The Fantastic Four franchise in the comics marked the true beginning of the Marvel Comics Universe. Marvel’s First Family was Stan Lee’s first major creation for Marvel, which he co-created with the legendary artist Jack Kirby. Seeing how the Fantastic Four have such an important, incredible legacy, it’s kind of sad that we haven’t seen a truly successful film adaptation yet. But there are four movies, two of which were financially successful. Also, four movies is the perfect amount for a theme month on this blog.
The first Fantastic Four movie was never officially released, or even completed, but it’s widely available these days. It’s an independent film created by Roger Corman and Bernd Eichinger in order to help Eichinger keep the rights to the Fantastic Four films … which is pretty much the reason why all the existing movies were made. Both Corman and Eichinger are low-budget specialists. Eichinger passed away in 2011, while Corman is still active as a producer today at 96. He’s also got the occasional acting credit with small roles, including a congressman in Apollo 13.
This movie’s origins began in 1983, when Eichinger approached Stan Lee to explore optioning a Fantastic Four movie. The option didn’t become available until 3 years later. Several studios showed interest, including Warner Bros, but budget concerns stopped them from producing the film. The option came with a built-in expiration date of December 31, 1992. They asked Marvel for an extension, but were not granted one. He decided to retain the option by producing a low-budget Fantastic Four movie. He brought in Corman in September 1992 to produce the film on a $1 million budget, to be released by his distribution company, New Horizon Pictures.
Filming began on December 28, 1992, with music video director Oley Sasssone directing the film. The filming lasted roughly 25 days … extending past the deadline. The costume designer, Reve Richards, talked about buying comics to research. He talked about how “these people in the store just swarmed me and said, ‘You are going to be faithful to it?’, and I told them, ‘This is why I am buying these books.’”
They rushed the casting, bringing in Alex Hyde-White as Mr. Fantastic, who is known as one of Hollywood’s last “contract players”, as part of a group that also included Lindsay Wagner, Andrew Stevens, Gretchen Corbett and Sharon Gless. He’s still around, mostly in TV shows, but he also has several major movie roles. You’ve got Rebecca Staab as Susan Storm. She’s still active today, but mostly in scattered TV shows and Hallmark Channel TV movies. Jay Underwood plays The Human Torch. In addition to being a mildly active actor, he’s also a pastor these days. Michael Bailey Smith plays The Thing. He’s probably been the most active of the four actors since, and he’s also a business manager.
Despite passing the deadline, Corman planned on a 1993 Labor Day release. They even ran trailers for the film in theaters, and on video releases on several of Corman’s movies. The movie was later delayed to January of 1994, and they also promised that proceeds from the premier would go to several charities. Shortly before the premier, the cast and crew received cease and desist orders. It was at this time that Eichinger told the director that the film would not be released. For years, people speculated that the film was never intended to release, which Stan Lee agreed to in a 2005 interview.
“The movie was never supposed to be shown to anybody.” He added that the cast and crew were never told about this. Eichinger and Corman both denied this, saying they wanted to release it. Although it never officially released, the film was exhibited once on May 31 of 1994, and it’s seen bootleg releases ever since. They did try to re-acquire film rights to a bigger budget Fantastic Four movie, but those rights were eventually purchased by 20th Century Fox, along with the X-Men, Daredevil, and several other Marvel franchises. That said, Eichinger ended up being involved with the two first Fox Fantastic Four films.
Alliteration is awesome.
I’m going to be gentle to this film, seeing how it was made with a very low budget, was never truly finished, and never officially released. Let’s be fair though, 1994’s The Fantastic Four is not a good movie. Everything about this movie feels cheap. The dialogue is often cheesy and cliché. The romance between Mr. Fantastic and Susan feels mildly creepy, seeing how Susan showed her attraction to him as a teenager. The story is bare bones. The costumes, while faithful, are clearly cheap. And of course, the special effects look like this.
By the way, that video is the full length movie, in case you were curious to watch it but not enough to track it down.
There are things to like about it mind you – it’s very faithful to the source material. The characters feel true to their comic counterparts on a characterization level. It’s the only time we’ve seen a live-action Dr. Doom with an origin story that’s remotely faithful to the comics. The actors do a good job with the material they’re given, especially Smith as The Thing. Despite being cheesy, the script isn’t all that bad. With a bit of polish, a bigger budget, and a proper release instead of the bootleg copies, this movie could have been good.
I have seen this movie before, and as someone who enjoys the occasional hilariously bad movie, I like this one. It’s not even what I would call hilariously bad. It’s just a cheap but overall harmless and optimistic movie. There was clearly a lot of passion behind this project with everyone involved, and that alone makes this a charming watch if you’re in the right mood.
If you’re curious enough to check out this movie, it’s freely available on YouTube. At the very least, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four is a fascinating what if. It feels like it could have worked as a late 80’s/early 90’s TV movie. There’s also a 2015 documentary on the making of the film – Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four. The documentary involves most of the cast and crew telling the story of the movie’s doomed production. I haven’t seen the documentary, but it’s got an 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which makes it sound like it’s well worth the watch.
Next week, I’ll look at 2005’s Fantastic Four. Out of the four Fantastic Four movies, it’s the only one I saw around its release day. I’ve only seen it once since then, around the same time I got into comics, but my memory of the movie is that it’s decent, but nothing special. I look forward to watching it again to see if my opinion will change.