Fox's (NASDAQ:FOX) upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, scheduled to hit theaters on June 19, 2015, is a polarizing topic among comic book and film fans due to its unconventional casting choices and a jarring new take on the classic characters.
The first two films, released in 2005 and 2007, were profitable but bombed with critics. Fox clearly hopes that rebooting Fantastic Four will give it a second main Marvel franchise to complement the X-Men characters. Fox has even gone ahead and scheduled the sequel to be released on July 15, 2017.
While Fox's ambitions are admirable, I believe that this film could flop -- possibly resulting in another reboot or the sale of the film rights back to Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Marvel.
Not caring about the comics
The main problem is that director Josh Trank, whose only previous film was the found-footage superhero film Chronicle, doesn't plan to base the new Fantastic Four film on the comics at all.
Kate Mara, who stars as the new Sue "Invisible Woman" Storm, recently told Esquire Mexico that Trank advised the cast not to read any Fantastic Four comics, because it "won't be based on any history of anything already published." Michael B. Jordan, who stars as Johnny "Human Torch" Storm, told MTV News that the film was about "kids that had an accident" coping with disabilities. At a Crave Online interview, writer Simon Kinberg declared that the film would be a "more gritty, realistic movie" than its predecessors.
Trank's casting choices have also been unconventional. Ben "The Thing" Grimm, who was traditionally a beefy character prior to his transformation, will reportedly be played by Jamie Bell, the short and slim protagonist of AMC's Turn. Casting Jordan, a black actor, as Johnny Storm has also raised eyebrows considering that he is supposed to be Sue Storm's brother.
Put all of these factors together, along with Kinberg's promise of a "gritty" film, and Trank's new Fantastic Four feels too much like a film trying too hard not to be a Fantastic Four film.
Taking a few lessons from Batman
I'm not a purist who believes that films must be completely faithful to the original comics. However, I think superhero films need to at least resemble the source material to be marketable.
For example, Christopher Nolan skillfully distilled four classic Batman stories -- Year One, The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, and Knightfall -- into his grounded and realistic Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan, who was admittedly not a comic book fan, let screenwriter David S. Goyer, an accomplished comic book writer, tell him "what could be changed and couldn't be changed" in the Batman mythos.
That statement, made by Goyer during a BFI Screenwriters' Lecture, explains why some comic book films work and why others -- like Joel Schumacher's disastrous Batman & Robin -- don't.
Back in 2000, director Darren Aronofsky and famed comic book writer Frank Miller teamed up to reboot Batman for Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL)/Warner Bros. after the failure of Batman & Robin.
Aronofsky and Miller, just like Trank and Kinberg, wanted to wipe the slate clean and introduce audiences to a completely new version of Batman. Aronofsky and Miller's plan was bold -- they rebooted Bruce Wayne as a homeless orphan adopted by a black mechanic named Big Al (instead of Alfred), who later fights crime in a Lincoln Town Car instead of a Batmobile. Warner wasn't impressed with that odd, ambitious vision, and quickly scrapped the project.
The lesson that Fox should learn from Warner's Batman is that diverging completely from the comics is a bad business move that alienates comic book and film fans at the same time.
Why so serious?
That brings us to the next point -- Fantastic Four is not designed to be a gritty and serious film. Fantastic Four is a fun, light-hearted comic with over-the-top sci-fi themes. It's the tone that Disney captured perfectly in its new trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy -- fun, silly, and epic.
What Fantastic Four needs is a creative team that understands those themes, rather than one that believes all comic book films must adopt the dark, serious tone established by Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. That serious tone works for Batman, but it's not meant for Fantastic Four.
Although critics didn't love the first two Fantastic Four films, they at least partially captured the spirit of the comics. That mainstream approach was profitable -- the two films grossed $620 million on a combined budget of $230 million. However, that return still falls short of other recent Marvel films. The two Thor films grossed $1.1 billion on a budget of $320 million, while the two Captain America films also grossed $1.1 billion on a budget of $310 million. Those films all did perfectly fine by staying faithful to the comics and maintaining a balance between action and humor.
Therefore, it's baffling that Fox thinks that a rebooted, unfamiliar version of the Fantastic Four characters will be a bigger box office hit than the more familiar versions.
The Foolish takeaway
To make matters worse, Fox is wedging Fantastic Four between two huge films -- Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)/Universal's Jurassic World and Ted 2 -- in the prior and subsequent weeks of its release. This means that Fantastic Four's one shot to make a lasting impression could be completely buried by those two films.
In conclusion, I might be wrong about the Fantastic Four reboot. After all, Chronicle was a solid, well-made film and Fantastic Four might be as well. However, I'm concerned that in their bid to make this film unique, Trank and Kinberg could cook up a box office turkey that completely misses the mark with comic book and film fans alike.