the film would have a 2001 release date. The film eventually opened in 2005 and was a box office success, but fell flat with the critics.
Fantastic Four marked the first of two Marvel superhero roles for Chris Evans. He played Johnny Storm/The Human Torch and reprised that role in the 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer. Four years later, he would gain greater acclaim as Steve Rogers/Captain America.
Because Constantin’s contract with Marvel never became public, it is unknown whether another “seven-year clause” was the driving force behind the 2015 reboot. The 2007 movie, while not a flop, disappointed Fox executives. A third Fantastic Four film, along with a planned Silver Surfer standalone. The third film might have included the first on-screen appearances of the Inhumans, according Tim Story, the director of both films.
The 2015 Fantastic Four reboot was an absolute disaster. Development began in 2009 and filming took place May-August of 2014 and the film was released a year later. It grossed $168 million on a budget of $155 million. It was panned by critics and fans alike. The 2017 sequel – scheduled for this past June – was quickly removed from the production calendar. However, at the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con, writer/producer Noah Hawley said that he was developing a film centered on Doctor Doom. With the acquisition expected to take up to 18 months, it is doubtful that this project will move forward.
Even despite its checkered cinematic past, the Fantastic Four still remains a popular franchise. No less than five animated versions have appeared on television over the decades. There have been additional appearances in other Marvel cartoons as well.
At the very least, Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox would have secured the distribution rights for any future Fantastic Four cinematic movies. This would be a reversed situation than exists with the other studios who hold partial rights to MCU characters. Sony’s new deal with Marvel regarding Spider-Man gives the former the distribution rights to standalone movies, such as Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even if Disney were not able to directly secure the Fantastic Four, Constantin would be compelled to go through the Mouse if it wanted to ever produce another movie.
Yet, when announcing the acquisition Disney CEO Bob Iger stated,
“We have the opportunity to expand iconic franchises for new generations of fans just as we have done with Marvel and Star Wars. The obvious example is Avatar, which is still the single highest-grossing film in history. We’ve already worked with James Cameron to span the storytelling into a spectacular new land called Pandora: The World of Avatar, which opened in Orlando earlier this year and we’re very excited to continue that relationship, especially related to the series of Avatar films he’s currently working on. We’re also looking forward to expanding the Marvel cinematic universe to include X-Men, Fantastic Four and Deadpool and reuniting all of the Star Wars movies ever made under one roof, which opens new opportunities for that franchise.
It looks like Disney has, in fact, regained its prodigal sons and daughters. The exact details may never be known. It could be as simple as buying back the rights. Or, it Disney may be satisfied with continuation of the deal Constantin had with Fox. The first clue will likely be found in the title cards/end credits of any upcoming movie involving Marvel’s “First Family.”