If you're any kind of a bad movie buff or you frequent sci-fi conventions with any regularity, chances are you've at least heard of the Roger Corman film version of The Fantastic Four. For a long time, the hearing was definitely better than the seeing -- the film was never released to theaters or video and the only available copies of the movie were eighth-generation videotapes. This made watching the picture an easy route to an afternoon of squint-induced headaches. Eventually, however, a print only two or three copies down from the master surfaced, and the magic of digital reproduction kept that copy from degrading any further. Finally, this lost masterpiece was ours in a format that we felt we could watch and review with some fairness, since we could finally make out the details and judge the production quality for what it was.
But why was it so hard to find this flick? If Roger Corman did indeed produce a screen adaptation of the world's greatest comic magazine, why didn't it reach video store shelves? Even the incredibly crappy Albert Pyun version of Captain America made it to video -- was the Fantastic Four movie really that bad?
In a word, yes, but that's probably not the reason you won't find FF at your local Blockbuster. In truth, the story goes a little something like this.
We were absent the day in physics
class when they explained that
a man made out of fire could
fly faster than light.
A German company called Neue Constantin bought the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie in the late '80s in an attempt to ride the wave of comic book movies that were sure to follow Tim Burton's Batman (1989). The deal they cut allowed them to hold on to those rights for four years. At the end of that period the contract maintained that they pay another fee to retain the rights -- unless they actually produced something. Figuring that they could make a movie for less money than the contract's stated fee, Neue Constantin commissioned Roger Corman's New Horizons studio to make a quickie film that would fulfill the contractual requirements. (The usual numbers bandied about are something in the range of $5 million to retain the rights, while the movie cost a total $1.5 million. A comparative bargain!)
What isn't exactly clear is what happened next. Stories diverge on whether or not Neue Constantin ever intended to release the film at all. On one hand it's difficult to imagine that just making the movie and never releasing it would fulfill the contract. On the other hand, releasing a crappy low budget movie about the Fantastic Four would probably make it less likely that a real movie studio would want to partner up to make a bigger budget version. In any case the movie ended up locked in the vault never to be seen, the cinematic equivalent of Doctor Doom's scarred face. A recent article in Los Angeles Magazine claims that Marvel president Avi Arad purchased the film in 1993 and burned it!
"...and this is the amount of crack
we'll have to smoke to maintain
the belief that this film will ever
be released to theaters."
So is it really that bad?
Yeah, it really is. It may not be the worst movie ever made about a Marvel Comics character, but it's pretty close.
(We were resisting the temptation to type "Flame on!" at this point in the review, but really -- why not indulge ourselves?)
The opening scenes show us a young Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White), Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) in a college physics class during a college lecture about "Colossus," a "radioactive comet-like energy source" that comes close to Earth every ten years. That night Victor and Reed attempt to capture the power of Colossus with an invention on which they've been working together. Unfortunately Victor's calculations are wrong and the machine explodes, apparently killing Reed's hapless partner -- who also happens to be the heir to the throne in a country called "Latveria." In fact, however, Victor survives and two of Von Doom's Latverian subjects (about 30% of the total population of Latveria if this movie is to be believed) secret their master out of the hospital.
"You're not even half the woman
my mother is."
Flash forward to ten years later as Reed has procured a space ship and plans to launch into space to try to capture the power of Colossus again. His space ship needs a four-person crew, so he chooses Ben Grimm, who is now a pilot, and Johnny (Jay Underwood) and Sue Storm (Rebecca Staab). The latter two are children of the woman who ran the boarding house where Reed and Ben stayed in college, which makes their inclusion on an experimental space flight more than just odd, but downright dangerous. We can only surmise that Doctor Richards has personal liability insurance of super heroic proportions.
To keep the spaceship from exploding (always a good plan!), Reed plans to use a giant diamond in one of his many gizmos. This attracts the attention of The Jeweler, a super villain vaguely patterned on Mole Man, if Mole Man were a leprechaun. The Jeweler steals the gem and replaces it with a duplicate. Victor, who now wears armor and calls himself "Doctor Doom," observes all this. How he finished college, graduate school and a doctoral thesis while sealed up tighter than a can of Spam is never explained.
Our four heroes take off in the spaceship, which explodes almost immediately. Though the craft appears to atomize in orbit all four astronauts are returned safely to Earth, where they learn they have gained super powers! With his new stretchy body, Reed becomes "Mr. Fantastic" (because "Plastic Man" was taken). The hot-tempered Johnny Storm checks out his new flame powers and decides he needs two cool names -- thus he is the Human Torch. Sue Storm, who can turn transparent at will, chokes in the clutch and can't come up with anything more imaginative than "Invisible Girl." Sadly the good-hearted Ben Grimm is stuck as the Thing, an orange rock monster. Even his dork is made of orange rocks!
