In November of 1961, readers of Marvel Comics readers witnessed four intrepid explorers be forever changed by mysterious cosmic rays. On that day, they became known as the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes, and went on to be the first of many colourful superheroes for Marvel Comics as well as feature in numerous cartoons, videogames, and live-action movies. This year, I’m dedicating every Friday in November to commemorating the debut of Marvel’s most famous dysfunctional family.
Released: Never (initially scheduled for 19 January 1994)
Director: Oley Sassone
Distributor: New Horizons Pictures
Budget: $1 million
Stars: Alex Hyde-White, Rebecca Staab, Jay Underwood, Michael Bailey Smith/Carl Ciarfalio, and Joseph Culp
While in college, genius scientist Reed Richards (Hyde-White) experiments on a passing comet but a mishap results in the apparent death of his friend, Victor Von Doom (Culp). Years later, Reed recruits Benjamin Grimm (Smith), Susan Storm (Staab), and her hot-shot younger brother Johnny (Underwood) to continue the experiment using a space shuttle. However, the four are bombarded with cosmic rays and gain extraordinary abilities in the process, which they must then put to the test when Victor returns bent on revenge as the maniacal Doctor Doom.
Although the process behind the creation of the Fantastic Four is a little more confusing the most other comic book heroes (they were either the result of Marvel Comics head honcho Martin Goodman tasking Stan Lee to create a team of superheroes to rival DC Comics’ Justice League of America or Jack Kirby came up with the concept himself, basing them on his Challengers of the Unknown), both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby undoubtedly created Marvel’s First Family. Unlike other superhero teams, the Fantastic Four aimed to be more relatable by leaning towards a family dynamic that caused them to bicker with each other as much as their enemies no matter how wacky their adventures got. Although I didn’t care much for their debut issue, the Fantastic Four have been a consistent staple of Marvel Comics ever since their introduction and have featured prominently in cartoons, but it was German producer Bernd Eichinger who first set in motion plans for a live-action adaptation.
Although Eichinger was able to acquire the rights for a “not enormous” amount since Marvel’s lawyers practically gave away the license, budget problems hit the production almost immediately. Desperate, he turned to notorious low-budget producer Roger Corman, who arranged a pitiful $1 million for the film. Within less than a month, the film was cast, shot, and completed, resulting in a number of rushed and subpar special effects but also a legitimately impressive practical suit for the Thing. However, as soon as the film was finished, Marvel executive Avi Arad shut the production down, paid back the money spent, and confiscated the film’s negatives to avoid the brand being diluted and cheapened by the film’s release. Although Eichinger would go on to eventually produce live-action versions of the comic book characters that actually saw the light of day, the closest that The Fantastic Four has come to being released is through bootlegs and a documentary detailing the strange events surrounding the film. Those that have seen the film generally report it being pretty terrible, though others enjoy film’s the B-movie appeal and even consider it a surprisingly faithful attempt at an adaptation considering the budget and effects of the time.
I’m gonna kick this off with a quick disclaimer that should probably be obvious, but I think it’s worth saying: the video quality of this film sucks, quite frankly. Because it never got an official release, we never even got a VHS release of the film let alone a 8K, HD Blu-ray digital transfer so I don’t exactly have much choice but to pull pictures from very low quality bootleg versions of the film. Secondly, there’s no official way of seeing this; it can be watched online for free on many streaming and video platforms but I’m not going to include any links to that. I honestly would love to see the film be dusted off and officially released some day; I find it just astounding that it’s never happened, especially as we’ve seen official releases of other, equally awful Marvel movies from the nineties but, until that happens, this is the best version that I could find to view so we’re all just gonna have to deal with it.
The film begins with Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, and Victor Von Doom as college students, where they learn of an incoming comet, dubbed “Colossus”, that promises to unlock the mysteries of faster-than-light travel. Reed and Victor have spent the last four years been working on a machine to run experiments on this comet, though Reed is concerned that Victor’s calculations fail to consider velocity variations that could jeopardise the entire project. Although Reed insists on running a simulation to ensure everything goes safely, Victor pushes the experiment forward due to the limited window they have to observe Colossus, and his arrogance and recklessness cause their machine to overload and strike Victor with bolts of electricity that, despite Ben’s best efforts, apparently leave Victor dead. By the time Colossus rolls around ten years later, Reed has finalised the construction of an experimental spacecraft that Ben is all-too eager to pilot. Reed first met Sue (Mercedes McNab) and Johnny (Phillip Van Dyke) when they were children at the boarding house he stayed at in college; even though she was little more than a pre-teen, Sue had a major crush on Reed, which makes it frankly a little disturbing that they develop a mutual attraction when they reunite some ten years later when she’s all grown up. However, the oddities don’t end there as Ben makes the decision to draft the grown-up Sue and Johnny to fill out the crew of Reed’s spacecraft despite the fact that the Storms are not trained, qualified, or in any way suitable to undertake such a mission (Hell, I’d argue that Reed isn’t qualified to go into space based on what we’ve seen so far). Even Reed points out what a daft decision this is but Ben insists on bringing them along simply because of their familiarity with the project, and Reed’s doubts are apparently immediately quashed as soon as he sees how grown-up Sue has become, and the group are subsequently dubbed the Fantastic Four by the Storm’s matriarch, May (Annie Gagen). Reed feels a tremendous amount of guilt over Victor’s death and wishes to see their research come to fruition to honour his friend’s memory, which is all the motivation the others need to sign on to the mission.
