Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ: FOX) hasn't had the best luck when it comes to translating comic characters to the big screen. While some of its films such as the original X-Men and the recent The Wolverine have their share of fans, others like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer have been heavily panned. While Fox is hoping for more of the former and less of the latter moving forward, can it pull it off?
At present, Fox holds the license for two major properties from Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Comics: the "X-Men" universe and the "Fantastic Four" universe. It formerly held the "Daredevil" rights as well, but those lapsed due to the company not making a new film within the term specified by the contract between Fox and Marvel. That's a key limitation to Fox's Marvel films -- it only has so long to get them into production, so it can't rest on its laurels if it has trouble bringing a film together.
An ambitious new universe
Fox is currently preparing for the release of its next "X-Men" film, Days of Future Past, on May 23. That hasn't stopped it from teasing the follow-up, currently known as "X-Men: Apocalypse," or moving forward with announcements concerning its upcoming "Fantastic Four" reboot. The new "Fantastic Four" film is supposedly set to share a universe with the existing "X-Men" franchise, though no crossover between the two franchises has been announced and Mark Millar (who was hired by Fox as an "overseer" to the universe) has actively denied that one is being planned.
Even without a crossover in the works, it's likely that one will happen eventually if the shared universe concept is maintained. Consider Marvel's "Avengers" universe -- aside from an appearance by Robert Downey Jr. at the end of The Incredible Hulk, much of the crossover between the films leading up to The Avengers involved supporting characters. The crossover between the main characters didn't happen until the seventh film in the series, meaning that Fox might be planning a similar slow buildup to establish the cinematic universe and its inhabitants before throwing the two teams together.
Facing the competition
The superhero movie genre is fairly saturated, and the majority of the movies in the genre are released during the summer blockbuster season. This means that Fox is facing a lot of competition, not only from Marvel Studios but also from Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX) Warner Bros. and Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Columbia Pictures. Warner Bros. is currently developing a sequel to last year's Superman feature Man of Steel, while Columbia is preparing to release The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
This competition puts additional pressure on Fox since there will inevitably be comparisons between its films and those of the other studios. The worst of these comparisons will be between Fox and Marvel Studios, since there are a number of fans who would rather see Fox's Marvel rights go back to Disney so that the X-Men and Fantastic Four could share screen time with the Avengers in the future. Comparisons to Columbia's "Spider-Man" franchise might also crop up as fans debate which studio is handling the licensed properties better.
The road ahead
In addition to its main "X-Men" franchise, there is buzz about other films that would explore the X-universe that Fox has licensed. It was confirmed last summer that Fox was working on a script for a film based on Rob Liefeld's "X-Force," and it was recently revealed that franchise producer Lauren Shuler Donner not only wants to make a "Gambit" solo film with Channing Tatum, but that the actor would be very interested in taking on the role of the Cajun mutant.
Before these films get made, though, Fox needs to get the rest of its universe in order. Marketing for Days of Future Past has gotten mixed reactions so far, especially in regard to the character of Quicksilver; given that Avengers: Age of Ultron will have a different take on the character, the Fox film's departure from the character's classic look may open things up for a lot of potentially unwanted comparisons between the two franchises.
Casting rumors also have fans stirred up about the "Fantastic Four" reboot, with some not liking the younger route that the studio is taking (which may be similar to the group's appearance in Marvel's "Ultimate Fantastic Four" comics) and potential changes to the fundamental backstory of the group that have been hinted at by a casting agency's call for auditions.
A shared Fox universe could be a very interesting thing indeed, but unless the studio can find a way to build its own universe while respecting the source material, a lot of die-hard comic fans aren't going to buy it. Sooner or later, that will lead to either more reboots or the loss of at least the "Fantastic Four" rights back to Marvel.