The run of Fantastic Four movies in the 2000s was at least supposed to have a third film – but a lot changed following Rise Of The Silver Surfer.

Sitting at the end of 2020, it’s well known that the rights to pretty much every Marvel property are now safe and sound in the claws of Disney. Granted, the screen rights to Spider-Man and its catalogue of characters still sit with Sony, but it’s inked a deal with Disney/Marvel that’s involved some sharing of the title character at least. Furthermore, thanks to a longstanding deal with Universal Pictures inked some two decades ago, Marvel can’t release a standalone Hulk movie without sharing the spoils – but it can still feature Hulk extensively in its films anyway, as it has done.

Yet as part of the deal that saw Disney acquire the 21st Century Fox company and its many assets, Marvel got back from Fox two outstanding properties it was keen to bring home: Fantastic Four and X-Men. The internet may well have mentioned it.

It’s not, at the time this article is being penned, publicly announced any new projects featuring either. But it does bring to mind the period in the 2000s when Fox became kings of the comic book movie. More than that: kings of the Marvel comic book movie.

The X-Men franchise was on fire, Daredevil did enough business to warrant the Elektra spin-off movie, and the PG-friendly Fantastic Four film did sufficient business to warrant a sequel too. Let’s look at the latter.

Fantastic Four, the 2005 version, came to the screen courtesy of director Tim Story, and it’s fair to say that it was a pretty safe, unspectacular big screen modern day introduction for the characters.

Casting Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans (yep, him) and Michael Chiklis in the lead four roles, it added Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon as Doctor Doom, and cost a cool $100m to bring to the screen. It’d taken a decade to get that far (Chris Columbus was originally set to direct, a few years after he’d scored Fox huge hits with Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire), and Fox was very hands-on with the movie. Tim Story only came on a year and a bit before release, after several helmers had been and gone.

It was a rushed movie after all that development, one changed late in the day in the aftermath of Pixar’s The Incredibles. But it scored $333m at the global box office, and that triggered the hoped-for sequel. The thinking was the world had been established on the big screen, and as such they could now have a bit more fun with it.

That too, however, was turned around at lightning speed, and to the movie’s benefit. Still, on the surface it was steered a little more in the direction of the core Fantastic Four fanbase.

After all, interest in it was guaranteed by the introduction of the Silver Surfer as a title character, and the title of the film played heavily to that core fanbase too: Fantastic Four: The Rise Of The Silver Surfer. This one was wearing its metaphorical heart on its sleeve.

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Furthermore, the cast were in little doubt that a sequel was coming quickly. The lead quartet had signed up to three picture deals when they took on their roles, and as Chris Evans told MTV at the time, after the release of the first movie, they quickly “got wind of potential titles and plots”. The film was greenlit within six months of the first being released.

This time it was going to cost a bit more too – the Silver Surfer being a CG creation, it was one of the reasons the budget ballooned to $130m. Still, it seemed like money well spent: the fan interest was higher, and filming duly began in late August 2006, ahead of the movie’s release in June 2007.

Yet a good few years before Sony would have a similar problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Fox had a moment when the sequel reached cinemas.

Reviews were a little kinder this time around (although still were on the pretty downbeat side), but – appreciating that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t a thing at this point, and $1bn grosses were an absolutely rarity – the box office returns of $302m worldwide were a huge disappointment.

The film wasn’t a flop per se, not least because DVD revenues in the mid-2000s were still enormous.

But just as Sony would face with its Spidey sequel in 2014, Fox had a decision to make: was that the kind of money that justified pressing ahead with a third film, when the audience interest appeared to be in decline?

It was a core reason the third movie didn’t go ahead.

This time, Chris Evans et al didn’t get a quick call. In fact, by the following March, he’d heard not a peep from Fox about the third film he was contracted to do. “We had all planned on doing [another] one but if there were going to be a third I think a week after the second one was released we would have heard”, he said at the time.

It didn’t stop cast members Chiklis and Alba lobbying for another movie (going against ther rumour at the time that the ensemble wasn’t keen on a third film), and both saying they were keen to return for Fantastic Four 3. But as the story goes, Fox hit a few other brick walls that likely derailed the picture.

Tim Story had plans for at least two more films in the series he said at the time of Silver Surfer’s release, and he openly told the Los Angeles Times at the time that he wanted to bring the character of Black Panther into the movies. The problem there was that Fox didn’t necessarily have the rights (even though Black Panther debuted in a Fantastic Four comic, back in 1966).

Significantly, Marvel had started the process of reacquiring screen permissions for its characters. It didn’t stop Story suggesting Djimon Hounsou for the role (and he’d ultimately appear elsewhere in the Marvel universe of films).

Further Marvel-owned characters were suggested too as conversations about a third film kept coming, even if they weren’t coming from Fox. Don Payne, who co-wrote Rise Of The Silver Surfer, threw more names into the mix. He hadn’t been contracted to write a third movie – indeed, it wasn’t clear if anyone ever was – but he said that he wanted to bring “Inhumans, the Skrulls, the Puppet Master, and Annihilus and the Negative Zone” into the mix were he to get the opportunity.

Yet he wouldn’t get the chance, although he did enjoy a lot more success with further Marvel productions. By the time Payne tragically passed in 2013 at the age of just 48, he’s co-written Thor and Thor: The Dark World (and across his career having penned many episodes of The Simpsons of course). He was still taken way, way too soon.

The other external force working against Fantastic Four 3 at the end of the 2000s was the success of Iron Man. It’s often overlooked just what a surprise its $585m global gross was, not least because over $300m of Iron Man’s takings came from the US alone. The first film in that series – and the MCU – was released in 2008.

With Fox in the midst of considering its Fantastic Four options at this stage, the box office potential of comic book movies was duly transformed under its feet. The Dark Knight would, the same year, cross $1bn. Rise Of The Silver Surfer suddenly looked very out of touch, and a long way behind the rest of the field.

Fox thus realised that it what it had – an edge-free pair of pretty efficient comic book films – weren’t going to cut the mustard. And a combination of those factors led it to quietly pull the plug on any plans for a direct Fantastic Four sequel. Instead, of course, it went with a dramatic Plan B: to do a full reboot, that would follow in 2015. The story of that one remains very, very well known (and a sequel to that film would be abandoned as well).

There was one further postscript. Because for Chris Evans, taking on the role of Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four infamously nearly cost him the Captain America role (a part he turned down at least once anyway). That Marvel boss Kevin Feige was interested in casting him, but kept the search going for his Cap to try and find someone who hadn’t been in a competing franchise.

Eventually, as he ultimately told The Hollywood Reporter, he reconciled that someone like Patrick Stewart had been able to appear in both Star Trek and X-Men with little trouble Evans, too, could cross the streams too.

Evans – and don’t overlook his role in the underrated The Loser too – had finally struck gold with a comic book role.

Yet outside of The Incredibles – the best Fantastic Four movie ever made – it remains a frustration that the ‘first family’ of Marvel haven’t had better big screen treatment.

We await plans for what comes next with interest.

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