Look, it's a better title for an article than 'Fantastic Bore' or whatever.
When one of my favourite sitcoms of all time, Arrested Development returned earlier this year, I didn’t know what to expect. I can say with some certainty though, that I didn’t anticipate the Fantastic Four to be a recurring joke in the show’s fourth season. Amusing as it was to see Tobias Fünke attempt to stage a musical adaptation of an obscure FF film with his meth addict girlfriend, the actual real-life obscure Fantastic Four film from the 90’s might be even funnier. With recent rumblings from Fox, who own the license from Marvel, that they might set their upcoming reboot of the franchise in the same universe as the X-Men, I thought now would be an opportune time to look back at the original attempt to bring Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing to the big screen. It’s a little difficult to find because it was never supposed to see the light of day.
To explain just how something like this could happen I have to delve into film history a bit. You see, Fox didn’t originally have the film rights to these characters, it was held by Constantin Film, a German company that produces the un-killable Resident Evil film series, so you know they have a good track record. They struggled to get anyone to help produce a film and by 1992 were in danger of losing the license altogether if they didn’t come up with something by the end of the year. So they enlisted the help of legendary B-Movie director Roger Corman to help produce a film for the cheapest price possible. It is said that their only intention was to come up with something that would allow them to technically keep the rights, and the film was never intended to be released in theatres or on home media, a fact they neglected to tell the cast or crew that made the film. It managed to survive by being passed around by fans at the convention circuit for years, legendary for its low quality. It’s an interesting story about the murky dealings of Hollywood and you can read more about it here.
Although the film definitely feels like something someone wanted to shove in a drawer and never think about again, I can certainly think of other superhero movies that deserve that treatment more.
We begin with opening credits over some murky blue and black images that I think are supposed to be space. After that, we get some scenes set in the past to establish some important facts:
1. There’s a comet called Colossus, or as the film describes it a “radioactive comet-like energy source” that college mates Reed Richards and Victor von Doom want to use for something vague but scientific sounding.
2. Reed and his other mate Ben Grimm are living in student digs provided by Mrs. Storm. She’s got two younger kids Johnny and Sue that Reed and Ben have a weird friendship with and Sue has a crush on Reed. There’s no sign of a Mr. Storm so poor Sue probably has some unresolved issues that Reed will happily ignore/exploit later.
3. Reed and Victor’s experiment with the comet-like thing doesn’t go great and their lab has a lot of flashing lights and monitors with WARNING written on them and Vic is hit by lightning and thrown very slowly across the room as if by cheap wires. Reed thinks he’s dead but he isn’t really cos he’s taking off by some henchmen cos it turns out a surly bloke called Victor von Doom is an unscrupulous character.
The film then cuts to ten years later, and after that matter-of-fact scene setting, what follows is a lot of stuff that isn’t adequately explained. Richards is going into space to do more comet-like experiments with Ben, his pilot. Not sure why they need to be in space and very not sure who is letting these two yahoos into space. They recruit the now grown-up Johnny and Sue, who are not astronauts. Again, who is signing off on this? Judging by the way Johnny bounces around, I’m not sure he’d pass their extensive drug testing. He also looks like Todd from Breaking Bad, just in case I needed another reason to hate him. Ben is the one pushing for them to be involved, since apparently no one knows more about their project than Johnny and Sue. Richards is reluctant until he sees the now adult Sue, and so let’s his penis do the thinking. So…has he not seen her at all in the last ten years? That’s the way the scene makes it appear. So how does she know so much about the project ohfuckitwhateveritslove. As they all turn to leave the house, Mrs. Storm says “look at you, the Fantastic Four!” which even as superhero movies go is a contrived and unearned way to fit the name in there.
Richards and Ben are on their way to the lab, when Ben bumps into a blind woman and breaks her pottery. This is Alicia Masters, who in the comics is Ben’s love interest, able to see past his monstrous orange rock appearance (spoiler alert) since she can’t see anything at all. I’m not sure that’s how the sex lives of blind people work, but the writers’ hearts were probably in the right place so I’ll give them a pass. He picks her up off the ground and holding her aloft, apologises. This should be terrifying, especially for a blind woman, but it’s okay because she can “sense” that he’s sorry. She scurries off and is now in love with him. Seriously. They don’t even know each other’s names. Forgive me if I don’t think that’s a sufficient basis to be in love with a person and sculpt them out of clay. Richards shows Ben the key element that will make sure their experiments don’t end in explosions and death this time…a diamond. Says scientist Reed Richards, “By placing the diamond at the centre of the cosmic refractor, the heat is diffused, broken into small doses, which give the prisms time to cool!” Any scientists reading, please leave a comment letting me know if that’s anything other than the ramblings of a madman.
