The Missing Marvels
Where is… The Fantastic Four?
Comic superhero movies have been around since the seventies. The first big budget blockbuster was obviously Superman, then, in the eighties we were given Batman. But recently, with the success of X-Men and Spider-Man the superheroes have been given an extra boost with everything from the mainstream (Hulk) to the obscure (Hellboy) getting a big screen treatment.
In the midst of Hulk-hype and Leagues of Extraordinary teamups one of the more well known names is noticeable by its absence; The Fantastic Four. The story of Reed Richards and his team of extra-terrestrially altered superbuddies is well known by anyone who’s picked up a comic or seen a cartoon as a kid, yet a live action version seems to be missing. This isn’t strictly true, as a big budget Fantastic Four movie has been in development hell for roughly five years now, bouncing between directors and writers almost as much as the Superman remake. But unlike Superman and McG, no director has stayed attached to the project for any length of time. Many say the reason The Fantastic Four movie is making no progress is that it isn’t really a viable project – that it is too much a product of its time and isn’t really interesting enough to create a full feature movie on. But isn’t that true of any comic and haven’t other more challenging updates been successful?
The truth is though, that there already IS another Fantastic Four movie in existence. Many superheroes have already had outings that many people don’t recall – in the 70s two Spider-Man DTV movies were edited together when a planned TV show failed to pan out and the mysterious Doc Strange also went toe-to-toe with a nemesis back in the disco-days. Those with good memories or just a geeky obsession may remember these, but much fewer will be able to tell you about The Fantastic Four movie.
Back in the early nineties, low budget schlock horror supremo Roger Corman had somehow acquired the movie rights to The Fantastic Four movie license. It’s entirely possible he bought them cheaply when there was no market for superhero movies in the mid-eighties and Marvel were in need of a quick buck. However, in 1994 he ran into a problem; if he didn't do something with his Fantastic Four rights they would lapse and be open to cheap repossession by another studio with Corman seeing none of the profit. So to counter this he stumped up whopping $1.5Million (!) and put one in to production. Then canned it and never released it. From that day on it was destined never to see the light of a commercial release.
Some say it was never released because it was so bad, but Marvel guru Stan Lee has subsequently revealed that unbeknownst to cast and crew, Corman never had any intention of releasing the film commercially, it was merely a shrewd money/license saving scam.
So, to this day, The Fantastic Four has never been available to rent or buy. Only pirate VHS copies at sci-fi and comic fairs and online versions of the VHS on file-sharing networks are currently available.
So what exactly is the movie like? Your friendly neighborhood Cinema Blend is here, as always, to let you know. The answer is, not as bad as has been made out… in context. The truth is that, even in 1994, you couldn’t buy much for a million and a half dollars, that’s what was needed just to secure the cast of Friends for half a season back then. So if you do watch this you must bear in mind that it was made for the price of one modern 30 minute sitcom.
The story is in essence just the Fantastic Four origin story. A mysterious comet passes close to earth and idealistic scientists Reed Richards and Victor von Doom (complete with obligatory comic-book “I’m gonna be a bad guy” surname) try to harness its power. Naturally things go pear-shaped and Victor is left toasted and presumed dead.
Ten years pass and the comet returns. This time a space mission is launched, with Richards returning to lead Ben Grimm and siblings Susan and Johnny Storm in a mission to test the new and improved harnessing device thing. Thanks to some interference from our now metallic suit wearing bad guy, the mission goes wrong again exposing the crew to the comet’s power and crashing them to earth. They’re confused by the fact that their cheaply constructed cardboard spaceship is now in tiny bits, yet they are still alive and unscarred (as are their aluminum foil spacesuits, obviously too rendered invulnerable by cosmic rays).
The Four soon discover they have all developed superpowers governed by their mental and physical shortcomings. After a quick meeting of sewing machine, white felt, and blue spandex the team have decided they are off to save the world from evil-doers (as you do). Luckily our old friend Dr Doom is on hand to fill the position, his desire to destroy the newly “Fantastic” Four an added incentive for the team’s heroics. There is a subplot about a romantic interest for Ben but it’s so tacked on, no-one, even the audience, seems to care.
Director Oley Sassone’s biggest previous hit was Bloodfist III, one of the “too cheap even for Jean Claude Van-Damme” 90s kung-fu movies. And his biggest achievement since The Fantastic Four has (eerily) been the X-Men rip-off from hell TV show, Mutant X. And it shows. Sassone makes no attempt to bring any real directing flair to liven up his meagre budget. Everything is kept strictly pedestrian, lending the movie that essential “TV pilot” look.
The truth is that The Fantastic Four somehow manages to capture and recreate the feel of its 70s TV movie superhero counterparts. That makes the low budget effects and lack of acting prowess all the more bearable. The team’s costumes are comic-book authentic to the point that they look like a set of superhero underoos, while Dr Doom’s costume is good and also pretty bang-on with none of the Hollywood stylisation it would no doubt be subjected to in a big budget production. As is Ben Grimm’s The Thing, replete with surprisingly good animatronic mouth and overused “It’s clobbering time” announcement.
OK, while we’re talking Ben’s one-liners lets turn to the acting. When your biggest star in a movie is a minute and a half cameo by Commandant Lassard from Police Academy, you should know what to expect. In fact Joey from “Friends” would be proud at the thespian lack of ability displayed here. All members of the Four struggle to rise above soap-actor status while Joseph Culp does his best to overact as dastardly villain Doctor Doom, possibly in an attempt to make up for everyone else’s lack of effort.
Perhaps The Fantastic Four’s biggest strength, bizarrely, is its music. For such a lo-fi production you might expect something from the John Carpenter school of self-penned Casio keyboard music. In fact what you get is a suitable superheroish, full-on rousing and surprisingly hummable orchestral score.
Overall, if you were to pretend that The Fantastic Four was another of those 70s TV movies that I mentioned earlier, it fits right in flawlessly. To compare it to bigger budget theatrical releases would do a disservice to the conditions under which it was created. It is a TV movie that was 15 years behind it’s time, nothing more, nothing less. It is in that sense that I say it isn’t bad. If you are in the mood for an ultra-low budget, ultra cheesy movie then you can do a helluva lot worse and may be worth you seeking out. If you go in to it expecting CGI bendy arms and ultra-cool invisibility effects, then I suggest you skip it and test your patience waiting for the big budget version. Report by Stuart Wood for Cinema Blend