Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four:

A Retro Review

L-R: Carl Ciarfalio, Rebecca Staab, Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood

As the leading edge of what came to be called the Marvel Age of Comics, the Fantastic Four have a place of special significance in comic book history. With their unheralded arrival on the scene in 1962, entire paradigms of what superhero comics were capable of and which audiences they could reach were turned on their ear. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that if not for co-creators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby stepping onto the precipice and taking a leap of faith on what the medium could allow for, we wouldn’t be living in the age of perpetual superhero cinema that we’re currently enjoying (or not enjoying, depending on how you feel about the whole thing).

Given that, it’s a bit perplexing how the team has gotten kicked around when it comes to finding a place in the sun for their movie moment. Part of that is understandable given that special effects technology has only relatively recently reached a place where the adventures of Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm could be visualized to a degree that does justice to their four-color escapades. Nonetheless, while Marvel Comics stablemate Spider-Man took a rather circuitous route to the big screen (as I chronicled at some length here), that journey almost pales in comparison to what happened to the FF on the way to a film franchise they could call their own.

As it happens, the team’s first brush with the celluloid spotlight actually happened not via the 2005 Jessica Alba vehicle that you’re probably most familiar with, but rather with a micro-budget production aimed not at launching a series or fulfilling some higher artistic calling, but rather to allow production company Neue Constantin to hold onto their option a little while longer. To boil the nonsensical legalese down, Constantin honcho Bernd Eichinger licensed the Fantastic Four from Marvel in the late ’80s, but those rights came with a ticking clock that said Eichinger had to have something in production by the end of December, 1992, otherwise the property would revert back to Marvel.

Given technological and budgetary limitations of the time, it’s entirely understandable that few studios were willing to bet big on the comic book quartet, especially when the only superhero flicks that had been successful up to that point had the words “Super” or “Bat” prominently placed in the title. By mid-’92, with the license very close to expiring, Eichinger made a call to renowned schlock maven Roger Corman, whose prowess as a purveyor of cranked-out cheapies was so legendary that he even authored a book titled How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime. Eichinger knew that with Corman involved, he could get things moving fast, which is what was required more than anything else.

Budgeted at a cool $1 million (to put this in perspective, that’s around $79 million less than it cost to make Warner Bros.’ sequel Batman Returns that same year), a cast and crew was assembled, and The Fantastic Four went into production. With a script by Craig Nevius and Kevin Rock, music video vet Oley Sassone (who had just helmed 1992′s Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight, starring Don “The Dragon” Wilson, for Corman) was tapped to direct, and an ensemble of slightly-familiar faces was drafted into the titular team, with principal photography commencing just in time to meet the legal deadline, in the process extending Eichinger’s option for another decade.

Alex Hyde-White (son of Wilfrid Hyde-White, Dr. Goodfellow from TV’s Buck Rogers) was cast as Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic. Rebecca Staab nabbed the role of Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman. Jay Underwood was selected to play Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. As for the Thing/Ben Grimm, the role ended up being split between actors Michael Bailey Smith and Carl Ciarfalio. Due to the accelerated schedule, there simply wasn’t enough time to tailor the elaborate animatronic suit (designed by effects house Optic Nerve) for Smith, so stuntman Ciarfalio was the Thing, while Smith played his pre-mutated self (and also voiced his superhero alter ego).

The film’s storyline follows the very general outline of the Fantastic Four’s origin from the comics, albeit weaving in main baddie Doctor Doom (as played by Joseph Culp, son of I Spy‘s Robert Culp). Beginning with college chums Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom (whose professor is played, in a one-scene bit part, by George Gaynes from Punky Brewster), we learn of a mysterious space-bound energy beam called Colossus, which the eager twosome plan to harness via a new invention. When their experiment goes awry, Reed is saved at the last minute by his friend Ben Grimm, but Von Doom is believed killed in the ensuing accident.

Cut to ten years later, and Reed and Ben, still intent on capturing Colossus, plan to go into space in a custom ship. For whatever inexplicable reason, Richards also recruits Susan and Johnny Storm, the now-grown children of the landlady they used to board with in college, to join them on their space flight. Little does the foursome know that Von Doom, still alive, encased in metal armor, and calling himself Doctor Doom, is monitoring them, and sabotages the expedition. After being bombarded by Colossus’s radiation, they crash back on Earth and find they’ve been transformed: Reed can stretch his body like rubber, Susan can turn invisible, Johnny generates flame from his body, and Ben is covered with rock-like orange scales, leading to this memorable exchange.

After some comical (?) interludes as we watch the team become acclimated to their new abilities, the inevitable (unintentionally hilarious) confrontation with Doom occurs. You see, the mad doctor is intent on stealing the Colossus energy from the four and siphoning it into himself, hoping to bring about some world-beating apocalypse in the process. Although they’re briefly trapped by cartoon lights, our heroes (having donned ill-fitting spandex costumes along the way) defeat the baddie, and in the process realize they can use their abilities to help others. The film ends with Reed and Sue leaving church as a married couple, with Reed’s outstretched arm waving to the revelers as their limo pulls away.

Okay, where do we start with this thing. First of all, there’s a bit of a question mark about what Eichinger’s actual goal with the Corman-produced Fantastic Four was. According to some (including creator Stan Lee) the movie was created as a legal dodge, never actually intended for release. According to Eichinger, however, while he would’ve preferred not to have to do it this way, once things were in motion, he fully intended to see it released. The whole truth may never be known (or, with this crowdfunded doc on the way, maybe it will), but one thing that is readily apparent is that no one in the actual production process had reason not to expect The Fantastic Four to play at multiplexes, and so they all proceeded accordingly.

