Welcome to the second and most difficult-to-write portion of our look back at some of the many media adaptations of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, as speculation continues about Josh Trank’s upcoming 2015 reboot of the concept.
Today, we look at the first Fantastic Four feature film – its strange history, why you never saw it in theaters, and what it is like to actually sit down and watch it. And we have CONTROVERSIAL OPINIONS about it. CONTROVERSIAL.
We also look at an FF animated series that is both better and worse than its reputation would suggest.
We might not survive until Part III. Pray for us.
The Fantastic Four (Unrelased Feature Film, 1994)
Oh lord. How to describe this?
Okay, let’s break it down: In 1983, Stan Lee was contacted by producer Bernd Eichinger about doing an FF movie.
This was not a bad idea; at that time, Eichinger would have been deep into the production of the film version of the novel The NeverEnding Story, a special-effects heavy production that became a successful and deeply traumatizing children’s movie the following year.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot to realize in a live-action FF movie – all four main characters are essentially walking special effects, and that’s before you add bad guys. The production limped on for years, until Eichinger realized in late 1992 that his option was about to expire.
There was only one way to maintain the rights: Produce a movie, and produce it fast.
Enter Roger Corman.
Corman’s name is synonymous with B-cinema. As a director, producer, and whatever else was required to keep his productions going, he launched the careers of countless actors, writers and directors, exhibiting a creative spirit that made him a Hollywood legend and the recipient of an honorary Academy Award in 2009.
And of course, he’s kept going this long by being two things: Cheap and fast.
Corman oversaw a production schedule that was less than a month and with a $1.4 million budget. The result never saw the light of day…well, not legally.
Why the movie never came out is a question pretty much answered by seeing it. How the movie found its way into cinematic purgatory is a series of contradictory tales. Some claim it was never meant to be released. Some say it was, but that the filmmakers were paid to never release it.
But what is the real story? Hey, there’s a documentary called Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s the Fantastic Four that means to round all this information up! And you can find out more and donate to it by visiting this site here!
The short version is: Eichinger’s move paid off for him, as he was a credited producer on the 2005 and 2007 FF movies. Director Oley Sassone went on to direct a number of campy 1990s action shows such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Mutant X. And the Corman-produced FF film was locked away, never to be seen by anybody… or so they thought.
Of course, the main question is: How bad is this movie? Now legally, it can’t be seen and we can’t tell you where to see it, but there’s a deeply complicated process by which…just look on YouTube. It’s there. There were three different postings of it when we looked. If it’s taken down, someone else will put it up. That simple.
I never had the nerve to watch this movie before writing this article. I have now done so. For you. And I can tell you on absolute authority that…
...eh, I’ve seen worse.
In this film, the characters are given a backstory where the rocket mission is a follow-up to an attempt to capture an energy source nicknamed “Colossus” (this is all explained in the opening moments by an overzealous college professor played by George Gaynes of Punky Brewster and the Police Academy films, who kind of gives the best performance in his two minutes of scenery chewing).
So college students Reed Richards and Ben Grimm head on over to the Storm boarding house to prepare their SECRET EXPERIMENT, where they briefly deal with the young Storm siblings. Yes, this includes the creepy aspect of the comics’ backstory where a pre-teen Sue Storm (Mercedes McNab, who later played Harmony on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) is crushing on college-age Reed (and vice-versa), not helped by his being played by 30-ish Alex Hyde-White in the full William Shatner mode of line-delivery.
Okay, it’s less gross when the character is grown up and played by the fetching Rebecca Staab, though still kind of creepy that it’s implied she’s still living with her mom (Annie Gagen), who’s a little too casual about her kids going on an amateur space mission. She even conveniently dubs them “The Fantastic Four!” Rushing it, Corman!
At any rate, Reed’s partner and friend Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) gets massively zapped by the experiment and presumed dead, though he’s really just had his death faked by Latverian thugs for…reasons that don’t really make sense. Culp rather sweetly gets billed as both “Victor Von Doom” and “Dr. Doom” in two separate credits at the end.
Reed’s bummed about his friend getting Kentucky-Fried, and tries again 10 years later with a space-flight mission to better deal with the “Colossus” energy; explosions and superpowers happen in a stock-footage-assisted space sequence that ends with their spaceship literally being blown to pieces. And hey, Victor’s not dead and is vengeful and crazy!
Despite the “Colossus” contrivance, the new backstory actually ties Doom closer to the FF’s origins…which is more than I can say for “The Jeweler” (Ian Trigger) some bizarre variation on Mole Man by way of Bill Sykes, Gollum and probably the Tim Burton version of the Penguin with an army of criminal hobos, who helps trigger the failure of Reed Richards’ flight by replacing a very fake-looking diamond power source with an actual fake diamond.
