The Fantastic Four (1993) (part 1 of 7)
In the early 1960s, a young writer named Stan Lee was the managing editor for a comic book publisher known sometimes as Timely Comics and sometimes as Atlas Comics (and would soon be known only as Marvel). Timely/Atlas had had some success during WWII publishing the adventures of superheroes like Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner, but was now running on fumes with Westerns, horror stories, and romances. That same year, National Comics (then the parent company of DC Comics) was having a huge success with its Justice League of America super-group title, so Timely/Atlas’ publisher assigned Lee to come up with a super-team in a similar vein.
What he came up with totally redefined the superhero genre.
The super-team that Lee dreamed up with artist Jack Kirby broke with tradition in pretty much every way. The Fantastic Four had no secret identities, no tight costumes (at least for a few issues, anyway), and didn’t operate in a fictional city (after a couple of adventures in the non-existent “Central City, California”, the Four moved to New York City).
But most of all, they had none of the hunky-dory camaraderie that made most comic book superhero teams distressingly conformist. Lee and Kirby introduced real character interaction to the genre for the very first time, with conflicts between members of the team, conflicts between the Fantastic Four and their neighbors, and conflicts between the Four and the rest of New York City. The series took off, and set the stage for even more pariah-like (and more popular) superheroes like Spiderman, the Hulk, and the X-Men.
Despite the popularity of these characters, it wasn’t until the release of 2000’s X-Men that a Marvel screen adaptation could be called anything but shameful. There were some animated series, some theatrical films (like the megabomb Howard the Duck) but mostly, there were bad TV movies: two of Captain America starring Reb Brown, one of Dr. Strange, and a whole series of woefully cheap Spiderman movies back in the ’70s. And then came the bad direct-to-video movies: there was a Punisher with no skull logo on his chest, and another horrid Captain America adaptation. The only bright spot in all of this was the weekly TV series The Incredible Hulk starring Bill Bixby, but even that descended into campy nonsense with several TV movies in the ’80s and ’90s.
Then X-Men came out, and somehow, Marvel’s movies got good. I humbly submit that a large part of this was due to the influence of the Internet. For the very first time, studios had a direct line to comic book fans, most of whom are extremely vocal about what they want to see in an adaptation and how much they want to see their favorite characters Done Right™. Once you get past all the crackpots and nutters, several themes emerge from any online discussion of comic book movies, most notably the general feeling that filmmakers change important details about the characters randomly, and for no apparent reason. So it’s no surprise to me that the latest slew of Marvel comic book adaptations have been more or less faithful to the source. (Certainly more so than any of the Captain America movies.)
In just the past few years, Marvel has had two great Spider-Man movies, two good X-Men films, a campy but still enjoyable Blade trilogy, and an impenetrable—but we appreciate the thought—Hulk. Of course, after those successes the studios rushed to adapt any comic book they could get their hands on, leading to lackluster adaptations in the past few years like Daredevil, the spin-off Elektra, the awful (but still better than the ’90s version) Punisher, and the direct-to-Sci Fi Man-Thing.
And at long last, we’re getting a live-action movie based on Marvel’s very first super-team, the Fantastic Four. Lay your bets now on whether fans will group this together with Spider-Man, or toss it on the same trash heap as The Punisher. The trailers certainly don’t seem promising, but the fact that this is being released in the middle of summer and not dumped in the doldrums of February like Daredevil means the studio must clearly think it has the potential to be a blockbuster.
Me? I’m not so sure. While I appreciate the stars of the FX network finally getting big paychecks these days (particularly The Shield‘s Michael Chiklis as the Thing), it seems pretty obvious that this is just another mass market entertainment that’s been test-screened into oblivion. The deal breaker for me, I think, is Jessica Alba as Sue Storm. Not because of her looks or her talent, mind you, but simply because they dyed her hair blonde.
Hear me out, now. I know this is the kind of comment that gives movie geeks a bad rep, because people are always joking (and rightly so) that Internet fans focus on the totally inconsequential stuff. But for me, it’s not so much the hair color itself, but what it says about the filmmakers.
After all, they could have made Sue a brunette. Kristin Kreuk plays Lana Lang without a strand of red hair, and that hasn’t hurt Smallville one bit. The producers of The Fantastic Four simultaneously seem to be saying that hair color isn’t all that important, by casting Alba in the first place, and saying that it is important, by making her dye her hair an unnatural color. These type of mixed messages are the obvious symptom of a movie made by committee, and as such, I think I’ll be waiting for the DVD.
But did you know that this is actually the second time the Fantastic Four has been adapted to a feature-length film? No, this earlier film was never released to theaters. And no, it never went straight to video. And no, it didn’t go straight to basic cable, either. In fact, it was never released at all, and for years has only been available as a bootleg at comic book conventions.
The story of why this movie was made and never released depends a lot on who’s telling it. What we do know is that a German production company called Neue Constantin optioned the rights to the Fantastic Four, intending to make a big budget adaptation. For whatever reason, the money didn’t come through. The option was just about to expire, so the producers decided to shoot a movie quickly and cheaply, on a paltry budget of just $1.4 million and on a shooting schedule lasting only one month. Given such a tight budget and schedule, there was really only one person they could turn to: Roger Corman.
Back in the early ’60s—at about the same time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were revolutionizing comics—Corman was revolutionizing the drive-in movie industry. Working for American International Pictures, Corman churned out dozens of grade-Z cheapo films, most of which turned a profit.
