Fantastic Four (1994 film)

Posted: September 2, 2014 in Dr. Doom, Fantastic Four, Human Torch, Invisible Woman, Marvel, Mr. Fantastic, Thing
This poster is crazy rare and worth a fortune now. I’m not joking.

Most people could be forgiven for failing to understand the concept of an ashcan copy. When it comes to film, it’s exponentially more difficult to comprehend or explain. Essentially, it’s something that’s created (usually a comic book) with the soul purpose of retaining or establishing the rights to a name or character. Ashcans are not intended for release and are typically easily tucked away. This is understandable for printed media where a writer and artist can rush something together in a few days in order to meet a contract stipulation. It’s much harder to justify when making a film. You’ve got a director, writers, producers, a dozen cast members, hundreds of crew members and a hundred or so more extras. All of which are putting their time and effort into something that will never actually get to be seen by paying audiences. Why would anyone want to be involved with a project where their talents would never be showcased? Well, if you’re the rights-holder to this film, you simply don’t tell them.

“Guys, we’re in a movie!”

It’s becoming increasingly rare for comic book publishers to sell off their characters to different studios for film or television production. Warner Bros. owns DC thus keeping their properties on a tight leash and with the creation of Marvel Studios, it’s unlikely that Marvel will sell off any of their characters ever again. However, it used to be very common. Comic books made money but comic movies didn’t, so companies would sell their characters’ rights to small studios who would make micro-budgeted adaptations of The Punisher or Captain America and both would reap the modest rewards. Whenever a property was sold to a studio there was usually a timing stipulation. Meaning that if a film wasn’t put into production by a certain date, rights to the characters would revert back to the original owner.

So, the short story on this complicated rights mess is as follows: Producer Bernd Eichinger purchased the rights to the Fantastic Four in the 80’s for a few hundred thousand dollars. He shopped it around to various major studios who all declined due to budget concerns. In 1992, with the deadline to maintain the property looming, he approached Roger Corman to help produce a low-budget FF film in the hopes of maintaining the rights. The film was shot, edited and even marketed without most of the people involved realizing that it would never actually see the light of a movie projector. Eichinger’s intention was likely to use the film to retain the characters so he could continue shopping them around. However, Marvel’s Avi Arad discovered the existence of this film and paid him to regain the rights, thus thwarting the cycle and ensuring that the film would never officially be released. In fact, it was Arad’s intention to destroy all copies.

Seriously though, who the hell are you?

Thanks to leaked video tapes and comic conventions, the film is widely available on DVD or on the web. The story is a mostly faithful retelling of the Four’s origin. They’re astronauts that are bombarded with cosmic rays and each of them is granted an amazing power because of it. The movie pretty quickly jumps the rails by introducing Doctor Doom (who overacts even with a metal mask covering his face) and The Jeweler, a villain with little motivation and even less impact on the plot who is ostensibly based on the comic’s Mole Man. We’re also introduced to Alicia Masters (The Thing’s love interest) as a blind sculptor who gains the unrequited affections of sorta-Mole Man. She doesn’t really have much to do in the larger narrative other than act as a damsel in distress. I guess it’s better than giving that role to Invisible Woman. There’s also an odd bit in the middle where Ben loses his “Thing power” for reasons that aren’t very well defined. I find it strange that every single live-action adaptation of these characters features Thing becoming human at some point within the film. It’s kind of an odd trope for a character known for always being made of rock.

Is that a cartoon? What am I looking at?

While the film isn’t good in the slightest, it is kind of fun. There’s a “gee-whiz!” sensibility that permeates all of the actors’ performances. Even though no one in the cast is particularly great, they have an optimism in their portrayals of Marvel’s first family that is hard to not enjoy. The special effects are horrendous but also fun for a laugh. It’s a toss-up as to which is worse, Human Torch’s computer animated flight to outrun a laser or Mr. Fantastic’s hand-on-a-stick wave goodbye at the end of the film. Again, the crappy special effects sort of add to the charm of this film. It’s like watching a group of kids make a movie that they’re really proud of. It’s obviously terrible, but you can’t help but like it because they clearly worked hard.

Bitter beer face!

Time has, oddly, been kind to this film. Sure, the acting is amateurish and the special effects suck. But they sucked 20 years ago too. Now, in the year 2014, we have two other Fantastic Four films both of which were made by Fox and cost over $100 million dollars each. And yet with a major studio and a seemingly endless budget, they feel just as amateurishly made as this one. That kind of thing is a lot easier to forgive when a movie is made on a tiny budget by a group of people who aren’t even appreciated by their financier. Currently, another adaptation is in the works also produced by Fox. Although it has no connection with the previous film, it’s production has been besieged by fighting within the studio, negative word-of-mouth and the director refusing to speak about it publicly. Naturally, it’s not the kind of thing that inspires much hope in its quality.

100 million bucks well spent…

Within the last few years, there’s also been a rise in interest over this film. Petitions have been started to get it an official home video release and a documentary is currently in the works which explores the complicated making of it. I, personally, would love to own an official copy of the movie. The Fantastic Four have yet to truly be respected on film (and until the rights revert back to Marvel, they may never) so this could be as close as we ever get. As such, I’ll take it over the big budget adaptations any day.

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