Overview: An exhaustive examination of the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the conception, production, and sudden shelving of Oley Sassone’ low-budget cinematic adaptation of Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four. Uncork’d Entertainment; 2015; Not Rated; 85 minutes.
Setting the Record Straight: The ultimate irony of Oley Sassone’s The Fantastic Four (1994) is that the older it gets, the more it holds up. The landscape of modern superhero films can be broken down into two camps. On one side are grimdark DC Comics adaptations obsessed with dully deconstructing the very concept of superheroes, all the while bravely ignoring fan outrage, critical hatred, and disappointing box office returns. On the other is the comfortable mediocrity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: by focusing on franchise creative unity, they’ve created an increasingly bloated, increasingly top-heavy string of popcorn blockbusters that all look and feel the same. But Sassone’s film unapologetically embraces its four-color roots. There’s a simple, infectious joy pulsing throughout the film for its source material. Every scene carries the necessary dramatic and emotional weight: the happy scenes are effusive and jubilant, the sad scenes tragic and heart-breaking. Alex Hyde-White and Joseph Culp shine in their respective performances as the optimistic Dr. Reed Richards and the operatic Dr. Doom. Of course, the film’s not perfect. The one million dollar budget secured by producer Roger Corman resulted in a rushed production schedule, mediocre special effects, and some unfortunate performances (bless Jay Underwood—the guy really, really tried as Johnny Storm . . . ). But it terms of simple enjoyment, I’d easily rank The Fantastic Four alongside Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s Superman films, Tim Burton’s Batman films, and the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.
Everyone But the Kitchen Sink: So what went wrong? Why did the film get yanked from theaters and distribution after completion? They had already cut a trailer! They had already done promotion and advertising at conventions! Everyone, and I do mean everyone, who worked on the film thought that it was a real film that would be shown in theaters. How do we know this? Because Marty Langford took the time to sit damn near everybody who worked on the film down and asked them for his documentary Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four. For an 85 minute film, Doomed! is stunning in its exhaustive exploration of the film’s production. We see Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of Troma Entertainment, explain how he was first approached to do the film. He turned it down, saying that he didn’t want to betray his friend Stan Lee and the beloved franchise with such a small budget (and, he continues, he didn’t think it would make them a “s**t-load of money”). Casting director Mark Sikes, editor Glenn Garland, VP of marketing Jonathan Fernandez, and Sassone all thought that this was their chance to do something that would get them noticed in the industry. Composers David and Eric Wurst were so excited for the project that they paid thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to hire a 40-piece orchestra for the soundtrack. The actors all thought this could be their big break. The sense one gets from every single one of the people interviewed was they were all genuinely proud of their work.
Hollywood Realpolitik: A curious thing, though: despite several encouraging on-set visits, Stan Lee publicly admitted several times that the film was never meant to be released. Even worse, we see footage of Lee explaining that Marvel knew from the beginning that it was a terrible film and none of them took it seriously (“Oh really,” one of the interviewees retorted, “you brought the donuts one morning, Stan.”). The bitter truth was that the film was rushed through production and never released so the studio could maintain the rights to the Fantastic Four franchise so they could invest in a big-budget adaptation further down the line. Put simply, it was cheaper to put down $1 million for a film nobody would see than to pay to renew the rights. It’s a stunning revelation of a plot so sinister it might make Dr. Doom himself blush.
Overall: Tellingly, the documentary reveals that Stan Lee was one of the only people who repeatedly turned down invitations to be interviewed. Could you blame him? Why would he want to spoil his retirement of fan adulation and Marvel movie cameos to re-live the time he was a genuine super-villain?
Featured Image: Uncork’d Entertainment