On the eve of Fantastic Four's debut, director Josh Trank apologized for his own movie.
“A year ago, I had a fantastic version of this,” he wrote (and later deleted) on Twitter. “But you’ll probably never see it.”
Chances are, you’ll never see the studio cut either. Fantastic Four’s opening weekend brought in just $25.7 million. It was just 13% of what Avengers: Age of Ultron earned its opening weekend earlier this summer — and a sign that latest superhero flick was DOA.
The box office numbers weren’t a total surprise (the reviews and industry chatter had been scathing), but they were remarkable. Until Fantastic Four, the presence of superheroes — be they wise-cracking billionaires, Norse gods, or morose aliens — all but guaranteed box office success for a movie this decade. May’s Age of Ultron, the 11th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pulled in more than $1.4 billion worldwide. Even Ant-Man, starring a hero few had heard of, topped the box office in consecutive weeks.
Despite featuring some of young Hollywood's brightest stars — including now-renowned “dick” Miles Teller — the $120 million film never overcame its slow start, earning just $34 million in its first full week. That doesn’t make it a harbinger of death for the superhero movie. Disney, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, and 20th Century Fox combined plan to release more than two dozen comic-based films between now and 2020. But for those who have grown tired of the sequels, prequels, and reboots, this slog might be, to paraphrase Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, the darkest hour before the dawn.
The history of comic books suggests as much. Just as comic books ape their big screen adaptations in an attempt at cross-medium synergy, the movies have slowly begun to pick up the worst traits of their source material. Fans laughed at the costumes for next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which features looks ripped straight from the over-the-top ‘90s comics. On camera, the look translates as Late Power Rangers. Meanwhile, the movies’ storylines have become increasingly mechanical, like a long setup for the next installment. In fact, if you look at the current state of the superhero film, it’s hard not to notice the similarities to the ‘70s and ‘80s comic scene.
In fanzines and trade periodicals, comic book historians split comic history into four ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern. Today, superhero movies have all the trappings of a Bronze Age comic, wherein publishers began overextending their brands and seemed to forget the importance of bringing in new fans. Rather than attempt something fresh, companies doubled down on their existing audience, repackaging old stories against a darker, less morally simplistic backdrop. Sound familiar?
If this theory of comic book history applies to their big-budget cinema adaptations, the genre isn’t about to disappear, but it has probably already peaked.
Superheroes as we know them didn’t exist until Superman debuted in 1938’s Action Comics #1. Prior to his arrival, comic books were like longform funny pages, mostly starring goofy everymen and talking animals. Superman was an immediate hit and comic book publishers flooded the market with copycat titles targeted at children and teens, leading to a period now referred to as the Golden Age of comic books. Although some of the era’s heroes still exist, the form was still in its infancy. Superman and his brethren were one dimensional characters, the art is barely competent, and the repetitive storylines make little sense.
The first successful superhero film adaptation starred the Man of Steel too. Superman (1978), starring Christopher Reeve, and its sequel were genuine blockbusters, but studios couldn’t figure out how to translate superhero source material to the big screen — in particular the “super” part. Comic artists were limited only by imagination, whereas directors were hamstrung by budgets and archaic special effects. With few exceptions (notably Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman), superhero films were mainly thought of as kids stuff, the majority forgotten by all but masochistic B movie buffs — like The Toxic Avenger (1985), Tank Girl (1995), and Steel (1997).
Besides Superman, Batman, and Captain America, the majority of today’s superheroes are products of the Silver Age. Comics had gone out of fashion following World War II — the world needed less rescuing — and Marvel Comics rejuvenated the industry in the early ‘60s with an influx of heroes who were not godlike, instead owing their powers to scientific mishaps. These were superpowered humans with flaws, fears, and concerns their readers could relate to. They might not save Manhattan from the Green Goblin, but they totally understood Peter Parker’s clumsiness with girls.
Unsurprisingly, complicated superheroes made better movie characters. Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), both based on Marvel’s flagship characters, were commercial and critical darlings. They proved that, when handled by talented filmmakers, the genre could be more than adolescent entertainment. Soon, Warner Bros. entrusted respected independent filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Memento) with the Batman franchise. Sensing that there were more than just licensing fees to collect from Hollywood studios making movies based on their superheroes, Marvel Entertainment set up its own independent studio and put out Iron Man; a year later, Disney purchased the entire company for $4 billion. The studios obviously eyed long-running, moneymaking franchises, but the movies stood on their own.
During the ‘70s, comics started to grow up. The superheroes had gotten more complex, but their worlds hadn’t caught up. The Bronze Age saw publishers injecting the social issues of the day into plotlines. Speedy, the Green Arrow’s sidekick in Green Lantern, battled heroin addiction. Captain America was so disillusioned by a Watergate-esque scandal that he briefly abandoned his heroic identity. This era, which extended into the mid ‘80s, also saw publishers begin to pump the market full of spin-off and crossover titles to wring more money out of their devoted fans.
Since the 2008’s Dark Knight, which transcended the genre thanks to a labyrinthine plot and an Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger, superhero movies on the whole have gotten darker and more morally complex. (Though none so masterfully — those disappointed by Zack Snyder’s overserious 2013 Man of Steel fear for his upcoming Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.) And the upcoming deluge of spin-offs and crossovers due out between now and the end of the decade shows suggests Hollywood isn’t worried about flooding the market.
Maybe it should be. After the Bronze Age, the comics industry experienced an unparalleled boom, called the Modern Age, followed by a catastrophic crash. Starting in the late ‘80s, gritty titles like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen garnered serious mainstream attention while the deluge of books put out were gobbled up by the recently established speculator market. But, as with baseball cards and Beanie Babies, consumers eventually got wise to manufacturers’ liberal understanding of “limited” edition.
The resulting crash left publishers with hundreds of series no one was interested in. It was so bad that, in 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. Thanks to the movie adaptations (and a movement into bookstores), the comic book industry has bounced back, with the overall quality of mainstream comics higher than it’s been in decades, in part because of the concentration of talent across the lower number of titles. Regardless, comic books are unlikely to ever approach their past commercial foothold.
What does that mean for the ubiquitous superhero flicks? Fantastic Four isn’t the genre’s first flop — the Ryan Reynolds–starring Green Lantern and Snyder-directed Watchmen failed to meet expectations — and past flops haven’t stopped audiences from returning for more comic book adaptations. But we may be reaching the point where each new movie robs the genre of its luster. As the cinematic universes expand and interweave, each individual installment becomes less important. Sure, you’d need to see every movie to know exactly what’s going on, but do you even care what’s going on?
The unprecedented success of the superhero genre has led to sky-high financial expectations for each new entry, resulting in the movies that have been focus-grouped to death, in which everyone — in front of and behind the camera — is replaceable. (Just ask Joss Whedon, whose two Avenger films left him burnt out and compromised.) But if superhero movies follow the trajectory of comic books — and the films are no longer expected to keep an entire studio afloat — writers, directors, and actors might be allowed to take risks and put the personal stamp it would take to make these characters and these story lines feel new again.