The early Nineties were a difficult time for superhero films, particularly for Marvel. Sure, Batman had kicked off in 1989 with a monstrous box office haul of over 400 million, but except for its sequel, Batman Returns (1992), only Dick Tracy (1990) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) would even come close to reaching that type of financial success. Two films that didn’t rake in the cash, but at least garnered some critical acclaim, were Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) and Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991). I mention these two specifically, because Raimi would go on to the Spider-man franchise, and Joe Johnston is helming this summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
These films, along with a few others at the time, seemed to level out in the mid 40-million range box office returns, which, while not great, is a decent return on a low-budget film. 1992 saw another huge success with Batman Returns, but the Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles sequel leveled out at the 40+ million level, as did 1994’s The Shadow.
While the previous three theatrical attempts by Marvel had either failed at the box office or never even saw theatrical release, it had been a few years since Marvel had tossed their hat into the ring. The time seemed right for a feature film based on Marvel’s longest running property, The Fantastic Four. Surely they could at least expect a moderate return on their investment.
Well, that’s not really the case. As it turns out, a German company, Neue Constantin, had secured the rights to the Fantastic Four for a number of years, and was going to lose those rights on December 31, 1992, if there was no production in motion. Marvel was actually anxious to regain control of the FF and had refused to renew Neue Constantin’s option. So before the end of the year, Neue Constantin entered into an agreement with Concorde Pictures and the legendary Roger Corman to begin shooting a live action film of The Fantastic Four.
However, the story goes that unbeknownst to the cast and the crew, the film was never intended for release. The film was only produced in order to maintain the option, and once completed, it was shelved, never to even see an official home video release. As with most of the films we’ve been looking at here, it is available in bootleg format from a number of places online and at comic conventions. (To read more of this story, go to Third Millennium Entertainment for an in-depth look at the production, Fantastic Four-Gotten, written by Terrence J. Brady.)
In what is becoming the mantra of this series of articles, the Fantastic Four film is hardly what one might call successful, or even good, on most levels. Budgetary restraints, a three week shooting schedule, and a weak script cripple the film, making it hard to watch, except as an unintentional comedy. But if the film has one saving grace, it is its faithfulness to and honest love of Lee’s and Kirby’s source materials.
The creative team members behind this production were all fairly untested at the time and would go on to moderate success, at best. Director Oley Sassone had helmed only two films before this one and worked mostly on straight-to-video and TV movies through the rest of the Nineties before finding success directing episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Martial Law, and Mutant X among other titles. Writer Kevin Rock had written screenplays for sequels to The Howling, Warlock, and Philadelphia Experiment, and co-writer Craig J. Nevius had only two projects under his belt, but went on write consistently throughout the next decade, most prominently on a series of TV movies and a series based on his creation, Black Scorpion.
The film opens with Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White), Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith), and Victor von Doom (Joseph Culp) attending college together. Reed and Victor are good friends and are working on a science project involving a passing comet. However, during their experiment there is an accident and Victor is seriously injured. Comical foreign government agents claim that von Doom has died and smuggle his body out of the country, back to his home: Latveria.
During their time in college, Reed and Ben live in a boarding house owned and run by Mrs. Storm. The Storm children, little Johnny and pre-teen Sue (played by Mercedes McNabb, who many readers might recognize as Harmony in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) live there as well, and Sue has a childhood crush on the ‘dreamy’ Reed.
Approximately 10 years later, the comet is returning and Reed, at Ben’s urging, recruits Sue and Johnny to go up in an experimental spacecraft to complete the failed experiment that cost Victor his life. There is, of course, another mishap and the crew is bombarded with cosmic rays. Upon crash landing back on earth, they find that they’ve each developed bizarre powers.
While this may not be the comics version of the characters to the letter, there is at least the attempt made to stay true to the spirit of the comics. The shared pasts and the age differences, as in the comics, provide a relationship structure that plays into the original conceptions of the characters; i.e. Reed’s fatherly status, Ben’s protective uncle role, Sue’s romantic idealizing of Reed, and Johnny’s immaturity. And, as with the 1991 Captain America film, while the dialogue isn’t great there’s something exciting about seeing the story play out at least close to the way we’ve read for 40 years.
Of course for every good thing about the film, there are more than enough bad things to drag it down. The reason for the experiment’s failure the second time is due to the introduction of an original character, The Jeweler (Ian Trigger), who is, for reasons I can’t fathom, made up to look like the Leprechaun.
