Before I begin, thanks to two key resources for this article: Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. Virtually every bit of information outside of my own personal experiences and recollections come from those two resources (and a few other books that I read less recently). Finally, after three epic weeks, the early 90s Marvel Cinematic Universe concludes with the STILL unreleased Fantastic Four!
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Stan Lee is pounding the pavement in Hollywood on behalf of Marvel. In the early 80s, Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) completed a draft for a Daredevil pilot for ABC, Tom Selleck is rumored as Dr. Strange, Carl Weathers is interested in Power Man, disaster film maestro Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno) is interested in a Human Torch film, Roger Corman took out an option for Spider-Man, the X-Men film rights belong to a Canadian production company, and a Fantastic Four film is placed in turnaround by CBS Theatrical Films. Nothing would come of it. Save some animation and Incredible Hulk TV movies the Marvel cinematic (and television) landscape was a bleak place.
Stan Lee’s excursion to Hollywood championing the mighty Marvel brand was largely a failure. After various sales and acquisitions, enter toy genius Avi Arad. In the early 90s, the X-Men cartoon is killing it (maybe a future series of Retro Reviews…?), James Cameron submits pages for his Spider-Man feature (Jim got $3 million for those pages), Wesley Snipes is readied to play Black Panther, Wes Craven is going to direct Dr. Strange, and 20th Century Fox is doing a live-action X-Men film. Most of that would not happen, but those are big names, Snipes would later become most famous for his portrayal of Marvel’s Blade and the Fox X-Men movies continue today (though another mega-merger could soon end that). There is one other Marvel project in the works, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. It’s a cheap film with a filmmaker known for making cheap films, and cheap is probably being generous here. Unlike Stan Lee who would sell anything to anyone, Arad wanted the big names, the big studios, the high quality and the big money. He felt it would harm the brand. He paid millions to bury and destroy (literally) the film.
Enter that little boy with the mushroom haircut, me. In the early 90s, I had 5 subscriptions: 1) The Star Wars Insider, 2) Green Lantern, 3) Uncanny X-Men, 4) Amazing Spider-Man and 5) Wizard the Guide to Comics. Wizard is a sad dead thing now, a name associated with second tier comic cons, but to a young comic fan in the early 90s, it was the Bible. This magazine made comic creators super-stars. Regardless, it was a big deal for me. From the hilarious letters section to the highly inaccurate price guide, to the casting call (giving hypothetical ideal casts for comic book movies), every issue also contained a few pages dedicated to movie news. There I’d see REAL pictures of the Fantastic Four, including a real-life THING! The movie was never released and for years it was never clear why even today there is a great deal of conjecture as to the exact process.
In fall of 1992, Producer Bernd Eichinger had a $250,000 option on the Fantastic Four that would expire at the end of the year. He approached F-movie makes Troma, they turned it down, not wanting to alienate their fans or their buddy Stan Lee. It then went to Roger Corman, who turns nothing down. The team at Corman’s New Horizons was shocked that the script was theirs, they assumed some big studio must be doing it. However, they were hopeful with it being a co-production, that meant more money and a major theatrical release, or so they thought. On December 1st of 1992, Mark Ruffalo auditioned for the film. He didn’t get the part. I’m sure he’s not upset about it.
The film opens with Victor and Reed in college. They experiment, it doesn’t work, Victor seems to die. This opening scene is probably the best in the film. It is dramatic and works really well, things will not go as well from here on out. The effects also hold up shockingly well, the rest of the effects will not hold up by 1994 standards, let alone 2018.
Reed and his buddy Ben leave “Mrs. Storm’s Boarding House” saying goodbye to Susan and Johnny, actual children. Sue clearly has a thing for Reed and Ben and Johnny are best pals. Flash forward 10 years, Victor is now Dr. Doom always lurking in the shadows and becoming a sort of disappointing reveal to Reed and the gang. Scientist Reed and pilot Ben return to the boarding house to get Sue and Johnny for their dangerous space battle. Why? Because dammit!
Before the dangerous space flight, we meet the Jeweler. As goofy as his character is, it actually kind of works. He’s in love with Alicia Masters, who is in love with Ben, even though they only met once, and will still love him when he Hulks… rather “Things Out.” Scratch that, it sounds super inappropriate. The Jeweler is the Mole Man, who was in the early scripts, however, the license from Marvel was limited and only included the core Fantastic Four characters. Hence, the Jeweler who lives with a group of Morlocks under the ground, totally not the Mole Man. The Jeweler is after some diamonds the FF need to diffuse heat in their ship, or something like that. His stealing of the jewels is what dooms the team’s space voyage. By the way, Doom, who has cameras in Reed’s Lost in Space laboratory allows this all to happen so Reed will fail. Cheap ill-fitting suits and it’s 100% unclear what is happening as their mission becomes cheap Interstellar. The music swells though, it did its best to save the movie.
The film was shot fast and dirty at Roger Corman’s “studio” in Venice, a condemned warehouse. It was actually condemned by the fire marshal, they kept the sign on the door of the editing bay. The sets were recycled from Corman’s Jurassic Park rip-off, Carnosaur. Stan Lee would talk the film down at Comic-Con saying it was the last film that the “lawyers gave the rights away,” and that Marvel wasn’t creatively involved. He did, however, visit the set, going as far as to bring the donuts one day.