However, disaster strikes when the four are on the mission and, though they survive, they are forever changed by strange and powerful cosmic rays; these changes are gradual and reveal themselves shortly after the four inexplicably survive their shuttle crashing back to Earth and are rendered in the most underwhelming and preposterous way imaginable. Johnny discovers his flame power by sneezing, Sue is initially entirely invisible, and Reed find that he can stretch a bit when he saves her from impaling herself on a piece of the space shuttle. For some reason, Ben’s more gruesome and noticeable mutation doesn’t occur until later that evening, and of course sees him transformed into a rock-like creature. While Reed is insistent that he can find a scientific explanation for their predicament, and both Sue and Johnny react in fear and disbelief at their newfound powers, poor Ben is left distraught by his monstrous appearance. The four are taken into military custody and, in scenes that I guess could be best described as “amusing”, quickly learn control over their abilities (in this iteration, Johnny literally activates his flame by saying “Flame on!” rather than this simply being his catchphrase), and quickly realise that they’re being detained by an unknown party posing as the military. Of course, this turns out to be Victor, who it turns out, actually survived his ordeal, albeit with horrific burns. After being spirited to safety back to Latveria by his fellow countrymen and donning ceremonial armour, Dr. Doom spents the next ten years establishing himself as Latveria’s ruling despot and sets his sights on acquiring the diamond that is so crucial to Reed’s experiments, which he plans to use to power a laser cannon capable of destroying New York City. For much of the film, Dr. Doom remains elusive, ominous, and cloaked in shadow, and primarily operates through two Latverian henchmen, and he watches with glee as the four are left to die in space after his inaction sees their mission compromised. Although initially angered to find that they have survived, he arranges for his men to capture the group under the guise of he military in order to learn more about their powers, and theorises that the cosmic energy of Colossus could bestow similar superhuman abilities to himself.
While you’d think that Dr. Doom would be enough of a threat for the Fantastic Four, the film also includes an additional villain, the Jeweler (Ian Trigger), a troll-like man who lives in the sewers and underground tunnels of the city and steals the gem to gift to blind artist Alicia Masters (Kat Green) in a desperate bid to win her over. Ben had (literally) bumped into Alicia before his ill-fated space excursion and became immediately infatuated, and comes across her again after she has been kidnapped by the bizarre, Leprechaun-like creature and Ben has fallen among the Jeweler’s kind after being left despondent by his new rocky disposition. The Jeweler actually proves pivotal to the film’s plot since he steals Reed’s diamond and replaces it with a fake, which is influential in causing the group being bombarded by cosmic rays and gaining their powers, but honestly could have easily been dropped from the film entirely as Dr. Doom could have been the one to swap out the diamond and more time could have then been devoted to building a more natural a poignant romance between Alicia and the Thing rather than them suddenly declaring their love for each other and wasting time on a nonsensical twist where Ben reverts to his human form for absolutely no reason at all.
It’s hard to really tell what The Fantastic Four is going for in terms of its tone; Reed is the straight man, mostly serious and taking the scientific route, which makes perfect sense and is generally conveyed quite well, but the remainder of the film has this odd, camp tone that makes it more cartoony than even the group’s animated endeavours. If I had to make a comparison to another art form, I would say the closest parallel is a pantomime; nowhere is this more evident than in Dr. Doom’s bombastic and over the top line delivery. Joseph Culp massively exaggerates every movement, no matter how small, and seems to be basing his portrayal of the character more on Dark Helmet (Ric Moranis) than Darth Vader (David Prose/James Earl Jones), resulting in a maniacal and overstated performance that would be out of place even on a stage.
Although Reed postulates a link between their powers and their personality quirks (Reed’s always stretching himself too thin, Sue gets shy around him, Johnny (apparently) as a fiery temperament, and Ben’s always favoured brute strength over his mind), and Reed and Ben are generally pretty close approximations of their comic book characters, Sue and Johnny leave a lot to be desired. Sue’s personality seems to be based more on her earlier, less progressive characterisation; she’s infatuated with Reed and a bit bossy towards Johnny, but is far from the capable and independent matriarch of the group that I prefer to see. Similarly, while Johnny is a bit temperamental and impulsive, he’s world’s away from the arrogant little brat of the comic books and has virtually none of the usual banter you’d expect with Ben and the others, coming across more like a shadow of his egotistical and conceited comic book counterpart. However, considering the extremely low budget of the film, it’s impressive that the filmmakers went out of their way to faithfully recreate the blue-and-white spandex costumes from the comics; however, in the context of the film, it really doesn’t make all that much sense for them to even wear the outfits. It’s not like they’re modified versions of their spacesuits or anything; Sue simply designs them their costumes so that they can live up to their “Fantastic Four” moniker and put their powers to use as superheroes.
