These are grim days for Marvel's First Family, otherwise known as The Fantastic Four.
Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS)-owned Marvel Studios has clawed back the film rights to a handful of heroes in recent years. After a spectacular flop at the box office last weekend, speculation is rampant that the Fantastic Four could return to its Marvel roots.
Industry watchers and fans alike are questioning whether 20th Century Fox (NASDAQ: FOXA) can salvage its Fantastic Four franchise after an attempt to reboot the series drew scathing reviews, and opening weekend earnings that fell well short of its $40 million estimate-and its reportedly $120 million production budget.
The outcome could shake up the lucrative superhero film business, giving Disney control of virtually every Marvel character and leaving Fox with only the X-Men.
In the mid 1990s, Marvel sold the rights to a number of its hottest properties at a time when it was in the throes of bankruptcy. Among the spoils, Fox got the X-Men and Fantastic Four, and Sony (Tokyo Stock Exchange: 6758.T-JP) picked up Spider-Man.
Licensing deals also led to films starring lower-tier characters like Daredevil, the Punisher and Ghost Rider, but the rights have reverted to Marvel after those projects failed to break out.
Now, some are expecting the same for "Fantastic Four." It opened to just $26.2 million at the U.S. box office , the worst debut for a film featuring a Marvel Comics character in the last 10 years, after the Nicolas Cage sequel "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance."
The brutal reception led more than 29,000 fans to sign a Change.org petition calling on Fox to sell the rights to the Fantastic Four to Marvel.
By all accounts, Marvel's first family has taken a torturous journey to the big screen, with no production company able to find a successful formula.
A film was first commissioned in 1992 with an initial budget of $30 million-then went unreleased after the movie was shot on a dramatically reduced, shoestring budget. That version lives on thanks to YouTube and various blogs.
As part of the wave of superhero movies that began in the early 2000s, a new version and a sequel were unveiled, but both earned only mediocre returns and tepid reviews.
The property's troubled history raised expectations that this time would be different-yet it was anything but. Despite the disastrous opening, Fox has not taken its planned 2017 Fantastic Four sequel off the table just yet.
"All I can say right now is that we are committed to the property," Chris Petrikin, senior vice president of corporate communications at Fox, told CNBC in an email.
Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak (NASDAQ: RENT), said he believes Fox can turn the franchise around with a spectacular sequel that inspires fans. The key is winning over loyal comic book readers, who are highly influential on social media and were unsparingly critical of the reboot.
"There's always a second chance. There's even a third chance if you make a great movie," he said. "The lessons learned from this movie will have a decided impact on the next movie."
Indeed, "Fantastic Four" has a loyal audience that has made it a middle-tier comic book since the 1970s, with brief sales spikes in the '80s and '90s, said writer and industry analyst Jonathan Jackson Miller.
"We used to call it one of the widows and orphans stock books. It was one of the books that used to have a core readership all the time," Jackson Miller told CNBC.
Still, Dergarabedian acknowledged that a comeback would be no easy task, given the sentiment swirling around the film. With an 8 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes "Fantastic Four" is the most poorly reviewed Marvel superhero movie yet-and certainly one of the most vilified by fans, who revolted against core aspects, including the casting.
Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said Fox's best chance of saving the franchise is to partner with Disney on the sequel.
"I think people would trust it if it came out of Disney and Marvel," he told CNBC.
That option is not without precedent. Marvel struck an agreement earlier this year with Sony to feature Spider-Man in its shared cinematic universe alongside the Avengers, after a new series of films featuring the wall-crawler failed to outperform an earlier trilogy.
Bock speculated that Fox could exchange the rights to the Fantastic Four for another Marvel character, perhaps one that can feature in an R-rated series, he said. Fox is taking an adult-oriented approach with its X-Men spinoff "Deadpool" next year.
But it's unclear whether Marvel would be willing to part with any characters.
While it has focused on family-friendly fare at the box office, its Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) series "Daredevil"-based on a character held by Fox until 2013-embraced grit and graphic violence. Marvel has another three Netflix series in development, and announced the second season of "Daredevil" will feature the Punisher and Elektra, two characters once held by Lions Gate (NYSE: LGF) and Fox, respectively.
To be sure, Fox would not be out in the cold without the "Fantastic Four." Its seven "X-Men" and "Wolverine" films have earned more than $3 billion combined at the global box office. Its most recent release, "X-Men: Days of Future Past," was its most lucrative yet.
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