This all somehow dovetails with Dr. Doom’s plan, which mostly involves him bellowing as hard as he can through his voice-muffling iron mask and barking orders to his Latverian henchmen…both of them. Well, there’s also some cannon fodder in vaguely Doom-like tunics.
And, um, then there’s the special effects. I’m not saying that a high school student with access to some basic video-editing software could do a better job today, but back then, we lived in a world where Windows wasn’t a thing, and even when it became a thing, you couldn’t just use discs that were formatted for Apple on it.
Okay, so Reed’s stretching is, as a friend described on Facebook, “a rubber glove and a broomstick,” but there’s…um…you know, they tried.
Anyway, it all ends with a deeply-convincing Human Torch racing a deeply-convincing laser, much Doom monologuing, and Reed and Sue getting married after all of two scenes establishing their adult relationship, followed by a quick trip to cinematic purgatory and convention bootleg video booths for decades to come.
Okay, this isn’t a “good” movie. The technology is roughly on the level of an Apple II and a couple of fluorescent lights, the performances are high-pitched (except Jay Underwood as a deeply uncomfortable Johnny Storm), and the whole thing looks like an un-ironic episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (Google it).
But it’s got a certain goofy charm, and as someone who loves inept-but-sincere films like Troll II and Miami Connection, this is right up my alley. In a way, I find myself leaping to defend its shoestring efforts.
Sure, the Thing (Michael Bailey Smith) tends to say word that don’t match up with his lip movements, his transformation is shown with a lot of awkward cross-cutting, and I swear I saw a zipper on his chest, but he looks more like the Thing than the 2005 film! Dr. Doom’s monologues are mostly inaudible, but he’s still got the costume from the comics and is the ruler of Latveria! They tried, y’all! THEY TRIED!
Dammit, I’m going to say this: I liked this better than the 2005 FF film. Argue, Internet!
I’d like to suggest this should have a shot-for-shot remake starring Darkplace’s Matt Berry as Reed Richards. Also, this should really be featured on my favorite podcast, How Did This Get Made?. If you’re reading this, Paul Scheer/June Diane Raphael/Jason Mantzoukas…
I still refuse to watch the infamous Justice League TV pilot, though, because – damn.
The same year this film came out, the Fantastic Four also saw another less-than-stellar adaptation released. Between this and Reed Richards being presumed dead in the comics, it was not a good time for them.
Fantastic Four (Syndicated Cartoon, 1994)
Hey, remember when Brian Austin Green used to rap? It was a strange, strange time.
Yes, 90210’s David Silver/the future Mr. Megan Fox voiced Johnny Storm on the first season of this 1990s cartoon, remembered fondly by those who only saw the second season, or enjoyed the many FF-themed action figures created by Toy Biz as tie-ins. That Fantasticar was sweet.
In 1994, Marvel Comics had hit shows on Fox with the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons. This continued with The Marvel Action Hour, a syndicated block featuring Iron Man and the Fantastic Four in separate cartoons that were…not good.
The Iron Man half of the show featured Tony Stark and his team of heroes from the then-current Force Works comic battling villains led by the Mandarin (who was colored green to seem less Asian-stereotype-y; it didn’t work), while the FF half featured tales drawn from many of the early years of the comic book.
It included a disco-themed opening tune (above - “Fan-tastic FOUR! / Don’t Need No More!”) by “Take My Breath Away,” “Danger Zone” and “Flashdance (What a Feeling)" songwriter Giorgio Moroder (we all have an off day), Lee’s wife Joan as the FF’s annoyed landlady, and animation best described as “fiscally efficient.”
It probably cost more than the Corman movie, let’s give it some credit.
The cartoon was so not good that the actual Fantastic Four comic had a scene in issue #396 with Ant-Man watching it and ridiculing the Thing for allowing it to be made (“this is almost as bad as that crummy comic book they publish about you guys!”). Writer Tom DeFalco reportedly got into some trouble for that.
In fairness, the second season of the show was considerably improved in writing and animation, and adaptations of some of the best stories from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s classic run, including appearances by the Inhumans, the Black Panther, and even the Microverse.
And we gave Brian Austin Green a hard time, but he was pretty good on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, so let’s give the boy a break. He’s not even the worst celebrity hip-hop/R&B artist of the 1990s, though possibly the only one who performed as a classic Marvel Comics superhero.
If you see this on Netflix Streaming or wherever (it’s currently part of the package for the Iron Man cartoon), just skip to Season 2. Season 2 is pretty good, and an underrated adaptation of the classic comic. The first season is…what it is.
It would be nearly a decade before the Fantastic Four hit the big/small screen again, but in looking into the development process, we found a pretty cool unmade version…
Next: Our look back concludes with an unmade FF film treatment by Michael Chabon, the “official” big-screen movies, and even an appearance by Dr. Tobias Fünke!