Can Fantastic Four save Marvel – and DC – from superhero movie malaise?

Once upon a time, circa 2012, there were nothing but vibes surrounding the nascent comic book movie genre. Billion-dollar superhero flicks were 10 a penny, Marvel had miraculously fallen upon a formula to cross-pollinate costumed titans in standalone movies and ensemble combo efforts that mirrored the wonders of the print media from which they had literally sprung. DC had just embarked upon its ambitious “extended universe” project with a plan to bring back Superman and have him battle Batman, just as he did in the legendary graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. What could possibly go wrong?

A decade on and there’s a marked sense of malaise out there. Despite the Marvel movies having clocked up nearly £30bn in worldwide box office returns, as well as more critical hits than an entire Legends of Zelda campaign, and despite the news that James Gunn is taking over as DC head honcho and they have finally got rid of Batfleck, a sense of doom is all around us. Comics legend Mark Millar has spoken about 2019’s Avengers: Endgame being the last great Marvel movie –what about Spider-Man: No Way Home or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? – while David Ayer went on record to discuss how having 2016’s Suicide Squad taken away from him by Warner Bros almost broke the up and coming film-maker, while ruining his relationship with Hollywood.

Mark Millar attends the Scottish premiere of Kick Ass at Cineworld in Glasgow.

Let’s listen to Millar first. “It was amazing in 1999 when Marvel cracked the code and made these things great,” the Scot tells the New York Times. “It wasn’t just that the technology caught up to the material – it was that the people who made these movies treated them with real dignity.”

Adds Millar: “Everything since then … I feel that the people involved haven’t loved the material the way that Sam Raimi loves Spider-Man, or Christopher Nolan [who] read 50 years worth of Batman comics before he started doing Batman.”

This is a comic book auteur who knows a thing or two about spiky invention, the creator of Kick-Ass, Wanted and Marvel’s Civil War. Millar is an ideas man, one with the ability to breathe life into an entire genre by viewing it through a skewed prism. While both Wanted and Kick-Ass made it to the big screen, Hollywood has generally opted for a slightly more orthodox take on the whole superhero fandango, and yet it’s still intriguing to note that such a major player in the field reckons the clock stopped four years ago. Since then, Marvel has expanded on to the small screen via Disney+, refracted its initial linear storyline into a thousand multiversal realities and helped inspire Oscar-winning efforts such as Everything Everywhere All at Once. Yet according to Millar, it all stopped mattering the minute Iron Man sacrificed himself for the greater good in the finale of Endgame.

Ayer? The failure of Suicide Squad stands as an indictment of Hollywood’s hyperactive approach to film-making. This was a film-maker with nothing but positive notices in his wake prior to signing on to direct what was pitched as the ultimate bad guy movie. It had Will Smith as Deadshot – an actor with an almost supernatural ability (at the time) to rock up the box office billions – and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, during a period when you couldn’t have found an ingenue with more hype if twentysomething Lauren Bacall had suddenly stepped out of a time machine and made herself available for duties. Yet Warner, according to Ayer, panicked after the critical brickbats aimed at Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the adulation targeted towards the then-recently released Deadpool, and (as was widely documented at the time) handed rewrite duties to the team who came up with the movie’s popular first trailer.

Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad.

We may yet see Ayer’s darker, original version of the movie, though time has moved on and not every filmic revision has the impact of, say, the 1992 director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In the meantime, Marvel needs to find the next great superhero flick and hope that it reignites interest in the genre.

Is that movie Fantastic Four, now not due out until 2025 after writer’s strike delays, but still sitting pretty in the cosmic fantasy future, a sparkle-eyed panacea primed to cure all superhero fatigue?

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Previous big screen adaptations of the classic silver age comic book beloved of hippies and true believers alike would suggest that this is something of a minor effort in the pantheon. And yet, Marvel has pulled off similar tricks before – if you had told anyone back in 1999 that movies about Iron Man and Black Panther would one day gross more than $1bn each, they would have looked at you like you just stepped out of one of Doctor Strange’s mystical wormhole portals from the exotic land of Kamar-Taj. In terms of the history of comic books, this is one of the last remaining A-list properties to have never been brought effectively to the big screen. And Marvel now has the chance to succeed where previous rights holders 20th Century Studios so abominably failed.

The latest casting rumours suggest we might even be getting the luminous Vanessa Kirby as Sue Storm, with Josh Hartnett as Doctor Doom and Matt Smith or Adam Driver as Reed Richards, AKA Mister Fantastic. It could happen, and director Matt Shakman might just find a way to make this the most intriguing superhero movie since Endgame.

Then again, there’s a version of reality out there where superhero movies dwindle until they are, like the once great western, an occasional, whimsical fancy for niche audiences and historical specialists. The worry is that if even expert super-fans such as Millar and Ayer have lost faith – the former, to be fair, believes it is only a matter of time until the genre experiences a renaissance – it could be a long way back for Joe Public.

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