Corman was legendary for his thriftiness: He would often shoot two movies at the same time, so that sets and locations could be reused; Some of his movies had screenplays that were written long after the title and promotional artwork had been created and sold to distributors; And some of his movies were little more than dubbed Russian sci-fi movies with a few minutes of new footage tacked on.
All totaled, Corman has produced over 250 films, most of them of questionable quality, including Night of the Blood Beast, The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Big Bad Mama (I and II), Humanoids from the Deep, Barbarian Queen, and Carnosaur. Honestly, I have no idea why it took this long for a Corman picture to show up on this site. Maybe it’s the fact that a Roger Corman movie, good or bad, is almost always what you expect it to be. Looking at his track record, it’s obvious why Neue Constantin went directly to him to make their Fantastic Four movie.
After a month of shooting under the direction of Oley Sassone (a former music video director, and allegedly the son of celebrity hair stylist Vidal Sasoon), the actors went on promotional tours. Interviews with the filmmakers appeared in print. The trailer for the movie was put on copies of Corman’s Carnosaur. It’s said that the actors and much of the crew did the movie for next to no money, because the producers had promised them that it would be used as the pilot for a potential TV series.
And from there, accounts differ. A lot. According to Stan Lee, Neue Constantin never intended to release the movie at all. They simply made it for one of two reasons: The first reason was elucidated by Stan himself in an interview with director Kevin Smith on the DVD Mutants, Monsters & Marvels. Stan literally spends all of thirty seconds discussing the movie on this disc, so for those of you curious enough to seek it out in the hopes of learning new tidbits about the production of the 1993 Fantastic Four movie, I’ve saved you the trouble, because here’s the entirety of the discussion.
| Kevin Smith: Now a couple years ago, they made a Fantastic Four movie, very low budget, that never really saw the light of day.
Stan Lee: It wasn’t supposed to. That movie was made just so that somebody wouldn’t lose the rights to make the real movie later.
Smith: They had an option on the property.
Lee: Yeah, he would have lost his option if he didn’t begin principal photography by a certain date. So for a budget of like $1.98, he did that movie. Which was really pathetic, because the people who did the movie didn’t know it was never intended to be shown. They acted and directed and photographed their hearts out. They did the best they could.
The second (and much more cynical) reason it was never released, according to rumors, is that the producers intentionally made a horrifyingly bad movie so that the suits at Marvel would get scared about it ruining the prospects for a future big budget version. And so, the rumor goes, Marvel bought the film from the producers for a handsome sum and locked it away deep in a vault somewhere, never to be seen again. (A recent issue of Los Angeles magazine even claimed that Marvel publisher Avi Arad burned the negative!)
Roger Corman, when asked about the movie, had a slightly less salacious story to tell:
| Roger Corman: Berndt Eisinger, the German producer, had the rights to The Fantastic Four, and he was going to make it on about a $40 million budget, and he couldn’t raise his money and his option was going to run out in three months. If he didn’t start the picture in three months he would lose his option. So he came to me and said, “I didn’t get my $40 million. How much can you cut this budget to, and let’s make it together at your studio.” So we figured out a budget and we cut it from $40 million to $1.4 million and made it.
And we were going to distribute it, but he had a clause in his contract—which was fair—that he could buy me out at a rather substantial profit for me anytime up to ninety days after the picture was completed. During that time he raised his $40 million. He bought the picture out from me and he’s making it for Fox. I was reasonably happy because I made a profit, but I didn’t get a chance to distribute the film because I wanted to see how that type of comic book [movie] fared. At that time, we were making pictures at around $500,000 to $1 million, so for $1.4 million I had what I felt was a bigger film, and I wanted to try it and see how it performed. I never got the chance to try the experiment.
Either way, the movie was shelved, never to be seen again. Almost. It made the rounds at comic book conventions, but mostly in terrible Nth-generation VHS transfers that were barely watchable. And then one day someone with a decent copy transferred it to DVD and sold it. Buyers were able to make nearly perfect digital copies and sell it all over again, and now the movie is flourishing on eBay. And that’s where six dedicated souls were able to obtain copies of the movie to recap for you now.
Yes, it’s time for another Mega-Recap! This is where, like a sick demented version of a round robin, six recappers take turns recapping roughly 15 minutes of the movie. Each recapper has written one page of this recap, and I’ve combined all their contributions into one massive recap—hence the name, Mega-Recap. Just like the last Mega-Recap for Gigli, we have some returning recappers on board, and some new faces, but if you visit sites like this, you might recognize a few of them.
Here are the credits this time around:
Page 2 – Jason Sartin, a veteran of the Gigli Mega-Recap,
Page 3 – Dave Bowgett, another veteran of the Gigli Mega-Recap,
Page 4 – Jonathon Pernisek, who’s contributed to the Repeat Offenders page,
Page 5 – Ryan Lohner, a veteran of both the Gigli Mega-Recap and the Mega-Recap for Armageddon, and a frequent guest recapper,
Page 6 – Steve Pratte, a newcomer to the site, and
Page 7 – Yours truly, bringing us home once again.
And just like previous Mega-Recaps, the screen captures and captions are a group effort. If you place your mouse over any of the screencaps here (while using a decent browser), you should see a tooltip telling you who wrote the caption.
Okay, enough stalling. On with the recap!