After wrapping the shoot, the director Oley Sassone and the editor Glenn Garland were on to another project. They continued work on Fantastic Four after hours, having reels snuck out to them. All other pick-ups were shot on the sly with borrowed equipment. The visual effects shots were a mess, the first SFX house seriously oversold their abilities and the film didn’t hold up. Another firm, Mr. Film, did their best with little time and littler money. The film was smartly made, minimizing these limitations. However, those limitations are still glaring.
Those limitations show up halfway through the film when a post-crash team ends up in a lab, it turns out they’re captives of Dr. Doom. The powers show up but are hidden by only being shown in brief snippets and cutaways, but not brief enough. The team battles their way out and it’s wave after wave of cartoon henchmen. It’s very much the Ned Beatty from the Superman films school of comic relief henchmen and hurts what is somewhat a serious movie. The same way Ned Beatty kind of ruins Superman.
The team is back in New York and Thing is angry. These sections are very true to very early Fantastic Four comics. Thing leaves and wanders the city in a perfect example of that cheap guerilla filmmaking. Sue makes comic accurate costumes that would impress as homemade cosplay, but don’t hold up as feature film costumes. That said, they are the best film costumes the Fantastic Four has ever worn. Even Thing’s Speedo is included.
New Horizon and Roger Corman said nothing, and the film seemed in limbo, so the cast took matters into their own hands. In July of 1993, at the LA comic con, then held at the Shrine, people lined up in mass to watch the trailer. The cast toured conventions including San Diego Comic-Con in 1993, bringing the entire crew and the Thing head. Pictures showed up in publications such as Wizard. The film’s guerilla press (lots of various types of guerilla involved in this project) was gathering momentum. The cast and crew planned a premiere at the Mall of America in Minnesota. In 1994, that place was a big deal. The premiere was halted as the cast and crew received a cease and desist on all promotion. Michael Bailey Smith who played Ben Grimm personally spent $12,000 on promotion.
The film ends with an attempted bang. Thing rescues Alicia from the Jeweler, by the way, the Jeweler was in love with her and kidnapped her. Doom shows up to steal the diamonds and double kidnaps her. The now costumed FF return to Doom’s castle and basically have the same battle as before, but again, now in costume.
Reed and Doom duke it out. I should also stop to mention the best part of the film: Reed Richards. The actor, Alex Hyde-White, is wonderful. He was born to be Reed Richards and this is the best portrayal of that character ever. The rest of the cast are various levels of bad from a cute Sue who isn’t terrible but isn’t great, to an awful Johnny, to an over-the-top but enjoyable Dr. Doom. It’s all kind of like the Thing’s costume, kid me was blown away, and the expression in the animatronics is impressive, however, it still somehow just does not work. That is this movie.
The film ends with the thoroughly disappointing Reed / Doom battle. The fight isn’t great, but the idea of it is, it should come down to those two. As goofy as Doom is, the actor, Joseph Culp, was emulating the garish absurdity of Benito Mussolini. He’s among the best this bad film has to offer. He like much of the rest of the film, is earnest. It fails, but it fails in love with what it’s trying to do. It’s a romance you’re not quite ready for. You’re too young, too foolish, but it’s worth the failure a million times over. The end, however, is bad, horrible, terrible SFX as Johnny tries to stop a death ray headed for New York.
The film could never be more than that, it was never allowed to be and it was never meant to be. It was the result of a deal made before the days of Avi Arad, a deal they regretted. The filmmakers made it in a sincere effort, the afore-mentioned love. They loved this project and as with most bad movies, the story behind the scenes is often more interesting than the film itself. Hey, The Disaster Artist was nominated for an Oscar, but people throw spoons during screenings of The Room.
Chris Columbus was interested in the property; this was 1993, Mrs. Doubtfire was a huge hit. Fox wanted the film for Columbus (who would eventually be named a producer on the 2005 film). In October of that same year Arad had sold the film rights of X-Men to Fox (a deal that seemed good at the time, but until recently haunted Marvel and Disney for years). A deal for the rights to the FF was eminent. It’s rumored Bernd Eichinger used the completed “bad film” as leverage to get more cash. The deal was struck with Fox and Arad took the negative from Corman. Oley Sassone and Glenn Garland tried to retrieve it, but it was to late, the film was gone. Arad said he had them burned.
Somehow copies got out. Sassone believes that it was the dub house. Noticing it was a Fantastic Four film, they made an extra copy, basically for themselves. The film was never released, but those copies were put on VHS and later DVD and duplicated over and over. They were sold fan-to-fan at conventions. The film may never have been released, but found its way to the people who it matters to the most: the fans.
It’s fitting that the film itself ends with a wedding, a wedding is a celebration of two people becoming one. Of people coming together to be something more. Many marriages fail, people fall out of love, however, the moment of that wedding is one of pure hope. Hope of a future where this Fantastic Four movie was released and my 1994 became magical. Wait? Why is Reed in his costume but Sue’s in a wedding dress?
Maybe it’s best it wasn’t released, turns out that’s a better story.
Josiah Golojuh is a writer, he would have loved this movie in 1994 (find his collection of short stories here), he’s also a YouTube commentator (where, among other things, he does things similar to these Retro Reviews).