The scriptwriters wildly grab at the plot lines from many of the early comic book stories, so long as they can be easily acted out on bare sets with minimal special effects. After their rough landing the "Fantastic Four" are captured by Doom but they quickly escape. While Ben Grimm was gone the Jeweler kidnapped his proto-girlfriend Alicia Masters, so he gets to rescue her -- but only after he wastes good screen time by wandering around feeling like an outcast. Finally Doom decides to reassert himself and threatens to destroy New York with a laser cannon, so the Fantastic Four suit up and fly back to Doom's castle and the final showdown. Can wedding bells be far behind for Richard and Sue?
Despite the protestations of comic book fans who insist they must see every adaptation of every comic book ever, we can't help but feel relief that The Fantastic Four never made it to screens large or small. Reactions by audiences would have gone mostly one of two ways.
"What's that behind your
ear, Doc? Hey, a quarter!"
Comic book readers -- those who didn't die from violent brain aneurism -- would have filled the (then-nascent) Internet and fan press with ferocious vituperation. Their white-hot hate would make fan reaction to the 1998 American Godzilla seem favorable. Godzilla was at least a technically proficient film, if not exactly within the spirit of the original monster. Fantastic Four not only mocks its source material by making the classic mistake -- it interprets "comic book" to mean "comical" -- but it also makes a mockery of the books by completely failing to depict the super powers in a realistic manner. Sue's invisibility is a relatively easy trick to manage, but Johnny's Human Torch act consists mostly of the actor's best Curly Howard impression and some cheesy flame effects. The Thing costume, while an impressive feat of animatronics for the time (it is exactly how an orange Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle would appear), fails to convey the sense of power of a creature who could go toe-to-toe with the Hulk (who himself wasn't appropriately translated to film for another decade). Saddest of all, Reed Richard's near-infinite ability to contort his body into any shape imaginable is reduced to extendable limbs, the likes of which would have made Inspector Gadget break down into uncontrollable laughter. Confronted with charging Latverian henchmen, the best this Richards' genius intellect can contrive is to trip them with an elongated shin. His big showdown with Doctor Doom comprises three long-distance punches. And speaking of Doom, he's probably the campiest character in the movie, constantly striking odd poses with his hands that are probably supposed to emphasize what he's saying, but it never synchs up. (The dialogue of both Doom and The Thing was clearly recorded through their masks, which not only betrays the fact that the film was made on the cheap, but also made us wonder if Hollywood mask technology had actually gotten worse in the twenty-odd years since Planet of the Apes.) Fans of the Fantastic Four would have been inconsolable.
(Ironically, the most effective cinematic depiction of the exciting and practical uses to which the Fantastic Four's powers could be put was in a movie that wasn't about the Fantastic Four. The Incredibles showed audiences that a movie about a family of superheroes could be exciting, but playful and moving as well. Why is it that the rest of Hollywood seems to be losing ground to Pixar in every aspect of filmmaking?)
"Smoke this and I'm bound
to be attractive to you!
...Oh, you've heard that one before?"
The damage might have been worse when one considers the other side of the coin. Those spectators unfamiliar with the FF would have come away with the impression that The Fantastic Four is a book not just for children, but for those particularly brain-damaged children who find the Three Ninjas movies appealing. There are some similarities in style present; the filmic members of the FF are prone to fist pumping and exclamations of "yes!" whenever they knock out a few henchmen. The actors do have the approximate emotional range of professional wrestlers. And of course The Thing's plastic face of muted expression does bring to mind the leathery consistency of Loni Anderson's shellacked visage from High Noon at Mega Mountain. The damage to the superheroes' legacy would have been incalculable -- possibly as bad as that time they painted a body builder green and called him the Hulk. The grand cosmic adventure that was The Fantastic Four might never have recovered from the impression that it was strictly kids' stuff -- and badly-written kids' stuff, at that.
Time has gone by and special effects technology has improved. Perhaps more importantly, several super hero franchises (like The X-Men and Spider-Man) have been filmed with remarkably positive results, so Marvel is once again letting someone take a swing at a Fantastic Four movie. Though it's obvious that much more creative energy and financial muscle have been put into this version, we're still not convinced that they've got the team just right -- especially when we eye the disappointingly man-sized Thing costume. C'mon guys, The Thing is supposed to to be massive! Oh well -- at least we won't have to try to make out the details of this one through a haze of video interference.