Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fantastic Fumble

In the summer of 1989 when everyone in the world was caught up in Batmania as a result of Tim Burton’s Batman and its accompanying marketing and merchandizing blitz, I read an interview in with someone working with/for the film production company Neue Constantin in an issue of Comics Scene magazine.
The person, whose name escapes me after all these years, was talking about the plans for a movie adaptation of the Fantastic Four.
Inspired by the success of Batman, the interviewee felt that the time was right to turn “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” into The World’s Greatest Comic Book Movie.  He went on to say that the movie would have a $40 million budget – comparable to the budget of Batman – and would be a 100% faithful translation of one of the most iconic storylines in the history of the FF, project the “Galactus Trilogy” directly from the pages of the comic and onto the movie screen.
It was a bold proclamation. 
It was also utter bullshit. 
As cool as I thought such a thing would be – and as much as I’d hoped that the success of Batman, despite my antipathy towards the movie, would kick off a wave of good comic book adaptations that showed at least some amount of respect for the source material -  I was already pretty cynical and bitter about the entertainment industry and its treatment of comic book adaptations.  I’d suffered through far too many Superman IIIs, Superman IVs, and the like to hold out much hope for a really good comic book movie.
How hopeful could I be?  This was a time when there was very serious consideration being given to the idea of shaving Arnold Schwarzenegger, painting him blue, and having him play Dr. Manhattan in a Watchmen movie adaptation.
Over the next few years this big-budget FF adaptation didn’t materialize, though I would occasionally see some reference to it being stuck in “Development Hell.”
Somewhere around 1993 I started seeing reports of there being some actual movement on the project, but it wasn’t exactly cause for excitement.
The movie had fallen into the hands of B-Movie legend Roger Corman, and the $40 million budget had been somewhat reduced.
By around $38.5 million.
I started seeing some grainy pictures taken on location in publications like Comic Buyer’s Guide, and, even allowing for the low-quality of the images, they didn’t look terribly promising.
In the meantime, Marvel had suffered some serious failures in its attempts to bring its characters to the silver screen, with abortive attempts at adapting the Punisher and Captain America being two recent (at that time) examples.
It’s difficult to believe, from this vantage point, that there was a time when movies based on Marvel characters not only failed to make all the money in the world, they actually failed to even be seen by anyone other than viewers of late-night cable TV fare.
In any case, the handful of photos seemed to be the only evidence of the movie’s existence, as, despite being completed, it never saw the light of day.
In point of fact, it was never intended for anyone to actually see the movie.  It was only produced for the sake of fulfilling a contractual obligation, with no plans whatsoever for distributing it.
Accounts by those who had seen the completed film confirmed what everyone already knew:  it was a cheap piece of shit.
Bootleg copies of the movie managed to circulate among fans of terrible cinema, and its reputation grew to such an extent that it has become the subject of a documentary.
Throughout the years, it became something of the Holy Grail of bad movies, as I was never able to get my hands on a copy.
All of that changed the other day, and Scott and I sat down to bask in its awfulness.
Here’s a taste:

…and just now, in searching for this trailer, I discovered that the whole damn thing is posted on YouTube.  It never even occurred to me to check.  I could have gotten this painful experience over a long time ago.  Ah well.
If you feel brave enough, you can seek it out yourself and watch it in all its…well, what’s the polar opposite of glory?
I’m not going to provide an in-depth review of the movie, but I will touch on some of the things that stood out for me.

Somewhere between the initial conception of the movie, which was to start in the midst of things with an already-established FF facing off against the world-devouring Galactus, with maybe a quick origin sequence tacked-on, and the final product, Galactus was removed, Dr. Doom became the primary villain, and the whole thing was essentially just an origin story.

It starts out…well, not completely horrible.  Cheap-looking and poorly-acted, sure, but the basics are pretty faithful to the comics, and the plot, such as it is, isn’t really all that awful.  They provide a decent introduction of the character dynamics, and we get an okay origin sequence for Dr. Doom (albeit one with dreadful special effects).  In this regard, it’s superior to the big-budget movie of the 2000s, though that’s not really saying much.  However, it’s all goes spectacularly wrong from there.