Interspersed between these scenes is an introduction to the two villains of the film. The first is a mysterious masked figure with the same henchmen we saw earlier. Who could this be? Probably Mrs. Storm, right? The other villain is the Jeweller, or basically Irish Hans Moleman. Irish Hans Moleman also falls in love with Alicia Masters, because in the Fantastic Four universe, falling in love happens more often than breathing. He steals the diamond easily and replaces it with a fake, calling it a fitting prize for his bride. He should have just gotten her some clay instead, living underground he has much more of that.
The Fantastic Four head into space, and you know this is a B-Movie because the ship they leave Earth in is not the same one they have in space. Without the diamond’s ability to let prisms cool or whatever, their ship cannot handle the power of Colossus, and it explodes. Well, that’s the end of The Fantastic Four. Thanks for reading everybody!
Well, okay, they don’t die. They crash back on Earth. This is how spaceship explosions work. Those Challenger people are just hiding.* They appear unscathed until they discover they all have gained superpowers! Johnny’s fire abilities are shown when he sets a bush alight after a sneeze. Sue’s invisibility powers are shown with a cheap split-screen effect and when it’s pointed out to her, she screams and falls over. She was also screaming hysterically when their ship exploded. The writer of this film is probably a prominent poster on the Men’s Rights subreddit. Calm, logical man Reed Richards is able to catch her by stretching his arm out. Ben appears unaffected in any way, and if that were me I would be freaking out since I’d know that means something bad is going to happen.
Doom finds out they’re all still alive and is enraged. We know this because of his outrageous arm flailing, he spends the rest of the movie gesturing wildly like a Power Rangers villain. Which I guess isn’t too far from the truth. He tells his minions to bring them to him. The Jeweller has decided to kidnap poor Alicia Masters, sending his minions to carry her out of her loft on their shoulders. I’d question the purpose of this subplot but it does lead to two great laughs later on, both at the film’s expense and because of a genuine attempt at being funny. Back at where the four have camped, some military vehicles show up. They all have American flags so you know they’re legit. They converse with Richards for a bit before noticing something off camera and shooting at it. It’s Ben, now turned into the Thing!
The costume doesn’t actually look that bad for such a low budget film. Not quite as good as Tobias though. Worse than the costume is Thing’s melodramatic acting, with him yelling “what have you done REED!?!” Not sure how he’s responsible.
They go off with these army people and are ‘treated’ by a doctor. These scenes are meant to demonstrate their powers, which were already shown five minutes ago. Perhaps they were worried about people wandering into the theatres halfway through. However, a wonderfully cheesy establishing shot of a castle (Complete with lightning!) reveals that they’re not actually with the US government, but in the home of Doctor Doom! The doctor tells Doom about all the powers they gained from the comet, which Doom wants to put into his own body. He sends his henchmen to get the diamond, which he apparently needs, from the Jeweller. The Jeweller don’t wanna. Whatever. Doom is gonna get it himself. So all the scenes of his henchmen trying were completely unnecessary.
The Fantastic Four are fed up with being cooped up and they hatch a plan to escape. I say ‘they’, it was probably just Richards as the others don’t seem to have a brain cell between them. They lure some guards in yellow jumpsuits into the room. Then, for some reason, the screen spins around Batman 66 style and there are punching noises. I’m assuming they ran out of money for stunt actors. Continuing the movie’s vivid theme of the Fantastic Four being bad at doing things, their stealthy escape doesn’t get far before they encounter Doom himself. Richards obviously didn’t know his best friend very well since he doesn’t cop on that Victor is alive and speaking to him currently. You can’t call someone your friend if you don’t know their last name. A fight scene ensues with the four fighting a bunch of guys dressed like mini-Dooms. Things are a little inconsistent. Mr. Fantastic uses his stretchy foot to trip people up and Thing is just running through people. But the Invisible Woman gets cornered by two guys, turns invisible and then they shoot each other to death! Apparently they voted on a ‘No Killing’ policy and neglected to tell her. The Human Torch meanwhile is demonstrating his worth to the team by shooting fire (or rather, orange crayon scribbled over the film meant to look like fire) at a wall to make an escape route. Since the Thing just runs through the wall anyway Johnny Boy is kind of useless. Doom walks back into the room making a speech, only to stop with a “Huh” when he realises they’ve left. I will admit that got a genuine laugh out of me.
