Why Is Fox Lagging in the Superhero Movie Department?

Marvel, Sony, and Time Warner all have hugely successful comic book film franchises. Fox has lagged behind but has two new movies planned that could change that.

Mar 30, 2014 at 7:43AM

Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) wants the X-Men and the Fanastic Four to battle The Avengers.

Now before the fanboy universe gets too excited, the studio is not planning a giant comic book-style crossover between the teams. Instead it's planning a new slate of films it hopes will reach the box office highs that ones based on various Avengers have reached.  

Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel has had an unparalleled run of success with its superhero movies based on characters from the long-running Avengers comic books. Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) DC Comics has also had an impressive run with Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and the rebirth of its Superman franchise. Even Sony has enjoyed huge success with two different versions of Spider-Man -- the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi trilogy and the new Andrew Garfield-starring series.

Fox has had hits with its X-Men movies and to a much lesser extent its Fantastic Four films, but none of those have been blockbusters -- the most successful was X-Men: The Last Stand, which made $459 million in global box office, according to Box Office Mojo. That makes it the 13th most successful superhero movie, if you don't adjust for changes in ticket prices (which would send it a little farther down the list).

Understanding the superhero universe

Before Marvel was owned by Disney and before it was in the movie production business, it licensed its characters to other companies -- Sony and Fox -- for films. It kept comic book rights to the characters as well as television rights, but it sold Spider-Man to Sony for movies and X-Men and Fantastic Four to Fox for the same. So even though Spider-Man, various X-Men, the Fantastic Four and some Avengers team up in the comic book world, they can't interact on the big screen.

The whole thing gets even more confusing when you realize that some characters -- Quicksilver for example -- are both Avengers and X-Men. Both Disney and Fox have rights to use those lesser characters (and both are, as Quicksilver appears in the upcoming Avengers and X-Men sequels), but there a limits on what they can say and do. None of these contracts are publicly released but ComicVine, a comic industry website, reports that Sony and Fox maintain rights to the characters they license as long as they make movies with them at contracted intervals.

Given the success of comic book movies in general, that makes in unlikely that Fox or Sony will give up their rights so comic book fans won't be seeing Spider-Man join the Avengers anytime soon.

How poorly has Fox done with its superhero movies? 

There are 12 superhero films that have made at least $500 million in global box office and Fox has none of them. Marvel took in $1.5 billion in global box office with The Avengers and topped $1 billion with Iron Man 3, according to Box Office Mojo. Warner Brothers/D.C. topped $1 billion for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises and Sony has four Spider-Man movies that have taken in over $700 million.

Fox is decidedly behind topping out at the aforementioned  X-Men: The Last Stand at $459 million. The rest of the X-Men movies were less successful with the most recent film X-Men First Class taking in $353 million. The Fantastic Four films did even worse with the sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer earning $289 million globally and the original besting it slightly at $330 million.

These films weren't flops but they did not approach the level of success that has become normal for Marvel and Sony.

Can Fox make Fantastic Four a hit?

The casting announcement for the new Fantastic Four movie raised the expected level of fanboy outrage when Fox announced that Michael B. Jordan (who is black) would be playing Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (who is white in the comic books). Storm is also sisters in the comic book world with Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman, who will be played by the decidedly white Kate Mara.

Casting controversies can doom a comic book movie (see Ben Affleck as Daredevil, which tanked at $179 million globally) but they can also raise awareness of a film and force people to see it just to complain and/or be surprised (see Michael Keaton in Batman, which did $411 million in global box office in 1989). The first two Fox Fantastic Four movies were mediocre and lacked the grand cinematic feel of the Batman, Spider-Man, and Avengers movies partially because they starred TV actors (Michael Chiklis as The Thing and Julian McMahon as Dr. Doom) in key roles.

Fox needs fans both hardcore and casual to know that its new Fantastic Four movies have no links to the old ones. If it can do that -- and a little casting controversy can go a long way to get the word out -- it gets another chance to launch a franchise with one of the most popular teams in comic history. 

Can Fox make X-Men a bigger hit?

The X-Men franchise has been more successful than Fantastic Four with box office totals building from $297 million for X-Men to $407 million for X-Men United, and $459 million for Last Stand, according to Box Office Mojo. The series was semi-rebooted with First Class ($353 million) not because it wasn't doing well but because it had become too expensive/difficult to bring the cast of the original trilogy back.

The upcoming X-Men Days of Future Past not only brings the original team back, it does so with a time-travel story that allows Fox to include the young actors from First Class, which includes Jennifer Lawrence -- who is smoking hot at the box office right now -- as Mystique. The return of the original crew plus the hot casting may well launch the series in if not Avengers territory, at least the low-end of Spider-Man-land.

The public loves comic book movies

The increased acceptance of comic book movies bodes well for Fox. The X-Men movies were genre hits with appeal beyond the strict comic book audience, but not movies for the whole family. Avengers, the Iron Man films and the Batman trilogy took comic book films to a new level and made them blockbusters that had to be seen by moviegoers no matter their personal taste in films.

Fantastic Four is a wild card -- maybe the first movies just weren't good enough to cross over to a wide audience or maybe the characters are a little too hokey. If Fox makes a good movie that highlights the heroic aspect of the team (which in the comics has saved the world countless times) and not the petty family interplay of the characters than perhaps it can launch a franchise.

X-Men Days of Future Past seems like a more sure bet as the X-Men movies have established the characters and have been hits of a certain level, but the return of the original actors gives this entry into the series an event feel. If Fox plays it right this isn't yet another Wolverine movie, it's the X-Men's answer to The Avengers. 

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He has seen all the movies mentioned The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

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