The comic book movie craze unofficially began in the summer of 2000, when X-Men hit theaters. By the time the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man trilogy ended seven years later, audiences were hooked. What followed were groundbreaking films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, disappointments like Green Lantern, and even a comedy starring Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet.
More recently, Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Marvel have raised the bar with their cinematic universe, but nothing lasts forever. Whether it's the recent lack of Westerns or influx of zombies, pop culture, and Hollywood in particular, often experience ebbs and flows when it comes to subject matter. So maybe it's time to ask: When will the comic book movie craze end?
The movie that could end it all
In this genre, the four horsemen of the apocalypse might arrive in the form of Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, the Invisible Woman, and the Human Torch -- the members of the Fantastic Four. Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) is rebooting the franchise, and plans to release the first installment next summer.
The original Fantastic Four debuted in 2005, and made a respectable $330 million on a budget of $100 million. But critical reviews were awful -- a 27% approval rating, per Rotten Tomatoes -- and the sequel, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, was equally bad quality-wise.
The reboot, tentatively titled The Fantastic Four, promises a younger look at the super group. Kate Mara of House of Cards fame, and Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller of That Awkward Moment have already signed on to star, with Josh Trank, best known for 2012's Chronicle, set to direct.
What could go wrong?
It's easy to think the original films' financial success means the reboot is headed for blue skies. Fellow Fool Daniel Kline uses this logic to project that The Fantastic Four "will be a hit," but he ignores a sign of potential doom: superhero fatigue.
The 2003 version of Hulk, for example, was introduced two decades after Lou Ferrigno's reign as the green guy ended. Superman Returns came 19 years after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Even Chris Evans' Captain America appeared much later than his early '90s straight-to-video peer.
The Fantastic Four, on the other hand, is scheduled for release less than 10 years after the first iteration hit theaters. And that film's most entertaining protagonist -- Evans (far left in the picture above) -- now embodies one of The Fantastic Four's biggest competitors. As the length of time between originals and reboots continues to shrink, it's possible movie-goers will simply grow bored. Or perhaps more likely, fans will refuse to accept new faces in the same roles they can remember other actors playing.
Superhero fatigue is arguably what derailed The Wolverine's debut last year, and similar complaints were levied against The Amazing Spider-Man. While fans still showed up in droves to see those movies, both had quality, well-recieved predecessors to generate buzz. All Fox's reboot has is the bad taste Fantastic Four left in critics' mouths the first time around.
The larger plan
As Io9 wrote recently, Fox's ultimate goal is to create a "megafranchise" by following the blueprint Disney and Marvel have created. The company's rights allow it to combine mutants with The Fantastic Four, but at the box office, the X-Men are hardly the Avengers.
Of the world's highest grossing movies, two Marvel films (Iron Man 3 and The Avengers) are among the top five. The X-Men aren't even represented in the top 100. Although talk of a Wolverine cameo in The Fantastic Four makes for good press, it's silly to pretend Fox has the ability to craft its own version of Marvel's Cinematic Universe. The X-Men are a very, very poor man's version of The Avengers.
Io9 said it best:
The MCU has built excitement from film to film, partly based on the idea that they're all one cohesive storyline ... and the X-Men movies, basically, already have the most laughable continuity you could imagine. Try to reconcile the original trilogy with the Wolverine origins film and First Class — you can't. These films were made by people who see continuity as a shorthand for "Hugh Jackman always shows up."
A final, potentially damning factor that may affect The Fantastic Four is competition. As of now, the movie is set to be released in the same summer as Marvel's Ant-Man, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Fast and the Furious 7, Terminator: Genesis, and The Bourne Identity 5, and in the same month as Jurassic World.
With Star Wars: Episode VII coming out that winter, it's possible 2015 will be the biggest year for movies ever -- not what I'd want to contend with if I were Fox, regardless of the problems detailed above.
At the end of the day, though, superhero fatigue is this genre's gravest danger. And as more studios try to craft "megafranchises," the level of risk will only intensify. Anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a bright future, but for the sake of all other comic book movies to come, The Fantastic Four needs to get it right because eventually, audiences might stop paying for garbage.
If that happens, and trust is lost between filmmakers and their fans, the comic book movie craze could be over ... for good.
My colleague Daniel Kline disagrees. Read his take here.
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Jake Mann has no position in any stocks 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.