With every piece of bad or uncertain news bubbling out of the Sony and Fox camps regarding the direction of their Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four franchises, the rumblings get louder: “sell the rights back to Marvel.” That’s a reasonable response, especially since Marvel Studios have managed to create a number of movies that seem to trade on the very wit and humor that made Spider-Man such an endearing and enduring character in the first place. Wit and humor have been thoroughly absent from Sony’s Spider-Man franchise in recent years, and it doesn’t sound like the new Fantastic Four movie has those qualities at the top of its list, either.
It’s too bad, really. Those are two concepts that would really benefit from the Marvel Studios touch. Wouldn’t a carefully curated soundtrack in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy seem like a natural fit for a character as quirky as Spidey? A little classic NYC punk rock like the Ramones, Talking Heads, or Television would be my own daydream, but that’s not important right now.
Regardless of other information that has made it out into the wilderness of the internet, the only fair game statement on the matter of the state of Marvel, Sony, and Spider-Man remains Kevin Feige’s cryptic remarks from the big Marvel Phase Three reveal. That’s nice and all, but the thing is…the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t need Spider-Man. It doesn’t need the Fantastic Four. And it certainly doesn’t need the X-Men.
Marvel is making plenty of money on Spider-Man just for waking up in the morning. Spidey generates $1.3 billion in worldwide merchandising revenue. That’s an absurd amount of money. Just for a little bit of comparison, Batman, who is generally considered equally popular sells $494 million worth of merchandise a year. It’s clear that having a Spider-Man movie every few years helps with Spider-Man’s visibility (there have been five Spider-Man movies since 2002, compared to Batman’s three) but Sony does that brand of heavy lifting, and they’re the ones who take the heat if and when they screw up, not Marvel.
The most recent relaunch of The Amazing Spider-Man comic book series topped sales charts in April of 2014 by selling over 500,000 copies. Usually, the top-selling book of the month doesn’t even sniff 200,000. Why the spike? Some of this can be attributed to Marvel strategically re-launching the book just as Sony’s hype machine for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was doing free PR work for a new Spidey first issue. Sony took a well deserved critical beating on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and dealt with disappointing (by Spider-Man standards) box-office returns, but the comics publishing wing of Marvel Entertainment laughed all the way to the bank.
Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox house the film rights for both the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. When it comes to the latter who ever would have guessed there are so many vocal Fantastic Four fans determined to see that team done right? For a comic book that hasn’t sold particularly well in my lifetime, that has failed to find lasting box-office success, and whose visibility and name recognition with the mainstream ticket buying audience remains fairly low, the internet sure has strong opinions about the next incarnation of the franchise. Just look at some of the venomous comments at the bottom of this article. With all of the talk of “gritty realism” in Josh Trank’s upcoming reboot of the franchise, it’s clear that 20th Century Fox may have lost sight of why people liked the Fantastic Four in the first place, just as Sony may have with Spidey.
Like Spider-Man, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the “Marvel Cinematic Method” would do wonders for a team as whimsical as the Fantastic Four. In fact, if there’s one property not currently under the Marvel Studios banner that could potentially replace the star power, spectacle, and scope of the Avengers movies once Marvel Phase Three has run its course, I would wager it is the Fantastic Four. Of course, all will be made clear once we actually see the new Fantastic Four movie when it opens on August 7th, 2015. For their part, Marvel don’t seem too concerned about how the FF film will affect general merchandise sales, as those characters have all but disappeared from their marketing materials, and the very comic book that bears its name is going on indefinite hiatus later this spring.
Now, to complicate matters further, let’s add the X-Men franchise to the equation…
Imagine Marvel also had to contend with making X-Men movies. There seems to be less demand (beyond general fan wish-fulfillment) to see the X-Men leave the friendly confines of 20th Century Fox, and with good reason. It’s difficult to imagine any situation where Marvel would have been willing to take the chances that Fox has with the last two X-Men movies. Whether you like them or not (personally, I think First Class and Days of Future Past are the high points of the entire X-franchise), it’s impossible to deny that these are very different superhero movies than we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years, and it’s difficult to imagine Marvel making a movie where 75% of the action relying on the turbulent political climate surrounding the Vietnam War to move the story forward. While the risks they took may have been initially motivated by sheer necessity, they’ve managed to do what no other superhero franchise ever has: endured two consecutive critical duds…and still come out the other end, not only stronger than before, but without the crutch of a hard franchise reboot.
While Sony has been involved in a desperate scramble to create a “shared universe” of films for Spider-Man supporting players, the X-Men actually do contain at least one character worthy of solo movies. What’s more, those are characters who (unlike nearly all of Marvel’s upcoming movies) have already proven their value and marketablity, not just at the box-office, but in merchandise sales and animation. With the current realities of Marvel Studios house style and film slate, you would still see Wolverine and X-Men movies, but you could probably forget about Deadpool, a character so reliant on over-the-top violence that even Fox balked at putting it into production for the last few years. What’s more, the fact that Marvel Studios can’t use “mutants” as a plot device has helped motivate them to foreground the concepts that will become necessary for an Inhumans movie.
But let’s pretend for a moment that Marvel Studios could get any one of these franchises back under their umbrella. What then? Do they just start cranking out five or six superhero movies a year instead of what will soon be an already ambitious three or four? By 2018 we’re going to have a single calendar year that contains as many as seven superhero movies. I love ice cream, but if you eat it every day you’re gonna get fat, sick, or both.
There’s precious little variety in most superhero films as it is, and if Marvel Studios had Spider-Man, Wolverine, and the Fantastic Four at their disposal early on, they would have found themselves in the same boat as Warner Bros. with their DC superhero movies. Warner Bros. has spent the last decade relying solely on their biggest guns (Superman and Batman), and as a result, one $200 million misstep by the name of Green Lantern sent them back to the drawing board. Marvel were quick to position characters like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and yes, even the Avengers, as viable franchises in their own right because they had no other choice since guaranted box-office draws like Spider-Man and Wolverine weren’t available.
So, advocates of one enormous Marvel Monolith should ask yourselves…what would you prefer? A Marvel Studios machine that has to devote a significant chunk of its yearly schedule to two proven commodities like Spider-Man and the X-Men? Or would you rather see more offbeat properties like Guardians of the Galaxy get their chance in the spotlight?
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see Joss Whedon or James Gunn take on Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. I understand why fans want it to happen, but Marvel simply doesn’t need it to happen.
If you ask Mike Cecchini nicely on Twitter he might tell you what his “Awesome Spider-Man Mix Vol. 1” tracklist is. Maybe.