In 2016, even the feeblest superhero properties seem like a licence for movie studios to print money. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1993, the only superheroics on offer to movie audiences were the comedic powers of Robert Townshend’s poorly received Meteor Man. At the time the Batman franchise was quiescent, on the brink of foundering in a sea of toyetic silliness, while Wesley Snipes was still five years away from suiting up as Blade and making comic book heroes cool again.
And, somehow, exploitation king Roger Corman had ended up with the rights to Marvel’s first family of cosmic capers The Fantastic Four. Depending on who you ask, Corman either wanted to get a movie into theatres before his option lapsed, or just to make the cheapest version of the movie in order to extract a payoff from Marvel and Fox. The two companies were already talking about a big-budget adaptation of the property.
Importantly, though, the people who were actually making the film for Corman poured everything they had into it. Actors Alex Hyde-White (son of British character player Wilfred) and Joseph Culp (son of I Spy star Robert) are the main interviewees for Doomed, a feature-length documentary on the 1994 Fantastic 4.
In it we learn how the movie was finished despite, rather than because of, its original backers. There are tales of unauthorised editing sessions and guerrilla marketing undertaken by the actors themselves.
The Corman Fantastic Four movie, because it remains largely unseen by mainstream audiences, has gained a sort of mythic status. In fact it’s a throwback to the cheapo late Seventies Hulk and Spider-man flicks that were tricked up out of TV episodes.
While it certainly has its moments, the CGI in Fantastic Four is visibly a generation older than what you might see in major studio releases from the 1990s. It’s not without charm, but it’d be difficult for a mainstream audience raised on 10 years of top-tier Marvel and (to a lesser extent) DC movies to sit through it today.
But fans do sit through it – both online and at conventions. The interest in the 'lost' movie is strong enough to fill screenings of this documentary at several cons.
It’s certainly interesting, containing as it does interviews with almost all of the principals. There are a couple of notable exceptions though. Corman only shows up once or twice, and even then his answers are somewhat non-committal. Avi Arad, who in this narrative comes across as the villain of the piece, doesn’t get to answer his accusers.
The documentary’s two flaws, in my view, are technical. The sound mix is too generous to the underscore. There’s really no need for portentous growling drones to remind you that you’re hearing about someone getting bad news. Not when they’re actually on screen telling you about the bad news. And the whole thing could have done with a tighter edit. It’s an hour of interesting material stretched over the framework of a 90 minute film. It’s the same length, more or less, as the movie it’s describing.
In a cinema, or at a convention screening, you’d be forgiven for getting up and wandering to the foyer for another Big Gulp once or twice. As a video on demand offering, with the option to stop for a break or even (say it softly) fast-forward one or two of the more repetitive interviews, it’s an illuminating watch for those of us that are interested in how movies get made.