Capes on Camera is a look at comic book adaptations from the days before Whedon and Nolan made the superhero flicks a summer movie staple. Some are hidden gems, some noble failures, and other are best relegated to the quarter bin of history.
When I first pitched the idea for the Capes on Camera column to the rest of the Rooster Illusion team, there were a few movies I was particularly excited to see: revisiting The Phantom was in order, and I’m still mentally prepping myself for theGeorge Lucas-produced Howard the Duck; but above all else, I was determined to watch 1994’s Fantastic Four.
Made on a budget of $1 million dollars by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, Fantastic Four was put into production in 1992 so that producer Bernd Eichinger’s rights to the license wouldn’t expire. Scheduled for release in 1994, Fantastic Four never played in theaters, and stories soon circulated that the producers never intended to screen it, and that Marvel exec Avi Arad bought the film and had it destroyed so as to protect the brand*. Tales of its legendary crappiness grew as bootlegs circulated. Most importantly, it was the basis for Tobias Funke’s musical in season 4 of Arrested Development. I sometimes worry I’ll be let down when I watch famous disasters– sometimes you get The Neighbors and sometimes you get the Star Wars Holiday Special— but, luckily, Fantastic Four is every bit as weird, misguided and intermittently wonderful as I had hoped.
There are numerous ways I could describe how this movie feels– a curious knockoff, a porn parody without the porn, some cosplayers having fun with a camera–and each would capture some aspect of Fantastic Four. What makes Fantastic Four such a bizarre watch, other than the noble cause of trying to make a scifi superhero adventure on a shoestring budget, is the way in which its tone fluctuates. Torn between Batman ’66‘s winking camp (“Holy Freud, Batman”, the Human Torch exclaims at one point) and earnest, gee-whiz superheroics, Fantastic Four sits uncomfortably between the two. With its overpowering score, the way the movie switches between melodrama and camp would almost be Lynchian if it were just a tad more disturbing, and considering part of the plot concerns a a society of jewel-thieving, woman-kidnapping hobos that speak in sing-songy British accents, that’s not really out of the question.
Those hobos aren’t part of the Fantastic Four mythos, by the way. I double checked. That’s the original idea the writers decided to add to this universe. Scary kidnap hobos.
The urban legend goes that, while the producers knew they were shelving this project after completion, the cast had no idea. From my viewing, I cannot divine the accuracy of that assertion. A lot of the line reading is flat, but sincere. Alex Hyde-White tries to bring some charisma to a role whose only characteristics could be described as “smart, kinda sad about his friend dying”. Michael Bailey Smith and Carl Ciarfalio, playing The Thing’s human and rock monster forms respectively, bring the pathos that make The Thing such an enduring comic character. Susan Storm (Rebecca Staab), was apparently written so that her powers of invisibility also extend to making her personality disappear. The Human Torch (Jay Underwood) and Dr. Doom (Joseph Culp) play things closer to the camp side, Underwood twists his face into expressions so funny, that we’re lucky the technology didn’t exist yet to light the dude up for the whole film. Culp’s Doom, robbed of facial expressions, turns in some of the wildest and greatest arm and finder acting I’ve ever seen. Doom, full of grand declarations and sinister laughs, is somehow closer to the comic version of the character than any other movie version, and now I’m actually kind of pissed. It’s clear that no one knew what to do with the character aside from being a love interest, and decide to barely do that either. Staab isn’t very good, but the problem goes deeper.
Nothing in the new Fantastic Four can possibly be as good as this moment.The Fantastic Four are a tough team to bring to life on the big screen even with a proper budget. In terms of superpowers, things like metal claws and shield throwing prowess are easier to portray with limited funds than stretching and “being on fire”, especially in ’92, so I have to give props to the effects team for doing the best with what they had. Reed’s abilities translate into standing in a stationary position and grabbing/ punching things far away, and the Human Torch goes throughout most of the movie until the effects team decides to throw in all the chips at the end and make him Flame On in delightfully bad CGI fashion. Given the budget, the practical effects for The Thing are actually pretty impressive. The moment the transformed Thing enters the frame he steals his show. It doesn’t hurt that the mask’s animated facial expressions give him more emotion than most of his cast mates.
This may sound mean, but never being released was perhaps the best thing to happen to The Fantastic Four. While its meager budget and fractured tone make Fantastic Four endearing, it’s a movie that would have died a quick death in theaters and probably not been looked upon as fondly for it. Large swaths of the movie are pretty boring –you’ll believe a team of heroes can sit in one room and have a conversation for most of the third act– and the parts that are truly hilarious and bizarre would undoubtedly been judged harshly by fan and critic alike writ large on theater screens. Fantastic Four is a movie that somehow works best as a bootleg oddity. Most movies, even most B-movies, benefit from being on the big screen; Fantastic Four was meant to be viewed on an unmarked VHS or on a computer with friends late at night.
Nerd Nitpicks: -In the movie’s prologue, Reed is a college student living at a boarding house owned by the Storms, where a Sue Storm who can’t be older than 13 pines for Reed. I don’t care if the rest of the movie is a decade later, that age gap make their romance really creepy.
-It’s kind of odd to see a superhero movie that isn’t stuffed with in-jokes and easter eggs, but not necessarily bad.
Watch Fantastic Four online on youtube, dailymotion, or find it at a comic con booth near you.
*As is frequently the case in comics, the truth of the matter is pretty murky, especially once famous embellisher Stan Lee gets involved. A documentary on the production is apparently being made