Young Sue Storm is played by actress Mercedes McNabb, who, at the time, was best known for her role as Wednesday’s nemesis in the Addams Family movies.  She would eventually go on to be known for her role as Harmony on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

The “video game” that Ben Grimm and young Johnny Storm are seen playing is very clearly a cartoon.  An obviously traditionally-animated sequence also plays a part in the movie’s denouement.

Reed’s hair is arguably the very worst special effect in the movie.

While they’re marred by shoddy craftsmanship, the costumes are all pretty accurate.  Doom’s design is dead-on, but he looks like someone who might win third or fourth place in a cosplay competition at a small, local comic book convention.

Apparently everyone assumed that Reed and company would die horribly on their mission to space, as the creation of a memorial statue is planned the very same day that they’re reported missing.

Doom’s reaction when “The Jeweler” threatens to kill Alicia is both perfect and hilarious.

The indelible stamp of the Burton Batman movies can be seen throughout – particularly in any scenes involving “The Jeweler” and his henchmen – and I maintain that, even with a big budget, there would have been no way to make a comic book movie in the 1990s that could come close to resembling the approach used in making contemporary comic book movies, because the only way to make a comic book movie at that time was in the Burton mold, at least until Joel Schumacher got his hands on the Dark Knight.  Even setting aside the horror of the casting of Nicolas Cage, I shudder to think what Superman Lives! would have been like had it actually been made.

To go back to that point, every time “The Jeweler” and his crew appeared, I imagined some “note” from a studio executive that said, “You know what people loved?  The Penguin and his carnival of crime in Batman Returns.  Do something like that!  But with 1000% more 3 Stooges-style humor!”

What do you call “Love at first sight” when the person who experiences it is blind?  In any case, having him cause her to break one of her sculptures, feeling up his face, learning that he’s presumed dead, and then learning that he isn’t dead are enough to get Alicia Masters to declare her love for Ben.

Guy playing Dr. Doom:  “No one can see my face behind this mask, so I’m going to have to use my hands to emote.  My hands should never not be moving, even if it means that sometimes I look like I’m dancing the Batusi, or if I’m constantly touching people’s faces in a way that’s inappropriate and creepy.  Acting!”

Despite being an off-the-charts genius and a creative thinker, the only use Reed can think of for his stretching abilities is to grab things that are a few steps away, punch someone without having to get too close, or trip people.  Even to the limited extent that his powers are used, watching the terrible effect is hilarious.

While the make up for the Thing looks cheap and does nothing to create the illusion that it’s anything other than a costume, I can’t really fault the overall design.  Yes, it looked terrible, but there was a clear attempt at accuracy.  They could have worked just a little harder on making him look rocky rather than scaly, but still, I’d give them a C- for the effort.  That said, they should have saved some money and not bothered building the animatronics into his constantly twitching upper lip.

The Human Torch can fly faster than the speed of light, and is invulnerable to a laser beam that has the power to turn New York City into the most ubiquitous stock footage of the effects of a nuclear explosion.

Even when she wasn’t turning invisible, most of the time it was like Sue wasn’t there.  Sadly, that much is an example of being pretty faithful to the comics.

So, yeah.  That’s the 1994 Fantastic Four movie.  Am I glad I finally watched it?  Yes; as a comic book geek and someone who appreciates cheap, terrible movies and the laughs that they bring, I found it well-worth the time.


Merlin T Wizard said...

You forgot the hilarious effect of Alicia's declaration of love for The Thing.

What is the only thing that can break through Ben's rocky exterior? Love, of course!

Right after she professes her love, while she's still in Doom's clutches, The Thing unexpectedly reverts back to Ben Grimm and is unable to save her. I love that the transformation is never spoken of again.

"What's that? Ben is able to transform between human and The Thing, negating one of the driving forces of his character? Well, let's never address it."

Jon-Paul Maki said...

I can't see how that would ever come up again. It's certainly never been something that the comics have been particularly concerned ab- oohhhh, right.