The Fantastic Four is Marvel Comics’ “first family”. Without them, there literally is no Marvel. They were the brainchild of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and launched in 1961 to capitalize on the re-emergence of superhero popularity in comic books that had waned by the late 1950s.
The Fantastic Four was comprised of leader Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) who could stretch like rubber, Susan Storm (Invisible Girl) who could turn herself invisible, The Thing (Ben Grimm) who was a hulking rock monster, and Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) who was both Susan’s brother and able to light himself on fire. They treated each other as family and even argued like one too. It was the first real example of a team of superheroes who didn’t always get along. Despite the overall high sci-fi type of tales they would tell, Lee and Kirby had created something that had a realistic flavor to the characters and their interactions.
Sadly, the attempts to bring the FF to screen has not proven to be very successful. No matter how important the Fantastic Four are to the Marvel Universe and the great stories of my youth and before, most don’t really even care about them.
Today, we’re going to look at the very first attempt – 1994’s The Fantastic Four. The rights to the movie was purchased in the mid-80s by a German filmmaker and, before the rights expired at the end of 1992, a low budget version of the film was rushed into production. The actors were cast, sets were built, and everything started to roll. The actors and much of the production crew were kept out of the loop about one very key fact…
Producers Bernd Eichinger and Roger Corman never planned on releasing the film despite trailers running before films released in 1993 and promotional materials landing at comic conventions along with the actors actually being sent out to promote the film.
If you want to know more about the behind the scenes details, I definitely recommend the documentary called Doomed! It’s a fascinating, and kind of sad, story. I’m not here to regurgitate what was covered in that documentary. I want to watch this movie and tell you about it. This is available on YouTube to watch for free. As for the plot, I’m also grabbing this from the YouTube listing: “When an experimental space voyage goes awry, four people are forever changed by cosmic rays: Reed Richards, inventor and leader of the group gains the ability to stretch his body and takes the name Mr. Fantastic. His girlfriend, Sue Storm, gains the ability to turn invisible and create force fields becoming The Invisible Girl. Her little brother, Johnny Storm, becomes The Human Torch with the ability to control fire, including covering his own body with flame. The pilot Ben Grimm is turned into the super-strong, super-tough Thing. Together they become a team of super-heroes and use their unique powers to foil the evil plans of villains.”
Let’s have a look, shall we?
One of the first things that I notice as I watch this is, that for a movie that is barely finished, and still unpolished for what was completed, the movie’s score is quite good and contains a full orchestra. It also has credits. Someone intended on releasing this – which is somewhat true. The crew making the movie tried like hell to get this movie processed as best they could so it could get a release because lots of people were banking on this being part of their credits.
Anyway, we start with Reed and Ben in college learning about a super molecule called “Colossus” that has properties that has never been seen by the human eye. They live in a boarding house run by Sue and Johnny Storm’s mother. Sue, as a young girl, has a massive crush on Reed and hoped that he would go with them to the observatory to watch Colossus whiz by Earth. However, he has to go to the lab ASAP to meet up with this pal, Victor Von Doom (a name that in no way indicates that he’ll be a bad guy). Victor is concerned about Reed’s numbers that has been edited and revised many times over for their experiment to harness the power from the celestial event. Victor pushes forward without taking into account the revisions Reed gave him that morning. That leads to an accident that horribly scars Victor’s face. Reed and Ben believe Victor has died from his burns, but he’s taken by subjects of his home country who swear to save his life.
Ten years later, Reed’s built a ship that can go into space to study the tail of a comet that is passing nearby. He asks Ben to pilot the ship, and Ben decides to ask Sue and Johnny to round out the crew. Even though the Storms are not astrophysicists or astronauts, they just know about the project and would be very mad if Reed didn’t take them to space. That seems like as good as any reason to let them go on this incredibly dangerous flight… into space… OUTER space. Reed is about to break the news that he doesn’t think it is a good idea for them to go, but all of a sudden, Sue comes downstairs looking like a stone cold fox and Reed’s erection decides to supersede safety protocols and allows them to go.
Reed unveils a key ingredient of how he plans to harness the Colossus element that will be found in the comet’s tail – a super giant diamond. This has caught the attention of a criminal known as The Jeweler who wants to steal the diamond and court a pretty, blind sculptor named Alicia. The diamond has also gotten the attention of a shadowy, masked man who has some henchmen also planning to steal the diamond to harness Colossus.
In space, Richards and crew start their mission successfully, but it is soon discovered that the diamond is a fake and it is unable to harness the power. They crash onto Earth, and soon discover they each have incredible powers. While the effects are pretty cheesy, even for 23 years ago, keep in mind, this movie was made for an incredibly thrifty million dollars even. It’s earnest and charming. Also, it’s very faithful to the origins in the comics. You really can’t say they didn’t try.
