As comic-book movies go, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen to “Fantastic Four.”
While the superhero group is Marvel’s cornerstone — the quartet started the Marvel Age of comics with the very first 1961 issue, by none other than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, the Human Torch and the Invisible Woman (or Girl, depending) don’t have the kind of mainstream recognition that Spider-Man, Hulk or even the X-Men do.
The F4 first broke out of comics in 1967, when “The Fantastic Four” came to ABC-TV as a Saturday morning cartoon. Produced by Hanna-Barbera, the show adapted stories directly from the comics and, despite its limited animation (designed by the great Alex Toth), is fairly well-regarded by fanboys. But to the general public, the series didn’t have the lasting impact of another Marvel cartoon that premiered on that same Saturday morning: “Spider-Man.” While Spidey (with his legendary theme song) became one of the most popular superheroes of all, the Fantastic Four remained B-listers in the do-gooder pantheon.
In 1978 the F4 returned to Saturday morning cartoons with “The New Fantastic Four.” What made it new was that the Human Torch was nowhere to be found, replaced by a cute little R2-D2-inspired robot named HERBIE (Humanoid Experimental Robot B-Type Integrated Electronics). While the official reason for the swap was that rights for the Torch were owned by someone else, for possible use in a movie, there were also rumors that, in an early instance of PC-ness, NBC was concerned about a hero who might inspire kids to “flame on!” Despite the involvement of Kirby and Marvel writer Roy Thomas, the new F4 didn’t exactly catch fire and was canceled after one season. NBC did like the character of the Thing, however, and decided to spin him off into a new show.
So who did they decide to pair the newly solo Thing with? Not the X-Men, not the Avengers, but prehistoric pals Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. In 1979 “Fred and Barney Meet the Thing” premiered, transforming “Benjy” Grimm into a teenager who could mutate into the rocky orange behemoth at will by slamming two rings together and shouting, “Thing ring, do your thing!” While the Thing only mingled with the Flintstones in short bumper segments (sometimes doing vaudeville routines with anachronistic hat and cane), it was nonetheless an odd detour for the character.
But the greatest indignity to the F4 came in 1994, in the form of a “Fantastic Four” movie. That’s right, a live-action movie. So how come you never heard of it before? Because it was never released.
Producer Bernd Eichinger bought the movie rights to the Fantastic Four in 1986. But by ’92, nothing had come to fruition, and his rights were about to expire unless a movie was in production by the end of the year. So Eichinger went to legendary B-movie maven Roger Corman and asked for a “Fantastic Four” movie fast. Quality was never an issue. With a budget of a mere $1.5 million and less than a month for pre-production, “The Fantastic Four” was Dr. Doomed from the start.
And boy, does it show. The sloppy costumes look like something fan-made to wear at a comic convention. When Ben Grimm mutates into the rock creature Thing, he somehow becomes smaller than his human form, and the costume’s headpiece at times separates from his body. Dr. Doom’s tunic and hood, meanwhile, look like they were made from his old fuzzy baby blankie, and his voice is muffled by the face mask to the point of incomprehensibility. (What, they couldn’t even afford to dub it later?) A too-young Alex Hyde-White plays Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards, with what looks like Wite-Out painted on the sides of his head. When he uses his super-elongating power, you almost feel the embarrassment of the production assistants who were holding the 10-foot prop rubber arms and legs just offscreen.
There’s a POV-shot as a blind woman is chloroformed by Dr. Doom — the blind woman’s POV.
In the one and only scene where the Human Torch is fully engulfed in flames, he becomes an obviously animated character that looks like it’s straight out of an early video game. (Granted, this was primitive CGI technology.) He also flies in outer space, where there’s no oxygen to feed any fire, but … uh … well …
Rather than evoking a big-screen superhero movie like “Batman,” “The Fantastic Four” feels more like “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” The making of this film would’ve been an incredible season of “Project Greenlight.”
In the end, Eichinger paid Corman’s production company $1 million to buy back the film and toss it in the closet forever — except for the inevitable bootleg copies that have become comic-convention mainstays.
In 1994 Marvel (no doubt hoping to cash in on the movie) launched a new animated Fantastic Four. As half of the “Marvel Action Hour” (alongside “Iron Man”), this cartoon was most like the 1967 series in that it stuck pretty closely to the source material. Utilizing many Marvel supporting characters such as the Silver Surfer, the Sub-Mariner, Galactus and the Inhumans, the show lasted two seasons and has just been released as a DVD box set.
There are certain elements of every comic superhero, of course, that strain credibility when translated to live action. Sam Raimi realized that audiences, while accepting the idea of a man given the powers of a genetically altered super-spider, would still find it hard to believe that a high school student could create a super-strong, tensile, sticky web solution, so for his big-budget “Spider-Man” (2002), Raimi made web-shooting one of Peter Parker’s newfound organic abilities. And the lore of the Fantastic Four contains more than a few ridiculous elements. There’s the idea of unqualified, amateur astronauts making a trek into space; Dr. Doom’s Transylvania-like home of Latveria; the soap-operatic, communal living style of the group (picture “The Real World” with superheroes); and one really silly power in Mr. Fantastic’s super-elasticity. (After all, Plastic Man was played for laughs.)
Some fanboys are nervous about the fact that every director who’s been attached to this project has a comedy background. Originally, Chris Columbus (“Home Alone”) was slated to direct. Then Peyton Reed (“Down With Love”) planned to make “Fantastic Four” as a tongue-in-cheek retro piece. And Tim Story, the man who finally brought them to the big screen, is best known for 2002’s “Barbershop.”
But maybe the idea of a comedic take on the Fantastic Four wasn’t such a bad idea. As superhero movies continue to propagate, audiences will inevitably get tired of overblown, too-serious interpretations of what originated as disposable children’s entertainment. Filmmaking technology might have finally evolved to the point where the Fantastic Four can look good onscreen. But even in this alleged golden age of superhero movies, asking the general public to take the F4 seriously might still be a bit of a stretch. A fiery, rocky, invisible stretch.
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