By Brandon Schatz
Normally I abhor rumours, especially when I know my Wednesday will be nothing but addressing half-truths and lies that some over-glorified click bait magnate has inflated to preposterous extremes – but, lies will fly around the world in the time that it takes for the truth to get its pants on, so please bear with me while I get my legs through these holes.
Let’s start with a fact: Fox has the movie rights to the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the catalogue of characters that come with said properties. They procured these properties years ago in Marvel’s leaner days when the company needed some cash flow, and needed it fast. The deals that resulted favoured Fox Entertainment quite heavily – in exchange for rights in perpetuity (so long as the company continued to film movies in the line), Marvel got some quick cash and continue to receive 5% of the gross from said movies.
There’s no secret that Marvel and Disney would love nothing more than for the rights for Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man and any other character they sold media rights to back in the day were returned to them. If box office totals and (arguably) critical response are any indication, Marvel knows how to best shepherd their properties out in the wilds of Hollywood. They have a keen sense of what works, and have built a strong foundation for their company to take the universe building of comics, and ply it to a more lucrative medium. The fact that Guardians of the Galaxy has such a high Q rating among folks outside of the tried and true comic market – despite being based on a series that was, for all intents and purposes, critically acclaimed but monetarily challenged – speaks volumes for what has been built and what continues to go forward. It’s a structure that is so enticing, many others are trying to build a similar structure without first pouring the foundation on which to build.
Warner Brothers is steam-rolling ahead with a homogeneously toned Superman sequel that looks to do more in the way of universe expanding than it will be a Superman story. Such as it is, the title gives him second billing in what is conceptually the second instalment of his franchise – something that shortchanges the character, and DC’s potential for him as a solo property in the long run. Beyond that, you can see Sony struggling to build their own Marvel experience by pulling on strands from a pre-mature relaunch, and Fox trying to do something – anything – with the deep X-Men catalogue. As always, the problem comes down to a lack of care – because of the deals that each company made with Marvel, these companies will continue to make movies starring these characters with a constantly ticking clock calling many of the shots. Sony really should have let the Spider-Man franchise either build on it’s own accord, rather than packing the menagerie of villains into their final instalment of the original series, or let the series breathe after that particular misfire, relaunching when the property would be more palatable to the larger audience. They did neither of these things, and the result was… well, not disastrous, but if you want to build a universe, you’re going to have trouble building it with spin-offs from a series that is holding onto its original audience by the skin of its teeth. But I digress: this weekend, a nasty rumour about the impending cancellation of the Fantastic Four and Ultimate FF titles began to swirl. That in and of itself is hardly scandalous, but the implication that said cancellations had something to do with Marvel’s movie contracts – that has set the internet ablaze.
As is always the case with the juiciest of rumours, there is a hint of truth bubbling just below the surface. There is no question that Disney and Marvel would like all of their properties back under their umbrella, and have brokered quite a few deals to bring a lot of “lost” properties in house. In fact, each and every one of their first wave characters – Iron Man, Thor and Captain America – had to be purchased back before they could move forward in house. Continuing on the “hint of truth” idea, it’s no secret that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter is notoriously short-sighted and stingy when it comes to “things that involve money”. Responsible for many company shattering cuts over the year, Perlmutter is said to be where the biggest push to pull back on product concerning the Fantastic Four is coming from as the team’s success would mean relatively little for the company’s larger bottom line. To that effect there’s been an instruction sheet going around the internet that is purported to be for sketch artists working on Marvel’s 75th Anniversary trading card set, which lists the main four members of the Fantastic Four – as well as Doctor Doom, Galactus, Silver Surfer, The Watcher and Skrulls – as “off-limits” for rendering. Reasons for this could be innumerable, the easiest of which to think of is the fact that Marvel might well and truly have artists contracted on those characters specifically already. That said, the intent could match the rumour, and it could all be nothing more than an executive taking a sledgehammer to any foundation a Fantastic Four movie could possibly have in order to hopefully gain the rights back at some point in the future.
Regardless of where the truth lies, I can tell you one thing for sure: if Marvel is going to take the Fantastic Four off the publishing schedule for a while, you can be sure it has nothing to do with the status of the team’s life in movies – or if it does, the team’s out-of-house status means Marvel actually has the luxury of putting the team’s book on hold. Stick with me here.
A quick look at Marvel’s numbers will show you that their current culture of relaunch followed by relaunch isn’t doing anyone huge favours. While I would and will argue in favour of the frequent relaunch of titles, I will do so with a caveat: if you truly want the relaunch to have any kind of effect on that title’s sales, beyond a cosmetic two to six month bump, you have to take the book and the character(s) off the board. You have to create a hole in the publishing schedule, and insist that there’s nothing planned for the future – even if a new series is always the endgame. It’s something the company did to huge success with Spider-Man over the past year and a half. It’s something I assume they are about to do with Wolverine – making a big show of an end, giving the readership some time to salivate for the inevitable return, thereby goosing the sales of the relaunch. Notice how all of the characters I mentioned are all part of properties Marvel currently doesn’t have the movie rights too? While it’s true that the larger company might not want to create as large a platform for characters they have less of a money making stake in, Marvel’s publishing MO as of late has turned that negative into a positive. It has allowed them to take larger risks with those characters and remove them from their budgeted publishing schedule without too much drama.
To put this in focus: for a span of 15 months, Marvel was not publishing an in-continuity title staring Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Any other company would have their corporate overlords roasting them alive for such a thing. The upcoming Death of Wolverine story? Take a look at your recent comics. Has there been a time in the last… I don’t know, decade, where Wolverine has been appearing in so few titles? He’s been removed from the Avengers, isn’t a regular fixture of all the X-Men teams, and is no longer running X-Force. For all intents and purposes, the guy has Wolverine, Amazing X-Men, Wolverine and the X-Men (barely) and Savage Wolverine. That might seem like a lot, but it’s down by almost half in terms of where he used to roam. If they’ve been given a mandate to remove focus, they are doing so in such a way that will benefit their publishing schedule in the long run, allowing some of their marquee characters to pull back and sometimes disappear, in order to clear whatever sense of exposure the character once had. This inevitably takes everything back to zero so that fans can wait with baited breath, and jump onto a new era of Spider-Man or Wolverine or Fantastic Four without the expected baggage of stories that – until that point – had gone uninterrupted.
That said, I might be looking at this whole thing far too optimistically. I could be wrong, and the rumours could be true, and there could be nothing more or less to… whatever the future holds for the Fantastic Four than corporate sabotage. That said, it would be a short-sighted move from a company that – as of late – has been known for planning long term, both in terms of its movie schedule, and its publishing line – and those two ideas just don’t mesh. In the long run, whatever happens to the team, and for whatever reasons, I believe that the editors and creators working at Marvel have nothing but the best intentions for the characters, and if there’s a way they can make any hypothetical situation like this work, they will find it. You don’t stick around in a field like comics if you don’t have a passion for the medium and the product, and you certainly don’t stick around a place like Marvel, with all the bile they get thrown at their way for both real and perceived reasons, without having the best of intentions for those characters, and the universe in general. We’ll see what happens.
[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He's spent the past four as the manager of Wizard's Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog and stares at passive keyboards and empty word documents, making secret wishes and bargains that will surely come back to haunt him. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect The Beat's]