It has, like Johnny Storm swelling with braggadocio, become readily apparent that something is rotten in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No, I’m not talking about The Avengers slut-shaming Black Widow or Marvel’s alleged company-wide apathy towards women. It has to do with the bizarre series of events that have befallen the Fantastic Four—and, to a lesser degree, X-Men.
As you may well know, on August 7, 2015, Fantastic Four will crash-land into multiplexes nationwide. It’s a reboot of those godawful mid-aughts monstrosities whose most notable assets were a shirtless, highly manicured Chris Evans and an early plum role for the Scandal-ous Kerry Washington. Hell, the guy who played the original Mr. Fantastic, Ioan Gruffudd, is receiving sixth billing in this weekend’s earthquake epic San Andreas. And I still don’t know how to pronounce either his first or last name.The film, directed by Chronicle’s Josh Trank, boasts a promising batch of young studs, including Miles Teller (Whiplash) as Reed Richards, Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) as Johnny Storm, Kate Mara (House of Cards) as Sue Storm, and Jamie Bell (the violent dom in Nymphomaniac) as Ben Grimm. And the fanboys are salivating. When the trailer dropped in late April, it was quickly anointed the most-watched trailer in distributor 20th Century Fox’s history, beating out the previous champ, last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
But there’s been some odd drama brewing behind the scenes. Since 20th Century Fox owns the film rights to both the Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises (the latter acquired back in 1993), thus excluding them from the tethered MCU ecosystem and granting them limited financial windfall, the Disney-owned superhero behemoth Marvel has undertaken a series of covert actions against these two valuable properties.
Last October, Marvel Comics announced at New York Comic-Con that it had abruptly canceled the Fantastic Four comic book series. “We had heard that Marvel wanted to use the Fantastic Four characters in future Avengers films, so it could be a way for Marvel to put pressure on the studio,” wrote Deadline at the time. The Avengers’ two-part film finale, dubbed Infinity War, hits theaters in 2018 and 2019, and in the comics, the Fantastic Four play a substantial role in the apocalyptic proceedings—as does Spider-Man, though Marvel managed to strike a deal in February to share custody of the web-slinger with Spidey’s licensee, Sony.
If that weren’t enough, last November, Marvel decided to kill off most of the members of Trank’s Fantastic Four movie ensemble—Teller, Mara, and Bell—in a Fantastic Four comic. Yes, they literally blew up the actors in the comic, right after they referred to their director as “Trang” and speculated on the film’s planned sequel, set to hit theaters in 2017. Oh, and Marvel has taken it upon themselves to retroactively erase the Fantastic Four (and X-Men) from comic book covers and T-shirts of its famed ’80s series Secret Wars.
On the merchandising front, XM Studios Premium Collectables was midway through producing beautifully rendered sculptures of Fantastic Four and X-Men characters, but this week announced (and then deleted) from their Facebook page that, “due to reasons we aren’t at liberty to disclose, we have been asked to put a hard stop to all X-Men characters for now” and “Fantastic Four too” because of the “same issue.”
Furthermore, since Marvel and 20th Century Fox share the rights to the superheroes Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, they’ve engaged in a strange custody arrangement. Post-credits sequences notwithstanding, Quicksilver appeared in both X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron, although he was played by different actors (Evan Peters and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively). But under the reported agreement, in the Avengers films they cannot be referred to as mutants, and their backstory as Magneto’s children can’t be alluded to, so the Ultron folks cooked up an alternate backstory of the duo as orphaned kids in the Eastern Bloc. Then, in the Marvel-owned comics, they retconned Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to make them not only non-mutants, but also no longer the children of Magneto. Marvel, it should be noted, is planning its own X-Men-like franchise, The Inhumans, which is to hit theaters in 2019.
When queried repeatedly by The Daily Beast, a representative for Marvel said that they “aren’t commenting” on the situation with the Fantastic Four and X-Men, but characterized the apparent dispute as a “licensing arrangement.”
There’s also been a lot of anonymously-sourced and largely unproven bad buzz (planted?) that’s made the news concerning the upcoming Fantastic Four film—rumors of set damages, required reshoots, and unhappy Fox execs.
What’s more, Fantastic director Josh Trank seems to have been caught in the middle of the studio crossfire. On May 1, the director announced that he’d made a “personal decision” to leave his post as director of a Star Wars stand-alone film—like Marvel, a Disney-owned property, mind you. What followed was a hatchet job piece in The Hollywood Reporter quoting unnamed “insiders” claiming that Trank was axed because of alleged “erratic” behavior while filming Fantastic Four, including not offering “clear direction” and—get this—that his “small dogs” caused “as much as $100,000 worth of damage” to a rented house in New Orleans during filming.
And last week, another vicious rumor surfaced that X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn, who’s a producer on Fantastic Four, had been hired to direct reshoots on Fantastic because of “poor test screenings.” According to Superhero News, “Sources tell us that the film axed the 3D release in favor of utilizing that budget for additional reshoots to help improve the story.”
Trank, whose representatives refused to return multiple emails and calls from The Daily Beast, took to his Twitter account to rebut the Vaughn rumor, writing, “While MV has been very supportive, he's never been to our set. There's only been 1 director of FF2015. Me.”
He also vaguely refuted the THR allegations as well:
A source with Fox told The Daily Beast that “while Vaughn was a producer on the project and involved in the production” the rumors of him taking over directorial duties during reshoots are “untrue.” That person declined to comment further on the rumors.
Studio drama and idiotic racists who have issues with a black Johnny Storm notwithstanding, fan feedback for both the Fantastic Four trailer and footage that was unspooled last month at CinemaCon has been pretty damn positive. And Vaughn himself said of the reboot, “I’ve seen the movie, it’s good… I thought Chronicle was a fantastic movie and [Josh] Trank has gone off and done his version of Fantastic Four. If you like Chronicle, then you’ll like this… We’re all backing Josh Trank’s vision… And hopefully the world will like Josh Trank’s vision.”
So a few things are certain: with several more X-Men films (and spin-offs like Deadpool and Gambit) in the pipeline, as well as a Fantastic Four sequel, don’t expect to see the tensions between Marvel and 20th Century Fox die down anytime soon. Also, despite all the bad buzz, the new Fantastic Four movie cannot possibly be worse than the 2005 version—you know, the one that made Jessica Alba look like she was auditioning for White Chicks 2?