In Latveria, Doom is angry that the Fantastic Four (as Sue and Johnny’s mother called them before leaving for their mission) survived. In New York, The Jeweler instructs his underground cronies to find and kidnap Alicia because he’s in love with her from the moment he saw her. It should be noted that originally, I believe the writers intended on this character of The Jeweler to actually be the Fantastic Four’s adversary in the very first issue of their comic series, Mole Man. That would make much more sense why he has set up an underground lair with followers who treat him like a king, etc. From what I’ve always heard, Marvel gave the writers very few options for characters. It wasn’t for a lack of trying to include some recognizable characters from the FF’s long, storied career are here.
That night, the army finds Reed and crew while on their rescue mission. They are initially scared by, but eventually attempt to attack, a strange rock creature thing. This is Ben’s special gift. They actually do a good job later in this movie to show Ben’s struggle with being a hideous monster too. Again, it isn’t like these people took the name, and the four characters, and slapped together a movie that doesn’t look in any way like the source material. And I really liked the articulation in the head piece to allow for facial expressions. Practical effects are always the best.
The military take Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue to a base where each of them undergo tests to see what their powers are and how they work. The doctor they see at the base is working for Dr. Doom. Doom wants to take the powers from the Fantastic Four and inject them into himself so he could possess all the powers. He decides he needs to get the diamond the Jeweler stole from Reed which is key to being able to siphon the powers and have the power merge into Doom. When the Jeweler refuses to give the diamond to Doom’s followers, he travels to New York himself to deal with the thief.
At the base, the Fantastic Four break out of their room. They find that the army guys at the base all have orders written in a strange language Reed recognizes, but from where he doesn’t know. In a main lab inside the building, the Fantastic Four confront Doom. They use their powers to get out of the castle. Back in New York, Reed runs some tests to see what is happening to them and if it is possible to crate a cure. Reed figures out that Ben relies too much on brute strength, Sue is shy and disappears because of it, Johnny is a hothead, and Reed stretches himself too thin. Frustrated by the monster he’s become, Ben decides to go for a walk only to find that his appearance is scaring people away from him.
At the Baxter Building, Sue whips up some tights for the team to wear as a uniform, and, even though Ben is not currently with them, they decide they can use their powers for good. One of the Jeweler’s henchmen finds Ben and, believing him to be an outsider like the rest of them, takes him in as one of the underground dwellers who work as henchmen. Doom arrives and defeats the Jeweler’s men. He holds Alicia as hostage when Ben shows up to open a can of whoop ass all over Doom. Alicia begs Ben to not get himself hurt, and reveals she loves him which causes Ben to revert back to normal. When Ben lets out his anger, he switches back to the Thing.
I thought I watched the Hulk movie last week… Whatever.
The Fantastic Four suit up and go after Doom. They fall into a booby trap of Doom’s which are columns of light holding them in place. Reed tells Doom he knows who he is. Doom explains how he’s hated Reed for the last 10 years. The machine starts up so the FF’s powers can be sucked into the diamond. Reed is able to destroy the columns holding them. Doom escapes after a fight but not before sending a beam out to destroy New York City. Johnny takes off in the air to try to head off the beam and block it and is successful in doing so. Doom is knocked off the top of his castle. Reed tries to save Doom, but he falls off the cliff.
All’s well that ends well. Reed and Sue get married and ride off into the sunset for their honeymoon.
As maligned as this movie is, I actually have a fairly big soft spot for it. It certainly has bad effects, and some of the lines are pretty corny, but it has a great deal of heart and a great deal of respect for the source material. The actors aren’t bad. In fact, I rather like Joseph Culp’s Doctor Doom. The Doom armor sure looked right, even if elements of it looked like a mid-level cosplayer’s costume. Each of the members of the Fantastic Four played their roles well enough. Again, it’s not for a lack of everyone trying to put on the best show they could.
I guess it’s safe to say it may not have performed well with critics or audiences because there are very scant opportunity to really establish much more than just the basic “these guys are good guys and those guys over there are bad guys and just want to do whatever they wish” type of script. I can definitely recommend it to people who enjoy the Fantastic Four because for as maligned as the movie is, I very rarely ever hear anyone tearing it down since it was never released.
There are certainly worse movies that have been made, and raked in a ton of money and have huge fan bases. For a very long time, this movie was a butt of a lot of jokes, but compared to some of the other comic book movies, this one often gets a pass. When it would receive the most of the derision from fans, it was also during a darker time in comics. The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s Batman movies shifted that character into a much grittier tone. Spawn, Punisher, Ghost Rider, Azrael, mullet-haired, beefy Superman, Wolverine and every other X-Man on the roster at the time, and so many more dominated comic racks. Here was a bright, colorful, pretty much all ages fare that treated the classic first family of Marvel with a throwback tone and a great deal of respect for their origins. It was likely not a great time to release this movie, but there is a certain fondness a lot of fans have for the movie now.
Maybe the Roger Corman of it all helps.
Time for me to pack this up. Next week, My 99th B-Movie Enema article brings us a man who is judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one. And Dolph Lundgren. It’s the 1989 version of The Punisher!