The Fantastic Four return to Reed Richard’s lab, presumably using the same magical vehicle Batman used to get back to Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises. Reed is trying to figure out how they got their powers, barely listening to Sue’s stammering attempt to communicate her feelings for him. That is, until she complains about how she’s always so shy around him, and he gets a brainwave! You see, the comet altered their DNA. Since Sue is shy, she turned invisible. Johnny got fire powers since he’s such a hothead (he did throw a tantrum when they were stuck at the crash site, but he more comes across like a happy simpleton), Reed is always stretching himself too thin (or perhaps uses too many analogies that are a stretch) and Ben uses brute strength instead of his intelligence. They’re all quite happy about this discovery, although I’m not sure a) how this is helpful in any way b) how Reed has scientifically come to this conclusion or c) if Reed is even a real scientist or just got an online degree from the University of Belize. Sue puts a dampener on things by asking why they can turn their powers on and off while Ben is stuck that way, and he storms off, fed up. If I were him I’d want to get away from these losers too.
He wanders the streets in a series of clichéd “Ah! A Freak!” scenes until he meets one of the Jeweller’s henchmen, who tells him he can take him to a place that accepts him. Thing, never follow a vagrant to a second location. Arriving in the Jeweller’s underground home, we see Alicia Masters, his prisoner. She isn’t impressed by the tiara the mole man has given her to wear, or his opinion that they’re kindred spirits and both outcasts. She points out that an attractive artist like herself is more of an outsider with these weirdos, although maybe not in those words. She then says the best and most hilarious line of the movie: “Ugh! You can keep me tied up here for the rest of my life, but I will never learn to be your queen! Never!” So magnificent. I want you to read that in your head in the voice of your favourite hammy actor. Walken. Pacino. Shatner. Sharon Stone. It deserves to be savoured. She obviously still needs some time to settle in so the Jeweller goes to meet his newest guest, the Thing. He calls him beautiful (maybe he’ll give him the diamond instead) and says he has a home where he can rise to the glory he deserves. Hooray! I guess everything’s worked out for ol’ Ben Grimm, Queen of the Underworld.
There’s a brief scene back where the Thick Three are hanging out where they finally figure out that Doctor Doom and Victor von Doom are the same person, and it’s great that the supposed smartest man alive and his two witless sidekicks are finally on the same page as the rest of us but much more excitedly the man himself shows up in the home of the mole people! Doom waves an obviously plastic gun around and demands the diamond. The Jeweller has Alicia at plastic gunpoint and says that if Doom takes the diamond, he’ll shoot her. This confused me since I was like “Man, Doom doesn’t even know who that is, what does he care?” and clearly Doom agrees since he looks right at her and goes “So?” There’s an awkward pause while the mole man realises his plan makes no sense and then Ben shows up to try and save the day. Doom then takes Alicia hostage himself and the Jeweller takes the opportunity to shuffle out of the movie, trying to hold on to the last shred of his dignity. I’m not kidding, he just wanders off-screen and is never mentioned again. I laughed.
Alicia recognises Ben’s voice and tells the man she’s met for the second time (and does not yet know is a big rock monster) that she loves him. For some reason, this causes him to turn back to normal. He’s no longer invulnerable, so he runs away. HE RUNS AWAY. THE HERO. RUNS. AWAY. Alicia, you can do so much better than this clown. The thing is, we cut to outside, Ben the Coward screams at the sky, then the camera spins around again and he turns back into the Thing!? WHAT WAS THE POINT? WHY DON’T YOU RUN BACK IN NOW AND SAVE HER YOU PRICK!? UGH.
Doom shows up on a big screen at Reed’s lab and what follows is hilariously ridiculous. You see, with that big iron mask on, it’s been difficult to make out what the actor is saying. Think trying to understand Bane, when you’re in the room next door. With a bag over your head. To make up for this, rather than dub clearer dialogue in later, which was probably impossible because the people who made this movie had probably taken the last of the money and fled to Thailand by then, they have Doom mime everything he says with his hands. It’s amazing. He says hello and actually waves, which really helps the mad scientist encased in a metal suit look intimidating. He threatens to destroy New York with a laser and makes a little zap with his fingers. Doom is adorable. After stock footage of buildings being destroyed, which helps this movie make B-Movie Bingo, he tells them they have 12 hours to surrender themselves to him so he can steal their powers, and so help me he actually writes a twelve in the air with his finger. He laughs maniacally. Then there is another awkward pause. Then he very quietly but audibly says “have a nice night.” And I just lost it at this point. Could not stop laughing. The sinister Doctor Doom, Mr Fantastic’s ultimate rival and cruel dictator, he’s such a sweetheart! After he signs off, Ben enters the room and says “don’t ask” about what happened to him, which is probably a good call since they’d probably remove him from the team if they knew what a chickenshit he is, and the team is reunited to head to Doom’s castle and stop the laser from destroying New York. Sue tells Reed that she loves him, and he replies the same, although you wouldn’t know it from the bored expression on his face. So now Sue has the romance she always wanted with the man old enough to be her father who appears mostly indifferent towards her, the team can go save the day.
