In December 1992, Roger Corman’s New Horizons Pictures began production on what was to be its highest-profile project yet: Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Filming was completed a few weeks later, and over the next several months the cast and crew attended Comic-Con International and other conventions to build excitement for the film’s premiere at the Mall of America. However, that premiere never happened, and to this day, “The Fantastic Four” has never been officially released.
Today sees the digital release of “Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s ‘The Fantastic Four’,” a documentary about the film’s production and subsequent disappearance. It’s a fascinating story of the cast and crew — led by director Oley Sassone — doing their best to make a Fantastic Four movie on a shoestring budget (reportedly between $750,000 and $1.5 million) in a condemned, rat-infested studio. Whether or note you’ve ever seen “The Fantastic Four,” “Doomed!” is well worth watching, not only for the too-crazy-to-make-up story but also for its glimpse into the dark ages of Marvel cinema.
Watching the documentary, though, I wondered why no one seems able to make a good Fantastic Four movie. To date there have been four attempts, all of which are rated “Rotten” by Rotten Tomatoes. That raises the question: Are all Fantastic Four films are “Doomed”?
Having recently subjected myself to the worst the franchise has to offer, I have some thoughts why none of the movies has worked. It has a lot to do with tone and characterization, and a little bit with the movie format itself.
The Fantastic Four is a sci-fi adventure, not a straight superhero story
If there’s a common problem among all Fantastic Four movies, it’s that none of them has gotten the tone correct. At its heart, Marvel Comics’ “Fantastic Four” is a sci-fi adventure. It’s the tale of an extended family that decides to explore the stars, and in the process gets caught up in events beyond its control. It mixes existential threats with humor, and family drama with action.
The FF films have largely been straight superhero stories, jettisoning that adventure element; they haven’t worked as a result. Director Tim Story’s 2005 film suffered from its mundane capes-and-tights plot, and Josh Trank’s 2015 reboot was seriously undermined by its dark-and-gritty tone (in addition to some severe pacing issues).
It’s understandable that a studio might be wary of making a straight sci-fi adventure, as the genre’s heyday was in the 1980s, with films like “Back to the Future,” “E.T.” and “Flight of the Navigator”; it’s been mostly moribund since. But there are major exceptions, including Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which borrows liberally from the Indiana Jones franchise, by way of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.” A “Fantastic Four” movie that learned the right lessons from “Guardians” has real potential.
Victor von Doom is misunderstood
Although the Fantastic Four has a deep bench of adversaries, one reigns supreme: Victor von Doom. He’s so central to the property that he’s appeared in all four FF movies, even when the focus is nominally elsewhere (as in 2007’s “Rise of the Silver Surfer”). That said, Doom is so central, to not just the FF but to the broader Marvel universe, it would be a surprise if he weren’t there.
But there’s one huge problem: Doom wears heavy armor and an iron mask, making acting difficult. Joseph Culp, who played the iconic villain in the unreleased Corman movie, said that acting in the Doom costume was “a grueling experience” and “one of the great challenges of my acting career thus far.” The Story and Trask films tried to get around the problem by minimizing Doom’s time in the mask, but that just added to the sense that the producers didn’t understand the character.
Doom is among the most complex characters in comics, and it’s easy to get him wrong. He is at once both vengeful supervillain and ruler with a deep sense of noblesse oblige. That latter aspect has been downplayed or ignored in every adaptation, with Doom recast as an evil dictator, a conniving businessman or a self-absorbed hacker-type. It’s impossible to imagine any of those Dooms saving the multiverse in “Secret Wars” or taking up the role of Iron Man (although Culp’s Doom in the 1994 film probably came closest).
Sue is underused
Sue Storm is one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe, but she’s been used poorly in every Fantastic Four movie, particulary Tim Story’s 2005 and 2007 films, which repeatedly turn her into a sex object for laughs (as in the multiple times she accidentally becomes visible while naked). Kate Mara’s Sue was one of the few bright spots in Trank’s “Fantastic Four,” but despite solid characterization and a knockout performance, she was still criminally underutilized, as when she was left behind when Reed, Ben and Johnny went off to explore the parallel dimension Planet Zero.
Also missing from every adaption thus far are truly creative uses of Sue’s invisibility, especially her force fields. She should be able to deal with almost any threat single-handed. At the very least, she should be given an extended “Mission: Impossible”-style espionage sequence showcasing her abilities (including that moment where she floats effortlessly down from the ceiling without a wire). Instead, Sue is all-too-often subsumed into Reed and portrayed as the nagging girlfriend/wife.
Imagine instead a Sue-focused Fantastic Four movie in which she’s given agency and allowed to make full use of her powers. She would be unstoppable.
The family dynamic would work better on television
At their heart, the Fantastic Four is a family. Reed and Sue are (or end up) married, Sue and Johnny are siblings, and Ben is the former college roommate the kids refer to as “uncle.” Sure, relationships can get dysfunctional, especially between Johnny and Ben, but they’re kept together by the bonds of family.
The problem is that movies have only a couple of hours to tell their story, which is nowhere near enough time to explore the family dynamic. In a film, an argument between Ben and Johnny is going to be resolved within a half-hour; in a TV series, that drama could be extended over several episodes. It’s equally difficult to make the Reed/Sue relationship feel authentic in the limited time available, which has contributed to Sue’s marginalization.
TV would give more breathing room for the Fantastic Four’s relationships to develop naturally and to explore the property’s cast of supporting characters. Alicia Masters is something of an afterthought in the movies (even if Kerry Washington gave knockout performances in the Story films), but she could blossom on a TV drama. Harvey Elder (the Mole Man) could also make a truly intriguing recurring anti-villain, and the Puppet Master could easily be the creepiest protagonist since Kilgrave on “Jessica Jones.” If budget hurdles were overcome, a Fantastic Four TV series could be great.
That said, the Fantastic Four can work on the big screen, given the right creative team; Pixar’s beloved 2004 film “The Incredibles” is proof of that. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the Fantastic Four, but instead the studio that made the past three movies, 20th Century Fox, which has often seemed embarrassed by the franchise. There’s genuine potential in this property, if Fox is able to figure out the characters or allow the rights revert to Marvel Studios.
In the meantime, at least we have the Fantastic Four comics to keep us warm. Oh, wait … I guess we are doomed.
“Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s ‘The Fantastic Four'” is available beginning today on VOD and from digital download services. The documentary arrives Dec. 20 on Blu-ray and DVD.
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