On Business: Why the FF Aren't Important Right Now

By | Monday, September 15, 2014 3 comments
As you may know, I'm a loooooong time Fantastic Four fan. I had my first letter printed in that comic back in 1988, and I ran the FFPlaza.com website for over a decade. I've had Marvel writers and editors ask me for assistance in making sure they had obscure details correct, and I've gotten a few official credits because of that. I've gotten more than a couple writing assignments precisely because of my interest in the FF.

Which I use as a preface to say that I am a big fan of the FF. I think it's great concept and, when written well, makes for some incredible stories.

But I've seen a few others recently lament how the FF are being treated by Marvel's marketing these days. How they're not well represented in crossovers, how they're not prominently featured (if they're indeed featured at all) in general merchandise, and -- the most recent offense -- that they're barely mentioned in Marvel's 75th Anniversary magazine. Some of the FF fans I know are railing against this treatment, and consider it more than a slight against the team, especially in light of the new movie coming out next year.

The problem, though, is that these fans, it seems to me, are thinking tactically. Marvel owns the Fantastic Four, which is a decades-proven intellectual property, and therefore should put some of their resources to ensuring that brand gets and stays out in the marketplace. Like they've done with The Avengers. Even if they're not promoting The Avengers, they're pushing Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Agents of SHIELD or something that ties back to that base property. They've even started "hinting" about crossing over with Guardians of the Galaxy. And that all makes sense from a marketing perspective. So why not do the same with the FF?

Because Marvel, at the moment, has a more strategic plan for the FF. One that involves the FF movie not doing so well. At least, compared to the various Avengers properties.

Do you know why the aliens in The Avengers were Chitauri and not Skrulls? Because part of the Fantastic Four license that Fox has includes a variety of FF villains like Dr. Doom, Galactus and the Skrulls. Legally, Marvel Studios can't use Skrulls. And they won't be able to use Skrulls until Fox's option to extending the license runs its course. But it won't run its course if Fox continues to produce Fantastic Four films.

Most licensing contracts establish a time limit on their usefulness. You can license a character for a certain period of time, and if you do nothing with that character in that timeframe, the contract expires. But if you do do something, you're often able to take advantage of a clause that says you're free to renew the license for a period of years past the original expiration. This is basically a way for the property owners to ensure that they're not losing potential income; if a licensee does nothing with the character, the licensor is freed up to take the character to someone else who will earn some money from it.

So Marvel's gambit here is to not help promote the characters that are licensed by another company. The hope, I think, is that, with fewer marketing efforts put towards an FF film, it will not be as successful a movie for Fox. If it's not a successful movie -- or at least not as successful as they'd like compared to other films starring Marvel characters -- Fox will eventually let the license expire rather than renew it. And once it expires, the rights would revert back to Marvel and the FF could be wrapped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's not about using Chitauri instead of Skrulls. That's a minor point, really. It's about the broad license for the Fantastic Four and all the ancillary characters that are detailed in that contract: the FF themselves, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Mole Man... Is it a big deal if Frankie Raye doesn't make a cameo in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie? No. But Marvel, I'm sure, does not want to limit themselves any more than is necessary, and would no doubt prefer to bring all of their characters back under one licensing roof. So they're, quite frankly, hoping the next FF movie does poorly precisely so they can hit that longer-term, strategic goal.

"That's very clever, but if you're so smart, how come they're not doing that with Spider-Man too?"

That's a little trickier for Marvel because that particular character has been so closely associated with the Marvel brand for so long. Marvel is Spider-Man is Marvel. They can't really ignore Spider-Man in the same way. But if you'll notice, Marvel has spent a lot of time trying to bring the comics versions of their characters closer to their cinematic counterparts... but only for the characters Marvel Studios can use. They bent over backwards to make sure the Nick Fury in Marvel comics looks like Samuel L. Jackson, but there's been zero effort to even change Spider-Man's costume to more closely resemble Andrew Garfield's. So while they can't exactly dismiss their corporate mascot of the past half-century, they're not going to contribute to someone else's cinematic success with the character.

So, ultimately, that's why there's been seemingly so little love for the Fantastic Four at Marvel. It's part of a larger strategy to bring their movie versions back in house. And with the raging success they've had with the Avengers, they don't even have to concern themselves with not having a central team to rally their comic stories and crossover events around.
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Eric said...

Very interesting!

The argument against this that I've heard from Kevin Feige and Mark Millar (working with Fox) is that if Marvel owned all the movie rights to all their properties, they wouldn't have enough money to make smaller properties like Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Dr. Strange. Also, Bendis gets a lot of accusations like this in his tumblr fan questions and he always denies any bigger strategy other than making the best comics. Plus, Sue was the second biggest character in Age of Ultron.

FOX is in such an awkward position of owning X-Men and FF. I'm sure they would love to cross them over but I doubt thats going to happen. FF are beloved NYC celebrities yet X-Men are feared by the world in all the movies.

I think they missed a great opportunity around the time of X-Men First Class to have an early 60s FF getting the team involved with Kennedy and the space race and expanding the world we saw a glimpse of. Maybe what well get will be great though.

Eric said...

Also! the great thing about Skrulls is that whenever marvel does finally get the rights back, they can pull a retcon and say that Skrulls have been in every movie!

Maybe if Marvel regains the film rights to the Fantastic Four, we will finally see a FF movie where at least one prop, costume, weapon, vehicle or set looks like it was designed by Jack Kirby.