The Jeweler lives in the sewers with his outcast homeless followers, and is in love with the beautiful and blind Alicia Masters (Kat Green). He decides that the huge diamond Reed plans to use in his experiment is the perfect gift for his ‘queen’ and after stealing and replacing it with a fake, Reed and the gang are doomed to failure.
To this is added the return of the two Latverian agents who secreted von Doom away years earlier (and yet haven’t aged a day). They lurk about like the Russian spies in 1978’s Rescue from Gilligan’s Island, while a shadowy Doom gives them commands over a video screen. They are supposed to steal the diamond themselves, to sabotage the mission and aid Doom’s own plans, but are ordered to stay out of the way, letting the homeless people do Doom’s dirty work.
I suppose there are some superficial similarities between The Jeweler and The Mole Man. If intended, without a substantial budget there would really have been no way to even begin to translate the Mole Man to the screen faithfully. So instead of underworld creatures, we get ugly homeless people. This inability to go large comes into play again when Doom finally makes his appearance on screen, however, not in the way one might expect.
Doom’s costume is an almost perfect recreation of the comic character (as are the FF’s costumes, especially Ben’s) and is one of the things that I love about the film overall. But w
ith the lack of a budget, extremely under-imagined set and technology designs, and the lack of any noticeable directorial style, the end result is a bit jarring. The imagination that went into the character’s look isn’t reflected in the rest of the film in any way, especially in Doom’s own grand plan for destroying New York.
If there’s a motivation for the attempt, it was so slight that I can’t even remember it after just watching the film a couple of days previous. Doom needed the diamond to power his super laser, you see, that when fired into the sky in Latveria, will somehow (contrary to physics) curve around and arch downward at New York, destroying the city in some unexplained manner. You know, because he’s a bad guy.
The FF’s responses to the nonsensical threat are equally ridiculous. Johnny flames on and is somehow able to chase the laser beam (which travels at the speed of light, remember) across Europe and across the ocean, catching up in time to get in front and blast it with his flames. All of this is presented in an animated sequence, thanks to the lack of a budget.
Sue’s powers are particularly useless throughout the film, as she does things like get between two of Doom’s soldiers and disappear as they fire their rifles at her, killing each other, since when she reappears we see she has ducked. Technically, I suppose one could argue that this is a pretty faithful adaptation of Sue’s role on the team in the early years of the comics. That doesn’t make it any better.
Reed is also mostly useless as he uses his super stretching leg to trip a group of soldiers as they run through the doorway. Ben is the only character who is utilized effectively, but that’s only because he simply shouts “It’s clobberin’ time!” and punches lots and lots of soldiers.
Along the way, there’s also a kidnapping plot involving Alicia that, as with the fight choreography, seems as if it was written by a child or at least with no real thought to who the audience might be. In fact, I’d say that this is part of the reason the film ultimately fails: it seems to, as an afterthought, have been made for children, or at least written as though the audience would be satisfied with childish motivations and relationships. As a children’s film, one might give it more leeway, but then it’s still not imaginative enough to really appeal to that audience and is rather boring at times. As a film for adults, it’s kind of insulting to its proposed audience.
The film ends with Reed and Sue’s marriage and as the wedded couple drives away, a long, bendy, fake arm is stuck out the sun roof of their car as Reed waves goodbye to everyone. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.
I find it hard to believe that anyone working on this film and seeing the dailies could have been surprised when it was shelved instead of being released. But for all its faults, there is still a sense of fun about it that is hard to ignore. Particularly when we take the fact that this was woefully underfunded (going from a proposed 40 million dollar budget to an actual working budget of 1.4 million) and that all principal photography was wrapped in 25 days.
For what it is, it is still watchable, and as mentioned above, with the proper attitude going in, is somewhat enjoyable. It’s nowhere near as visually interesting as The Punisher (1989), or competently written and performed as Captain America (1991), but it’s on par with the earlier TV productions of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Captain America.
After 17 years of trying, the original Incredible Hulk TV movie was still the most successful on both a creative and a critical level. However, all that was about to change.
As if to return to the roots of their earlier successes, the next two Marvel productions would be TV movies that would serve as backdoor pilots. In 1996, we would see Generation X and in 1998, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., both of which while not getting picked up as series, would be steps up in quality from most of what had come before. Even with David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury. Seriously.