Now, it does seem a little unfair to judge this movie by traditional standards of film criticism given the insanely compressed production window and the sub-subpar budget. The sets are chintzy, the costumes are chintzier, and the effects (Reed’s stretching never doesn’t look ridiculous, and during the climax, Johnny turns into an computer-generated cartoon when he flames on and takes to the sky) would have been embarrassing even ten years earlier, much less in the post-Terminator 2, post-Jurassic Park world that audiences were quickly becoming acclimated to. Still, you really do have to give it up for just how hard all involved worked even in the face of their obvious restrictions.

Nonetheless, even with the obvious “Let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm that’s clearly palpable in front of and behind the camera, the Corman Fantastic Four just isn’t very good. It breaks my heart to say, but it isn’t. Instead, it feels like something you’d see in dinner theater, or maybe on cable access. And while it’s entirely possible that with a better script, better performances, and better effects (or heck, some combination thereof), it would’ve been an improvement, given the variable quality of the product, it’s not a huge surprise that, even with the cast making promo rounds at comic conventions and a world premiere event scheduled for early ’94, the movie was quietly pulled — never to be seen in an official capacity (thank you, YouTube).

As a young comic book fan in early ’93, when word first broke about this project, I remember following its development with breathless anticipation. I eagerly awaited the first stills. I devoured every scrap of news I could find. Bear in mind also that this was the pre-Internet ’90s. No Ain’t It Cool News or JoBlo or Sequart. If you wanted movie news, especially for something as niche as this, you waited months for Wizard magazine or whoever to cover it. I still remember an extensive cover story in Film Threat mag that promised something, well, fantastic. All this anticipation, in turn, made the long wait through the entirety of 1993 for the movie’s release absolutely excruciating, and only made its sudden disappearance that much more baffling.

It only emerged much, much later that Eichinger (who passed away in 2011) had quietly made a deal with then-Marvel exec Avi Arad. With his Fantastic Four rights firmly locked in for the foreseeable future, Eichinger paid off Corman, bought the film, and destroyed the prints, all with no one the wiser. Per Arad’s degree, if the Fantastic Four were going to hit the big screen, it wasn’t going to be in the form of low-budget quickie. And while that’s understandably frustrating for director Sassone, the cast, and everyone else who slaved away in the face of enormous constraints to get the thing finished, it’s also kind of a no-brainer when you stop and think about it, especially with the benefit of two decades of hindsight.

It might seem odd in today’s era of Marvel Studios’ global dominance, but The Fantastic Four was made at a time when the company just couldn’t catch a break in theaters. Their three biggest releases until then were 1986′s Howard the Duck, 1989′s The Punisher, and 1990′s Captain America. Hardly a sterling record of success. And there’s no indication that the FF would have fared much better. While the main foursome do the best they can with what they’re given (Hyde-White and Smith fare the best here), the Thing suit is pretty silly looking, and Culp’s Doctor Doom is laughable in all his screaming and gesticulating (though, ironically, appearance-wise he’s probably the most comic accurate version of the character we’ve gotten in live action).

Further, at a scant ninety minutes, we race through the story so quickly it feels like the important bits got left on the floor. Doom’s transition from Richards’ best bud to worst enemy is never explained. Susan goes from pre-teen girl crushing on Reed in the prologue to blushing bride at film’s end — with no growth or romantic development along the way to make it feel like anything other than a preordained conclusion. The same goes for the rushed, nonsensical love story between the monstrous Grimm and the blind girl (Kat Green) who falls in love with him for no apparent reason. (Also, deduct one extra demerit for the unbearable cheesiness of Mama Storm gazing at our heroes just before they’re going to head to space and saying, “Look at you: The Fantastic Four.” That’s basically the equivalent of Ma Kent looking at baby Kal-El and saying “Why he’s just Super, man!”)

Again, it’s clear that all involved put a lot of heart and effort into everything we see, but it’s also clear that heart and effort only get you so far when the purse strings have been pulled tight. 1994′s Fantastic Four was engineered to fail, and I suppose it’s a blessing in disguise that it never got to do so publicly. Instead, the decision had been made: in order to succeed in cinemas, Marvel’s First Family needed a big budget and a visionary with big ideas to pull it all together. It would take more than ten years, and a whole host of successful comic-to-screen adaptations from Marvel, before they finally got another try, and while the FF certainly got the budget, it was an open question whether they got the big ideas to match.

To Be Continued…

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born and raised in Chicago -- with a decade-long detour in Saudi Arabia -- before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, Zaki Hasan is a professor of communication and media studies, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. In addition to his reviews and interviews appearing regularly in venues such as The Huffington Post, he is also co­author of Quirk Books' Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture, has appeared as a panelist on HuffPost Live and Al Jazeera America's The Stream, and co-­hosts the MovieFilm Podcast and Diffused Congruence: The American Muslim Experience. Since 2004, his award­-winning blog Zaki’s Corner has served as a one-­stop forum for musings on news, media, politics, and pop culture. He was included in 2010's Top 35 Political Blogs by BestBloggers.org, and has been nominated for "Best Blog" and "Best Writer" in 2010, 2011, and 2012 by the Brass Crescent Awards, receiving an Honorable Mention for "Best Blog" in 2011.

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