There was no surefire formula for comic book movie success in the 20th century, but Superman: The Movie, which we discussed last week, makes it look pretty straightforward, right? You take your superheroes from the page and put them right on the screen as-is, and you just lean in to the inherent absurdity without blinking, letting the charm win over the audience. But this overlooks the total commitment to craftsmanship that Richard Donner brought to Superman.
To be able to sell total earnestness in any movie, but especially a superhero movie, the film has to be near immaculate in all other aspects. The story has to be engaging and exciting; the actors have to be charismatic and play the material at the exact right frequency; the special effects need to be sharp; the costumes can’t look too silly. This is part of the reason that the Marvel Cinematic Universe consistently strikes such an irreverent tone: Robert Downey Jr.’s innate affability can paper over a lot of problems and tell you to lighten up, nerd, we’re just having fun here.
If you go for that total sincerity, however, but your product is not so hot, you just end up with embarrassing cheese. And that’s basically what the unreleased, Roger Corman-produced The Fantastic Four is. It’s been argued that it’s the best of the four Fantastic Four feature films to date, but of course that’s not a high bar to clear. There’s an even hotter take on the internet that The Fantastic Four is a secret success, which is bolstered by the behind-the-scenes story of the film. A swell new documentary was recently released about the production of the movie that you can check out, but the summary is: the rightsholders to the Fantastic Four film property were running out of time and made a cheap-o version to keep the option alive, but then Marvel bought up the rights to the completed movie to prevent it from being released and potentially damaging the brand. What makes this a heartbreaking story is that the cast and crew tried to make the best darn Fantastic Four movie they could on their limited budget. The film’s composers paid out of pocket to record their score with an orchestra! 1 And so you see why it’s tempting to try to turn this into an inspiring story of a plucky band of dreamers deciding to mount a faithful adaptation of the Fantastic Four with “We’ll put on the musical in Dad’s barn!” zeal.
But if you’ve seen it, you know: it’s just so dreadfully cheap and undercast. There are no movie stars in this movie; The Fantastic Four is what most of the cast are arguably most famous for, although I do know that our Reed Richards, Alex Hyde-White, played the body but not the voice of a younger Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Of course, Christopher Reeve was an unknown when he was cast as Superman, but the producers very deliberately anchored the movie with Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando. It sends a signal: either this material is so good that these two acting titans want to be in it…or the production has so much money it can buy these respectable gents off. When you go into what’s ostensibly meant to be a big comic book epic, and there’s nobody at all you recognize, it prejudices you from the start; it might be unfair, but it’s unavoidably true.
The production looks cheap as well. The sets are small, and so the movie has to film very close to its actors. There is what’s meant to be an enormous, impossibly valuable diamond, but it’s such an obvious plastic-looking prop. The costumes are very faithful to the FF costumes of the time, but they’re sloppy and ill-fitting; the “4” symbol kind of sits on their stomachs. Superman was able to sell its ripped-from-the-page costume because it was impeccably well-made; without that level of craftsmanship, what you have are okay cosplay costumes.
But the sad thing is, I don’t know that these problems are necessarily insurmountable. It’s tempting to say, “Well, you look at what they had to work with, of course they couldn’t make a good FF movie.” But those of us who enjoy classic Doctor Who and the original Star Trek series aren’t totally put off by budget limitations there. Even the great Superman has an effect or two that doesn’t hold up, but the real truth of the matter is this: fans are only nitpicky when they’re not enjoying something. If you give them something they can legitimately take to heart, they will forgive any sin. Doctor Who and Star Trek were ambitious in scope, and so when you notice a re-used set or a matte effect that doesn’t quite work, you forgive it because they were clearly pushing the limits of what they could do with the money they had. You give points for effort.
But The Fantastic Four, at the end of the day, isn’t terribly ambitious. It opens several years ago, as budding genius Reed Richards and his friend Victor attempt an experiment to harness the (vaguely defined) power of the comet Colossus, which is passing by close to Earth. A flaw in Victor’s calculations causes an explosive accident, and Victor is presumed dead (although some comedy-relief Eastern European henchmen secretly arrange for the clinging-to-life Victor to be returned to his native homeland and become Doctor Doom). Years later, when Colossus’ orbit brings it back near Earth, Reed gathers his friends Ben, Sue, and Johnny, 2 and they plan to go up in a rocket to harness Colossus’ power more directly—this time, with a giant diamond meant to stabilize the reaction and prevent the accident that supposedly killed Victor. But the Jeweler, leader of a group of sewer-dwelling misfits, steals the diamond to give to the beautiful blind sculptress Alicia Masters and replaces the astronauts’ with a fake. As a result, the reaction isn’t stabilized, and the cosmic radiation gives the team their powers. After crash-landing, they’re captured by Doom’s men, but they escape. Once free, Ben is horrified by his transformation into the Thing and sets out on his own. Wouldn’t you know it, he happens upon the Jeweler’s group, where he meets Alicia. This also gets them mixed up with Doom, who tries to recover the diamond for himself for a laser cannon designed to destroy New York. They resolve to band together as the Fantastic Four 3 and foil Doom’s scheme.
The plot, I think, is actually reasonably well constructed for what it’s doing, and very efficiently condenses a story with a lot of moving parts into 90 minutes. But, like many pre-2000 superhero movies, it’s very purposefully crafted to accomplish only what it reasonably can on a small budget. Take the Jeweler’s story. You could rework that character as the Mole Man, and it’s hard for me to imagine that this was not the original starting point. But the Mole Man would require a subterranean set and some monsters to help him. I think if the movie had gone bigger like this, you might be a little more impressed by the chutzpah, and maybe you could look past, say, rubber monster suits and papier-mâché cave walls. It might even be charming! But instead of pairing an imaginative idea with a struggling execution, they present a more modest take on the scenario, and pull it off without ever being terribly exciting.
The Fantastic Four knows it’s a small movie, and so it never aspires to greater than that, and I think it’s a shame. It’s a movie that has all the makings of an ambitious failure, but it’s so concerned with replicating the surface elements of the comic faithfully and respectably that it fails to engage with the imagination of the source material, and so you get a competently made but underwhelming fan film.
NEXT WEEK: Okay, so what if you made a faithful adaptation and it was really really good…but nobody came to see it anyway? That’s the story of The Rocketeer, a failure that Hollywood would refuse to learn a lesson from in years to come.
- 12/18: The Rocketeer (1991)
- 12/25: CHRISTMAS BREAK
- 1/1: Batman Forever (1995)
- 1/8: Generation X (1996)