Top Film Industry Stories of 2015
#9: Fantastic Four Tranks
By Kim Hollis
January 18, 2016

I think an antonym might best apply to these four.

If someone had told you two years ago that a reboot of Fantastic Four would make less than a million more domestically than the opening weekend of Ant-Man, you would have laughed them out of your presence, right? And yet, in 2015, that’s exactly the state of the Marvel nation. An ancillary character who is barely known even by comic book fans is worth far more than one of the most established franchises in the industry. What happened here?

When Fox set out on to bring Fantastic Four back to theaters, they were probably filled with so much hope. The original two films (2005 and 2007) were able to attract initial good audiences, after all. The movies themselves were simply not well-received, resulting in a disappointing overall gross that left money on the table and a general bad feeling about the franchise itself. The studio brought in writer Simon Kinberg, who had delivered with a solid script for X-Men: Days of Future Past, to work on the screenplay with director Josh Trank. Fox tentatively planned a multi-year schedule for Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm.

Controversy took over quickly, however, as fans of the series instantly reacted negatively to the film’s casting. The story would explore a younger version of the characters than what is traditionally depicted in the comics, meaning that a who’s who of up-and-comers were cast. Miles Teller, who appeared in such critically acclaimed films as The Spectacular Now and the Academy Award-nominate Whiplash, would be Mr. Fantastic aka Reed Richards. Jamie Bell, perhaps best known for his breakthrough role of Billy Elliot in the movie of the same name, was cast as Ben Grimm/The Thing. For Sue Storm, Kate Mara was selected. All of these choices could have been open to discussion in their own right, but it would be the casting of Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch that would set the internet ablaze.

Our #10 story of the year touches on the issue of diversity in Hollywood, and the Internet and comic book fanboy reaction to a man of color as a character who had been white throughout the history of the series was a loud and generally unpleasant component of these events. The positive we can take is that choosing Jordan for this role brought some emphasis and priority to the importance of Hollywood’s problem of available strong roles for minorities. The negative is that people with limited imaginations and diehard fans were never going to accept Jordan as Johnny Storm, and many even viewed the selection as cynical, intended to broaden the film’s demographic base.

But that was really only the beginning of Fantastic Four’s troubles. As the film went into production, story after story emerged about the troubles occurring on the set. Rumors emerged that Trank would show up to the set late, or sometimes not at all. Others said that he mistreated the crew. Regardless of the truth of these contentions, it does seem certain that no one on set was having any fun.

Some say that Trank’s alleged behavior was the result of persistent studio interference. Not only did they delay script and casting approvals, but they also cut the budget significantly before filming even began, pulling out the rug from under the director’s feet on his vision. While filming was still in progress, the studio apparently had the entire ending rewritten by Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker. The movie that had originally been envisioned on paper (and in Trank’s imagination) became a Frankenstein’s monster that cobbled together elements of Trank’s Cronenberg-esque ideas and the studio’s efforts to make them more “audience-friendly.”

With all the turmoil and disagreement, is it any surprise that the ultimate finished product was a terribly reviewed piece of schlock that tallied five Razzie nominations? In the weeks leading up to its release, it became evident that the studio had no intention of throwing any real support behind Fantastic Four. There was some nominal advertising, but the trailers and previews they did release lacked humor and clearly gave the feeling that something was very amiss.

Even so, the Fantastic Four name could have been enough to trick potential viewers out of their movie dollars. Alternately, it could have just been a run-of-the-mill bomb, unsurprising due to the troubled production and rumored re-shoots. Instead, what happened in the days just ahead of Fantastic Four’s opening caused it to become one of the biggest stories of the year, one that will surely be remembered as studios deal with untested directors and performers.

When Josh Trank was handed the reins behind the Fantastic Four reboot, he didn’t have a lot of significant experience under his belt. In fact, his only previous credits behind the camera had been several episodes of the television series The Kill Point and the well-received thriller/superhero film Chronicle. I point this out because there has been a recent trend to award big budget superhero films to directors with only slight experience with wide releases. This approach worked well with helmers such as James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Anthony & Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but an unknown quantity is always going to be a risk.

Fox may have learned this lesson the hard way. With Fantastic Four only days from its debut in theaters, Trank himself took to social media to express his disappointment with the way the product was handled. In a Twitter message, Trank said, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would have received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”

He would delete the Tweet soon after, but the damage had already been done. People knew that the director of Fantastic Four had disavowed his own film, claiming that studio interference had turned it into the product that is just 9 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes (5 percent if you look only at reviews from “Top Critics”). On top of those terrible scores, it also received the worst Cinemascore ever for a marquee superhero title from a major studio - a C-. Considering that those Cinemascores come from opening night fans who are predisposed to overrate a movie, that C- was devastating.

The studio would deny their contentious relationship with Trank, saying that they had fully supported his vision; however, these comments were hollow. It’s clear that the creative process was hindered throughout the film’s developmental process. With that said, it’s not as though Trank comes out of this looking good, either. With the rumors of his on set behavior and his efforts at damaging the film prior to release, major studios are obviously going to be reticent to consider him for future projects. He’ll almost certainly need a rehabilitation period with an independent project, and even that may not dig him out of the hole where he currently resides.

The final result is that the 2015 version of Fantastic Four was a big enough bomb that the studio removed the sequel from its release schedule in November. After debuting with $25.6 million, it finished with a domestic tally of $56.1 million. Its overseas tally of $111 million wasn’t nearly enough to help justify the $150 million budget.

Now, the question will be whether Fox finds a way to return a sequel - or some form of Fantastic Four - to its schedule, as it risks reverting the rights back to Marvel Studios. Given the way Fox has bungled the franchise so far, perhaps that would be best for everyone.