It’s a shame, then, that the special effects are so hokey; even the bolts of lightning that strike Victor are cartoonish and amateurish, and the film makes heavy use of stock footage and interior shots to mask the shuttle’s launch (and doesn’t even show its return to Earth, to say nothing of the ridiculous and obscure lightshow used to simulate the cosmic storm and the cheap-ass edits employed to save money on filming actual fight scenes). Sue’s invisibility is realised using age-old camera tricks that were pioneered in The Invisible Man (Whale, 1933) and, apparently, the filmmakers were incapable of improving up in the forty-odd-years since that film’s release, Reed’s elasticity is ludicrously rendered using floppy and awkward appendages and poorly-concealed camera trickery, and Johnny’s flame powers are generally brought to life using obvious animation techniques. While this does eventually result in an ambitious fully animated rendition of the Human Torch, it also has the effect of turning the film into a 1930s cartoon for the finale, and it’s astounding to me that the filmmakers were able to do such a great job on the Thing’s suit and yet make such a hack job of the Human Torch. Brought to life through an impressive practical suit and animatronic head, the Thing genuinely looks of the same quality as the efforts of Jim Henson and his studio around the same time and, sure, he might look a little rubbery and awkward at times, but it’s clearly the best and most impressive aspect of this mess of a film. Unfortunately, the same really can’t be said for Dr. Doom; while I can’t fault the accuracy and fidelity of Doom’s armour and overall appearance, he appears more plasticky and clunky than metallic and menacing.
Although Ben sees himself as a grotesque freak of nature, he quickly overcomes his self-loathing after Alicia declares her love for him and he rejoins the team just in time for them to take the hastily-introduced Fantasi-Car back to Dr. Doom’s castle to put a stop to his plot. When Reed found the time to build this vehicle is beyond me, and seeing it struggle to life as an obvious model effect that would make Gerry Anderson blush is almost as absurd as the clumsy fight between the Thing and Dr. Doom in the finale. After the four throw every cheap, Halloween-store effect in the book at Dr. Doom’s disposable forces, and with the Human Torch out matching cartoon blasts with Dr. Doom’s laser in space (because he can totally breathe in space, apparently…), Reed confronts his old friend and goads him into a final confrontation. However, this is far from the epic showdown you might expect; rather than being a technologically gifted sorcerer, Dr. Doom is just an egomaniac in a suit of
plastic armour, so he has none of the magical abilities and weaponry that make him such a formidable foe. Plus, Reed easily overpowers him with Dr. Doom’s greatest and most persistent weakness…really obvious, weak-ass stretchy punches to the face. This results in Dr. Doom taking a tumble over the castle wall and, despite Reed’s best efforts, falling to his apparent death, only for his severed gauntlet to inexplicably come to life to hilariously sow the seeds for a sequel! In the aftermath of the team’s victory, the Fantastic Four become celebrities, and Reed and Sue consummate their inappropriate and unsettling romance by hastening into marriage and driving off to a happy ending with Reed’s ludicrous stretchy arm waving goodbye to their guests to finally bring this car crash to an end.
I mean, what can you say about The Fantastic Four? I like to think I’m generally quite positive and forgiving in my reviews and always try to look for something constructive to say, but it’s not that easy with this mess of a film. I guess you could say that it was an ambitious project given how miniscule the budget was; the Fantastic Four is, by its very nature, a difficult property to bring to life in live-action even in modern times and needs a sizeable budget to do it justice, and $1 million was never going to cut it. You know it’s bad when The Punisher (Goldblatt, 1989) had more money behind it than Marvel’s premier superhero team, and it definitely shows in the presentation, direction, and acting displayed here. The whole film feels cheap and hokey, with the filmmakers apparently leaning into the campier aspects of the source material and having everyone act either too subdued or massively over the top, making for quite an inconsistent watch. Obviously, the special effects are a constant source of derision and ridicule, and rightfully so. However, it is impressive that they were able to cobble together such a remarkable Thing suit and produce comic accurate looks for the team and their main adversary….it’s just a shame that the rest of the effects can’t live up to these “standards” (and I use the word very loosely). Honestly, I don’t think that a bigger budget would have really helped this film all that much as the actors and script are incredible lacklustre; Dr. Doom is often a megalomaniacal and over the top villain, of course, and the Thing is probably the best and most accurate interpretation of his comic book counterpart, but everything feels so dumbed down and the line deliveries are so foolish that it’s not hard to see why this film got canned. Having said that, though, I still feel an official release is long overdue as they could make some money off a home media release rather than nothing at all by leaving it to gather dust. But, there again, maybe that’s for the best.
Have you ever watched this unreleased film? Would you like to see this film get an official release some day? What did you think to the Thing’s practical suit and the other special effects in the film? Did you also find the Reed/Sue romance a little unsettling in this version of the story? What did you think to Dr. Doom’s portrayal and appearance? What are some of your favourite stories involving the team? How are you celebrating the debut of Marvel’s First Family this month? Whatever you think about the Fantastic Four, sign up to leave a comment down below or let me know on my social media, and check back in next Friday for more Fantastic Four content.
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