Will Fox Dominate the Box Office With its Comic Universe?

Despite having two films in its Marvel-licensed universe that haven't been released, Fox is looking toward the future and announcing new sequels as well as a mystery project. Will this boldness be rewarded with box-office hits, or is the studio setting itself up to fail?

Mar 26, 2014 at 7:06AM

Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) is wasting no time in developing the cinematic universe that it's building around the comic book properties it has licensed from Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Studios. Though the studio's efforts have largely centered around the X-Men in recent years, its plans for the Fantastic Four are also coming to the forefront.

Despite the controversy surrounding the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, the studio slated a sequel to the film among several other announcements this past week. Including the Marvel-based films the studio has in development, its recent announcements give it one or two superhero films per year between now and 2018.

A hit-or-miss history
Critics of films based on Marvel-licensed properties typically call for the studios making those films to give up the rights and let them return to Marvel. This would allow new films to be made that were part of Marvel's official "cinematic universe," which includes Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and more. While this includes characters such as Spider-Man (who is licensed to Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Columbia Pictures), the loudest cries often surround Fox's properties.

Currently, Fox holds the licenses for the "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" franchises, as well as characters related to those properties. A few -- such as the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and the Skrulls -- are cross-licensed between Fox and Marvel (allowing them to appear in both cinematic universes under certain circumstances), but Fox largely has exclusive rights to the characters on the big screen.

While Fox has generally enjoyed decent returns from its "X-Men" films, other properties haven't been as lucky. Neither of its previous "Fantastic Four" films were overly well received, and Daredevil and Elektra are frequently cited as examples of how poorly comic book films can be done. Even the "X-Men" franchise hasn't been spotless -- X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were low points that seemed destined to kill the franchise.

Days of future present
Despite a checkered past, Fox seems confident in its films moving forward. Following the moderate success of last year's The Wolverine, the studio is anticipating a larger hit with the May 23 release of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Featuring both the "modern" cast from the first three "X-Men" films and the "past" cast from the 1960s-set X-Men: First Class, the film uses time travel to bridge two eras. Recently voted as the most anticipated movie of the summer among visitors to RottenTomatoes.com,  the film is all but guaranteed to be a blockbuster and will likely bring in a larger box office haul than the $353.6 million that First Class earned worldwide.

After Days of Future Past, the X-Men will appear in 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse. Rumored to be loosely based on the popular "Age of Apocalypse" storyline, that film is in the early stages of production and will reportedly be set in the 1980s (and will continue to use the First Class-era cast instead of the "modern" cast that includes Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen). According to statements by director Bryan Singer, the film will also explore the idea of ancient mutants and will feature the first big-screen appearance of X-Men arch-nemesis Apocalypse.

More X-films are on the way as well, with a sequel to The Wolverine being planned for March 3, 2017 and a mystery Marvel-licensed film planned for release on July 18, 2018. While the latter hasn't been definitively tied to the X-Men universe, it's unlikely to be related to the Fantastic Four and may be the X-Force film that has been rumored to be in early development for some time.

Fantastic films?
Despite casting controversy and rumors surrounding the 2015 release of Fantastic Four, Fox has already slated a sequel for release in July 2017. This may seem premature, but given that both of the previous "Fantastic Four" films more than doubled their production budgets with their worldwide box office takes, the studio is confident that the upcoming reboot will perform at least well enough to cover production and marketing expenses.

Even if it does underperform, its role as a building block in a shared X-Men/Fantastic Four cinematic universe might be worth a sequel even without being a major hit. Fox might be keeping the budget restrained (which would explain the casting of an actor who was already committed to a multi-film contract) as a means of ensuring that the film doesn't lose money.

Provided that the new "Fantastic Four" films perform better than the previous ones, even if only moderately, they could still contribute to greater box office draws for Fox in the future. Though there are no plans for an X-Men/Fantastic Four crossover at this time, the fact that both franchises will exist in the same cinematic universe at least opens up that possibility. Assuming that the mystery Marvel film in 2018 is in fact an "X-Force" movie, a crossover involving the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and possibly even X-Force could hit the big screen by 2019 or 2020.

Will people watch?
The "X-Men" films have their detractors, but the series is still solid for Fox. Just as Sony is doing with its forthcoming "Spider-Man" spinoffs that will flesh out that universe, Fox wants to expand on its properties to build a Marvel-like shared universe that will see major releases each year. This could be a lucrative plan for the studio, but it's also risky -- there hasn't been a major "Fantastic Four" hit yet and the current film has been getting a lot of negative attention.

Still, Fox seems dedicated to its course of action and is jumping headfirst into its new shared universe. It remains to be seen whether this boldness will pay off with a string of hits like Marvel has enjoyed, but at the very least it should be buoyed by moderate X-universe hits every year or two.

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