[Editor's Note: March kicks off a season of big-time showdowns, grudge matches and maybe a few team-ups. Infamous as the month when Brutus betrayed Caesar, March will get even more epic because Batman will take on Superman on the big screen, Daredevil will get company in Hell's Kitchen in the form of The Punisher on Netflix, and The Flash shall race on over to CBS to meet Supergirl. And, of course, just a few weeks after this kickoff, we'll see a breakdown in the friendship between Captain America and Iron Man in Marvel's Civil War movie. Because we love seeing a good battle between titans, we've dedicated March to versus. Over the next four weeks, check this space for stories on title fights in superhero stories, horror, science and more!]
While everyone else online is busy defending or decrying the most recent divisive superhero film release, let us reflect on another super-flick that rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. Last August, Fox unleashed its latest attempt at Fantastic Four on the world amid a wave of negative buzz and mostly terrible reviews, and ended up making even less money than the 2005 and 2007 efforts.
Then, a mere six months later, Fox took another crack at the spandex-clad genre with Deadpool. I probably don’t need to waste time telling you that it broke box-office records, was immediately greenlit for a sequel and was praised by both fans and critics alike.
So, how did the same studio go so wrong and so right in such a short amount of time? What attitudes changed in the way these stories were told that made Fox’s fortunes change in such a major way? And how can those lessons be applied to future superhero movies?
All Four, No Fantastic
The production of Fantastic Four was sabotaged by the widely reported (allegedly) erratic behavior of its director, Josh Trank, but the studio went into the project with the wrong attitude. Fantastic Four — or Fant4stic, as the logo spelled it — began shooting almost literally at the last minute to prevent the rights to the franchise from reverting back to Marvel, and the rushed and haphazard nature of the film is apparent in the final product. But “don’t rush film productions” is hardly revelatory advice.
Fant4stic’s biggest storytelling woes — suffering from origin-itis, trying to ground the characters in a gritty realism, and a tediously downbeat tone — all point at Fox’s complete lack of confidence in the source material, which Trank went right along with. “It only speaks to the greatness of any story that has been told for decades or centuries that people still want to tell that story. But you can’t just keep telling it the same way over and over again,” he told the LA Times in June. He’s right...to an extent. As long as changes to the story originate from a place that is inspired by the original’s spirit, character should be allowed to evolve and re-interpreted for new worlds and new mediums. But, as Trank also said, “you can take license with adapting the underlying material and you will be forgiven for it if it’s good – and you will not be if it’s bad.”
At their core, the Fantastic Four are a quartet of super-scientist explorers who grow closer together as a family through their fun, weird adventures through all manner of realms that defy understanding. The original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics are bold, imaginative, heartwarming, often silly, sometimes tragic, and with boundless optimism for the future. Trank takes a few of those ideas — family, weird science, and tragedy, and in the early scenes implies a childlike wonder — but they’re all buried by a somber tone and heavily militarized aesthetic that doesn’t allow any positive messages about family, the future, or the limitless possibilities of science to shine through. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a Fantastic Four story at all.
A Different Kind of Superhero Movie
Deadpool almost wasn’t made due to the studio’s same lack of faith in the source material. Fox infamously butchered the character in their first attempt in X-Men Origins: Wolverine by sewing his mouth shut, and studio execs had a hard time believing in the marketability of the character. Add to that the flop of star Ryan Reynolds’ other superhero franchise, Green Lantern, and the movie looked dead for several years. Despite everything, the studio had managed to put together a creative team that was incredibly passionate about the Merc with a Mouth, and a few minutes of conveniently-leaked test footage was all they needed to convince the Internet — and therefore the studio — that Deadpool was a movie that absolutely needed to be made.
Not only was it made, it was so wildly successful it forced studios to re-think their positions on R-rated comic book adaptations. It was slavishly devoted to portraying the spirit of the character properly — regardless of all pre-conceived Hollywood notions of its filmability — and was critically and financially rewarded for it. Everything about Deadpool is defined by the character, even when it flies in the face of Fox’s traditional way of doing superhero movies: the decision to animate the mask’s eyes and covering former “sexiest man alive” Ryan Reynolds in hideous scarring are just two of many examples.
Again, this isn’t to say there isn’t room for different interpretations of these characters, (Deadpool’s appearance on the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon and the 1602 version of the Fantastic Four are two examples of my personal favorites) but the fundamental difference is that Trank looked at the comic books and wanted to throw away whatever didn’t fit his vision, whereas director Tim Miller and his team let the comics tell them what they can do, rather than letting it tell them what not to do.
Looking the Part
Now, you may be thinking to yourself that this is a fun comparison, but an inconsequential one. But in fact, this is a lesson that Fox seems to have been learning for a while, and for evidence, look no further than the X-Men films.
Fant4stic and Deadpool exist on pretty polar opposites of the superhero-costume spectrum, but both of their aesthetic attitudes are ones that the X-Men films have utilized. Marvel’s merry mutants started their cinematic careers decked out in nothing but black leather and even made a point to poke fun at the “yellow spandex” of the comic books in the first movie. This was completely justified in 2000, before Sam Raimi brought Spider-Man’s red-and-blues to life and The Avengers assembled in a red, white, blue and green rainbow, but times have changed, and audiences are far more willing to accept the visual language of superheroes. Fox has toyed with ditching the jet-black military look, throwing some yellow onto the suits in X-Men: First Class and some toned-down reds and blues on the more adventurous looks in Days of Future Past. They seem like they’ll be continuing to experiment with costumes (though there’s still a lot of black) and introducing more outlandish comic book elements in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse.
It has hardly been a straight trajectory with the level of trust Fox has had that audiences will accept the classic looks of their Marvel heroes, which can be seen in the step back taken between First Class and Days of Future past and the bland military suits worn by the Fantastic Four in Trank’s installment. But the studio does seem to be loosening the reigns and allowing a more vibrant color palette to be utilized in the films, and that will only increase with the long list of heroes heading to the big screen in coming years.
Winners and Losers
Here’s what all of this boils down to: These characters and universes have existed this long for a reason. There has been a lot of bellyaching in recent days about everything not needing to be done like Marvel Studios, but this is something that they fundamentally understand and that is key to their success. They let the source material dictate universe that the characters live in and let the spirit of the characters direct the filmmaking decisions.
Marvel Studios has been massively rewarded by not fixing what isn’t broken, and Fox seems to be in the process of learning that they don’t have to be the only ones. Sure, The Last Stand made a lot of money and the first Wolverine movie made more than the second, but when looking at movies that are considered quality amongst audiences and critics — Deadpool, Days of Future Past, X2 — the correlation seems obvious. The more storytelling decisions are driven by a confidence in the source material, the better received the movie is going to be.
The argument is strengthened even further when looking at comparable franchises like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Both film series were incredibly devoted to recreating the worlds in as great of detail as the medium would allow, and were hugely rewarded by moviegoers and critics alike for it. The Hobbit movies changed the earlier trilogy’s formula by shoehorning extra material in, and many fans agreed that they were far weaker for it. Sure, both series made changes, but you never get the sense that things were changed due to perceived a flaw in the books, but usually the constraints of a different medium. The same attitude would benefit any filmmaker adapting classic superheroes for the screen.
That’s the exact attitude that Tim Miller, Ryan Reynolds, and the people behind Deadpool had, despite the studio’s lack of faith, despite the trends to go “grounded” or “realistic.” They recognized the strength in the core concepts and themes of the comic books, and made those their own strengths, rather than breaking the stories to fit their own molds. That is why in the fight of Deadpool vs. Fant4stic — and Deadpool vs. most superhero movies — Deadpool wins by a landslide.