The Fantastic Four make their way through the seemingly empty castle with ease. Johnny says it’s too easy. Ben sarcastically says he loves walking into a trap. Reed tells everyone to stay alert. They immediately walk into a trap. Worst superheroes ever. Held in place by bad computer effect beams, Doom appears and tells them how disappointed he is in them, and how much he hates Reed Richards. Agreed on both accounts. A scientist lackey starts up a machine to steal their powers. Now, at most, the Fantastic Four have only had their powers for a couple of days at this point. Did Doom just get his scientists to quickly whip up a power-stealing machine in that time? I can’t imagine it would work too well. Maybe he always had one, just in case. It does its thing on our useless heroes, and just like when the spaceship was exploding, the men stoically take it while Sue screams like the weakling she is. This is bad, but not quite as bad as the time comic fans wrote to Stan Lee to say how they hated that Sue Storm was so weak and never got to do anything, and he addressed it by having Sue read the letters in the actual comic, cry over how mean everyone was, and try to quit the team while the other members directly told the audience on her behalf how valuable she was and how they should leave her alone.
Yeah, comics can be pretty sexist. Luckily, Sue’s big strong man is there, as Reed uses his stretchy powers to move his foot under the beam holding him in place and kicks the switch to the machine off. Because if you have a complex machine that sucks the superpowers out of someone and puts them in someone else, it should definitely be that easy to turn off. The Fantastic Four fight some more Doomgoons, the Thing says “It’s clobberin’ time!” for about the fifth time (he doesn’t run away shortly afterwards this time though, so he’s improving), the Invisible Woman causes guys to bump into each other lamely, her bloodlust apparently having been sated earlier. The Human Torch, still not entirely on fire (don’t worry, we’re getting there) shoots fireballs that completely miss everyone, again making me question just what he brings to the table. Mr. Fantastic punches people in the face. Fantastically. Sue makes a barrier to block some dudes, which they never mentioned she could do before and have happen here with no fanfare, so who cares. Ben saves Alicia, finally freeing them up for some weird, weird loving. Doom’s Destroy New York Laser fires off, and there’s only one person who can stop it-The Human Torch, who finally flames on completely and gains the ability to fly, dashing off to catch the laser, which is a thing you can do to a laser. I feel sorry for the film at this point. It’s the very end and they clearly intended Johnny going full Human Torch to be a big moment, but it is unquestionably the worst effect in the movie. He looks like a Wotsit.
Meanwhile, Doom and Reed finally face off. Doom makes claws come out of his glove and completely fails to use them. Reed uses three stretchy punches to knock him over the side of the castle, saying “this is for trying to kill me! This is for trying to kill my friends! And this…is for being a real jerk!” What a badass. With Doom hanging over the side, they do the whole save me/you’re too weak to kill me thing, but like so much in this movie it ends up being moot as Doom just falls anyway, leaving his glove behind. Which moves afterwards. You don’t have to tell me he’s still out there movie, I know what it means when the villain falls from a great height. There’s still the laser problem to deal with, but luckily Johnny punches that away. He punches the laser. He punches the laser. And since everyone knows fire beats laser, the problem is solved. Cut to Sue and Reed getting married. Sue is in a wedding dress but everyone else is in superhero costume. What a bunch of man children. Any self-respecting woman would tell them to get a grip, but this is Sue Storm we’re talking about here. She probably just screamed about it while Reed patted her on the head like the disturbing replacement father-figure he is. He and Sue drive off, with Reed waving his arm through the sun roof of their car like it's a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.
So that’s The Fantastic Four. While obviously it cannot be described as ‘good’ by anyone with even a passing knowledge of the English language, it is…actually kind of entertaining? The goofy B-Movieness of it, the cheap effects, the spinning newspaper transitions, and the music cues very obviously stolen from other movies like Superman give it that so-bad-its-good quality. It did actually make me laugh a few times on its own merits. I think. It’s possible they trying to be funny when Doom baulked at the Jeweller’s shitty hostage taking attempt. Nevertheless, I would actually call this trainwreck a more interesting watch than the hopelessly boring Fantastic Four movies that came later. So…that’s almost a ringing endorsement?
*I am so, so sorry.
*I am so, so sorry.