Fox puts superheroes on parade

Studio banks on tentpole reboots

Outside of Disney, no studio can boast more superhero properties based on Marvel’s comicbook characters than 20th Century Fox. But this week’s release of “X-Men: First Class” signals just how the studio plans to breathe new life not just into the franchise’s mutants, but its entire lineup of crimefighters.

It’s not as if Fox’s “X-Men” franchise had run out of steam. Although Brett Ratner’s treatment of the series’ beloved characters received some drubbing from fanboys, the third installment, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” earned an impressive $459 million at the worldwide box office in 2006, the franchise’s biggest haul to date.

A fourth and fifth installment are in development. But until then, Fox has a potential new franchise featuring a younger set of mutants to play with on the bigscreen.

While the film — budgeted at $135 million after rebates — could easily be considered a reboot for a property which hasn’t had a new sequel in five years, it would be more accurately described as a prequel.

That’s because “X-Men: First Class” goes back to the beginning, introducing how Charles Xavier becomes Professor X, recruits a young group of mutants and establishes a friendship with his future foe Erik Lehnsherr, better known as the metal-manipulating villain Magneto, while making clever references to future occurrences that appeared in the previous pics.

Under the helm of Matthew Vaughn, the pic anchors the film around the Cuban Missile Crisis in the groovy 1960s with James Bond-style flair, and easily sets the stage for sequels to take place during historical hotspots in other decades.

“First Class” marks a return to “X-Men” for Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”), who had been tapped to direct “Last Stand” but had to leave the project for family reasons.

The wait seems to have been worth it. His take has elicited raves from reviewers and fans and generated the kind of tracking that should pave the road for a sequel.

Fox is hoping that kind of reaction will rub off on its other superhero films.

It’s already apparent that studio execs there are taking notes from the development of “First Class.”

Most of the Marvel fare Fox has in development are being treated as reboots.

The projects include:

• “X-Men: First Class” sequels that could take place in the ’70s and ’80s, according to Vaughn and producer Bryan Singer (who launched the “X-Men” franchise in 2000), given that first pic is set in 1962. Vaughn has said he’d like Magneto to be behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, for example, using his powers to manipulate the meandering bullet.

• A fourth and fifth “X-Men,” based around the older characters introduced in the 2000 film, are in “active development,” according to Lauren Shuler Donner, with Fox recently getting a treatment for the next installment that introduces a storyline that would lead into additional sequels.

• “Fantastic Four”: Michael Green (“Green Lantern”) was set to script a new take on the series Fox launched in 2005 that had Tim Story helming a lighter action comedy, but the studio is currently looking to bring on a new writer. Akiva Goldsman is producing the pic, which has a working title of “Fantastic Four Reborn.”

• “The Wolverine”: Christopher McQuarrie’s script stays true to the Japanese saga from the comicbooks, and is said to boast more action than previous “X-Men” installments, according to Shuler Donner. Studio is considering a new helmer after Darren Aronofsky left the project. Film is said to serve as a standalone actioner and isn’t necessarily tied to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which earned $375 million worldwide in 2009.

• “Deadpool”: Ryan Reynolds, who also dons a super suit for DC Comics in “Green Lantern,” is starring in the first film featuring the Merc with a Mouth and the thesp is working closely with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland”) to develop the script as a dark comedy. Film won’t be based on Reynolds’ version of the character from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but relaunches the hero entirely. Tim Miller is attached as director.

• “Daredevil”: David Slade (“Twilight: Eclipse”) is helming a new take on the 2003 film that starred Ben Affleck and the 2005 spinoff, “Elektra,” that David Scarpa (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and Brad Kane are writing. Peter Chernin is producing with Dylan Clark through his Fox-based shingle Chernin Entertainment.

• “Magneto”: David S. Goyer had been attached to direct an origins tale from a script by Sheldon Turner, but much of that project was folded into “First Class,” essentially ending the chance for a standalone pic for the character anytime soon.

Like any studio with rights to a Marvel character, Fox needs to prove that its comicbook properties are in active development to prevent those films from reverting back to Marvel and its new parent, Disney.

Under its previous deal with Marvel, Fox retains the rights to all the X-Men characters, as well as those in the Fantastic Four universe, including the Silver Surfer, who the studio had planned to spin off into his own franchise at one time.

Sony similarly controls Spider-Man and related characters, as well as Ghost Rider, which is also getting a reboot.

The Mouse House, of course, would love to exploit those characters, after spending $4 billion to buy Marvel in 2009.

But after Warner Bros. successfully rebooted its Batman franchise, earning more money than previous caped crusades, and Marvel launched the “Iron Man” franchise and now “Thor,” as well, rival studios are taking a similar fresh-take approach with their own projects, believing that move will guarantee sequels for years with a younger, and more affordable cast.

It’s a similar strategy to Sony’s with “Spider-Man” after the trilogy played itself out. It will start a new tale with Andrew Garfield as the nerdy web slinger next summer, with the cast and footage set to bow at Comic-Con.